The outrageous cost of London property has long been a popular topic of dinner party conversation. (By “London”, I mean “Even Greater London”, i.e. London and its dependent dormitory villages and satellite towns.) It has now become a hot political topic, too. It may have even become a fully-fledged, capital-P “Problem” in need of a capital-S “Solution”. I wonder, however, whether there might be no such Solution.
Problems have come and gone with no Solution being found
The London Housing Problem is this. Once upon a time, perhaps when the Boomers were young, a normal, unspectacular, middle class young couple, not long out of university, could buy a family house in London. It might be a little shabby or in an unfashionable part of London, but it would nonetheless be a proper family house with bedrooms and a garden, not far from the nearest Tube or train station. Now only the very richest people can afford to do such a thing.
Many people explain to us why this is such a Problem: it creates unfairness between the generations; it is corrosive to the character of London; it retards or prevents family formation, causing people to waste their youth on casual relationships and brunch; it encourages the young to adopt crackpot ideas such as voting for Jeremy Corbyn; and so on.
Various Solutions have been proposed to this Problem: land taxes, rent controls, more social housing, extensive building on the Green Belt. The word “NIMBY” is often uttered in these discussions with the same intonation that was once reserved for “kulak”.
Perhaps the Problem will indeed find a Solution. Perhaps we will live to see teachers and junior accountants buying Victorian semis in Muswell Hill or Clapham with deposits from their savings and 3x salary mortgages.
But perhaps not.
We should recall that other such Problems have come and gone with no Solution being found. Think of the Servant Problem (remembered in the phrase “you just can’t get the staff nowadays”): a normal, unspectacular, middle class young couple, not long out of university, would at least have a maidservant. Recall those E. Nesbit or Noel Streatfield books about families so poor that they were down to two servants. Now only the very richest people can do such a thing.
Is there any principled reason why this should be prevented?
Have we solved the Servant Problem? Not really. Labour-saving devices are all very well, but washing machines do not change bedclothes, dishwashers do not stack or unstack themselves and microwaves do not pierce the film lid in several places for you. We have some quasi-servants: we outsource some coffee making to baristas, some food preparation to fast food restaurants and some childcare to nurseries; we have legal immigrants to clean our houses and illegal immigrants to wash our cars. Ordinary middle-class people tend not have domestic servants, though, and the world has not ended.
Think of the “Traffic in London is Awful Problem”: a normal, unspectacular, etc couple used to be able to drive into central London and park, either for work (even in the public sector: the courtyard of Somerset House used to be a car park for the Inland Revenue and Horse Guards Parade used to be a car park for civil servants) or simply for an evening at the theatre. Now only the very richest people etc etc.
We have not solved that Problem either. Instead, we have made it super-expensive to drive and park in central London, and we encourage the middle classes to use public transport and cycle. Again, the world has not ended.
One can multiply the examples: once upon a time, clergymen sent their children to independent schools, artists could live in fishermen’s cottages in St Ives and moving to the south of France was a good way to save money. No one considered these changes to be political issues, merely changes in relative prices.
Many will say something like this: “Owning a 4-bedroom house in London — our capital — is not like having a maid or parking in the City. It’s the birthright of everyone with a 2:1 and a spouse. That’s just how this country works — or ought to work.”
To which I reply, not necessarily. If London maintains its position as one of a handful of superstar global cities, then it will surely be a rather unusual place. That could well entail its being really rather exclusive.
Is this not simply an extension of what we have already seen? Seven Dials was once a notorious slum and is now home to upscale boutiques. Chelsea and Notting Hill were once affordable to the middle classes and slumming-it trustafarians. Brixton, where terraced houses now sell for over £1m, used to be downright cheap. Is there any reason why London as a whole will not follow the example set by its own districts?
More to the point, is there any principled reason why this should be prevented? It would be sad, perhaps even shocking. In many ways the lives of the contemporary middle classes would be considered sad and shocking to people in the past, though: a professional man does not get a cooked breakfast at home nowadays (unless you count toast that he has made for himself); an upper-middle class woman does not have her hair brushed for her, or her holiday packing done for her. We nonetheless regard our overall quality of life as higher than that of the past, on account of the familiar litany of modern innovations: TikTok, shower gel, suitcases with wheels and so on.
When prices change, people’s mental landscape changes, too. Servants have become almost literally unthinkable. Even if they could afford it, professional couples would not want a paid employee to have the intimate access to their lives that a maid or gentleman’s gentleman once had. Perhaps the time will come when the idea of buying a house – a whole house! – in London will be every bit as alien to the ordinary middle class mindset, as worrying whether the maid will run off with the footman is today.
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