The housing crisis – accommodating guilt

The housing crisis – accommodating guilt

As Western countries struggle with the consequences of decades of political and economic irresponsibility, guilt has become a major emotive force in endeavouring to persuade citizens of those countries that what they need is even more of the same failed policies.

Governments of left and right alike have mortgaged their countries’ futures through the creation and encouragement of never-affordable welfare states, economic hollowing-out, mass migration and utopian internationalism. Now, rather than looking at these problems honestly or fully – which would entail some acknowledgement of their errors – these same politicians, aided by opinion-formers and NGOs, strive to browbeat their taxpaying populations into dipping even deeper into ever emptier pockets to shore up these failed projects.

These endless exhortations (which could almost be considered extortions) are made in the magical names of compassion, fairness, social justice and equality – concepts that ring resonantly in the hearts of kindly people whose civilization has been shaped by Christian principles of altruism and chiliasm. Westerners appear to be uniquely susceptible to the conceit that there can be a perfect globe with all sorrows and sins washed away, and some Westerners, especially those from non-conformist traditions, appear to actually enjoy feeling guilty, and respond almost gratefully to accusations of moral malfeasance.

Wild and unjust allegations of institutional injustices – sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, disabilism, economic exploitation – are constantly made by a small minority of perpetually horrified activists, and as constantly accepted by millions of people who have neither the time nor the inclination to look behind the empty slogans at the complex reality. The results are permanent pathologies, ongoing implosion, ever-worsening quality of life, ever heavier taxation and ever higher levels of priggishness and hyperbole.

The latest means of eliciting angst in the British breast concerns the supposed selfishness of people who live in houses that are larger than they strictly need. In a report called Hoarding of Housing, a new group called the Intergenerational Foundation (IF) says that there are 25 million unused bedrooms in England that ought to be used to accommodate families. Many of these bedrooms are in houses owned by over-65s, and IF advocates financial incentives (such as exemption from stamp duty) to encourage these old-timers to move to smaller properties, so young families can move into the houses they vacate.

“It is perfectly understandable that retired people cling to their home long after it has outlived its usefulness as a place to bring up a family in”

said one of the report’s co-authors, before adding piously

“But there are profound social consequences of their actions.”

IF also advocates replacing council tax with

“…a proper land tax, to reflect the social cost of occupying housing, particularly housing that is larger than one’s needs.”

The first thing to acknowledge is that there is a real problem with shortage of housing, and this is one of the main pressures driving the government’s unpopular National Policy Planning Framework, which aims to facilitate housebuilding (although the government has already pledged 370,000 new houses). It has become virtually impossible in some areas for young people to buy their own homes, or even sometimes to rent properties – and something does need to be done. But IF’s conclusions are distinctly iffy, and their suggestions miss several vital points.

The first is that a home is not just bricks and mortar but also an emotional repository, reflecting the personalities and containing the memories of the people who live there – and who have usually worked very hard to live in a particular place in a particular way. The “empty bedrooms” so coveted by the rational redistributors are not empty at all to those who watched their children grow up in those rooms. The rooms may have “outlived their usefulness” in a physical sense, but they still have plenty of emotional usefulness – and emotional capital is as vital to a society as economic capital. Buying and selling houses are as much matters of the heart as of the head, and it is both unreasonable and unfair to try and pressurize people who are happy where they are into moving, to answer some nebulous ‘need’ or ‘duty’ (a ‘duty’, let us remember, to address a problem they didn’t cause). The Minister for Housing has said that he is opposed to people being “bullied” out of their houses – and so he should be, because property owning and lengthy occupancy are beneficial and intrinsically conservative social forces. This is especially true in England, where the word “home” has a talismanic force it does not quite possess elsewhere.

The next point overlooked by IF’s ideologues (and virtually everybody else) is that the housing shortage is largely caused by overpopulation – and that is largely caused by immigration. If the government were to slow immigration from other or via EU countries, as it has started to slow other kinds of immigration, this problem (and many other problems) would ease virtually overnight. Such a move would be in contravention of European treaties, but it could be done subtly and politely, and after all other EU countries often put their own interests first when it suits them. Besides, at present the Euro-obsessed EU is in no position to take a firm stand on anything, least of all from a major economic player like the UK.

Something has got to give so this genuine crisis can be solved – and why should it be the hardworking householder rather than the politicians who caused the problems in the first place? People should be permitted to enjoy the fruits of their lifetime’s labours without being penalized for government failures, or being corroded by the acid of angst because they own a couple of rooms more than they can occupy at any one time. IF ought to go back to the drafting stage – and try to keep their heads when all around are losing theirs.

Derek Turner, 19 October 2011



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