Monday 25 March 2024

What to do about Housing


What to do about housing.


Back in the 1930s the Urban District Council where I live decided to convert a few fields on the edge of our little mill-town into a “Garden Village.”  I believe the councillors went on a few (freebie?) trips to southern “Garden Cities” to gain ideas, and the result was a substantial “Housing Scheme.”

A local historian tells me that  the citizenry were very proud to have “Garden Village,”* even if they couldn’t afford to live in it, as the rents, at around £1 a week, were beyond their means,  with average workers’ pay at the time  about £3 per week.

  My parents must have taken the plunge because I was born in one of the houses, but by the time I was a month old they realised they could no longer afford the rent and moved to a “back to back” which, I think, was about 7/6d a week - just over a third of a £, or about 1/8th of my father's  wage, assuming he earned about the average.  As was pretty normal at the time, my mother didn’t work outside the home, but was a “housewife.”

Fortunately for me, and my sister, our parents managed eventually to scrape together the funds for a mortgage, which I think was borrowed not from a building society, but from the local council,  bought a house, and my sister and I  benefitted from the proceeds of their struggle in due course.

Unfortunately, for many young people today, and especially offspring of renters, the housing market has been so badly mismanaged that prices have exploded, the  mortgages are unaffordable  and rents so high that they can take up to half of take-home pay, even for very substandard accommodation, which can be occupied without security and subject to “no fault” eviction by the landlords.

Given that security and shelter are two of our basic needs, this is surely unacceptable

An article in the Guardian last October by a Phineas Harper, director of “Open Cities,”

 outlines the following six proposals to the next government to  begin to solve the crisis.


1.    End the “right to buy” social housing.

2.    Permit and enable local councils to invest heavily in building social house building.

3.    Revise the VAT rules. (Apparently it is more profitable to knock down a defective  house and build another that it is to repair  the defects.)

4.    Regulate rents and end no-fault evictions.

5.    Tax empty homes.

6.    Revise the planning rules to give local authorities the powers to ensure that builders actually stick to the percentages of ”affordable” housing they promised in their planning applications.

To these I would add four further suggestions:

1.    Encourage local authorities to make brownfield sites “building ready” so that they are as attractive to builders as greenfield sites.

2.    Tax land, especially that already approved for house building but, one suspects, kept unused in anticipation of higher prices in the future.

3.    Ensure that the increase in value which land accrues when it is re-scheduled for “building purposes” goes to the local authority, and not to the land-owner.

4.    Remove the exemption of the “principal primary residence” from capital gains tax.

Clearly the above will be difficult to achieve in one parliament, or even two, but whoever forms the next government should make a start and, as far as possible set a pathway from which it will be difficult to deviate.  It is high time that houses and flats became “machines in which to live” rather than cash cows to support a luxurious retirement or feather the nests of offspring.


·      * The term “Garden Village “ didn’t stick and the development became known as the “Housing Scheme” or just “the  Scheme“ and as far as I know, at least to my generation, it still is.


P PS (added 26th March)   By a happy coincidence there's another article by Phineas Harper in today's Guardian.  Read it here:

B Briefly, he explains that under the present rules councils are dissuaded from building social housing becasue  after a few years the "right to buy" means that they may be forced to flog them off at a discount.*  In their past two manifestos Labour have promised to abolish the "right to buy" but appear to be going to drop this commitment now.

*A *A tenant qualifies for a discount after only three years of secured tenancy. The discount may be from 35% to 70%.  The tenant may then sell the house at true market value, maybe to a "buy to let" landlord.

Friday 15 March 2024

Tories' "own goal" on extremism


According to Michael Gove’s  new definition, published yesterday, “extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to:

1.    negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or

2.    undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or

3.    intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2)”

It is difficult to decide whether the appropriate response should be disbelief, indignation or laughter.

Clearly given this definition this Conservative Government itself is guilty on  all three counts.

On Count 1, the Government has gone out of its way to reduce our democratic right to freedom of assembly  on the pretext that recent protest marches and assemblies  have been violent and dangerous (though even the police admit they have been  overwhelmingly peaceful and calm, in stark contrast to the attacks by the police, egged on by Mrs Thatcher, on the striking miners at Orgreave.)

 On Count 2 it was the Conservative  government under Johnson which tried to undermine  our parliamentary democracy by illegally proroguing parliament, and Sunaks is reducing the democratic likelihood of higher turnouts in elections by the totally unnecessary demand for voters to carry approved  ID (not to mention skewing the debate by increasing the maximum pre-election expenditure from £19m to £34m).

On Count 3, the most likely reaction to this intervention by any groups who might  want to undermine our democracy and values is to be even more angry and extreme.  Had the Government genuinely wanted to pour oil over what are potentially troubled waters they would had preceded any new definition  with extensive discussion with the bodies likely to be affected: representatives of our religions, climate activists, campaigners of every description .

One advantage of the new definition is it drops any reference to “fundamental British values.”  These, in the old definition, were described as “ including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and belief.”  It was and is  a nonsense to pretend that these values are uniquely, or even particularly, British: they are in fact the accepted basis of all liberal (ie Western?) democracies.

I well remember at least half a century ago, in an earlier Tory attempt to stir up resentment of those who are “different” by demanding that immigrants et al should adopt “British values,” someone with a foreign-sounding name writing to the Guardian to say:

 “Yes certainly.  Exactly which British values would you like us to adopt?  Putting our elderly relatives into care homes and forgetting about them; the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe; our youth drunkenly rampaging around  the Continent chanting “Two World Wars and One World Cup” whilst vomiting into the gutters?”

 Those who would like to pour oil rather than Gove’s petrol on to our troubled relationships could do well to listen to Bishop Richard Harries’s “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4 this morning.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

The Budget: an Oscar for Hunt

 In his Budget speech the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, claimed that Britain’s creative industries are world leaders.  There is, for once, some truth in that, and certainly Hunt’s speech was a bravura example.

 To listen to him you’re think that God was in His  heaven, all was right with the world and the UK  was a spanking modern country in which inflation, which had reached 11% for reasons entirely out of our control but was, as a result of  Conservative policy, poised to reach its target “soon” and those of us who deserve it by doing the right thing in hard working families  can enjoy a life-changing £450 a year rise.

No mention of the fact that after 14 years of these wonder-working Conservative policies, approximately 3.8 million of our people live in destitution, and that includes nearly a million children, over a quarter of whom  are babies or under five; local councils with caring responsibilities are becoming insolvent; our health services are inadequate with waiting lists for treatment at an all-time high; our care systems for the elderly are totally unable to cope with the increasing demands on them; our roads are pothole-pitted and overcrowded; railways are unreliable; house prices are beyond the reach of young people; renters endure a precarious existence through the whims of inadequately regulated landlords; our schools are crumbling; doctors and teachers are leaving their professions in droves; our courts are faced with unacceptable  backlogs; our prisons are grossly over-full and their inmates incarcerated in disgusting insanitary conditions; and the BBC, which plays a significant role in the creative industries, is cowed from speaking truth to power.

If all this “condition of the people” strikes you as a woke-ish namby-pambyism, our armed forces  have barely half the personnel they need, and desperately short of up-to-date equipment; neither of our two aircraft-carriers was fit to take part in in a recent NATO exercise; and two smaller ships collided  in the Gulf because one of them was "wrongly wired" and went backwards into the other when the “full ahead” lever was pulled.

I know it has long been a fiction that  National Insurance Contributions (NICs) are there to finance the social security system - they don’t, they are just another form of taxation – but it is ironic that this tax, which was created to fund among other things the NHS, is the  main tax the government has cut.  

Yet the inadequacies of the NHS are allegedly top of voters’ concerns. Along with this and the other issues  itemised above  (and I’m sure there are many more)  more government spending  is needed.   Our public realm  will not be “fixed” by productivity improvements alone, nor by a mythical “trickle-down effect.

Much is made of the “fact” that the UK’s tax "take" (not a "burden")  is the highest it has been for 70 years (though Will Hutton of the Observer claims it is 40 years).  The Tories like us to think that means we are over-taxed.  This total we pay to the government as our subscription to live in a civilised society is still only around the average of both the G7 and the OECD, and that average is pulled down by the low level in the US (where it does not include health care).  For years the UK has been well below the average for similar developed countries, not least France and Germany, and there is a lot to make up.

Our need is more tax, not less, but by a fairer system in which the broadest shoulders pay their proper share.

 I watched only Hunt’s presentation: the Opposition’s reply was unexpectedly delayed by a vote apparently forced by the SNP.  However the atmosphere of the debate I saw bore no relationship to the seriousness of the subject. It was played out as some sort of joke, with ribaldry, jeers, taunts and laughter, which seemed to come from all sides.

 No wonder an increasing section of the population, sadly those who most need parliament to take them seriously, have given up hope,  and either treat politicians with contempt of are indifferent to the system  which, used properly,  should help them live decent lives.

The proper response of the Opposition parties to this jolly “Punch and Judy” pantomime approach by the Government  should be stony silence.  This is people’s lives you are dealing with, you and we may be OK but too many of the people we are elected to serve are suffering lives  unworthy of one  of the richest countries in the world.  Be aware of your responsibilities.

This description, taken from an article in today’s Guardian by former banker Gary Stevenson, has a greater ring of truth than Hunt's Oscar-winning performance:

“The budget is a piece of theatre meant for your consumption. It is a cute moment – a photogenic moment where a multimillionaire can hold up a red box and bribe you with a bit of your money, while they and all the other multimillionaires bankrupt the government with monetary and fiscal stimulus packages that seem somehow to always end up in their own pockets. They then use that money to buy assets such as all the houses that your children will need but never be able to afford to own."



Saturday 2 March 2024

Rochdale and the Race Card

That George Galloway has won the Rochdale by-election is not, in my view, the most significant aspect of the results.  He stood a good chance of winning even if the Labour Party had not withdrawn their support for their official candidate for some foolish and ill-considered remarks.  Galloway very nearly did it here  in the (now revised ) Batley and Spen Constituency in 2021.  Given the make-up of the Rochdale population, his skills on the stump, and the heightened awareness of  the Israel/Palestine situation, his victory was almost a foregone conclusion,. 

I doubt very much if his win will have the effect he claims on the domestic political debate, or, if rumour emanating from his previous wins in Bethnal Green and Bradford West have substance, on the quality of life in Rochdale – and still less on life in Gaza.

 It’s odds on that Labour will regain the seat in less than twelve months and the Galloway circus will move on to different pastures.

The result  which could be of lasting significance is the massive slump in the Conservative vote.  Their candidate was pushed down to third place by a politically unaligned and apparently inexperienced local businessman, Mr David Tully, who won second place with 21.3% of the vote.  This was almost double the percentage, 12%, gained by the official Conservative candidate.  It was a drop in voter share of nearly 20%.  Under the old rules he would have lost his deposit.

 Given that the slump in Labour’s vote was the result of the party’s official support being withdrawn from him, it has no particular significance for the future.  But there is no parallel explanation for the dramatic fall in the  Conservative  vote.   Clearly the Tory supporters, who normally rustle-up something  like around 30% in the constituency, have lost confidence in the party and have been prepared not just to stay at home (the usual excuse for those who argue that “normal service” will be resumed when the chips are down in the general election) but to turn out and vote for another candidate, in this case the  local businessman.

 If this is an indication of the mood in the rest of the country, and I earnestly hope it is, then the Tories could be in for a dramatic (and well-deserved) drubbing when they have the courage to call the election.

 This could be the reasoning behind Rishi Sunak’s extraordinary use yesterday  evening of all the panoply of the Downing Street background and  logo-decorated podium to warn the nation of the threat to our democracy from “extremists.” 

To up it mildly, that’s a bit rich from the man who not forty-eight hours earlier had been describing largely peaceful demonstrations as “mob rule” and whose henchpersons Lee Anderson(while deputy party chairman) and present or former ministers Liz Truss and Suella Braverman spoke glibly of “Islamists” taking over London and the “danger” immigrants of other cultures bring to our “British” way of life.

Sadly Sir Keir Starmer has tended to support the prime minister’s view but, thankfully our Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has had the courage to call him out.

 “Playing the race card” has a long history in the Tory party. The most notorious example in my lifetime was in the 1964 General Election when the Conservative Candidate  for Smethwick, Peter Griffiths, won the seat after using the slogan “If you want a N****r Neighbour vote Labour.”  The then Labour Leader, Harold Wilson, displayed more courage than the present one by calling Griffiths a “parliamentary leper.”  

Two  more recent  examples are  Norman Tebbit’s “cricket test” and the 2016 election of London Mayor, in which Tory Zac Goldsmith’s campaign against Sadiq Kahn  was, as Wikipedia put it “marred by accusations of Islamophobia."

 It is surely the function of responsible politicians and public figures to do their best to calm inter-group tensions rather than exacerbate them. I am inclined to see Sunak’s extraordinary performance as a last desperate attempt do the opposite in order to hang on to power.

 On a Liberal Democrat site a few days ago Nigel Jones, who occasionally comments on this blog, posted the following:

 “It is one of the greatest sins of humankind to say that you are either with us or against us on the basis of your political allegiance, group identity, or belief label.”

I think that sums up a requirement  for all public (and for that matter, private) comment.

 On top of that Mr Sunak should reflect  that the greatest danger to our democracy in recent year has come from the Tory Party itself.  They have, (in no particular order):

Introduced a totally unnecessary requirement for voter ID

Removed the second preference vote in election for executive mayors

Repealed the fixed Term Parliament Act

Prevented universities from registering their students automatically

Illegally prorogued parliament

Increased the level of permitted expenditure pre-election from £19m to £34m

Placed additional  restrictions on the right to demonstrate and protest.

Further limited workers’ right to strike.

Let’s hope for a new  government with sufficient Liberal input to put some of these wrongs to right.

 PS.  I'm pleased to see Carolyn Lucas, the Green MP, covering many of the above points in today's (03/03/24) Observer with her customery verve.  See:




It is one of the greatest sins