1. Lord William Rees-Mogg, 'Life's no house party for the '20-20' generation', The Times, 16 April 2007, posted on www.timesonline.co.uk
2. Ferdinand Mount, Mind The Gap: The New Class Divide in Britain, London, Short Books, 2004
3. Brook Lyndhurst, New Horizons Research Programme, Social Mobility and Homeownership: A Risk Assessment, Final Report, Wetherby, Communities and Local Government, February 2007
4. Mixed Income Communities programme, Mixed communities: success and sustainability, York, Joseph Rowntree Trust, March 2006, posted on www.jrf.org.uk
5. Craig Brown, 'Sex attack on asylum seeker and baby son', The Scotsman, 12 April 2007
6. Office of National Statistics, 2001 Census, posted on www.statistics.gov.uk
7. Matt Williams, 'Nurses 'can't afford houses in 99 per cent of UK towns', The Independent, 13 April 2007
8. Lucinda Platt, Migration and social mobility: the life chances of Britain's minority ethnic communities, York, Joseph Rowntree Trust, Novenber 2005, posted on www.jrf.org.uk
Multi-cultural racism, politically dead patricians, and the housing shortage
It's happened! Not only do I agree with an article in the Times, but I agree with an article in the Times by William Rees-Mogg. (1) That old member of the politically dead patrician class was almost spot on when he wrote that a great many people are excluded from the housing market. So much so that they might be tempted to vote Conservative, if that party promised a policy to build a lot of houses. Maggie Thatcher was a fool to herself when she got rid of the patrician Tories.
Rees-Mogg was almost spot on, but he was talking about the wrong people. He can't help it because he's a patrician. The 20-20s that he focused on are 20-something graduates on about £20,000 a year. They are the children of his old friends, his work friends, and his family. He mentioned the poor with true sympathy, and patricians always do, but the poor are not likely to vote for any-one.
Like that other Tory patrician Ferdinand Mount in 2004, warning of a new class divide in Britain, (2) Rees-Mogg can point out that there are not enough homes for people, and even fewer people can afford to live in.
We need to build many more homes for a growing and diverse population, and particularly for those on typically low British wages. We need new homes for all sorts of new households, and we need to speed up the replacement of old homes that are worn out after decades, if not a century of repair.
It is no good for government to talk about everyone having a decent home in multi-cultural Britain if housing shortages and unaffordability are reinforcing the growing polarisation of society. The failure to build housing on a greater scale may be good if you are speculating on the property market, but social division and immobility is bad for everyone, and worst for those who are poor. Even a patrician Tory can see that.
I live in a multi-cultural community in Hackney, London. Well... not really. Those of us who live in a three bedroom house with a bit of garden and near a good school can sometimes fail to see what it is like to live without. Most of us were probably depressed to learn in February 2007 that social mobility has more or less stopped. 70 per cent of households are home owners, while for the department of Communities and Local Government that seems to represent more of a societal risk than a promise of social mobility in future. (3)
For most of us it is not a personal problem that our children are likely to grow up as comfortable as we are. It is a personal problem for the people we are supposed to call "those at risk of social exclusion and/or at risk of offending", but who most of us still recognise as "the poor".
Most of us don't actually know any poor people well, even if we live near them. Last year the Joseph Rowntree Trust reported that mixed housing developments, which are neighbourhoods with a mixture of private, shared equity and rented accommodation, do not change how we mix socially. (4) We mix with old friends, work friends and family and don't talk much to our neighbours, unless they look and speak like us. We only ever talk about poor people when their personal problems become social ones.
I cannot understand how anybody could have sexually assaulted an Algerian asylum seeker and hurt her baby, as happened in Glasgow in April. (5) I am sure that very few people can, because thankfully such abhorrent behaviour is very rare. What is common is talk about immigrants getting priority for housing at the expense of others who have been here longer. You don't have to have been here much longer to talk like this, and these "others" are not all "white indigenous" types.
When I was young the people who talked badly of immigrants were mostly white and mostly working class, and they were speaking mostly of Afro-Caribbean and Asian people. These racists talked about the "taking" of both jobs and houses. Nowadays all sorts of different people talk about "too many people getting in". The colour bar on racism has been lifted.
People who do own a three bedroom house and a garden generally talk about how many people the British economy can absorb. The word "growth" is often used, and various percentages are bandied about. People who don't have a three bedroom house don't talk about the economy, because they know there are, certainly in London, plenty of "poor people's jobs" to go around. Nowadays, the better off racists talk about jobs, and the poorer ones talk about houses.
However, the colour of your skin and your culture does affect who and how you blame for your lack of a three bedroom house with a garden near a good school. White British people won't tell you they got a house because they are work shy, and Nigerian people won't tell you they got a house because they have too many kids. They will say it about each other to their old friends, their work friends, and family, who look and speak like them.
The area I live in is not so much multi-cultural as para-cultural, with many different members of different ethnic and social groups living in close proximity, mostly being very civil to each other in the street, but not really mixing socially all that much.
Experience tells us that the ultimate social mixing for many heterosexuals results in procreation. Therefore an indication of how good we are at social mixing can be found in the number of mixed race people we have in our society. The 2001 census for England, which showed of the 6,391,695 people who reported themselves as other than "White British" only 643,374 were of mixed ethnicity. In a total population of 49,138,831, that is 1.3 per cent. (6) I couldn't find any figures on the subject, but how many couples from different social classes do you know? If you do know any, I will bet my own money on their sexual orientation.
That a lot of poor people blame other poor people is not so surprising. The Government spends a lot of time and energy trying to stop people of various shades from getting into the country, so it is no wonder that poor people who have been here longer blame the new arrivals. But the lack of houses to rent and buy affordably is a problem we all share. A social problem. Those of us who do own a home have more freedom than those who don't, but social mobility has stopped for us too. If nothing is done social division and immobility will get worse. Not because more people come to live in Britain, but because there is a serious housing shortage already.
What these "others" share is a small desire for a good place to live and work. They also share ignorance as to the whys and wherefores of the lack of housing. They are not generally too passionate about the premature halt to council house building from 1969. Their concern is with the flat round the corner that was run down and empty, and is now done up and "full of Eastern Europeans". They may not hold much affection for the organic types who have converted the clapped out "multi-occupancy" terraced house, returning it to a single family home. Nor is it obvious how the process gentrification has shrunk the cheap and nasty rented sector.
The Government may have made the creation of wackily clad "rabbit hutches" for better off 20-somethings on every bit of rubbish land they can find the only profitable option for developers, but that is not the concern of the "others". Many in Rees-Mogg's 20-20 generation will have parental support to get into property speculation. The fact that "Key Workers" can't afford the wackily clad "rabbit hutches" for key workers, as was reported in April 2007, does not strike the "others" as a pressing concern either. (7) They are not concerned with houses that do not exist for them. What concerns them is the housing that is available, and for most of the poorest that means some sort of social housing.
Now I do not think that "inter-racial tension" is going to get significantly worse due to the lack of housing availability, because most people do not express their frustrations like that man in Glasgow. Even the stupid white boys in my area would not be that stupid. What worries me is zero social mobility in a para-cultural society.
If a Tory has-been like William Rees-Mogg can spot the problem, then surely a better class of people, those who don't think that keeping the poor quiet is part of maintaining some sort of status quo, can understand that lots of house building is a good idea.
It is a shame that most of us are either content with, or would be content if we had a three bedroom house with a garden near a nice school. But if there is one good thing about low horizons it is that they are not that hard to attain. I would love to live in an area with the possibility of social mobility, and am of the opinion that many more immigrants would help build a shared social dynamic. But even if all we want is a society of multi-cultural communities, (8) and not socially polarised ones, we had better ensure a lot more houses are built, and soon.
Kate Moorcock Abley 17.04.2007
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