Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rod Liddle often annoys me

but just as often, he says things that I've been thinking too.

This week's Spec has a piece in it on the "collapse" of the "housing market" in Britain.

Long before I got here, I had been reading about the disaster of the British housing market. How it was utterly impossible for ordinary working people to own their own homes. That house prices, even of very modest places, put the idea permanently and hopelessly out of reach for young families and single people. I heard stories of people leaving Britain in droves just because for the price of a garage in the unfashionable end of Manchester, one could get a terraced villa in Provence, complete with a complement of charming peasants and fresh-faced milkmaids or something. That, in short, Britain had been utterly devastated by the unparalleled greed of real estate speculators and people who bought, only to flip.

I well believed it, since much the same thing had happened in most of the places I'd lived. The Victoria neighbourhood where I lived when I was a kid, was a place where a lot of hippies lived. They moved into the rather rickety old houses and fixed them up, usually in a very slip-shod, home-handyman sort of way. Then they set about making slip-shod fashionable, and re-selling their ratty old houses to the mainlanders who started teeming over from Out There (a place where, in my youth, few Islanders ever went). This had the effect of making it impossible for the children of the hippies to stay in the neighbourhoods they grew up in. When I went back to the Island in my early 20's hoping to settle there, I found that in the places that used to run with kerchief'd dogs and unwashed barefoot hippie children (of which I was one), Beamers now filled the drives and one paid five dollars for a loaf of "artisan" seed bread in what had once been our corner Chinese store.

So, I well believed that things in Britain, a place with a very limited amount of space and a great crush of immigrants demanding the lower end of residential spaces, would not be conducive to getting a start at the bottom of the "housing ladder".

But greatly surprised was I to find that real estate flipping had become the new horse-betting in British culture. Most British people all talked RealEstateSpeak in the same way they used to talk about football. People who had never worked in the real estate business didn't talk about "houses" or "homes", they talked about "properties" and the "housing ladder" and mortgage rates, the way football fans talked about scores and teams. It was creepy.

They all watched the dozen or so daily (yes, daily) programmes on telly, often back to back on weekday afternoons, about buying low, fixing up and selling high. As if shows about how to become a real estate flipper had replaced cooking shows and soaps for housewives.

So, now that house prices are falling, and banks are now, finally, becoming chary of giving people mortgages who don't look like they've the chance of a whelk in a supernova of paying it back...now that things have gone back to a measure of sanity, in other words, everyone is having apoplexy and predicting the end of the world.

Thus far, Rod Liddle is the only one who seems to be saying out loud what I've been thinking. Maybe I'm old fashioned, maybe I'm hopelessly behind the times, but I think a house is something you buy once, move all your stuff in, and start planning the garden for. Something, in other words, you build up into a home and grow into over a period of decades. Something to give warmth and stability and security and happines to yourself, your wife, your kids, your grandchildren. Somewhere you live your life.

Rod Liddle seems to have noticed, as I have, that British people aren't interested in having a life any more.

In the summer of last year, when we were up to our knees in floodwater ... the worry was about property being far too expensive and what’s more increasing in price too rapidly. What can we do, the experts debated, to make houses more affordable for people who want them? The same question asked every week since the last property crash. The solution arrived unbidden and now the very same people greet it as a disaster. The Arbitrary Gods of Economics must be greatly confused: how can we please these people?

...a 25 per cent fall in house prices — to take the gloomiest of the million or so recent prognoses — is, overall, good news.

It will not hurt you if you stay put, where you are, which is what people in every other part of the world do with their homes — live in them and enjoy them. It will not hurt you even if you wish to buy a more expensive house. It will affect adversely largely those who wish to get out of the housing market altogether: a tiny minority.

The reason for our schizophrenia over house prices comes down to that most regrettable aspect of British culture this last 25 years or so, the idea that homes are not simply to be lived in, where you put down roots and form a community with those who live nearby — your neighbours — but a means of making a swift buck, or forever trading up and cashing in, borne aloft by an economic mechanism which at times resembles nothing more than pyramid selling.

Money for nothing. The social ramifications of this state-approved greed are atomised communities where people do not know one another because they are forever moving on and, of course, a growing army of young families who cannot possibly afford to buy their own homes. But nobody minded too much, or complained too loudly, because the dosh was, magically, rolling in, every year, on paper.

The relentless dash for property cash has been encouraged by a whole swath of repulsive television programmes, urging us to move ahead, to buy a second home, to sell, to make a few thousand quid, to paint the bathroom white and install a freestanding iron bath so some poor sap will think it’s a trendy house and thus pay an extra five grand for it, to treat the home as a short-term investment, shorn of any value save for its automatically rising pecuniary worth. It is a loathsome and of course unsustainable premise which we have recently inflicted upon our continental neighbours, to much localised dismay.

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