On Anti-Social Housing

Several weeks ago a block of flats in Abbey Wood, a modest part of south east London, went up for sale. The development is convenient for the new Crossrail scheme, which would make commuting easy into Canary Wharf, the City or the West End.

Oh, and it is advertised as a “fully private block with no social housing” which means, to put it less politely, that occupiers are unlikely to have to rub shoulders much with the local plebs.

Neither you nor I can buy the flats, though, not without taking a flight to Hong Kong and the Mandarin Hotel there, which is where they are being marketed. They are not for Londoners; they are for rich overseas, probably Chinese, investors, who will use the scheme as a way of getting their money out of their slowing economy and into a bolt-hole in London.

The flats will be rented out, for an extortionate sum, to those same Londoners who are unable to buy them, and those rents will be yet another barrier to their getting their own feet on the housing ladder.

This is a proper free market in action. Or the inevitable result of globalisation. Or utter madness. I favour the last. We learn that London will grow to a city of ten million in due course, because of an influx of people from overseas, which will mean an even greater housing shortage, pushing prices even higher and ensuring even more of the local population will be priced out of the market. Already about a third of new build in the capital is for “investment”.

Meanwhile the pressure on services like schools, health and transport will increase.

People I speak to in the property world tell me that those overseas investors are now looking outside London, and outside residential property, for those bolt-holes to stash their wealth. We face the prospect of the sort of housing chaos that has afflicted London and the south east spreading to any other part of the country that is remotely habitable.

Anyone sane can see this cannot go on. The Tories seem unconcerned – indeed, Boris Johnson seems to regard the amount of foreign cash, much of it of dubious provenance, flooding to the capital as a source of pride. Labour and the LibDems’ main contribution to the debate is to fine people who already happen to live in houses above a certain size or which have risen in value because of the crazy London housing spiral. The money will not go to new social housing, but to the NHS, all part of the unending and boring bickering between the parties ahead of the election on the subject.

Other nations seem rather good at keeping their hands on essential assets and infrastructure – the French, for example. We sell off everything, railways, utilities, airports, whatever, to any old  bunch of rich, greedy foreigners with no commitment to them or their customers and then wonder why those essential services don’t work that well.

I wonder how many votes there are in a policy of London for the Londoners, and everyone else gets to pay a whopping surcharge for the privilege of buying here?


On Being Posh, And James Blunt

I am posh. You would probably guess that, to meet me. But not as posh as I may seem. I went to a reasonable public school, not one of the household names. One grandfather was a bookie, the other an electrician. My parents owe their arrival in the middle classes in the 1960s entirely to the grammar school they both attended.

I therefore think I have a dog in the fight between James Blunt, the singer, and the Labour MP Chris Bryant, who accused him and his well-educated ilk of dominating the worlds of music and entertainment and shutting out the less privileged.

Posh people start off with obvious advantages. I am not as posh as Blunt, who went to Harrow and then Sandhurst. But both of us emerged from our respective private schools with a better education, on average, than would have been available at the local comprehensive. This is why our respective parents chose to spend their money sending us there.

This, regrettably, is why people from independent schools are disproportionately represented in the law, the media or the other professions. This is less so in the City, which these days is a genuine meritocracy based on naked greed, by the way.

I would imagine Blunt’s posh background will have been a definite disadvantage when making his way in the music business. This is probably why he seems to attract a degree of sheer hatred and bile out of all proportion to his success, though I have never heard his music so could not say if it deserves such an extreme reaction.

He is also rather good at hitting back, in a witty and articulate way, at his critics. He certainly put the idiotic Bryant back in his box. I doubt many of Blunt’s fans much care where he went to school, either.

Anti-posh prejudice is about the last form of bigotry allowed to speak its name. Most other prejudices could land you in jail, and a good thing to. I have come across my share of it, though given my advantages it is probably not my place to complain.

And it is an oddity of our surviving class system that, however posh you may be, you will occasionally bump into someone posher, who may or may not decide to make this clear to you. Using one of the many social signifiers the upper middle classes use to establish their position. See the novels of Julian Fellowes, a fully paid up member of that club, for examples of this.

Mind you, public schools don’t always make it easy for us. My summer uniform involved a bright red jacket with blue piping and a straw boater, a get-up visible to the local toughs from a quarter of a mile away or more. They might as well have painted targets on our backs.

On “Vikings”

We have been watching, en famille, the historical series “Vikings”. This is one of those high budget imported TV packages with superb production values, a sensible script and good acting – many of the cast are Scandinavians and look the part. Not one looks like Brad Pitt. High quality popcorn entertainment, then.

The shots of the longships slipping through the fjords are breathtaking, even if those ships look a bit on the small side to me and there are no mountains in Denmark, where it is allegedly set. (Most of the filming was done in Ireland.)

The first series cost $40 million, reportedly, and the third starts in the spring. Think “Game of Thrones” without quite so many different exotic locations. Or any dragons.

It is also horribly violent, and follows the development of a cast of characters who have absolutely nothing in common with us, in terms of morality, what is deemed acceptable behaviour, and social norms. They rape and pillage, they torture, they slaughter the innocent, because that’s what the Vikings did, wasn’t it?

The series is compulsive, if that is your kind of thing. You really shouldn’t like these people, but perversely, you do. You root for them as they pillage, rather than the defending troops of the English kings. Curious, that suspension of normal moral feelings.

Within two centuries the Vikings had settled here and integrated to the point that the kingdom that fell to the barbarous Normans, themselves the descendants of Viking raiders, was an amalgam of English and Nordic culture. The kings could be drawn from either. Some believe it was a more decent, democratic society than the feudalism imposed by those Normans.

On Meanness, And The Minimum Wage

There is something uniquely shabby about being caught paying your poorest employees even less than the £6.50 an hour pittance they are entitled to as a bare minimum, if aged above 21, by law. The Department for Business has named and shamed 37 companies who did just this.

Those two anyone has ever heard of, the retailer H&M and services station operator Welcome Break, blamed simple errors or IT problems. You might ask yourself whether IT or other errors have ever resulted in staff being overpaid, or if, should this have happened, the exact amount was not docked from the next pay packet.

Interestingly, if you scan the list of the other 35, almost all apparently small businesses, nine of them are identifiable as hairdressers or, alternatively, hair and beauty salons. These are attractive first jobs for school leavers, because of their association with glamour and beauty. They are also notoriously badly paid and require long working hours.

Something to bear in mind when you next weigh up the tip after a manicure or short back and sides.

The NHS, And Population Density

We read that such is the crisis in the NHS that a dozen or so large hospitals have put themselves into special measures, declaring that because of the huge numbers of people piling up at their A&E departments, routine operations are being suspended.

There is one odd fact that seems to have been missed. The hospitals affected are in some of the more prosperous parts of the country. Cheltenham. Guildford, one I know rather too well. Cambridge. Croydon. Brighton. Other bits of Surrey.

These are not sink hospitals in desperately poor parts of the inner cities overwhelmed by an avalanche of migrants, as the stereotype might have it. They are in some of the parts of the country, I would suggest, most affected by the housebuilding boom that kicked off in 1997 and has continued, financial crisis notwithstanding, in such areas ever since.

There are other factors, the changes in the hours of GPs that make it difficult to find anyone at weekends, untrained staff, as my own paper has reported, on the 111 helpline who automatically send callers to A&E rather than risk a tragedy. If your child is running a raging fever, there is no one available at your local health centre, and the 111 staff are unable to advise, what else do you do?

I live in one of the more prosperous parts of the capital. Walk around my local area, and you notice that large chunks of the housing stock, mainly flats, have been built in the last 15 years. Offices in the town centre have been converted to six storey blocks, any light industrial space on the market, however unattractively sited by a main road or a railway, is replaced by flats.

My local football ground is now a vast mini-village, conveniently located for fine views of the electricity pylons and the scrapyard.

The reason for this is that in the boom years of the 1990s and Noughties, it was almost impossible to lose money buying land in such areas, turning it into flats and, in many cases, passing it on to buy-to-let landlords who, funded by freely available mortgages, let it out to those who could not afford to buy.

At the end of my road, an old Victorian house, somewhat run down, came up for sale. It was bulldozed, and turned into nine flats. A population density of four or five became, potentially, nine couples.

Extend that across the borough. The council loves it – one rateable property becomes nine. Planning permission is not a problem.

Over the two decades I have lived there, the population density has rocketed. Each year there are more queuing at the local bus stop, more crowding onto the same number of trains. And it is more and more difficult to get through to the same surgery we have used all the while for an appointment.

I have been doing some research. The population of my borough, according to the Office for National Statistics, a scrupulously reliable source, was 191,100 in 2001. By that time the building boom was well under way.

In 2012 it was 202,200. The ONS estimates it in 2014 at 215,000. That’s a 12.5 per cent increase, nine people where 13 years before there were eight. That may not sound much, but the arrivals are likely to be young, mobile and placing more pressure on transport. And, on producing children, more pressure on the health services.

Meanwhile those already living there are getting older. Ditto, more pressure on health.

By 2020 the ONS forecasts the population of my borough will be 239,600. A 25 per cent increase in less than two decades. Greater London Authority estimates are lower, for some reason, but are still talking about a 12 per cent increase. These numbers are unsupportable, unless you add to services. Which isn’t going to happen, is it?

On The NHS

A cancer surgeon has become the latest healthcare professional to discover that telling what you see as the truth about the NHS is not a clever career move, no matter how much protection is promised to whistleblowers.

An official inquiry actually concluded that an obsession with secrecy was one of the problems within the NHS and said those professionals should be allowed to speak out. Those that have have almost all regretted it.

Let me tell you a story from a few years back, though I doubt it has changed greatly since. This is true. I saw it. I was sitting in a hospital corridor waiting to see the specialist. There was a two hour delay between the time of my appointment and when he actually saw me.

(Why? Because the time wasted by such delays is of no concern to the NHS or its staff. This is because few people using the NHS have any choice. See my posts elsewhere on monopolies, public sector or elsewhere. Monopolies always exploit their position.)

An elderly orderly was sitting on a bench near me. A nurse came out of one of the doors off the corridor and asked him to replace the toilet paper in the ladies loo.

The man sat there unmoving. About 15 minutes later the same nurse reappeared and repeated the request. The man sat there unmoving. Perhaps ten minutes later the same nurse repeated the request again. The man lurched slowly to hit feet and shuffled off to do what he had been told to do 25 minutes before.

He was plainly poorly paid, utterly unmotivated by the job and, as a member of a public sector union, unsackable. It is inconceivable that such a vignette cold be played out in any private sector organisation, such as the one where I work. It just wouldn’t happen.

What was so disturbing was the reaction of the nurse. It was clear that his behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing to remark about. I am not saying all NHS employees are equally lazy. But remember this next time you are told about the shortage of “resources” the NHS is suffering from.

On Rationing

I am reading Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat. It is a respectable enough ghost story, if a little slim. It is set, though, in 1952, and provides a vivid impression of just how ghastly life was then.

Everything was rationed, indeed, some rationing was actually introduced after the war ended, and it continued thereafter for some goods. My mother recalls stuffing herself with chocolate the day rationing on that ended, which would have been in 1953. All food rationing ended the next year.

Even coal was rationed, though the UK had plenty of the stuff then, and enough hands to dig it out. In Dunsmore’s book, everyone is permanently cold. The food is awful, while shopkeepers reserved the best for their friends and favourites.

The 1945 Labour government had been voted out of office the year before, but its legacy remained. Coal was rationed because the state could, not necessarily because it needed to. The state knew best, and the age of dissent was years off. It was the closest thing we have ever had in peacetime to a controlled economy, Soviet style.

Yet in 1957, the year I was born, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was able to claim that Britons “have never had it so good”. He was actually urging pay restraint and warning about the danger of inflation, something generally forgotten.

A politician telling us everything is going well, when it transparently isn’t, and urging us not to ask for more? Some contemporary resonance there.