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Why Are We So Obsessed With Ownership?

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Thousands of people rate trouble-free neighbourhoods and affordability above possessing the roof over their head. Nicholas Roe reports

Everyone wants to own the roof over their head - and everything possible should be done to help them achieve that. This peculiarly British assumption has been at the heart of policies pursued by successive governments for at least 25 years. But it is based on a fundamental misconception - and thousands of people are suffering as a result. Conclusion: the present government should rethink its current housing programmes and adopt a more balanced approach.

Benita Bray and children

Benita Bray: suffering from appalling home-ownership problems

This is the message contained in a challenging report issued this week by the housing charity Shelter. For many people, the study claims, the issue of who actually owns the bricks and mortar is far less important than other, more pressing concerns - such as whether neighbourhoods are safe and pleasant places to live in, and whether the home is affordable anyway.

Based on a poll of more than 2,000 people, the report questions the notion that many see as almost defining modern Britishness. More than 70 per cent of us own our homes, compared to 58 per cent in 1981. By contrast, in France, 62 per cent of households are owner-occupied; in the Netherlands, it is 53 per cent; and in Germany, a mere 46 per cent.

True, across the whole of Europe, the average is much nearer the British mark, but policies in this country are designed to push the number of homeowners far higher, and this is the process that worries Shelter.

Under government plans, a further one million people will be helped on to the property ladder within the next five years, through initiatives such as HomeBuy, Open market HomeBuy, New Build HomeBuy, and the First Time Buyers' Initiative.

Yet Shelter's 45-page report, Home Truths, points out that when asked to list in order of importance the issues that really matter in a home, more than 70 per cent of people chose "feeling safe in your neighbourhood" as the prime concern. Next came "affordability". And coming in third, at just 39 per cent, was "ownership".

In focus-group discussions, the less well-off said that they were worried simply about the day-to-day costs of owning their own homes. "We question whether home ownership is what people really want," concludes Shelter's director, Adam Sampson. "Our research shows that many people are very happy to rent. The clear conclusion is that they would prefer public money to be spent on tackling poor housing conditions, improving neighbourhoods, and building more affordable social housing, rather than helping people to become owner-occupiers.

"The policy drive towards home ownership risks marginalising even further those who rent. And it will be those who have struggled and stretched most to get on to the home-ownership ladder who are most likely to suffer should there be a drop in house prices or a rise in interest rates."

So has the Government got its balance wrong? Some argue that most people want security, affordability and ownership and that these issues needn't be separated. Shelter's point, however, is that the official drive to get everyone a mortgage needs a cooler look, without the basic presumption that ownership is the only desirable way forward - otherwise policy can end up seriously skewed: "Home ownership is not the answer for all," insists campaigns director Ben Jackson. "That's all we are saying."

Certainly, the experiences of Alex Ward and Benita Bray bear this out (see below). They show that there are good reasons why some people prefer renting, and others regret ever taking on a mortgage. Benita's case is a heartrending example of how badly things can go wrong if you venture down the ownership road.

Alex Ward

Alex Ward: perfectly happy being a tenant

On the other hand, some see privately rented accommodation as expensive and risky, and the number of rented homes available in the social sector - owned by councils or housing associations - has plummeted from seven million to three million in the past 25 years, with many are in poor condition.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister insists that it has done a lot to improve social-sector rented accommodation since 1997, when 2.1 million houses were deemed to be below "decent" standards. Today, that figure has been cut by about half.

That still leaves a large number of rotten council homes. Nonetheless, a spokesman for John Prescott's office commented: "The Survey of English Housing - involving 20,000 people in social and private sectors - shows that about 90 per cent of people would say that home ownership is their ultimate aim. To own is one of the more important things in life."

Clearly, there is no simple solution. But it does no harm to question the wisdom of putting so many eggs into the ownership basket. That, at least, Shelter has now done.martin pope

Case studies

The council tenant

Alex Ward, a 39-year-old charity worker, lives with his wife and two teenage sons in a three-bedroom council house in Clapham, south London. He's perfectly happy being a tenant, despite paying "dead money" rent of £94.32p a week, plus council tax.

"Owning a house is an investment but there are always risks of losing your job," he says. "My wife and I know we're in a property we could always afford even on one salary. We couldn't afford to buy in this area as it's so central - it's on the Tube and there are good bus routes. We did at one stage look into buying through Right to Buy but the mortgage would have been three times the rent."

Unlike home-owners, Alex knows that his rented house isn't an investment in itself, but he makes up for that by paying into pension policies. "We've been able to do things we would not have been able to afford if the money had just been ploughed into the property - holidays, helping the children's interests."

He admits that there can be delays getting the council to carry out repairs, but says that this is better than taking a chance of Yellow Pages cowboys, which can be the home-owner's only option: "The work will be carried out here, and to a certain level."

On the less tangible issue of gaining comfort from "owning" bricks and mortar, he's less sure that tenancies hold the trump card. "I would be lying if I said it didn't bother me at all. It would be nice to own the property. But it would have to be on the same amount as we can afford in rent. And as a secure tenant you feel that the property is yours anyway." Private tenancies, on the other hand, he views as impermanent and expensive.

The home owner

Benita Bray, 32, is currently suffering from appalling home-ownership problems that all too easily set in when mortgage troubles arise. Since her marriage split up in January, she has remained in the three-bedroom family home in Spalding, Lincolnshire with two sons, aged five years, and 15 weeks.

As an unemployed joint mortgagee with a £23,000 loan plus a mortgage of £118,000 secured against the house, Benita has fallen into repayment arrears and her home has been made the subject of a repossession order, which is due to take effect later this month. She says: "Owning your own house, I don't know how to put it… it's like a family thing. You have your own home. It's settled. You're secure."

Now, her views are changing. She has been told by South Holland District Council to look for private rented accommodation, and at this point the problems inherent in the rented market have become clear. Benita says that social services will pay her rent, but she has been told to try and find two-bedroom accommodation because it's cheaper, though ideally she would like a room each for the two boys.

There's also the more basic problem of finding someone prepared to rent property to a mother with two young children. "In the local paper you see houses to rent but it's 'No DSS and no children'. I'm on income support."

Benita is worried by the predicament she faces. "I still don't know where we're going to live," she says. "I do regret buying. You see these people in council houses and they haven't got a care in the world." She has been told that she faces a wait of 18 months before her own local authority may be able to offer her a home of her own.

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  • 302 Brexit, House prices and Summer 2020

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      • down 5% +
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      • up 5%

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