The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 23rd, 2011

Bolt the door, granny, before they grab your spare room

What a drag it is getting old, as the Rolling Stones sang long ago. Getting old in Britain today means fear for most people — fear of terrible treatment in hospitals and care homes, fear of rising bills, fear of having pensions driven down by high charges and fear of seeing any savings eroded by inflation and negligible interest rates. Old people are openly described as bed-blockers, a growing public nuisance.

Now, as of last Wednesday, the elderly are being described as “bedroom-blockers” in their own homes. They are “house-hoarders”, practically spivs.

These nasty ideas were put forward last week by an obscure leftie charity called the Intergenerational Foundation, which launched a report in the House of Commons, sponsored by Tessa Jowell. It argued that people in their sixties whose children have left home are taking up too much room: their children’s empty bedrooms (and their own) ought to be freed up for young families. These sad old bedroom-blockers should be “nudged” or taxed into “downsizing” to something much smaller and more suitable to their advanced years.

Incredible though it sounds, people over 60 now stand directly accused of wasting space in the houses they own. Wasting space. It doesn’t seem much of a leap of the fearful imagination from wasting space to being a waste of space. The message is getting clearer: as King Lear said bitterly, age is unnecessary. His daughters wanted to make him downsize, too. They bullied him to cut back his retinue of knights and servants to almost nothing. “What need one?” says the heartless Regan. “O, reason not the need!” cries out Lear.

I was reminded of Regan by Jowell last week, but in fact she has been misrepresented in the media. She did not fully endorse the report; nor does she think pressure should be put on old people to leave their homes, although she does welcome debate about housing. All the same, the viperish spirit of Regan and Goneril is evident in the Intergenerational Foundation. Who is it — or anyone — to tell homeowners what they “need” and to suggest that by “clinging” to their homes they are contributing selfishly to the housing crisis and causing profound social problems?

The Intergenerational Foundation exists supposedly to “promote fairness between generations” but it looks to me as though it is, willy-nilly, promoting resentment between the generations in an egalitarian and punishing spirit. One can almost hear the rattle of far-off tumbrils. I was reminded, too, of Omar Sharif in the film of Dr Zhivago, coming back to his huge house after the Russian revolution to find it had been filled with strangers, by government order: he was then forced by an official to pretend that he was delighted. Several commentators have suggested that this country is now in a pre-revolutionary mood, given the anger and fear so widely felt about the likelihood of a double-dip recession. Certainly the generation wars seem to be gathering force.

Perhaps even the most modest of elderly homeowners will find they are now enemies of the peopleEveryone agrees it is frighteningly difficult for young people to find somewhere affordable to live. Rents have rocketed and buying a property is becoming impossible for most young people. Bedroom-blockers are all too aware of it — these young people are hgh helpful for low thyroid their sons and daughters and grandchildren. But it is not the fault of the over–60s. It is just as hateful to blame older people for the housing crisis as it is to blame them for getting old. They are innocent: they didn’t wish for it either. They did not cause the property crisis and the shocking rise in house rental prices. It was caused by stupid and irresponsible government policies over many decades. Now it seems that baby boomers are to be monstered and punished for crimes they did not commit.

Of the many explanations for the housing crisis, the most obvious is the criminal failure of many succeeding governments to build houses, particularly affordable family houses and flats. Shortage breeds high prices. Less often mentioned is the disgraceful failure of the Labour government (and earlier governments) to control immigration, so that several million more people need housing than in 1997.

Another explanation is the willingness over many years of local authorities to give young people subsidised single-person accommodation, particularly single mothers, thus hugely inflating demand. Yet another has been the general failure to sell valuable social housing in prime locations to create much more social housing elsewhere. All this — along with other bad policies and incompetent government — has put extreme pressure on ordinary young families with jobs and children. The answer, however, is not to be mean to granny and grandpa.

An Englishman’s home … or rather, since clichés must move with the times, a British person’s home has traditionally been his or her castle: when the drawbridge is up, the occupants are supposedly free from the attentions of nosy parkers and interventionists. But it hasn’t been so for years. Few of us perhaps know that since 2003 there has been a government “bedroom standard”. Under its calculations a dwelling is deemed officially underoccupied if it has at least two bedrooms more than it “requires”. This would mean there are about 18m “surplus” bedrooms here at the moment.

How the blood pressure rises. It may be necessary to make such measurements in public or subsidised housing, but to suggest that arbitrary notions of “requirement” and “surplus” should be applied by anyone — least of all government — to privately owned houses and flats strikes me as apparatchik speak of the more aggressively socialist sort.

Those surplus rooms may be used for all kinds of good purposes, such as havens for friends and family. Even if they are used for bad purposes — meetings of hellfire clubs or groups devoted to sticking pins into Gordon Brown — it is an outrage for the government or any freedom-loving analyst to suggest it is anyone else’s business why anyone wants “surplus” rooms or what they use them for.

Nor is it any of their business what prudent financial reasons older people may have for “clinging” on to their family homes, such as hedging against an uncertain future. Government and sensible theorists should turn their attention instead to providing lots of new housing and thus bringing prices down fast at the same time.

Hard times make for hard feelings. Perhaps the noise of the tumbrils really is getting louder and even the most modest of elderly homeowners will find they are enemies of the people. What a drag it is growing old.