An Englishman’s home is his castle. For the last few weeks it has been our isolation ward, office, schoolroom, gym, craft centre, disco and performance space. We have become more aware of both the possibilities and restrictions of the four walls we inhabit. And that has intensified the complex relationship we Britons have with our dwellings.
In the last half century home ownership has moved from a status symbol to an apparent right – fuelled by the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, the privatisation of council flats and the explosion of house prices, particularly in the South East of England, which “experts” periodically decry as a bubble, ignoring Economics 101 which says prices will rise if demand outstrips supply. The UK is apparently not building enough homes, young professionals cannot get onto the property ladder and homelessness is a massive blight.
One particular sore point is the issue of second homes. The arguments against owning a holiday home take in the politics of envy, worries that some of the most attractive parts of the country become ghost towns for large parts of the year and the impact on affordability in those areas. George Osborn tried to use tax to discourage second home ownership and, in one of his sledgehammer to crack a nut policy moves when Chancellor, slapped a 5% stamp duty on second homes. This was quickly sidestepped by cunning tax advisors to the wealthy.
The Covid-19 crisis has added fuel to the fire. The Government advice is to stay in your main residence to reduce travel and cut down the strain of rural essential services. From anecdotal evidence in North London, I’d say many have paid no attention. Georgian terraces are empty, while their regular residents are hunkering down in Winchelsea, Walberswick or the Witterings.
Who’d blame them. After all our leaders are hardly sitting still. The Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government has run into trouble for driving 40 miles to visit his ageing parents in Herefordshire. This would have just been within guidance except he travelled from his third home in Herefordshire, which is over 150 miles from either Westminster or his Northamptonshire constituency. I suppose having three homes is good experience for his department brief.
While we are fitting work into our domestic schedules, MP are being given an extra £10,000 to cover extra expenses for their home working. Many MPs have two homes – which for those with constituencies outside the M25 is only fair. But which home are they working from? Over 130,000 people have signed a petition calling for this payment to be scrapped. Maybe a better solution for so the MPs to declare which home they are working from. London, constituency or – in the case of the housing secretary – a third country pile.
Such transparency would reassure those of us trying to work as their kids are fighting over the PlayStation that the money is being well spent. Truth, to contradict Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, we can handle the truth.