So, apparently, if you release a report claiming that older people are contributing to the housing shortage by living in homes that are too big for them, some of those older people get quite annoyed. If you were inclined to be cynical, you might even wonder if controversy was exactly what the author – or at least whoever at the Intergenerational Foundation came up with the title – had in mind. Yes, if you write at great length about people having the temerity to keep on living in their homes after their kids leave and then decide to stick “Hoarding of Housing” at the top of it – with the nasty insinuation that people are doing it deliberately to shut their childrens’ generation out of the housing market – then you’re going to piss people off. It ain’t rocket science.
Having said that, though, it’s important not to overlook that the report’s basic point is a good one – housing is scarce, and older couples and single people holding onto homes which could fit a family when they could comfortably live somewhere smaller is clearly going to exacerbate this. And some of the responses are just downright stupid – Jan Etherington, writing for the Telegraph, gets extremely worked up at the very notion that maybe her and her husband don’t need a five-bedroom house all to themselves, launching an all out attack on wave after wave of straw men with her talk of “the property police”, “bullying” and (inevitably) “Big Brother”. The fact that nowhere in the report is anything suggested that’s anywhere near as draconian as Etherington seems to imagine (it suggests relief on stamp duty and new taxes on high-value properties to encourage people to downsize, and that’s about as far as it goes) is beside the point, of course.
In fact, most of the negative responses to the report have bordered on the frankly bizarre. Both Etherington and Homa Khaleeli at the Guardian make much of the fact that a lot of older people spend significant amounts of time looking after their grandkids, as if this is remotely relevant. If you’re a parent of young children I’m sure having your own parents look after your kids from time to time is very welcome, but it does precisely sod all to help you get on the property ladder. Almost as oddly, Khaleeli then goes on to say that the real problem is “the tone of the debate” – though, tellingly, without actually quoting either the report itself or any discussions of it to support this assertion. The (crass, ill-judged) title aside, the tone of the report itself seems pretty reasoned from a quick skim-through, in marked contrast to some of the stuff that’s been written in criticism of it, such as Etherington’s response or the Daily Mail’s usual level-headed objectivity. (It’s worth noting that the phrase “bedroom blocker” appears nowhere in the report, yet is in the headlines chosen by both the Mail and the Telegraph).
All things considered, the Intergenerational Foundation’s report should be welcomed. Looking at injustice through a generational lens can give a distorted picture at times – one that focuses too much on the middle classes at the expense of more deprived sections of society – but since (as the report points out) the vast majority of older people in the UK are owner-occupiers, this is one area where this approach can be useful. Yes, more houses (and especially more council houses) need to be built, and yes, it would probably help if the government wasn’t also slashing Housing Benefit at a time of mass unemployment, but semantic bickering about what the “real” problem is won’t help. As with so many issues, there are lots of causes, and lots of possible (partial) solutions. Persuading people not to live in houses they don’t need when there are people who could make better use of them clearly isn’t the only answer, but it’s definitely a good start.