My friend Chris was pondering the other day. “Given there’s a housing crisis,” he said, “why are so very many houses empty?”
I don’t think he was just talking about Cromer, where he lives, though no doubt there are a lot of houses standing unused there most of the time.
All over East Anglia – anywhere well-off Londoners like to “get away from it all” – there are perfectly good homes standing empty for all but a few weekends each year. And local people desperate for somewhere they can afford to live.
One family’s weekend retreat is another family’s homelessness. But the big picture is about a lot more than second homes.
According to government statistics, last year saw more empty homes put back into use than ever before. The official total number of long-term empty homes in England was down in October to its lowest ever figure.
But that still leaves 222,428 properties that could provide roofs over heads and aren’t.
Those are not weekend cottages – they are homes that have been officially unoccupied for more than six months. A totally wasted resource.
So why do we keep on hearing about a housing shortage?
Could it be because the big building firms have a powerful lobby – or is that just me being cynical?
Is it because all those empty homes aren’t in the places people want to live, or where the jobs are?
Is it, as someone suggested, that there are a lot of empty flats above shops whose owners can’t be bothered with the hassle of letting them out?
No doubt there is some truth in all of those points.
But the real trouble lies in the madness of the housing market.
The fact that for so long we have been encouraged to consider our homes not just as somewhere to live, but as investments.
This attitude – and the whole mortgage industry that has encouraged it and propped it up – has caused the cost of housing to rise and rise way, way beyond the level of inflation, or wages.
Way beyond the ability of many people to pay.
Those of us lucky enough to have “got onto the ladder” while we could still afford to do so have mostly fallen for it. To the extent that when house prices fall, we’re encouraged by most of the media to consider this a bad thing.
Which, if you’re one of those poor folk looking for a place to call home, it surely isn’t.
In one bizarre spell in my life, a house I owned for five years gained more “value” than my total earnings over the same period from my full-time job. Or so an over-optimistic estate agent would have had me believe.
No wonder some owners find it pays to keep their properties empty, simply accruing value.
You might think prices can’t just keep going up and up indefinitely. And it’s true that in many areas of the country people have lost a lot of money on homes bought before 2008.
To judge from the sales of similar properties nearby, my own home in East Anglia is worth about the same today as I paid for it in 2005.
Yet still the analysts talk about “growth picking up”.
Good news, I suppose, if you’re a property-owner. Not so good if you’re hoping to buy.
Especially – whichever way you look at it – in London.
In this sense, as in many others, the capital is becoming like a different country.
London is where the recovery that politicians and economists have started talking about is actually happening. London, of course, is where the politicians and economists all hang out.
And London is where it’s hardest of all to put a roof over your head if you’re not a member of the moneyed classes.
Average house prices in England rose by 7.1 per cent last year. That figure is grossly inflated by London, where they were up by 14.9pc. (East Anglia’s 7.4pc average rise was close to the national norm.)
Meanwhile, a report by London Assembly member Tom Copley, “From Right to Buy to Buy to Let”, highlights a key element of the whole problem.
Housing in Britain has been in an ever-deepening mess ever since 1980, when Margaret Thatcher launched her Right to Buy policy.
The flog-off of the nation’s council housing stock was supposedly meant to enable people to own their own homes. What has actually happened is quite different.
Of all the homes in London sold under Right to Buy rules, 36 per cent are now let by private landlords. Which means higher rents, often subsidised through housing benefit.
What it adds up to is 30 years of government hand-outs to private landlords.
And if that wasn’t crazy enough, rules about managing homelessness force councils to rent back – at “market” (ie inflated) prices – homes they used to own.
David Cameron’s cheap imitation policy, “Help to Buy”, may be less disastrous than the scheme it’s named after, but it can’t help. All it does is inflate an already inflated market a little further.
It’s all madness – to put the kindest interpretation on it.