Tuesday 3 March 2015
A mature look at housing and immigration
Politics: that which happens when there are no solutions to please everybody. On this blog I am keen to remind readers that every aspect of policy is interrelated and that all domestic news scandals tend to be a result of policy failure but also a failure of government on a more fundamental level, where the issues are many and complex and something obvious got missed.
Course, some obvious things get missed because our media is not up to the job, and it's hardly surprising that so few journalists bother with real journalism anymore because there isn't actually much mileage in doing the job properly. It takes more work and it means disagreeing with the self-referential London circle-jerk on whom paycheques depend. The public like easy and simple answers so why not just give them what they want?
Rarely do you see the issues of housing and immigration treated with any seriousness, where only really the Guardian makes a serious stab at it, often failing to see that housing and immigration as intricately intertwined, involving issues where most fear to tread - and I don't blame them either. There are no solutions that won't piss somebody off.
There are few more politically contentious issues than housing, with the word "affordability" on everyone's lips. Firstly we need to put this notion to bed. The first question to ask is "affordable to whom"? If we do compel developers to build "affordable" homes we end up with ghastly, unfit for purpose living spaces coming in at about £80k outside London. Is this affordable to someone with no credit rating? No. Moreover, you're assuming people earn enough to save a deposit. And are mortgages at this end of the market even sustainable with the job market being as volatile as it is? Certainly not for everyone. Thus giving anyone a house at a knocked down price in the name of "fairness" is distinctly unfair to someone, not least those toiling just to pay the rent.
So we acknowledge there is always going to be a high demand for rented properties. These "affordable" properties then have rental potential which drives up their price - unless of course you ban them from being let out, in which case there is little merit in improving or developing them. The result being dilapidated sheds nobody cares about and won't invest in. Why do we know this? Well, because we tried it in the late eighties in Woodhouse in Leeds. Those houses have since been bulldozed - and good riddance to bad rubbish. They were dreadful and ended up being crack dens. (Ah memories!)
The Tories have rightly junked any compulsion to provide affordable homes because it's a non-starter. Developers will pitch at what the market can tolerate. They have also thrown caution to the wind planning wise which is good news and bad, in that it might bring down the cost of construction and it might stimulate house building. But then of course it opens up a whole raft of new problems later down the line. Something had to take a hit and it was going to be planning - and that will form the foundation of the next national panic.
This former measure prompts wails of "it's not fair", but let's suppose we did saturate the market with affordable homes. Nobody is then going to buy your two bedroom house at the price you need to get for it because buyers can have better, newer, cheaper - which then puts a whole swathe of homeowners in negative equity and stuck with a near worthless asset they don't even want. That is politically unpopular so houses are built at a rate the local market will bear - not least so that developers can make a profit. They are not going to build houses if they can't.
So the libertarian free market mantras starts to fall apart here. But then so too does the socialist solution of a mass house building programme. There's that first question of who pays for it, and whether government is capable of learning from the colossal failures of the sixties where many estates built during that era have now been demolished, except of course those which prospered thanks to right to buy - which the left is fundamentally opposed to.
Supposing it could learn the lessons, there's a problem. Immigration. People want something done about it. They ain't too sure what, but something must be done! Some have suggested closing the borders or placing heavy restrictions on who can work here and who can stay. There is scant evidence this would work, not least because we already have those kind of restrictions and enforcement and, like everything else government is tasked with is failing in every conceivable way - and will only improve with a massive injection of money, of which there isn't any - not if people still want lots of other free stuff too. So then what?
Marxists and some libertarians would have it that we should simply open up the borders completely. This raises the question of what would happen if we did? The answer of course is, we have no idea, not least because we already do have open borders to an extent, and as much as the newspapers like to kick figures around, we're actually working on best guesses, where even a census will tell us nothing due to over-occupation of HMOs and beds in sheds - because it happens to be illegal.
So what effective border controls do we have? House prices. This keeps inflow to a manageable level - and restrictions on the green belt is having an overall positive effect for our other cities. How can we say it's manageable? Because we are managing - just about.
It then follows that more effective policing of planning, preventing over-occupation of HMOs and "beds in sheds" would actually prevent foreign labour undercutting domestic workers. As much as this is a safety matter (we didn't cut house fires by 50% in a decade by accident) and a planning matter, it is also a quality of life matter, and nobody really loses by having local authorities doing their job properly, which they manifestly are not doing presently for reasons I outline here.
It's the best compromise we have to actually enforce the law as it presently stands. Fix what's wrong with councils and you'll basically fix all the immigration associated issues (and perceived issues) along with solving most of what's wrong with the rest of our crappy government services.
At the moment, when balancing all of these considerations we actually end up with something close to what we have now, where if you're achieving a state of mediocrity you're actually ahead of the game. These are never going to be easily resolvable questions, to which simple answers will always be stupid answers, and the truth is there's no way of making it fair on everyone. You're going to have to rest on the idea that housing is an expensive thing - especially if you insist on living in London. You pays your money, you takes your choice.
Some have it that this here above is mere "problematising", but as we have seen in Rotherham, more people from the wrong places does indeed create problems on top of already acute problems and the public will not tolerate more of it, and demand that immigration be reduced to a rate whereby integration can happen without stressing the system and reducing quality of life.
Mass influxes of people do create problems especially if they come from regions barely progressed out of the dark ages. The people we import are not only a drain on their own families but society as a whole in the short to medium term, and if we continue to call people racist for being utterly fed up with it, then you get the likes of Ukip - so we are going to have to tackle immigration somehow.
Like everything else, the public wants to have their cake and eat it. Everyone wants everything for free and everyone thinks somebody else should pay for it. They want cheap goods, cheap labour, cheap houses, free healthcare, low taxes and government that works. That's a fine thing to aspire to, but I can't be the only one who thinks the public needs to grow up a little bit?