The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, is taking us to task. He says that the property rush can't go on; indeed, that we're heading for a slump. Oh Mervyn! Would that it were so. That we could return to the days when a civic figure gave the public a stern dressing down and his words of wisdom became a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the respect in which he was held. And that the lion lay down with the lamb and that the Daily Mail cared more about the starving millions in Sudan than a quarter of a percentage point hike in interest rates. As long as the supply of desirable homes (ie not the £5,000 semi on some northern town's most depressed street that is "Britain's cheapest house") is outstripped by demand and interest rates remain low, the housing market will remain buoyant. Spookily, scarily buoyant, like finding yourself in zero gravity.
No metaphor is more fraudulent than the "property ladder", unless you are thinking of a ladder where all the bottom rungs have been hacked off. Homeowners would be better depicted ascending towards the stratosphere in a series of hot-air balloons and Zeppelins while the rest stand earthbound, gazing dejectedly at the disappearing specks.
From the window where I write, at home in Cambridge, I can see a two-bed semi where a sale fell through a month ago. It's now on the market again, only £20,000 dearer. And theoretically I should be pleased, should see it as a sign of my own increased wealth this side of the road. But all I can think is that none of the four people I employ can afford their own home, and now they're even further from it. The recent sale of my mother's house, following her death last year, is a particularly vivid example of the continued insanity of the property market. Mum bought the tiny cottage in 2001 when she retired as a tenant publican, and could only afford to do so after two windfalls from building societies (which was ironic, as she fiercely disapproved of the conversion of mutuals to plcs and had voted against the proposals). The cottage was the cheapest property in my home hamlet of Toys Hill in Kent but was, even then, far beyond the reach of the kind of agricultural worker who had once occupied it.
When we put it on the market in June, the estate agent valued it at nearly a quarter of a million pounds - a flabbergasting price for a cramped rabbit hutch of bricks and mortar. A perverse side of me hoped that the estate agent was wrong, that no one would pay such an absurd price. In the event, an impassioned bidding war broke out and the cottage sold for a sum I dare not put in print. My siblings and I were left holding a peculiarly middle-class bouquet of suppressed glee, guilt and disbelief. True, this is the only inheritance the five of us will ever receive and my mother worked herself to the bone to gainsay it. But this only illustrates that the exercise of social morality can prove a low priority for even the saintliest of souls when you're trying to secure your offspring's best interests.
If a bleeding-heart, left-leaning polemicist such as Will Hutton apparently enjoys wealth based on the buy-to-let market, then what hope is there for the rest of us? No hope whatsoever, when the Government lacks the political balls to put into law the restraints that their feckless citizens can't bring themselves to muster.
We are told that Gordon Brown is exploring ways to provide financial assistance for those unable to afford their own homes in preparation for the next election manifesto, but how on earth can he do this without administering the vile medicine of a "property gains tax"? But, hey, why do something socially just when you can be popular? So much easier to rush out some facile, soothing legislation that tackles the most widespread social evil of our times: lottery jackpot-winning rapists. ("Please, Mr Blunkett, why do good things happen to bad people?" "I don't know, sonny. Ask Mr Mandelson.") The rapist in question has only profited from other gamblers. But when the mortgage brigade gamble on the property market, they profiteer from an ever more disadvantaged underclass. It's time someone asked which speculation is the more immoral.