Saturday 9 August 2008
Deborah Orr: A housing slump is the perfect time to reform the market
What now for the dream of a property-owning democracy? The Council of Mortgage Leaders announced yesterday that home repossessions are up 48 per cent on this time last year, and that there were 18,900 repossessions between January and June. Many people who only recently were despairing that they could not quite afford to get on to the property ladder must now feel relief. Especially for families, repossession is an absolute nightmare, not least because rented properties at reasonable prices are so hard to come by.
Waiting lists for council properties run into millions. There is little wonder in that, since Labour did nothing to tackle the depletion in stock that was created by right-to-buy. In fact, Labour consistently built fewer new council homes than the last Conservative government. Gordon Brown remains inordinately attached to shared ownership schemes or to building affordable homes by imposing a quota on private construction projects. When he talks of affordable homes, Brown nearly always means homes one can afford to buy.
The Council of Mortgage Lenders, perfectly sensibly, points out that many of this year's repossessions could have been avoided if only the option of re-mortgaging had still been available. It longs for the good old days, last year. For the majority of experts, the only solution is to get the property market moving again. But we should be careful what we wish for.
A break from stamp duty is what most experts long for most. That might arrest the accelerating pace of falling prices somewhat, which is a good thing. But it is time to question whether the return of a rising market should even be a dream or a hope. Not everybody can buy a home, and we are in this mess, in part, because the policy of successive governments has been to try to persuade people that they can and should.
The situation in Britain is less clear-cut than it is in the US, where the flogging of mortgages to people who really didn't have a hope of paying them, and the subsequent selling on of that risk, disguised in mixed investment packages, set off the banking crisis that put an end to widely available and cheap mortgages here.
But this is a perfect point nonetheless to start asking whether this one model for making a decent family home – ownership – is really sustainable in a society that continues to defend so stalwartly the right of businesses to pay their employees so much less than a living wage.
It should not be forgotten that rising property prices, combined with the necessity of releasing council homes only to those with many housing "points", has served to narrow greatly the financial profile of the sort of people who live in council property. A system that compels all the neediest to live together drains social capital from neighbourhoods, at a terrible cost to those who live there, and to society generally.
The good news is not that Alistair Darling is still pondering stamp duty, but that suddenly people are full of ideas about how to grow and to rehabilitate the rental market. A property developer I spoke to insists that people like him would be happy to give land to councils for the building of social homes in return for deals that loosened the planning restrictions on some of the land that they retained. This seems like an excellent way of growing demand at both ends of the market, allowing private homes to be provided without the encumbrances that some developers, rightly or wrongly, find unendurably off-putting, and social homes to be provided by councils at a much lower capital cost.
Further, there are suggestions that we should look to Europe – not the US – and consider growing what the financial journalist Anthony Hilton calls "the institutionally financed rented sector". He says that in the right climate pension funds would be happy to provide the capital to build accommodation that would yield rental, thus providing a consistent and reliable return. Otherwise, we're stuck waiting for the three million new homes that the Government has promised will magically appear, even though it is plain that whoever may building them, it is not the moribund construction sector.
So much for motherly love
Even though she had studied child prodigies for 20 years, Ellen Winner was visibly gobsmacked. The violinist Vanessa-Mae had just announced that her mother, Pamela, had always made her feelings clear."You're special to me," she would regularly tell Vanessa, "only because you play the violin." After a few seconds of understandable indulgence in the flannel of conversational recovery, the psychologist replied: "That's a very hard thing for a child to hear."
The BBC television series The Making of Me has illustrated that whatever field of endeavour a person excels in, the chances are that they achieved their success only because they were utterly remarkable in a number of other respects as well. Vanessa-Mae is remarkable in that she has survived her childhood at all. When she sacked her controlling mother as her manager at the age of 21, Pamela broke off all contact. She has continued to ignore her daughter ever since.
Vanessa-Mae, with some wisdom, said in an interview that her own experience of childhood has left her wary of having babies herself. She fears she would not know when to "stop pushing". How touching and sad. You stop pushing, surely, when you feel those tiny shoulders shrug out, and start encouraging as much as you can from there on in.
With this dog collar I thee wed ...
We're 10 months in, but still my family is struggling with the complexities of dog ownership. Last Friday, we escorted Maglorian – that's what you get when you let the 10-year-old do the naming – to the wedding of his sister's owners. We don't know the happy couple very well ourselves, but through the dogs, we are blood relatives.
Imagine our embarrassment when we arrived to find that Mabel, and most of the other dogs attending the celebration, had dressed for the occasion. Mabel was resplendent in a flower-bedecked harness, but our own hound was shamefully naked.
At this wedding, the dog accessories were home-made. I do observe, though, that wedding outfits for dogs are widely available on the internet. Sadly, Maglorian's other sister, Beryl, had been unable to come to the nuptials. Loath to let an opportunity for family bonding pass, we spent the weekend at Beryl's home, where she lives with her mother, Cyril. There, Maglorian and Beryl were able to enjoy several days of conjugal bliss, since Maglorian has been snipped. It was the first time for both of them, and we are glad we were able to make it so special. Incest has never appeared so charming.
The internet also instructs me in how to cater for dogs who have become keen on marriage. I have no wish to crush my dog's little soul. But I do like to think that I still know where to draw the line.
* One of the many gross liberties that the media have taken in their reporting of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann is the widespread adoption of a diminutive epithet. No matter how often her distressed parents insisted that their daughter had always been known only as Madeleine, the fictitious intimacy of Maddie, or Maddy, endured. Now an Amsterdam shop assistant, Ana Stam, claims that she talked to a girl who told her that her name was Maddie, and that she had been stolen from her parents. Maybe the Portuguese police were remiss in failing to take seriously this sighting. But in my experience a small child thinks that her name is what her parents say it is, and not what the press has christened her.
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