Leading Article: Slumming it privately with a mortgage

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The Independent Online
WHEN, a decade ago, the Government decided to encourage people to own their houses it failed to educate them in the true cost of ownership or to make adequate provision for helping those who could not afford to maintain their new acquisitions. Indeed, with curious illogicality, public funds for repairs, maintenance and renewal declined during this period of engineered social change, when house ownership increased dramatically among low-income families. In 1991, almost half those owning homes outright and 15 per cent of those buying with a mortgage had incomes below pounds 150 a week. Even among higher-income groups, the prevalence of negative equity has discouraged spending on repairs.

As a result, according to a new report by the Housing Forum, the nation's housing stock is in danger of heading into serious deterioration. Although the decline may not yet be fully under way, in 1991 there were 1.8 million homes unfit for habitation and nearly four million requiring substantial repairs.

It may be argued that a private house is a private house, and no concern of the Government except at the level of help for the very poor. But this is to take too narrow a view. If a house deteriorates until it is uninhabitable the Government foots the bill for rehousing the occupants and eventually, perhaps, for clearing the area. Furthermore, as the report points out, poor housing is associated with mental and physical illness, criminality, and wasted energy, all of which cost money. So a policy that promotes maintenance of the housing stock should save public money in the end.

Meanwhile, however, it would cost billions to bring all houses up to decent levels. No government will find that sort of money in a hurry. Policies are needed that strike a realistic balance between spending public funds and pushing or coaxing the private owner to spend more. The Housing Forum has strings of useful ideas on the subject which lean more towards public spending than is realistic under present conditions. With the disappearance of quick capital gains on housing, owners will have to become more realistic about the costs of maintenance.

But the Government should not evade its broader responsibilities for housing stock and for the burdens that have fallen on poorer owners as result of its own policies.