March 25, 2013 5:52 pm

A pragmatic kind of obsession

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The strongest defenders of Britain as a bastion of home ownership are politicians

For decades, politicians have seen it as a one-way bet to pander to Britain’s supposed obsession with home ownership. George Osborne, the chancellor, is the latest to try to exploit this with his Help to Buy scheme. The nation’s relationship with property, however, may be a bit more complex than it seems.

It is true that an Englishman’s home (these days a woman’s too) has for centuries been depicted as his castle. Until 1867, owners of property and land were the only ones with the right to vote.

That fierce pride in property was warmly portrayed by Charles Dickens in Great Expectations, in which legal clerk John Wemmick lives with his father, the Aged P, in a miniature Gothic wooden mansion that Wemmick built in London’s Walworth, with its own drawbridge, flagpost and a cannon fired daily.

Yet most Victorians rented, rather than owned, their homes. Ownership grew slowly from about 10 per cent of households at the start of the 20th century, but it was only in the 1950s that it really took off, rising to 71 per cent in 2003 before dropping back to 65 per cent.

Nor is it the case that the UK has a higher share of home ownership than the rest of Europe. It is above Germany, where little more than half own their homes, but slightly below the EU average. Spain, Italy, Hungary, Ireland and Belgium all have higher rates.

Banx cartoon

Still, the issue has benefited politicians who exploited the trend. “It satisfies some deep desire in people’s hearts,” said Harold Macmillan, who in 1957 abolished rent controls, persuading millions they were better off as owners.

In 1965 a Labour government exempted main residences from capital gains tax. Margaret Thatcher introduced the “right to buy” for council house tenants in 1979, enabling people to buy their local authority home at a discount.

Scotland exemplifies the pragmatism with which many approach the issue. Many Scots viscerally disliked Mrs Thatcher, but they embraced the rise in home ownership that she encouraged. Home ownership north of the border jumped from 35 per cent to 56 per cent between 1979 and 1995.

That sounds like having your cake and eating it.

. . .

England’s boom

A little remarked feature of Britain’s jobs boom over the past year is that it has been an almost entirely English affair. It should really be called England’s jobs boom, because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have missed out.

Of the 590,000 extra people in work across the UK in the three months to January compared with a year ago, 580,000 were in England, a rise of 1.4 per cent, according to the Office for National Statistics. Employment in Wales was up by just 0.5 per cent and in Scotland 0.2 per cent, while Northern Ireland suffered a 1.6 per cent fall.

London was the main beneficiary, accounting for more than a third of the new jobs, an increase of 2.8 per cent in overall employment. But the capital was not the only part of England to gain. The West Midlands was up 2.6 per cent and Yorkshire and the Humber 2 per cent.

The stark gap between England and the other nations has been disguised because it is not reflected in unemployment. England’s jobless rate fell by 0.6 percentage points to 7.8 per cent of the workforce. Scotland’s fell by 1.1 points to 7.4 per cent, Wales’s by 0.5 points to 8.4 per cent, while Northern Ireland’s rose by two points to 8.5 per cent.

England’s jobs growth partly reflects a more rapidly expanding population. But there has also been a big fall in “economic inactivity”, that is, people who were previously not seeking work being tempted to look for it because more jobs have become available.

The jobs boom has come at the cost of a painful squeeze on wages, but is nonetheless remarkable. As John Philpott, of the Jobs Economist consultancy, points out, 2012 was the best year for employment growth since 2000, and the only time in four decades such an increase had occurred other than at a time of above-average expansion in output.

It seems a pity for any part of the UK to miss out.

. . .

Twitter slaves

Reporters on the Daily Telegraph are being told that not only must they be on Twitter, they are also required to tweet an average of once an hour. Are there not human rights laws against that?

brian.groom@ft.com

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