The week between Christmas and New Year is always a wonderful time for reading, both books and catching up on the wealth of articles bookmarked in the busy weeks before the holidays. So I’ve had time to read a new London Review of Books essay by James Meek about housing in the UK. Or rather, the housing crisis, as the title has it, in what has become the automatic word association.
As the chart in the article makes perfectly plain, there is a crisis of inadequate supply, on a scale that in the past was addressed by some substantial policy interventions. I am absolutely not a political expert, but it does seem to me that housing is one of the basics that voters will care about – something Margaret Thatcher as well as Aneurin Bevan understood perfectly well.
The Meek article ends with a quote from Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: ‘At the turn of the 20th century, the free market had provided squalid slums. We undoubtedly face the re-creation of slums, the enrichment of bad landlords, the risk of people being destitute. Beveridge had soup kitchens. We have food banks. We’ve got something that does take us back full circle, a deep divide in way of life between people who are reasonably well off and those who are poor. There’s always been a difference, but the distinction seems to be more stark now.’
Julia is one of my Perspectives authors, and I highly commend her new book Why Fight Poverty? It seems to me spot on in identifying the emotion of fear – fear of becoming poor, fear of poor people – as a barrier to doing anything about poverty.
As it happens, I’ve also commissioned Kate Barker to write a Perspective on the housing crisis, due out later this year. Kate was the author of two authoritative reports on planning and housing a few years ago, and her recommendations in the run up to a UK general election campaign will be essential reading.
There are a few other books around about housing. I’ve read Neil Monnery’s Safe As Houses which gives a very useful historical and also cross-country overview. A bit old now, but excellent on the economic analysis, is David Miles’s Housing, Financial Markets and the Wider Economy. David is on the Monetary Policy Committee and no doubt paying close attention to the current house price surge and mortgage conditions.There are some excellent blogs too – Alex Marsh writes one, Jules Birch another.