1. Governance
October 1, 2015

Simon Jenkins is wrong about everything: some angry notes on the housing crisis

By Jonn Elledge

There’s an informal rule in place around these parts: we don’t publish blogs about blogs. Any article that requires someone to have read another article before going in risks being so navel gazing that you’ll lose the reader before they even begin.

But I make the rules around here, and sometimes an article is so crying out for rebuttal that you just have to do it, if only to make the voices in your head telling you to do it shut up for a few seconds oh my god just leave me in peace I’m literally doing it right now.

What’s more, while you may not have read the latest Guardian gurgle from Sir Simon Jenkins, if you’ve bothered to read this far, you probably have a reasonably good handle on his views. The countryside is in danger. The green belt is all that stands between us and a Britain that looks like New Jersey. And the housing crisis is a myth: the problem is not a shortage of housing, it’s just young people today all selfishly wants to live in expensive parts of the country.

I’m not going to rebut every point Jenkins makes – partly because, despite my snarky headline, I don’t actually disagree with all of them; mostly because there are 17 of the bloody things, all numbered, and to explain what I was arguing with I’d have to quote the entire article and everyone would get bored and stop reading anyway. So instead, here are three general points.

1) Simon Jenkins’ solution won’t solve anything

Jenkins is a bit sneery about the idea we need to build houses at all – he seems to think this would only benefit the house building industry, and not the half a million extra people added to Britain’s population every year, which is a bit odd.

But this is lucky, really, because his preferred policies would stop us from building any. He’s against building on the green belt. He’s against building skyscrapers. He’s against social housing.

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What he seems to want is for the house building industry to restrict itself to building on existing brownfield land, which is largely what happens now, and which clearly hasn’t worked. Oh, but he also seems to want height restrictions, so if Jenkins got his way, new home numbers might actually fall.

He’s also very keen on people living in spare rooms, and on adding extra stories to existing homes. What exactly we would do to persuade Britain’s homeowners to rent out their back bedroom and stick an extra floor on their suburban semi is not exactly clear.

2) Simon Jenkins is bad for the economy

Jenkins points out, correctly, that you still can get affordable housing in other parts of the country. The people who complain about the cost of housing in places like London should therefore stop whining.

Fair enough. But the reason housing in London (and Oxford, and Cambridge, and…) is so expensive is because that’s where so many of the jobs are – especially, the ones with the highest salaries.

And that’s because these are Britain’s most productive cities. It’s not that Londoners are more productive by nature (I am one, and I’m basically a waste of oxygen). It’s that there is something about the city – the aggregation of people, and companies, and infrastructure, and ideas – that means that when people move here they magically become more productive.

But that effect works in reverse, too. When people move from London to Salford, as Jenkins implies they should, they will become less productive, just by virtue of changing their postcode.

It would be brilliant if we could change that – that is what the whole Northern Powerhouse agenda is about – but nobody really knows how to achieve that. Until we work that out, by making it harder for people to live in the south east, we are placing a cap on Britain’s growth in wages and living standards, too.

(By the way, there’s a very good book about the US version of this phenomenon, in which people who can’t afford productive Boston or San Francisco end up living in more affordable Houston or Phoenix. It’s The Gated City, by the Economist journalist Ryan Avent, and you should all read it immediately.)

3) Simon Jenkins is just so cringe

I mean, oh my god, can this man hear himself? Simon Jenkins is a rich, successful man who owns two homes (“I’ve been to both of them,” former planning minister Nick Boles said on Newsnight a few years ago). If the true cause of Britain’s housing crisis really is rich homeowners hoarding more space than they actually need, then he is exactly the sort of person who is to blame for it.

And yet he has the gall to tell young people starting out in life to quit whining and live in someone’s outhouse, or move to the other end of the country because he quite likes farms. Never mind whether he’s right or wrong (and he’s wrong), it’s just plain embarrassing.

The oddest thing about Jenkins is his inconsistency. He’s ostensibly a classical liberal, in that he seems to think that state action will generally do more harm than good. And yet, when it comes to this one specific issue, he is in favour of about the biggest state intervention imaginable, in the form of massive land use restrictions. He wants the market to let rip – so long as it doesn’t spoil his view.

It’s a position, I suppose. But, well, you’d hardly call it selfless, would you?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric and tweets as @jonnelledge.

He is in a particularly good mood today.

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