This morning, George Monbiot dropped a proverbial policy-bombshell thats annoyed pretty much everyone, myself included. Guido, Mark Wallace and The Telegraph’s Ed West have all gone to town on the article, with the word ‘facist’ being bounded around a little too easily for my liking.
Let’s be clear - I certainly do not support any proposal which would see the Government forcing people to take strangers into their home. I’ve a funny feeling neither does George Monbiot, but that’s beside the point.
But the status quo can’t really be a viable option either? House prices rocketed on a debt bubble inflated by cheap mortgages, but the underlying pressure was the gap between supply and demand growing at an alarming pace. And of course, the soaring Housing Benefit bill is a by-product of this bubble.
We need alternatives, and however much you disagree with George Monbiot at least he’s proposing something. Where are the other solutions? If he’d written an article arguing for people to be moved from under-occupied social housing to smaller properties, I can’t help but feel the reaction would have been very different.
All Governments are caught in a paradox between building houses and the feel-good factor that comes with rising house prices. Monbiot wants less building, and as a result has to come up with more radical alternatives. Those who want more building - myself included - need to come up with ways to actually build more houses.
I think Monbiot’s wrong to argue against more building. According to the DCLG, just 9.9% of Britain is “developed” with only 5.4% of the country’s land mass accounted for by residential homes and gardens. Under the last government house building under Labour fell to its lowest level since 1946, even with centralised targets driving the process.
We need an era of housebuilding, private, social and council, that will make housing affordable again. Housebuilders and land owners cannot be allowed to distort the market by strangling supply, and banks cannot be allowed to distort demand with high-risk mortgages.
In his article, Monbiot proposes four things (alongside new building) to address the problem:
- Introduce a measure of housing occupation (a “footprint”)
- End the single-person 25% council tax discount
- A tax on under-occupation (he say’s “big”)
- Expanding the Homeshare scheme
To me, the first and last are hardly controversial. While there are cost implications for the footprint, expanding an existing charity can be done without any compulsory action and might be very interesting in terms of dealing with social and sheltered housing.
The tax proposals are hardly revolutionary - council tax is a badly out-dated system much in need of reform, and issues like this highlight how unsuitable it is. The single person discount is well meaning but a short-term fix that doesn’t address the underlying issue. In terms of taxing under-occupation, it’s worth remembering that people in such properties already have higher overheads in terms of utilities and the like, so to some extent this is already happening.
It’s absolutely right that much more energy needs to be put into bringing currently derelict homes back onto the market. Cutting VAT on these renovations would help in this regard, but even if we brought all 1 million derelict houses back onto the market, we’re still 4.8m short of what the Government thinks we’ll need over the next 22 years.
Equally, this is connected to the debate about second home ownership and the impact that has on prices. I see no reason why in an age of decentralisation and local decision making local communities should be able to influence the sale of properties which will not be available on the local accommodation market (either rented or owned.)
Part of the problem with this debate is the British (perhaps English) attitude to property, and in particular property ownership. Logically, it seems perfectly sensible to move to a smaller house and reduce your overheads as your accommodation needs fall, or vice-versa as your needs grow. But for some reason, as a nation we are relatively unique in our attitude to bricks and mortar being some kind of spiritual extension of ourselves.
Furthermore, architectural practices focusing on low-rise property have barely changed in a century, save for the boom in city apartments. The suburban trend of two story buildings makes poor use of the development we do have - build higher has been a continental norm for decades.
Of course, perhaps the greatest irony will be the number of people who are up in arms about today’s article who find themselves on the same side of the argument as Monbiot when trying to stop housing development on green belt land near them.