My daughter is currently living in rented accommodation in the London borough of Wandsworth.
The rent is, by London standards, modest. The flat, while not in a particularly salubrious area, is comfortable and well insulated. To my surprise, Wandsworth is one of the top 10 London boroughs in terms of housing stock.
Altogether London has 32 boroughs, plus the City of London which is technically not a borough. The top 10 London boroughs, amazingly, boast an aggregate net value that outstrips the entire property value of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.
This is gleaned from the latest Valuing Britain analysis by Savills, the property firm. It's hard to know whether to be pleased or disturbed by much of the information in this fascinating report. The worth of housing stock in the UK is now valued at over £5 trillion. Just a decade ago it was less that £3 trillion. Over £1 trillion of this value is locked into housing in London, which dominates the UK property market to an almost grotesque extent.
In London property wealth –much of it extreme wealth – is concentrated in the hands of a very small minority of people. If I walk eastwards along the south bank from where my daughter is staying, I arrive before too long at a site where three new blocks of executive flats are being completed. The two- bedroom flats are selling for around £3 million; the three-bedroom ones for £5m.
Of course London is a genuinely cosmopolitan city – perhaps the most international city of all – and it deals with a constant influx of very wealthy people, as well as many very poor people. There is a growing and alarming disconnect between London and the rest of the UK, as well as a yawning divide within London.
It's easy to be appalled by the disparities in our housing market. More and more property is beyond the reach of first-time buyers, which means we now have a young generation most of whom may never own their homes. This will be difficult and painful for them, but if there is an overall trend towards renting rather than owning that might be no bad thing. It is the prevalent model across much of Europe, and renting makes for more labour mobility and more social flexibility. In writing that I don't underestimate the pain that is bound to be suffered by a transitional generation – or generations – who may well never enjoy the security and stability many British people have, for generations, associated with home ownership.
The Tory party has enthusiastically encouraged this belief. It celebrates the value (in more ways than one) of a "property-owning democracy," a phrase first used by a Scottish Tory MP, Noel Skelton. Winston Churchill, no less, opined: "Our civilisation is built on private property." Margaret Thatcher enthusiastically sold a lot of council housing stock to first-time buyers. On the other hand the French thinker Pierre Joseph Proudhon declared starkly: "Property is theft." Take your pick. (And your shovel too, if you are a house builder.)
To be fair to the current Government, it is trying to ease more young people onto the property ladder through various (rather complicated) schemes. But this is really just tinkering. The basic problem is that too much very valuable property is owned by a small minority of citizens. This is the root cause of much of the division that scars our society.
It's a problem right across Britain. Many acute disparities exist here in Scotland. And here we have a particular problem with the excessive price of land, which is owned by far too few people and too few agencies.
I hope that when the SNP eventually presents its specific manifesto for an independent Scotland there will be a lot of detail on these tricky questions of land ownership, land use and property value. This is an area of policy that is, potentially, socially transformative. It is not debated and discussed anything like enough.
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