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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Is home ownership a barrier to economic recovery?

I've been doing a fair bit of research into my family history. It has involved poring over census records trying to trace my ancestors. You notice all sorts of entries in passing and this one caught my eye:

1881 Census
Trelissick Terrace, Hayle
John Winter Head M 44 Ship Builder Scotland
Margaret Winter Wife M 44 Scotland
Margaret M Winter Daur S 20 Milliner Dress Northumberland, Newcastle
John E Winter Son S 17 Ship Builder Northumberland, Newcastle
Edith Winter Daur S 13 Scholar Durham, West Hartlepool
Maud E Winter Daur S 10 Scholar Durham, West Hartlepool
George J Winter Son S 4 Scholar Hampshire, Southampton

Ok, so what do we have here? It's 1881 and Hayle is a town in the far west of Cornwall. The west end of Hayle is called Foundry, named after the foundry where Harveys of Hayle built the huge Cornish beam engines. Harveys also built ships- iron ships. Harveys were the first firm IN THE WORLD to successfully install a steam engine in an iron ship. As usual the Admiralty were having none of it and it was thirty years before the idea of steam powered ships or even iron ships caught on. Isambard Kingom Brunel was a frequent visitor to Hayle, and many of the parts of his most famous bridges- the Clifton Suspension bridge in Bristol and the Royal Albert bridge at Saltash were manufactured in Hayle. Clifton Terrace which overlooks the harbour was built and named when the contract for the bridge was won.

Harveys built a number of ships, mostly tugs and river steamers and would have employed a lot of men in the shipyard. They would have come from all over the country- hence the appearance of the Winter family in 1881.

From the record you can see that John and his wife Margaret were scottish and when first married would have moved to the shipyards on the Tyne to work. The eldest two children were born there.
Later they moved to Hartlepool and the shipyards there. They were there for at least three years, possibly five, as their next two children were born there.
In 1875/6 they'd moved to Hampshire, once again to work in the shipyards. Finally in 1881 we find them in Hayle.
By now the eldest two were working locally, one as a dressmaker and the eldest son in the shipyard with his father.
But times were changing. In 1881 Harveys imposed a 10% pay cut on the workers. The mines had all closed and thousands had emigrated or moved to other mining areas in the UK. The shipyard struggled on. The last ship it built was the largest at 4000 tons and was launched in 1891.
So what happened to the Winters? They don't appear in the 1891 census for Hayle. They'd moved on. John Winter would have been in his 50s and his youngest child would have started work. There was no unemployment benefit, no health service, no housing benefit. You worked or you starved.
If there was no work in your town, you moved to where there was work. Cornwall's men moved abroad in their thousands, so much so that most of my female ancestors (my great grandparents' siblings) never married. There were no available eligible men. My great aunts lived at home with their ageing parents and worked as dressmakers.

In the UK the trend since the end of the Second World War has been to own your house. It is something many people aspire to. I understand that this is peculiar to the British. The Germans seem happy to live in rented accomodation.

Home ownership has been a boon to many- if you bought your home 50 years ago you are sitting on a gold mine. I work in a solicitors and occasionally get a glimpse of old conveyance documents. In the fifties a house in this town would sell for a few hundred pounds. That same house today would cost up to £150,000. In the sixties my parents bought our house in London as sitting tenants. It cost £2600. Today those houses are worth £750,000!
There is a diminishing return however. We bought our house 20 years ago and it's now worth three times what we paid for it. A house bought ten years ago is only worth twice a much, etc etc.

One wonders why all the effort and expense to buy a house that ties you to a particular location? A hundred and thirty years ago we had a mobile workforce that could move to where the work was to be found.
Now we don't.

Have the presumed blessings and benefits of the Wefare State become a curse?

We have thousands of people looking for work, and apparently have thousands of vacancies. We have upwards of a quarter of a million migrant workers from Eastern Europe paying rent and doing all manner of jobs that our university educated youth consider beneath them, or pay so "poorly" that they cannot afford to come off benefits. There's also a whole underclass of unemployables who produce nothing but children. The Ancient Romans called them the Proletariat so it's not a new phenomenon.

How can we break the cycle that will inevitably result in the destruction of this country of ours, an outcome that mirrors the fall of the Roman Empire 1500 years ago?

One small step might be to remove the stigma that appears to taint the idea of paying rent for your home. My son is typical of the viewpoint. He wants to buy a house because he thinks that in twenty five or thirty years he will have something to show for all his mortgage payments. But will he?
It's true that those who bought houses fifty, forty or thirty years ago have made huge profits. But that won't happen in the future. The cost of getting on the housing ladder is already beyond most people's ability to pay, and it could be argued that the monthly mortgage payment is pricing many out of the jobs market.

I'm Cornish and the idea of moving back there is appealing but for two glaring points.
The first is the cost of housing in Cornwall. The locals can't afford to buy houses, and neither can I. I happen to live in one of the cheaper parts of the East Midlands, which suited me when I was moving to the area, but it means that I can't afford the same size house anywhere else in the country.

Home ownership stifles mobility.

The second point is the wages in Cornwall. They are far below the national average. If i could find a house I could afford, could I find a job that paid enough?

Home ownership stifles mobility.

It could well be that there's a job going down there that only I can fill. The vacancy may go unfilled because I can't move there to take it.

Unless I rent.
Food for thought?

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