One of the current concerns of Government is trying ensure its policies make things better today without harming the prospects of future generations. A theme picked up recently both by David Cameron in his speech to the CBI and Nick Clegg in his speech to the National Housebuilding Council.
Contrasts have been drawn with the period after the second world war when, despite the economic austerity, politicians were clearly focused on making country better for the next generation. The NHS was created, ailing industries were nationalised and the state funded a massive wave of new construction in infrastructure and housing.
By the 1980s and 90s it felt like longer term policy making had been overtaken by short termism and self interest. In response, The Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations was formed in 1997 and, more recently, The Intergenerational Foundation. Both follow the same principle – namely to stop politicians making policies which may please people now but are are clearly harmful to the next generation.
And so the term “generational theft” was coined. Firstly by John McCain in the US as a rallying cry against Government overspending which is going to land the next generation with massive debts to be repaid.
It is now common to hear accusations of generational theft by younger people against the baby boomers aged in their 50s and 60s. And they have a point. We boomers enjoyed short termist economic policies delivering easy credit and fuelling a massive house buying boom. Unfortunately we now know those policies simply inflated a bubble which then burst. With the boomers now paying off mortgages and collecting huge profits the “millenials” aged 20 – 35 are left with unaffordable house prices and no access to credit. The average first time buyer is now aged 37. I was 23.
One of the ways to fix the housing problems faced by the younger generation is to build more houses. Sadly whilst the need for this seems universally accepted the local politicians and community leaders with the influence and power to deliver are often hard wired into opposing new housing. So instead of a surge in house building to meet needs we have the lowest levels of building since the 1920s.
A recent report by the Intergenerational Foundation cast valuable light on the issue. It found that the average age of Councillors is over 60 and, whilst 32% of the population is under 35, only 5% of Councillors are. It also found that Councillors are usually male and on average 18% wealthier than their electorate. One of its key conclusions was that there is a, “real danger of local democratic institutions becoming a means for members of the older generation to strike down attempts to increase the supply of housing in order to defend the value of the properties they already have the privilege of owning”
The current “Localism” policy is to give local people and community leaders far more power in determining whether new homes get built. There may be merits in this but we all need to recognise that it is causing house building to grind to a halt There is no criticism of Councillors here. Simply a recognition that many older people who already have a house will obviously wish to stop the construction of new houses which they feel may affect the value of their own home. If they are given the power to do so they will.
I worry that “Localism” has become a dictionary which translates “local private interests” into “power of veto”. Many in my world of planning and housing are obsessively focused on lowering carbon footprints to hand down a better world to the next generation. I would argue for a greater focus on handing them down a home and a job.
I used to laugh at Ronnie Corbett in “Sorry”. Aged 41 and living at home. I fear it will be the norm for my kids generation.