Letters: No profit in house prices

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The Independent Online

As a "baby boomer" who bought his first house in 1971, it has been obvious to me throughout this period that rising property prices have not, on the whole, done property-owners any real favours, however pleasant the resultant "feelgood" factor.

I take issue with Mary Ann Sieghart's statement, however, that the housing boom has redistributed wealth to the middle-aged and old from the young ("House prices are finally falling. Good", 16 August).

From my observation, except among the unskilled working class, likely to be unemployed or on a minimum wage throughout their lives, the middle-aged and old have always been better off than the young, simply because they have had time to develop their careers and accumulate savings and possessions. I was helped out financially in the 1960s and 1970s by my parents and grandparents, and today I do the same for the younger members of my family.

I also resent the suggestion implicit throughout her article that it was action by "baby boomers" that selfishly increased property prices. The market determines property prices, and is affected by a combination of factors tending to increase demand over supply, including an increasing population fuelled by immigration and internal migration, availability of mortgages extremely large in relation to income, and changing lifestyle expectations resulting from apparent increased prosperity and the widespread assumption that those without property are second-class citizens. If, as when I took out my first mortgage, loans were limited to three times the borrower's income with a minimum deposit of 10 per cent, then I suspect property prices would have remained more realistic.

David Burton, Telford

Mary Ann Sieghart's article on house prices is entirely right in describing the way in which the myth of automatic riches came with owning a house, but wrong in blaming baby-boomers or any other group. For decades house prices have risen on the illogical assumption that that was what they did – they just went up.

The ability to ignore the obvious – that as one's house increased in value so did all the others, thus rendering the "profit" meaningless – has been an essential element of this bubble. The Tory party has idolised house ownership, and in promoting it they sold off public housing and removed affordable accommodation from the market place, and that drove up house prices.

This morning on breakfast TV a house was described as losing £150 a day, as if it were a business or investment – which is where we have gone wrong. A house used to be the physical protection of the home, a place where people lived and loved, had their children and their triumphs and their tragedies. That idea been lost as we see the house as a cash cow.

The real solution is to build a huge number of houses instead of tinkering around with the present house stock. Building housing was one of the reasons for our post-war recovery, as the activity employed people not only in the building operations but in the manufacture of materials. That, I fear, will not happen until the next general election, when it will be billed as the way out of the wreckage created by the present lot.

Vaughan Thomas, Usk, Gwent

Students facing a worrying future

Your front cover of 16 August provides grim reading for hopeful AS students just about to receive their exam results ("Class of 2010 faces higher hurdles for college places and uncertain job market"). I can't say it was the most encouraging story to read over my breakfast as I sat next to the pile of prospectuses I have been mulling over all summer.

Although I appreciate that we have to be aware of the increasing competition for university places and graduate jobs, how are we helping my generation to become driven and determined in this difficult job market? As a confident student, it scares me to read your figures on the number of obviously capable students being turned away from universities as I begin to work on my UCAS application. How is this helping the less confident, but equally able 17- and 18-year-olds? We are still teenagers. I know we have to be realistic about our future, but we should also be feeling optimistic and excited, not already worrying about whether we are actually going to be able to make a living.

Since I started sixth form, I have seen the introduction of the new A* grade and the news that student debt is increasing, and I am also constantly being reminded of the tough competition for universities and jobs. As a 17-year-old with three or four subjects to study, along with learning to drive and working at my part-time job, it is rather depressing to feel my future will be built on rejection, debt and disappointment.

Izzy Stephenson, Cranfield, Bedfordshire

"Who would want to be 18 today?" – What an absurd headline.

My grandfather was 18 in 1867 and succeeded in a harsh, competitive world when the weak went to the wall. My father was 18 in 1914 and served in two world wars. I was 18 in 1950, the day that the Korean War started and in an era of austerity when few reached university. Today we live at a time of unprecedented ease, luxury and security. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Peter Saundby, Llangynidr, Powys

Reading your case studies on students who may not get into university, I was almost in tears at the prospect of one less marketing graduate. What a loss to humanity.

Andrew Whyte, Shrewsbury

I agree with Richard Garner (Comment, 9 August) that university admission should be decided after the candidate's examination results are known, as happens in most other countries.

Our candidates and their teachers have been suffering for 40 years under the present system of predicted grades and conditional offers. Richard Garner suggests two possible ways to avoid this but dismisses them on the grounds that schools will not hold exams earlier and universities will not allow first-year students to come up to university any later than the end of September.

May I suggest other solutions? One is to abolish Freshers' Week and start in October, as some British and most European universities already do.

Another is to speed up production of A-level results. The present timing of results to appear in mid-August dates back to the days when almost all A-level papers consisted of essay-length answers which were marked by hand. Today, as well as AS results being considered from the previous year, parts of the A2 syllabus are modular and thus marked in advance; others are formulated for computer-marking or short-paragraph answers. Students start their written exams in mid-May. Why should it take three months to produce their results?

To think the really unthinkable, why not reduce the long-drawn-out examination period by the amalgamation of the different exam boards, as one set of papers per subject would greatly facilitate timetabling?

Why should our school-leavers have to face three months' suspense and, if they are unlucky, the Mad Hatter's tea party of the clearing-house before starting university? And what about the admissions tutors who waste the second half of August cancelling offers made the previous March and re-allocating the places over a few short days?

Jenny Bryer, Birmingham

Further to your article "Clearing might be a harrowing process but don't give up on a degree" (5 August), students would be wise to also consider how vocational education can help improve their chances of a university place.

BTECs are a case in point; they have long been recognised for their employability and quality but they are also a stepping-stone to higher education, with more than 70,000 BTEC students applying to university in 2009 alone. I speak from experience: when my A-levels didn't give me the portfolio needed to apply for my chosen degree in graphic design, I undertook a BTEC national diploma in graphic design at Chichester college.

Without this, I would have been unable to gain entry to the Arts University college in Bournemouth where I completed a BA (Hons) in Graphic Design in 2009. Securing university places may be fiercely competitive but, thanks to a BTEC, it's not impossible.

Harry Smith, President, BTEC Alumni Network, London SE1

Job distribution in a 'fair' society

The idea that seats in the House of Commons should be distributed according to strict percentage quotas based on race, gender, social class, and where one went to school – and not, therefore, on the basis of merit – is a most interesting one (letter, 9 August). By the same token, I am sure all those who recommend such a centrally planned quota system based on national demographics would also be delighted if all jobs and professions in society were allocated on the same basis.

So, for example, perhaps no more than 10 to 12 per cent of doctors should be from an ethnic minority, reflecting the ethnic proportions of wider society (at present, more than 40 per cent of GPs are Asian or black); and no more than half of nurses should be female (about 90 per cent of nurses are now) so as to reflect wider society; moreover, no more than 50 per cent of surgeons should be male (95 per cent at present) and no more than 7 per cent of them should be privately educated (most are now). Naturally, no more than 10-12 per cent of all healthcare workers should be anything but white British, as these people are very under-represented in this area at present.

Other professions which could be affected are: air traffic control ("hideously" white and male), airline pilots (ditto), the fire service (97 per cent male), engineering, architecture, building, ICT, fishing, the armed forces, the police (mostly male); teaching, human resources, secretarial/ admin roles, TV presenting (especially BBC jobs), council office jobs and all state-funded jobs (mostly female at present); Indian and Chinese restaurants (mostly staffed by ethnic minorities), ICT, law, care work and cleaning and traffic wardens (jobs which are disproportionately filled by people from ethnic minorities).

Edwin Webb, London SE10

Two letters from Whitehall

I recently wrote, by email, to the SPVA, a department of the Ministry of Defence that deals with veterans. Two replies have so far come by post, one first-class and one second, both clearly acknowledging my email.

There is a £37bn hole in the defence budget, courtesy of the last government. Yet civil servants reply to emails by letter through the post, as does my Labour MP, who seems to think money grows on trees. Perhaps the two letters to me cost a total of £1 for stationery and postage. Multiply that by the thousands of letters sent every day from Whitehall, and its agencies, and it is clear that money could be saved.

The most logical way of dealing with communication is to reply using the same method as did the originator. But, where possible, email should be used. It is quicker, cheaper and altogether more efficient, allowing copies to be forwarded and saving time and effort. Everyone benefits and, in the end, there is less to recycle.

Why does the Civil Service not understand that cost-saving requires leading from the front and setting an example? Why does it not cut out waste at every stage of its business? Why do ministers not insist on a more sensible management of government correspondence? Such insistence might help set the tone for still more efficiencies; we surely need them.

Lester May, Lieutenant-Commander RN, London NW1

Radio and the paradox of time

Grierson Gower (letter, 16 August) is concerned about the time delay between the digital and analogue time pips, and asks which is correct.

A moment's thought shows that the earlier signal (the analogue signal) must be the correct one, unless the BBC has discovered the secret of time travel, since it is derived from the Greenwich signal, which in turn comes from an atomic clock. The delay of six seconds Grierson Gower experiences varies depending on the receiving set and the region of the listener. In my area it is less than six seconds.

The BBC seems to be rather coy over the implications of this disparity. Various letters and queries by me about it have been quietly ignored. This may relate to the Corporation's obsession with presenting digital broadcasting as the new technological wonder, and their plans to kill analogue TV and FM radio, which has the correct signal – and far better quality sound for music broadcasts.

Perhaps Dr Who, a Time Lord, can offer some clarification and intervene with his sonic screwdriver? Some of the BBC mandarins certainly seem to have a screw loose.

Peter Curran, Kirkliston, West Lothian

Grierson Gower asks which time signal is correct, that from digital radio, or that from analogue. The simple answer is, neither.

Although the processing of the digital signal adds a delay, the radio signal itself is travelling at the speed of light, and is delayed a millisecond for every 186 miles it travels. Probably not significant if you are trying to adjust your watch, but it could be in some circumstances.

The idea of sending time signals by light beams or radio waves is one of the concepts behind Einstein's theories of relativity, which lead to the conclusion that there is no absolute time, only time relative to the observer. There is no simple answer to the question "What time is it?"

Paul Dormer, Guildford

The situation regarding time checks is more complicated than Grierson Gower states. We have analogue and digital radios and a digital TV which also receives digital radio. If all three are tuned to the same station it is quite possible when moving between rooms to hear the same words or music three times in quick succession, first on analogue radio, then on TV digital and, lastly, on the digital radio itself.

And they say there are too many repeats on TV!

Gordon Whitehead, Copt Hewick, north Yorkshire

Dumbed down?

Before the annual debate about declining exam standards gets under way, may I just tell you that, last week, I achieved a new personal best in solving three Daily Quizzes. Does this mean, as I hope, that I am now attaining a new level of excellence or, as I suspect, the puzzles (Q. A name in the news? A. Beckham) are getting easier?

Anthony Bramley-Harker, Watford, Hertfordshire

How our heritage was destroyed

David Cameron's latest announcement to address Britain's "attractiveness deficit" in international tourism rankings (report, 13 August) perfectly illustrates not only the inconsistencies in current wider policy, but also the fundamental irreconcilabilty of old-school "economic-growth-at-any-cost" thinking with the imperatives of sustainability.

The reason why France is the world's number one tourism destination is that it is comparatively under-populated, its landscapes and architecture are relatively unspoilt, its rail system is world-class, and its food and other quality-of-life measures are outstanding.

By contrast, Britain has been assiduously eroding its national assets over the past 50 years. Ill-considered planning policies have promoted over-development, suburbanisation, and the desecration of our historic towns and cities with low-grade architecture; intensive agriculture has laid waste our rural landscapes, polluted our soils and waterways, massacred our wildlife and produced standardised low-grade food; and a road-centric transportation policy has all but destroyed the integrity of our ever-impoverished communities.

And for what? To create an economy which is now so grossly ineffective at delivering the quality of life that defines civilised lifestyles as to be almost irretrievable. An integrated approach to improving the value of our capital assets should be at the heart of all government policy, not simply to attract tourists, which has its own sustainability contradictions, but for the benefit of its own people.

For example, viewed conventionally, agriculture contributes a mere 1 per cent to GNP; tourism, 4 per cent. Why then, is the former, with its 75 per cent monopoly of Britain's land area, allowed to have such a detrimental impact on the latter?

Nigel Tuersley, Tisbury, Wiltshire

Who really 'gets' Stonehenge?

David Cameron has said the last government "just didn't get our heritage". If he wants to promote tourism why is he cancelling a badly needed £25m visitor centre at Stonehenge. Given that Stonehenge is 4,500 years old, a Unesco World Heritage site and a key tourist site for southern England, why doesn't he get our heritage?

Duncan Noble, Helston, Cornwall