Douglas Murray’s housebuilding hyperbole

Posted on December 04, 2012

It’s a commonly known fact that human DNA is 97% identical to orangutan DNA. It sticks in the mind because of the remarkable implication – that if you were to change just 3% of the basic code of you or me, we would be hairy tree-climbers, coveting little more than the next lump of fruit, rather than the remarkable, shoe-wearing, mostly literate creatures we are instead.

Of course, not everything works like DNA. Most things, in fact, can be subjected to proportionately small changes without ditching their metaphorical iPads and abandoning their commutes in favour of flinging faeces and clambering around the jungle canopy.

This is a subtlety that seems to have escaped the normally wise Douglas Murray over at the Spectator. Firing a broadside at Conservative Ministers who propose new development in the countryside, Douglas asks “Why are Conservative MPs so intent on wrecking our countryside?”

I have sympathy with some parts of his case. Greg Barker’s argument for wind farms – that they are sufficiently beautiful to become a tourist attraction – deserves scorn. As it happens, I’ve always thought that elegance of wind turbines is one of the few things the costly, ineffective installations have going for them, but it’s totally insufficient to justify spending a fortune scattering thousands of them nationwide to little environmental effect.

My problem comes with the Murray critique of Nick Boles’ proposals to build more houses on green field sites (which, please note, are different to green belt sites). For Douglas, Boles was “extolling the virtues of concreting over what green space we still have in order to tackle an alleged housing shortage”.

In reality, the Minister proposed expanding the area built on in Britain from 9% of our land area to 12% – an increase of 3%.

Does that extra 3% mean “concreting over what green space we still have”? Of course not. It doesn’t even mean concreting over that whole 3%, given the need for gardens to go with the houses. Even if it did mean Nick Boles taking his cement mixer on a road trip and personally turning 3% of the country from rolling pastures into a grey parking lot, would doing so truly “wreck the countryside”?

This is not liking changing Britain’s DNA. For a 3% change to make such a fundamental difference, Britain would have to be a human being – and a Britain where we would have sufficient houses to live in would be an orangutan. Which, fairly obviously, it isn’t.

The case against squatting

Posted on August 31, 2012

Tomorrow, at long last, squatting becomes a criminal offence – at least in residential properties.

For libertarians, who are not normally quick to welcome the creation of new crimes given the glut of absurd and oppressive laws introduced in recent years, this is a rare bit of good news. Property rights are one of the essential foundations of a free society – the law should protect anyone’s right to gain or create property, to do with it as they wish and to sell it if they so choose.

Squatting, by contrast, is an outright assault on property rights. Someone who doesn’t own the house in question enters it, take up residence, feels unrestrained in making changes or causing damage without the owner’s consent and, under some circmstances, can even apply to seize legal ownership after a long enough stay. The law as it used to be told homeowners they had no right to enter and evict squatters, and in some circumstances the only thing the police would do was to prevent them reasserting their right to their own property.

We rightly treat burglary, theft and robbery as crimes, and we should treat the non-consensual occupation of someone’s fixed property as a crime as well. I’m glad the Government have acted to change the law.

But, as ever, there are loud voices making the opposite case – in fact, the BBC helpfully top their online article with just such an individual. There are a number of flawed arguments the squatters are putting across, and I thought it would be helpful to rebut them.

There is a homelessness problem in the UK

That’s absolutely true. Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue – there are those who due to financial problems find themselves losing their house, there are those who suffer mental health or substance absue issues and many other causes. Each of those needs a multiplicity of solutions – but stealing other people’s property isn’t one of them. If having lax laws that allowed mass squatting was a solution to the homelessness problem, then after decades of having exactly such lax laws we would have solved it. We clearly haven’t.

There’s also a false assumption that all squatters are impoverished and homeless against their will. This isn’t always the case – indeed, the pro-squatting Advisory Service for Squatters said in 2003 that “many have full time work”. This is at least in part because of a rarely mentioned but major element of squatting: those who do it out of a political ideology which opposes property rights.

Squatters aren’t breaking in

It has always been illegal to break into a building – which is why squatters are advised to say that they found an already-open route in. I say “advised to say” because it’s widely known that many squatters do break in anyway, claiming someone else conveniently came by with a crowbar ten minutes earlier and broke the locks off the property. As the ASFS says, the police “would only be able to do anything if there were witnesses”.

Morally, this is besides the point. Taking or using someone’s property without their permission is wrong in and of itself. You might be stupid to leave the keys in your car ignition and the door wide open, but it is still wrong for someone to get in and drive off.

Ludicrously, a squatter on the Today Programme this morning claimed squatting was “not taking the property off the owner” because if they wanted to they were entitled to “take us to court”. The victims of the Bernard Madoff will, I’m sure, be delighted to know they weren’t really deprived of anything because they, too, had the opportunity to go to court.

The idea that squatters would just merrily move out if someone wanted their house back is also ludicrous – they regularly force homeowners to fight lengthy legal battles through the civil courts to regain access to their property. Locks are changed, access is denied and barricades are even put up to prevent legal entry.

These buildings are permanently empty

Well, some of them are, but far from all of them. Janice Mason in Walthamstow was about to sell her house when she found it had been occupied. Peter Nahum was restoring a listed building before moving his family into it. Dr Oliver Cockerell and his wife had just gone on their summer holiday. It’s clear that this isn’t some clean dividing line between occupied homes and permanently empty houses.

In fact, this is often simply an arrogant and self-serving assumption on the squatters’ part. They look at a house and decide on limited information that it is permanently empty – when the owner may well be saving to repair it, applying for planning permission, selling their own home elsewhere and so on. A survey by the Empty Homes Agency found that in the East Midlands just 13% of the owners of empty homes planned for them still to be empty 12 months later. 42% said their home was on the market for let or sale, and 63% said it was currently being improved or repaired.

Again, even if it was the case, it wouldn’t be ok to seize them from their rightful owners. A key part of property rights and a free society is being able to do what you choose with your own property.

There are huge numbers of empty houses in Britain

This is also true – but again it is no reason to just hijack them as you see fit. There are plenty of things other than squatting that we could and should be doing to bring them back into use, often from a state of severe disrepair.

For example, despite the social goods that come about as a result of repairing such houses, doing so is still taxed at full rate VAT (this also applies to a landlord¬† upgrading their properties, a family making their house more energy efficient and so on). The Cut the VAT campaign, which I’ve long supported, is pressing the Government to reduce this from 20% VAT to 5%. A 12.5% fall in the overall cost of repairing such houses would make a sizeable difference to the number coming back into use.

Scandalously, tens of thousands of the empty houses in the UK are in fact part of the council-owned social housing stock. These are owned by the people with the express purpose of using them to alleviate homelessness, and yet many councils don’t do anything with them. Given the fiscal situation they may well have some trouble getting the cash together to repair them all – but the policy solution for that is to sell some of the empty houses and use the capital to bring the others back into use.

Of course, we can predict the people who would vocally oppose such tax-cutting, market-based solutions to the housing shortage. They would be the same commentators on the Left who stand up for squatters’ right to occupy other people’s private property – it seems they might not want the real problems fixing after all.