Prices on the up but homes ideal has its downside

MORE than 80 years ago a young Edinburgh advocate and Conservative MP coined the pregnant phrase "property-owning democracy".

When Noel Skelton put pen to paper, just ten per cent of the population fell under this heading; today a clear majority of the population can claim to be part of it.

As a result, the ownership of property obsesses the nation to an alarming extent, whether it be its affordability, its taxation (last week's Burt review is but a recent example), or even the allowances granted to those unfortunate creatures known as MSPs. Britain is a property-mad nation.

And nowhere more so than in Edinburgh, which long ago joined Dublin and London in the unfortunate habit of dwelling endlessly upon property prices, which area is (or is not) up and coming, and how much certain inhabitants have made on that little Leith flat over the last year.

Skelton's admirable vision was that everyone in society, especially what he quaintly called the "working man", should own his own home, and, ideally, a stake in the company which employed him. But while this is clearly more a reality now than then (the 1920s), such an ideal is not without its downsides.

For alongside demand for property comes rising prices, and therefore not everyone can quite make it, least of all the "working man". Yet property ownership is now the political consensus. Where once Labour claimed the Conservatives had been getting rid of the property owned by democracy for decades, only the Scottish Socialist Party now sticks to the line that all property is theft.

And what of the reaction to those left behind in the property race? One political catchphrase has simply been replaced by another. With the "property-owning democracy" now largely a reality, the political lexicon instead looks to "affordable housing" to redress the vagaries of the property market.

Yet just as politicians failed to articulate precisely what a property-owning democracy meant in practical terms, they have also been silent on what form so-called "affordable housing" should take.

Shared equity schemes, whereby a tenant owns one portion of a property while paying rent on the remainder, has been one solution and anecdotal evidence suggests it does work; certainly such schemes exist in Edinburgh. But as property prices increase much faster than average salaries, this is surely only a temporary solution.

To an extent there is little that any government policy - short of clumsy intervention - can actually do. And as every economics student knows, supply and demand sets the market price for property, so the best anyone can do is try to keep up with the market.

But even once the aim of property ownership is achieved, more controversy awaits. Sir Peter Burt's recent proposals for replacing the council tax shows that the capacity of Scots homeowners to resent any form of local property taxation remains undiminished, even granting that it was politicians (not least the First Minister) who led the opposition to this most recent proposal.

Sir Peter's suggestion that residents pay a one per cent levy on the value of their homes is certainly quixotic (what happens, for example, if the housing market crashes?), yet one cannot help feeling it is a little off of home-owners to reap the rewards of rising house prices while balking at the idea of that increase dictating what they pay for local services.

As for the "controversial" accommodation allowance for MSPs, it is difficult to interpret recent commentary as anything other than the good old-fashioned politics of envy. Any business which requires its employees to be away from home for prolonged periods pays an allowance, and it is arguably academic to complain about how this allowance is then spent.

As is the argument that MSPs are accruing huge profits from the increasing value of the flats they inhabit. After all, the Scottish Parliament is not supplying mortgages to its members, merely covering a portion of their repayments. When that MSP loses their seat or stands down, the mortgage is no-one's responsibility other than their own.

But the outcry is surely symptomatic of the property-owning democratic era, and a result of the MSPs' perceived advantage over hard-working citizens who struggle to cover each month's mortgage repayment.

The Skeltonian ideal of a property-owning democracy was always supposed to encompass more than just bricks and mortar, but for many the impulse to become part of that ideal is stronger than ever. How long can it continue?

• Ian Swanson is away

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