Forget Brown's apology - it's time for big thinking about the future


The media's facile and self serving obsession with whether Gordon Brown says sorry (damned if he does, damned if he doesn't) detracts from a much bigger question. Will our Prime Minister, or any other politician, start to talk seriously about how the new world we are entering into will and should be different from the old? Or will he persist with the argument that if only we find a fix for the crisis the new world can be just like the old, except with new regulation for city whizz kids and lawyers to find try to circumvent (thus defining the contours of the next crisis).    

Finding myself on an expert panel yesterday at the National Housing Federation (including Vince 'Oracle' Cable) I tried to disguise my limited grasp of the detail of housing finance by going all visionary. 

Behind the arguments about whether the Government should spend more on new social housing or whether housing associations should be more willing to buy unsold or half built properties from developers (even if they aren't appropriate for most social housing clients), the bigger question - I argued - was whether the crisis might see an end to the tenure hierarchy of the last thirty years.

If, as a result of the market or of a new policy framework (as I advocated in my blog yesterday), we see the end of the idea that a house is an investment rather than somewhere to live, the allure of owner occupation could diminish. Renting can be cheaper, less risky and more convenient. Indeed, there is authoritative research that says high levels of owner occupation are bad for the economy as they reduce labour mobility.

There are lots of grim social housing estates (although the LSE overview of Labour's record, which I mentioned last week, suggests there has been real progress in the worst neighbourhoods) and the recession will make them grimmer. On the other hand, there are other estates which have seen real success in developing strong social networks and popular community facilities. Indeed the best social housing estate is a much livelier and more interesting place than the kind of soulless, badly-built. private new build estates that have sprung up in and around our cities over the last twenty years. 

Lots of factors are going to change the nature of housing demand over the next few years. There are reports that divorce levels are dropping with the recession as people can't afford to move out. Many migrants have gone home. Buy-to-let has collapsed. But could the biggest change of all be that we start to see renting, and even social renting, not as a tenure of last resort but of choice?

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