They’re trying to capture our castles

02 November 2011

Trevor Barnes fears that a proposal to tackle the housing shortage lacks humanity

TIME was when our homes were our castles, sovereign and inviolable, our refuge from the storms of daily life. Not any more. Not, that is, if the Intergenerational Founda­tion, a left-of-centre think tank promoting “fairness between genera­tions”, has its way. Contrary to the founda­tion’s stated aims, however, resentment between generations is the most likely by-product of its latest recommendations.

Researchers have concluded that, across the country, 25 million bedrooms are unoccupied, and have suggested, therefore, that older people should vacate their oversized homes to make space for members of the younger generation who are in need of a place of their own.

Instantly dubbed “bedroom blockers”, these senior home-owners have thus been painted as the villains of the piece for selfishly squatting in their own homes and preventing younger people from getting a foot on the housing ladder.

There is worse to come. For the effrontery

of “hoarding” their bedrooms, pensioners, or parents whose offspring have flown the nest, would be punished by a “proper land tax [re-flect­ing] the social cost of occupying housing, parti­cularly housing that is larger than one’s needs”.

Precisely who will assess these needs — and by what criteria — are questions left unanswered, but the prospect of a “property tsar” and a hous­ing inspectorate that has powers to tax (and pre­sum­ably also to fine and evict) is not reassuring.

Supporting the proposal is the Labour MP Tessa Jowell, who, before her separation from her husband, lived in their Warwickshire country house with no apparent twinge of guilt that its ample rooms were not being sub-let to a young family in need.

But then, in the drafting of eccentric legisla­tion, Ms Jowell has form. Who can forget how vigorously she championed changes in the gam­ing laws seven years ago, promoting the demo­crat­isation of the casino and encouraging the working classes to bet on the spin of a wheel? Her support now of this equally misguided plan does not, thankfully, bode well for it, but the mere fact that it is being considered should raise concerns among those who prize freedom above coercion in matters legitimate.

And what could be more legitimate (indeed, positively eirenic) than living in our own homes and cultivating our own gardens, however old we may have grown?

The Intergenerational Foundation misses this point completely. In its wish to eject us from the modest earthly havens we have tried to create for ourselves, and to force us to start again at year zero under another, it fails to make the distinc­tion between a house and a home.

More than simply bricks and mortar, a home is a deeply human expression of our desire to make the world a friendlier and more familiar place. It is the repository of family memories and shared experiences. And, more prosaically, its “spare” rooms are always available to accom­modate visiting friends or returning sons, daughters, and grandchildren.

Of course, younger families should be helped to construct similar havens of their own. But, surely, humane governments do this by building more houses, or regenerating and developing brownfield sites in towns and cities — not by encouraging a younger generation of cuckoos to take over nests involuntarily vacated by those who have had the misfortune to reach the age of 65 or whatever cut-off age a future government has deemed appropriate.

Moving house, even voluntarily, is a stressful event. Legislators with a heart would allow us to downsize in our own good time rather than bully us into uprooting our settled lives and moving against our will.

Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.

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