On a fine spring weekend I went for a long drive along the roads and lanes of southern England. The places I saw provided some insight into the way property works in Britain. The first stop was Savernake Forest, an ancient woodland in Wiltshire. It is the only major forest in the UK in private hands, having been in the same family for a thousand years.
It’s a beautiful place with many fantastic trees and fully open to the public. Even those mighty trees finally fall but the family still stands and it is their constancy that has preserved the forest as it is today. What could be wrong with that?
Next I stopped at Cirencester and Cirencester Park, estate of the Earl and Countess Bathurst. They too allow the public into the park, although access may be restricted from time to time, the Earl and Countess warn us from behind the highest yew hedge in Britain.
I drove further into deepest England, past endless cottages, mansions, retail outlet parks, terraces and semis, industrial estates, farmland and supermarkets. Finally I reached Harewood Park, owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, by the Duke, the Prince, Charles Windsor, heir to the throne.
I drove down the narrow lane into the estate, expecting to hear a shout of “Get off my land” – or “Get off my prince’s land” at any moment but the shout never came. I drove around a few of the buildings and filmed them. I saw no-one. I stopped to admire a large and beautiful house.
I do not have a house. I cannot afford one where I live. I have a professional salary, if at the lower end, but I live in London so in the current market I will never be able to afford a house in my local area. House prices have risen over 50% since 2008.
I am not attempting to just blame the aristocracy of course. The house before me was a recent addition to the Duke’s holdings - Charles Windsor bought the entire agricultural property portfolio of Prudential Insurance. Presumably Prudential were charging more for their insurance than they strictly had to and then had to put that surplus somewhere. So they ended up with all these buildings and land, and then the prince ended up with it.
We’re supposed to accept this because, as we are constantly taught from school upwards, we live in a meritocratic system. But in the context of land the absurdity of this idea becomes particularly apparent. A lot of people inherit their land. A lot of people get their property by acting entirely without conscience, by extracting everything they can from people with less than them. So what merit is being rewarded when a slum landlord gets his next property?
A truly worrying aspect of this problem is that as one of the richest countries in the world and a former colonial power, the property regime of Britain is held up as an example to others. Countries around the world have been persuaded to mimic our property regime, or that of the US or another European power, that this will even be their route out of poverty. Famously the economist Hernando de Soto stated explicitly that Western-style land titling unlocks wealth, but many post-colonial leaders certainly saw the advantages to themselves of that road long before he became lauded by global development elites.
While Britain’s property regime is held in high regard around the world, people around Britain are struggling to find somewhere to live. The housing crisis in the south east of England is particularly acute, with house price rises far outstripping inflation. The private rental market is now so lucrative that it has a destabilising effect on people’s lives: I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who’ve been asked to leave their rented accommodation because the property is to be sold or improved or the landlord has found some other way to benefit from increasing prices. Some of these problems could no doubt be dealt with by regulation of the rental sector as in other parts of Europe, but that won’t get to the root of the problem.
Land, a commodity that arose through no work of our own, and buildings, a collection of simple technologies that could be available to all, are not what prevent us from solving the housing crisis in Britain and they are not the cause of homelessness around the world. Rather it is fundamentally about distribution of land, income inequality and unequal access to cheap credit. The Duchy of Cornwall claimed it was doing everyone a favour by buying the Prudential’s land, but before the Duchy of Cornwall stepped in the Prudential had been planning to break up their landholdings and tenant farmers were preparing bids to buy the land they had farmed for years. Then the Prince on his white horse turned up and their chance was gone.
Our unequal land ownership facilitates, through both the rent and mortgage systems, an enormous transfer of wealth from ordinary people to richer people. It lowers the quality of life of the majority of people in Britain. For many of us between two and three days a week are spent earning the money for our accommodation. Think how many times over rent pays for the price of a house in the course of its life; think how many times the value of the house the banks get over the years. The cost of housing is not created by genuine scarcity but by a property and lending regime that favours those who already have plenty of property.
We pay such a high price because the Duchy, or Prudential, or a buy-to-let landlord can pay more than us. If or when I do buy, I’ll be competing with bankers on multi-million pound bonuses, or with the global rich who see London property as a safe haven for their money. The bankers think they’re worth their £200,000 salaries of course, because they make so much money for their companies. But are money and merit really the same thing? Should house prices be put out of my reach because banks are prepared to lend money to bankers and investors? Should people in London be paying 50% of their income in rent because they can’t afford to buy?All over the world people’s quality of life is damaged by their poor access to land and homes. It is troubling to think that the promised land held out to poorer countries is the attainment of the situation Britain now finds itself in.
As I came back into London at the end of my trip I drove past acres of Southwark council estates. Hardly the height of luxury and built with government loans, you’d think these flats would be within the price range of someone on a median salary living in London. But they aren’t.
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” But what does this right to housing amount to in Britain? It means you have a right to struggle for decent housing in one of the richest countries in the world.
Building government housing is one partial solution to the problem of spiralling house and rental costs. It provides competition for ruthless landlords at the lower end of the market and undoubtedly its erosion has contributed to Britain’s current crisis. Yet there was always a problem with council housing in Britain. Few residents loved it enough to defend it when a succession of right wing governments sought to undermine it. They had not felt in control of where they lived, they had rarely felt that it was genuinely theirs, and the lack of maintenance on many estates reminded people constantly what a low priority they were for those in power, that they would have to beg for any improvements to their housing situation.
So British people are confronted constantly with these choices: rent privately and lose all life stability; rent from the government and lose control of your environment; or buy property and work more hours than your grandparents for thirty years to pay it off.
In the end of course even among those three limited options many people never get much of a choice. Their position in relation to property later in life will be determined in large part by the position they are born into. So it is that many people in one of the richest countries in the world do not have a home they control.
While regulating property rights is seen by some as an unwarranted intervention by the state, the glimpse of British property history I caught while driving round the country reminds us that in fact property rights themselves are an intervention by the state. We need to question whether this historically unequal property regime is really conducive to our quality of life, both in Britain and in the countries around the world that have adopted similar regimes. It is tragic to think of much poorer countries straining to attain the rule of law within property regimes taken from richer countries, while Britain now sees people living in sheds in back gardens.
Since our housing crises are not natural, but created by our property and credit regimes, they can be solved. Against precarious living situations we could propose a right to a home that we control. Individual ownership is not the only way of having control of our living space: it is possible to imagine forms of public housing that people could call home, though we must also recognise that professional state management of housing has historically denied people control of their living space. Whether we own our home individually or collectively, autonomously or through some branch of government, there are a few things we can identify as being essential components of the right to a home: we must have the peace of mind that comes from knowing we can stay in our home if we need to, as well as having freedom of movement; we must be able to make changes to our living environment if we need to; and we must know that we need not sacrifice all else for the sake of a home. The right to a home rather than the mere right to access housing is about quality of life. It is a battle that must be fought in every part of the world, from China to Switzerland, and the need to fight it in London has never been as pressing since the Second World War.
Wherever we are we must say what we want clearly and boldly. Finland’s constitution states “The public authorities shall promote the right of everyone to housing and the opportunity to arrange their own housing.” It’s good to see it phrased in terms of active promotion, yet such commitments could be phrased more strongly still. We also, of course, need to go beyond the words: the UN itself claims that the right to housing involves a right to affordability, and that it too demands positive action from governments, yet I see no way to enforce this in London. Rather, the word ‘affordable’ has a bitter taste to it here, attached as it is to the lower quality parts of new developments which are still out of most people’s price range.
There are many ways in which a strong right to a home might be implemented. It would proceed through trial and error and would no doubt take different forms around the world. Governments could fund collectively controlled rather than state-managed housing. In Britain increasing renters rights against their landlords would certainly be part of the equation. Another might be a land value tax for those who own more than a certain amount of land. If your ancestor was in the right place at the Battle of Hastings, should you own Savernake Forest? Or more pertinently to my housing situation, should the Duke of Westminster own half of central London because he was born into a certain family? And should credit for homes be made available to those who already own property while those without homes are priced out? Breaking up - and preventing the establishment of - large estates is politically difficult, but perhaps some taxation-induced redistribution would be the price of us all having a home of our own, on a piece of soil we collectively or individually control.
However we implement our rights, it would be a step forward if we could first decide that the situation we are in is not good enough, that we have the right to demand more, whether in Britain or Colombia or Malawi. We should collectively agree on, then induce governments to act on, this simple idea: we all have a right to live in a home that we control.