Housing secretary James Brokenshire doesn’t understand housing OR pensions

Opportunity: you can wave bye bye to that. Image: Getty.

There’s a running joke in the Westminster bubble at the moment, if, by “running joke”, you mean something that you keep hearing that makes you want to cry. Several of the Tory leadership candidates have promised that fresh thinking under their leadership will end the Brexit impasse; yet their proposals are always, but always, things that have already been explictly rejected by the European Union (a time-limited backstop; technological solutions to the problem of the Irish border), making their thinking about as fresh as month-old milk.

I’m starting to wonder if this actually represents some deeper malaise in British politics, because it doesn’t just affect Brexit, and the latest wheeze from housing secretary James Brokenshire has a distinct whiff of familiarity to it. We’ve heard this before, haven’t we? At the very least, the problems with it are problems that have bedevilled almost every housing policy emanating from this benighted government ever since it took office in 2010.

Let’s hear from the Daily Telegraph shall we? Headline:

Allow young people to dip into pension pots to fund first home deposit, says Housing Secretary

And extract:

Mr Brokenshire will call on the next Prime Minister to reform pensions to allow young people to “make the choice for themselves” if they want to spend them on property instead.

He is expected to say in a speech at the Policy Exchange, the think tank: “We should be looking at allowing an individual to use part of their pension pot as a deposit on a first time home purchase.

“We should be changing the necessary regulations to allow this to happen, protecting the integrity of pension investments but allowing lenders to innovate and design new products to bring this opportunity to consumers.”

To the newspaper’s credit, its story is quite critical of this obviously catastrophically stupid plan, and quotes former Liberal Democrat pensions minister Sir Steve Webb laying into it at some length. But since we’re all here, let’s list the ways in which Brokenshire’s bad idea is bad:

1) It involves sacrificing retirement income – basic security in the future – to pay for home ownership – basic security in the present. Bad trade.

2) ...except it probably won’t even do that, because this policy would mean pouring more money into the housing market without building more housing, which is the absolute perfect policy for boosting house prices. So it would push basic security even further out of reach, and leave those who do manage to claw their way onto the housing ladder this way

            a) with a much reduced pension, and;

            b) at risk of the bubble bursting, leaving them having spent all their money with nothing to show for it at the end.

So: really bad trade.

3) Hey, you know what would create basic housing security for young people? Building more housing, or improving tenants’ rights. Funny how the housing secretary doesn’t want to tell Policy Exchange about those.

4) Implicit in Brokenshire’s plan is the assumption that young people have significant pension wealth squirreled away somewhere. This is probably more true than it was – auto-enrollment was introduced in 2012, and by early last year has been rolled out to every employer in the country, so most people with jobs will now have some kind of pension. Nonetheless, the average deposit a first time buyer needs ranges from around £20,000 in the north east to well over £80,000 in London. It does not seem likely, to put in gently, that most young people have enough saved up in their pension pots to cover their housing deposit.

So, to sum up, Brokenshire’s policy would make houses more expensive and leave young people facing poorer and less secure retirements. You know who would benefit? Existing homeowners, who don’t want the boom to end.

It’s a bad policy, is what I’m saying here. 

Which raises the question of why Brokenshire is promoting it. Does he not really understand the basics of either the housing market or the pensions system? Does he genuinely believe, against all available evidence, that ever rising house prices are a good thing? Or does he just want to impress some very right-wing people because a change in leadership, and therefore a big reshuffle, is on the way? Answers on a postcard.

This isn’t the only infuriating housing story to emerge over the last couple of days. There was also this delightful effort from the BBC...

Girl and Tonic blogger: 'Giving up booze helped me buy my house'

A blogger has told how giving up alcohol for good has helped her to buy her own three-bedroom house.

Laurie McAllister, 28, said one month she spent £1,000 just on going out, and that her lifestyle in London left her "struggling with anxiety".

....in which some genius of an editor took a story of someone’s personal struggle with alcohol abuse, and managed to frame it as a morality tale about how the only reason young people can’t hope for the same level of financial security as their parents is because they’re chucking away all their money on cocktails and other fripperies like rent.

You know what housing story I would genuinely like to read? A column from a 60 year old about how they spent their entire youth out of their mind on drugs, pissed away every opportunity that came their way, but somehow still own a massive house because they were lucky enough to be born in 1958. Honestly, if you’re out there in your massive house and fancy writing a tell-all column about it, pitch me.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.