Last night we went to the monthly quiz at our local club, where one of the questions was, ‘which Shakespearian king offered his kingdom for a horse?’ No prizes for guessing that, though it does remind me of a character in Asterix called Mykingdomforanos:
I’m afraid we won again, so another bottle of wine is sitting in the kitchen warming its cockles over the radiator: one of the members seemed rather disgruntled at our victory and pointed out that we were only supposed to have four people in a team. I neglected to point out that half the other teams consisted of more than four people…
But I digress; today, following our discussion on aspects of modern living, I want to discuss the topic of housing.
Housing costs money. Everyone knows that. Food costs, clothing costs and entertainment costs, but greater than all of these is housing. Thanks to the corporate greed of a nation, house prices are now four or five times what they otherwise might have been, meaning that many ordinary people can’t afford to buy. This wouldn’t matter if renting was a sensible alternative, but renting is regarded as the threadbare option. As a tenant you are not respected or valued. You are not a proper member of society; you are not grown up. You do not command the right to obtain loans or insurance on the same terms as adult members of society. Only fools and horses rent, goes the song – or would do if it were applied to the housing market. (Incidentally, it was years before I realised the lyric on that song said ‘only fools and horses work’ – an interesting coda to the recent post on jobs).
This is not the case everywhere. In Europe renting is not only respectable, it is near-universal. As a tenant in Spain you have lifelong security; blocks of flats have a concierge (or portero, as they call them) who is responsible for cleaning and security; and you can pass your rented property on to your children if you wish. So why in Britain do we have this obsession with owning a house?
It wasn’t always thus. When I was growing up relatively few people owned a house as there was much more council and social housing to supplement the private sector. But then Thatcher happened. It is impossible to count the ways in which I loathe that woman. Apparently the ability to paint your own front door is so much more important than having a front door in the first place – so council houses were sold off by the shed-load. Well, not shed-load but you know what I mean. And suddenly home-ownership was on the agenda for anyone who wanted it. At least, if you were ‘responsible’ and prepared to ‘work hard’ it was on the agenda.
I’m responsible, aren’t I? And I work hard. Where’s my house?
Even then, it was not too unfeasible – but then in the eighties came a housing boom and prices rocketed. Of course you can’t expect people to act against their own private interest, so everyone got as much as they could from their house, especially since the people they were buying from were also getting as much as they could for theirs. And so began the treadmill that hurts everyone (all but a few) and which no-one is able to get off, illustrating perfectly how everyone acting in their own private interest can ultimately harm us all.
All of which brings me to a discussion of… market forces. You never heard much about market forces in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, but they were very big in the ‘eighties and have been ever since. But what are they? We talk about them as though they are a given, something solid, immutable, fixed, permanent. But really, market forces is just a term for human behaviour writ large. It is the maelstrom of human tendencies. It’s what we all do.
Now you will object that this is all very well, but how does anyone break into this? As I pointed out just now, anyone wishing to sell their house at a reasonable price would find themselves pretty much forced to fall in with everyone else or be seriously out of pocket – and most people can’t afford to do that.
So how does one fight this? That, as they say, is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Except that, prices being what they are, it is now the three hundred thousand dollar question.
More thoughts on this tomorrow…