A market resting on shaky foundations

Viewing homes as assets to be traded is a failure that preserves inequality, finds Tim Hall

February 20, 2014

The majority of Times Higher Education readers are members of a global elite of the richest 1 per cent on the planet. However, I doubt that many of you spend your weekends lighting Cuban cigars with £50 banknotes. Danny Dorling, increasingly staking a claim as the UK’s pre-eminent public geographer, explores why it is possible for us to be absolutely wealthy while feeling relatively deprived. The causes, outlined in his fiercely argued All that is Solid, are the dysfunctional hegemony that housing has assumed in the economic and social life of the nation, the inequalities it sustains and feeds off, and the damaging legacies of Thatcherism that laid its foundations of sand.

UK readers will be very familiar with the notion that the country is in the midst of a housing crisis. Along with the weather, it is really all we talk about. The narrative, typically, is one of housing shortage and spiralling prices. The stock answer is that we should simply build more, but this is one of the many myths Dorling demolishes. In doing so, his tone is anything but academic. His argument is polemic and wide-ranging, but, like all of his work, All that is Solid is thick with statistical and other evidence. If the UK’s housing market even approached some sort of efficiency, it would not be in crisis. The country has more than enough stock for everyone to enjoy a comfortable bed and a roof over their head. In 2011 in England and Wales, Dorling notes, 66 million bedrooms serviced a population of 55 million. Even in central London there are more bedrooms than people, many of them empty each night. At the same time, across the city hundreds are illegally housed in rented garden sheds.

The problem lies in the inequitable and inefficient ownership and use of Britain’s housing stock. Fundamentally, the meaning of housing has changed in the UK. It is no longer seen – by the government, institutions, property capitalists and individual owners – as a right, but primarily as an asset to be traded. The outcome is potential misery for the young, the old, the poor, the reasonably well-off and most people in between.

We see this as inevitable, and Dorling is rightly critical of our collective failure to imagine alternatives. But, as he demonstrates with reference to the radically different housing landscapes of continental Europe, it does not have to be this way. Rent controls, land tax and greater criminalisation of landlords who act illegally, along with redistributive fiscal and regional policies are measures that all exist elsewhere and work to create fairer housing and fairer societies. The relationship between the two is entirely symbiotic. Policy, Dorling argues, should start by trying to distribute people better within the existing stock and to see housing as a collective rather than individual asset.

In central London, there are more bedrooms than people, many of them empty each night as hundreds are housed in rented garden sheds

Depressingly, successive governments in the UK, shackled to the neoliberal impulse, have shown no political will to pursue such alternatives. Dorling sees the current coalition government as particularly culpable for its promotion of divisive and destructive policies. He is vitriolic in his criticism of the recently introduced “bedroom tax”, for example, which penalises social housing tenants with unused bedrooms. He considers it a “vile” levy that targets the wrong people in the wrong way and ignores the realities of social housing itself and the serious structural flaws that have come increasingly to characterise the wider housing market since the 1980s.

I doubt that Dorling has much time for the casino or the racetrack, but he knows their language and deploys it liberally. He talks of unbalanced markets and ill-informed buyers being routinely fleeced by knowledgeable housing “insiders”. This is painfully close to the racecourse lexicon of “mug punters” and “clever money”. Implicit in this is a recognition that the UK housing market has turned us all into professional gamblers.

I recently moved to a city in the South East of England whose attractions are somewhat undercut by a ludicrously unaffordable housing market sustained by little more than hot air and hope. Having sold my previous house, I am currently renting and contemplating buying in the area. To do so, though, requires me to throw hundreds of thousands of pounds of money I don’t have into what is in effect a volatile futures market. This is a market that promises dire consequences for those who get their fingers burned and who buy the wrong house, at the wrong price or in the wrong place. Do this and your future will bring, at best, years of negative equity and painful conversations with the kids about why they won’t be going to Spain this summer, and at worst payday loans, bankruptcy, insecure housing or homelessness.

Dorling is one of very few geographers actively shaping public discourse in the UK. He has previously made high-profile interventions on issues including global and national population change, health, inequality, poverty, politics and the relationships between them. His analysis and presentation have long been characterised by a clarity that is all too often absent from academic, or academically informed, writing. Back in the early 1990s when he first began to publish, there was a feeling in geography that he was somewhat out of step with the approaches fashionable at the time. Back then, too many of us spent too long crafting ever more elaborate, but ultimately disengaged, cultural theory, little of which endures. Geography’s failure to contribute to the big debates in ways that it could and should is a continuing concern for the discipline. Dorling’s belief in evidence, engagement and impact is helping to address that public lacuna.

In tone and thesis, this book is not dissimilar to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2009 study The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. No doubt the reaction to All that is Solid will be just as polarised, embraced on the Left while the details are nit-picked apart by critics on the Right, blind to its fundamental accuracy. All that is Solid is a powerful and important book for these times, albeit not one without flaws. It has an angry urgency that at times enhances the power of its arguments but elsewhere defuses them. It would have benefited from tighter, closer editing. There is a feeling of repetition in places, and a shorter, more focused book might have landed its blows more cleanly. Then again, perhaps it is appropriate that it sits, brick-like, in the hand.

Throughout, Dorling returns to the question of what will happen next. Is the current bubble, in London and the South East at least, about to burst? He sensibly hedges his bets, noting that the market’s systemic volatility is greater than we tend to recall, making confident predictions difficult. That this bubble has largely been inflated by policies encouraging the inequitable distribution of the housing stock, historically low interest rates and hype from the property profession, is clear from Dorling’s analysis. The feeling from reading All that is Solid is that it will not take very much for it to all come crashing down. That might mean that I can afford to buy a house in my hometown, but the price will be deeper impoverishment for millions. This is a form of national lunacy: the product of 30 years of growing inequality and the policies that have sustained it.

The author

“I was born in Oxford and raised in Cowley and then Risinghurst, to the south and east of the city centre (the north and west are the wealthier quarters). I do think where you grow up has a huge effect on who you later become,” observes Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder professor of geography at the University of Oxford.

The slowest in his class to learn to read, he adds that he was “lucky to go to a normal school where everyone who lived around me also went”.

Dorling left Oxford at 18 to study at Newcastle University, returning last year at the age of 46 to take up his current post.

He was not, he says, an unusual undergraduate. “But I was a much more unusual postgraduate student. I worked far too hard and finished my PhD within two years.

“My brother Ben was killed on the Oxford ring road in 1989. He was hit by a speeding car. He was in his last year at school.

“I threw myself into my PhD because I was angry about Ben dying so young. Most people of my age, at least those who now work in universities who I most mix with, remember when the Berlin Wall came down and the events before and shortly after that. I can’t remember any of it. I don’t think I watched the news or saw TV much that year.”

The best thing about where he lives with his wife Alison and three children, Dorling says, “is the 20mph sign on the road outside my window. I worry much less about my kids and other children living in a place with 20mph speed limits on most streets.

“But what is most vexing about Oxford is that it is the most expensive area of Britain to try to be housed in, outside London. It needs some more housing. Fortunately it is also very flat, so building a little more housing around the edge (off the floodplain) would not spoil many people’s views.”

In his leisure time, Dorling makes sandcastles on beaches. Asked if engaging with policymakers is worth the frustration, he says: “Yes – if you have the patience needed to build a good sandcastle that is made only to get washed away by the next tide, then you can deal with policy and politics.”

Karen Shook

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