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The housing white paper creates two nations: owners and renters

Paul Finch
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The government’s proposals to solve the housing crisis abandon a long-held one-nation Tory ideal, observes Paul Finch

An informal discussion took place this week in the office of Orms on the subject of the relationship between politics and architecture. The weekend’s newspapers were full of relevant stories, mainly relating to housing, in the new context of government aspiration to turn us into two nations. Those nations are home-owners, or at least mortgagors, and renters.

Out goes the MacMillan/Thatcher dream of a nation of independent householders; in comes half the country paying rent and missing out on the tax-free capital gains that the lucky 50 per cent will continue to enjoy. If that isn’t political, what is? Especially as so many MPs have nice little earners as small-time rentiers.

Tim green cropped

Tim green cropped

The new proposition runs as follows: a decreasing proportion of the population is capable of buying a home, because of price rises, the requirement for 20 per cent deposits, mortgage shortages, increased demand due to population increases and supply shortage exacerbated by increased longevity. Therefore we must turn to the private rented sector for salvation and be more like the rest of the EU.

Of course government will continue to help out people who can almost afford a mortgage through a system of grants and reliefs. To those that hath, it shall, as usual, be given. Meanwhile all the other suckers can pay rent and have nothing to show for it after 30 years, just the perpetuity prospect of paying through the nose, with no capital asset to help survive the dementia years. As this column has noted before, financial institutions love all this because they can smell blood: you sell something, but you still own it, the ideology of the world’s oldest profession.

Clearly architects and architecture have nothing directly to do with this change of political direction, though there will be architectural consequences, for example the different plan layouts desired for PRS blocks, with their equitable bedrooms. It’s all about Friends, rather than Terry and June.

The profession by and large declined to engage in any debate about housing supply

However, at a deeper level there is a very big connection indeed. The profession by and large declined to engage in any debate about housing supply, in the same way that a bipartisan political policy emerged from Thatcher to Brown, that we could ignore boring old ‘predict and provide’ policies in favour of predict and don’t provide, or, in the case of mass ‘inward migration’, pretend it isn’t happening.

My no doubt overly-cynical observation is that Tories despised the working class and New Labour was simply embarrassed by it. Hence the failure to build social and intermediate housing in anything like the required numbers for at least 20 years. Or to teach students how to do plumbing, drainage and refuse in social housing blocks.

The belief that you can build out a social housing programme by penalising housebuilders has been exposed as a sham in London under successive mayors, but we are still trying it. I note that registered starts in London in 2016 were down by a third on the previous year. Meanwhile, architects busy themselves doing fabulous extensions that they hope will make it onto Grand Designs, a hymn to individualism utterly irrelevant to general need.

Housebuilders have their own response to shortage, spelled out by the Sunday Times, which is to run a propaganda campaign in favour of ripping up green belt policies. They have the active assistance of professionals who make a living by finding ways around planning rules.

No wonder Richard Rogers coined his famous dictum: ‘All architecture is political’. Unfortunately, institutions like the RIBA and the AA spend more time these days arguing about their constitutions, rather than engaging with serious matters where Parliamentarians like Lord Rogers could do with some support.

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