2010 Reheated
Friday Ephemera

New Crisis Detected

George “laughing boy” Monbiot has spotted another crisis. As he does, regularly. This particular crisis is “scarcely mentioned” yet is “growing… at a rate that’s hard to comprehend.”

You’ll seldom hear a squeak about it in the press, in parliament, in government departments or even in the voluntary sector. Given its political sensitivity, perhaps that’s not surprising.

What could it be this time? Is air travel still as reprehensible as child molestation? Is Tony Blair still at large despite his “crimes against peace”? Or is it the deadly menace posed by newspaper advertising? No, can’t be. We’ve already been warned about that: “Advertising is a pox on the planet. It is… driving us towards destruction.” No, it’s something else, something even more alarming:

The issue is surplus housing – the remarkable growth of space that people don’t need.

Yes, there are spare rooms in some private houses - space that, according to Mr Monbiot, people just don’t need. And which, therefore, they shouldn’t be allowed to have.

Nearly half of England’s private homeowners are now knocking around in more space than they need. Why is this happening?

Possibly because British citizens still retain some degrees of freedom in their domestic affairs. And homeowners aren’t yet being coerced by the state to use their own property “wisely and fairly” as determined by Commissar Monbiot. Still, such hindrance to utopia can be overcome and our big hearted Guardianista has a solution in mind:

While most houses are privately owned, the total housing stock is a common resource. Either we ensure that it is used wisely and fairly, or we allow its distribution to become the starkest expression of inequality… We have allowed the market, and the market alone, to decide who gets what. 

Clearly, what we need is more state bureaucracy and coercive leverage, with databases, inspectors and prurient intrusion. Some reallocation is in order.

Those who have more space than they know what to do with face neither economic nor social pressure to downsize… Those who use more than their fair share should pay for the privilege, with a big tax penalty for under-occupation.

Ah, the privilege of being allowed to own what is yours. At this point I fear George may be typing with one hand.

If it prompts them either to take in a lodger or to move into a smaller home in a lower tax band, so much the better.

Yes, that guest room or glorified junk cupboard isn’t just your business, you know. It’s a “common resource.” And that selfish loft conversion is just more proof of your guilt. Embrace the greater good, damn you. Sadly, Mr Monbiot doesn’t share with us the details of his own living arrangements, such as whether or not he frivolously uses a room purely as an office or study - say, for the writing of Guardian articles. But perhaps his colleague Polly Toynbee will be spurred to throw open the doors to one of her two rather spacious estates. How about that nice villa in Italy? Or maybe Monbiot’s employer Alan Rusbridger could find a wiser, fairer use for the space currently occupied by his £30,000 grand piano


Sharp-eyed readers will have noted that the Guardian heading has now been altered to read: “The hidden truth about our housing crisis is that it is driven by under-occupation.” The original version was a little more explicit: “Those who insist on under-occupying their homes should be forced to pay for the privilege, or take in a charity lodger.”

In the enormous comment thread following his article, Mr Monbiot appears to be squirming over just how coercive such measures might be: “Nowhere do I suggest forcing people to take lodgers,” says George. “Instead I’m proposing creating tax incentives which would encourage it.” However, it remains unclear how Monbiot squares this claim with his stated belief that the issue “cannot be left to the market,” or his enthusiasm for “economic and social pressure” including a “big tax penalty” for those who’d rather not downsize or share their home with strangers. Or with his eagerness to make both government and the left “pick a fight with wealthy householders,” even those who aren’t in fact wealthy. (“It’s up to us to give them no choice, by turning under-occupation into an issue they can’t avoid.”) A “big tax penalty” for those who don’t voluntarily comply isn’t merely an “incentive” or “prompting” or “encouragement.” It’s coercion and punishment.

Like many of his colleagues, Mr Monbiot seems titillated by coercion. Though perhaps this urge can still result in some residual embarrassment.