The passion for home ownership we have developed must be one of the biggest changes in Britain’s social and economic history
Only after my father won the football pools did I begin to take an interest in property. I was 18 or 19 at the time. My dad didn’t win much. But after he disclosed we were £3,000 better off, it occurred to me that we might live in a bought house rather than a rented one. Not because I believed that owner-occupation was an inherently superior form of shelter, but because a particular house in our village had come up for sale and its strangeness was attractive to us. It perched at the edge of the sea and had a stone front that protruded in a semi-octagon, completing its besieged appearance with a battlemented parapet, pointy windows and a tower that had ornamental arrow slits.
A small house with grand pretensions: years later, when I read Great Expectations, I recognised it as Mr Wemmick’s house, which is a cottage doing its level best to look like a castle. “The smallest house I ever saw,” thinks Pip, wondering at the painted gun emplacements, the drawbridge and “the queerest gothic windows (by far the greater part of them sham) and a gothic door almost too small to get in at”. Both houses, the fictional and the real, dated from the early 19th century, but while the first was south of the Thames, the second lay north of the Forth.
A firm of solicitors with a name like Macbeth, Macduff & Duncan had advertised it in the local paper, in the days when ads for houses included neither a picture nor a price and were placed discreetly among other used items for sale such as prams and garden sheds. This was the case in Scotland, anyway, where in the 1960s about two in three households, including ours, lived in homes built by and rented from the local authority. No country west of Poland had a higher proportion of public housing, it was said, which meant private property and how one went about acquiring it was never a conversational topic among the people we knew. Looking back, and counting on my fingers, I reckon I had seen the inside of no more than four or five owner-occupied houses, including the dentist’s, by the time I left school.
The first thing, obviously, was to get in touch with Banquo, Macduff & Macbeth, so I went to the call box at the end of the street and inserted my four pennies when the operator asked. The disdaining female voice at the solicitors clearly felt insulted that the majesty of house purchase was being approached with so little decorum, but she told me the price (somewhere about £1,000) before announcing carelessly that she believed the house had been sold. And so it had, to a glamorous woman we knew who kept the cafe on the ferryboat pier. My parents took the news well, listing all the things that would have made them unhappy had they bought the house (mornings spent wrapped in sea mist, the probability of damp) and consoling themselves with the thought that their £3,000 was still intact. By the time it was spent on voyages to Egypt and the Soviet Union, countries that for different reasons my father was keen to see, the brief flirtation with the prospect of home ownership had been forgotten. The rent to the county council went on being paid. None of us felt that a life-enhancing chance had been missed.
The passion for home ownership that has developed in the half-century since must rank among the biggest changes in Britain’s social and economic history. On a national scale, the effects include an unprecedented boom and bust in house prices, world-beating figures for household debt, and the diversion of capital from more useful purposes such as industry. At a more personal level, it means some of us own not one house but two, a luxury that 50 years ago would have seemed limited (though it probably wasn’t so, in fact) to a few plutocrats with townhouses in Mayfair and shooting estates in Inverness. According to a report in the Guardian this week, 2.3 million people in England and Wales can now lay claim to second homes, which is both strictly true and rather misleading. The 2.3 million is the number of people who, according to new data published by the Office for National Statistics, have a second address they use for more than 30 days a year. Most of them are students or the children of separated parents; the number of people in England and Wales who have second homes in the sense we usually understand the term – as holiday homes – is 165,000, which is less than 1% of the 23.4 million households in the two countries.
Rich people, then, whose appetite for holiday homes has driven up prices, particularly in Cornwall and parts of Wales where young people who work there find they can no longer afford to live; Aran Jones, the leader of pressure group Cymuned, quoted in the Guardian report, spoke of “societal breakdown”. As we have a second home, I of course feel defensive and can produce my little defensive lists. Why do we have it? Because neither my wife nor I has a decent pension beyond the state’s, and 10 years ago property looked like a good way to protect our savings. Because we had children and it was beside the sea. Because it was cheap. Because a friend said that its situation under a wooded cliff reminded her of Shimla. Because we thought we might move there for good. Because it connected me to my childhood in ways I thought meaningful.
But the guilt is largely unnecessary. The island of Bute, where the house is, has the opposite problems to Cornwall. Nobody is flocking there now, though they did throughout most of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Its Victorian economy was partly founded on second homes; our house was built in a bigger house’s back garden in the 1870s as summer overspill accommodation, so the tenants we displace aren’t fishermen or care workers but the ghosts of visitors like ourselves. If anything, there aren’t enough of us part-timers. House prices go down and newly converted flats stay unsold, while every month another shop or B&B closes.
We do our best. We take the local buses when they run and taxis when they don’t, use local tradesmen, shop at the greengrocer, fishmongers, butchers, bakery and hardware store. To the permanent population we may seem sentimental, stupid in our opposition to the growing tide of islanders who take the car ferry to the mainland for their fortnightly shop at Scotland’s largest Tesco. (There is more than one way to achieve “societal breakdown”.)
Still, I like our house, despite the fact its suggestion of an Indian hill station is invisible to most other eyes, and despite the damp in the cellar. I don’t think our ownership of it has disadvantaged anyone other than possibly ourselves, depending on whether and how much it declines in value. When we decide to sell it, as we inevitably shall, I shall think of the moment when Dad won the pools and it occurred to me that interesting houses needn’t always belong to someone else: that people like us could buy them if we had the money – or could borrow it. That notion changed everything, not always for the better.
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