Strategic approach to housing
Paul Muir
May 25, 2022

Homes for health not properties for wealth

A few news items recently have brought me back to thinking about the function homes, or more precisely properties in general, play in our society and the impact of that function on the everyday lives of the signifiant numbers of the population.

The first news item was the seizure of the properties of Russian oligarchs in London as part of the sanctions against the current Russian leadership - the subsequent squatting of one of those properties should not be missed either. 

Another news item was the Welsh Government’s proposed change in Council Tax meaning that second home owners could be paying significant increases their council tax in an effort to reduce the impact on local communities of second home ownership.  A topic which surfaced again in a recent edition of ‘Any Questions’ on Radio 4 broadcast from North Norfolk an area with a significant number of second homes.  

Lastly I noticed, by chance, that at the end of February it was ‘National Empty Homes Week’ and I was reminded of the scale of the issue by the figures for the number of empty properties in England, currently running over 235,000 empty for longer than 6 months and over 600,000 vacant at any given time in England. 

There is clearly a risk of conflating the super rich owners of property in London with those who have second homes they sometimes let out on Airbnb or with people who have inherited a home they cannot afford to bring back into use as a home.  

These slightly disparate stories raise the question for me about the function of homes and properties in our housing market and I am left concluding that for many individuals the property, for some the properties, they own is far more about accruing wealth than about being a home. 

In the UK housing market, as in some others, property has at least two functions; firstly, and one might argue the only valid function in a humane society, property is about homes for people to live and thrive in.  

The evidence of the impact of insecure or inadequate housing on people’s health and well being is well documented - just in case you have missed this discussion affordable, secure and good quality housing is good for your health.

The second function of property in the UK is as a financial product, something to create wealth with out actually producing anything new, what some might term ‘rentier capitalism’ .  The impact of this function has many manifestations other than the constant obsession with the rising, or falling, value of ones own home. 

For example, it can make financial sense to buy a property and leave it empty for a considerable periods of time and simply wait to resell it when the property prices have risen sufficiently.  The income to be made from tenants in the mean time is not sufficient to warrant the extra hassle and risk I presume. 

It can make financial sense for landlords in some parts of the country to evict long term tenants and to rent the property out as holiday lets.  

Before I am caught out as a hypocritical middle class lefty I admit I use holiday lets and in the past I have used airbnb lets in London.  In my defence once I had stayed at a couple of London lets that had clearly been council stock and were not currently someones home but solely used for short lets I stopped using them.

I would argue that these two functions, homes to live in and financial or investment product,  are unreconcilable  and until we address this dissonance we will not come close to resolving the current, and now long standing, housing crisis in the UK.   Which is not to suggest that this dissonance is the only barrier to resolving the housing crisis (lamentable levels of social housing investment are as big an issue) it is however,  in my opinion, a major factor.

What can we do?  

Lobby both locally and nationally for the the example set by the Welsh Government and by a number of Local Authorities in England to become standard policy in areas of high second home ownership.

Lobby for more effective use of the current grants etc to bring empty homes back into use.

Make personal choices about our own use of the holiday let’s that we use so that we don’t inadvertently make the situation worse.