A Tale of Two Houses
When I was a baby we lived in a three-room flat in Northdown Street, Kings Cross. We had no bathroom and shared a lavatory with another family.
Hitler’s bombers had made an impressive start on demolishing the rows of jerry-built Victorian terraces in the area and the local authority was continuing the work. A swathe of land was cleared between Pentonville Road and Caledonian Road, including Busaco Street where my mother had lived until she married, and building began on five blocks of flats – state of the art, not just indoor plumbing but underfloor heating and fitted kitchens.
My mother took herself off to the Council offices to put our names down. She was told that our priority was so low as to be virtually non-existent as we were not overcrowded. In fact we never would be, as my mother had been told she could not have any more children. After a while she came up with a plan: she and my father would buy a house. For people like us in 1949 this was the equivalent of planning a trip to Mars. My father was eventually persuaded that this would be a good idea and my mother went back to work to start saving the deposit. It took eight years. At first they looked around the local area, but the only houses for sale were the aforementioned jerry-built Victorian cottages or the crumbling Georgian properties off the Essex Road, all of which were in a poor state of repair and most of which had sitting tenants, which would mean sharing facilities. They discovered that an estate of new houses was about to be built in Potters Bar and in 1957 they bought off-plan (although they had never heard the expression) a three bedroom semi for the sum of £2,600.
But let’s imagine that they are unable to tear themselves away from the area where they grew up, where all their friends and family live, where they know the shops and the shopkeepers, the GP, the bus routes. Reluctantly they buy one of the run-down houses in a Georgian square off the Essex Road. They pay a little more than half what they would have for a new-build in Potters Bar but there is a sitting tenant on the top floor and no proper bathroom. They set about making the house both sound and comfortable. They renew the roof, repair all the windows, install a bathroom and a modern kitchen and, eventually, even restore the iron railings around the front of the house. In time the sitting tenant moves out or moves on and they convert the top of the house into a self-contained flatlet for their only daughter. Unlike most of her generation their daughter has not married. She is a teacher in a local primary school and has developed an interest in the theatre. She nurses her mother and then her father through their last illnesses. Retired now, living on a pension, she lets the flat at the top of the house to a student so that she can still occasionally indulge her passion for the theatre as it is so easy to get to the West End or the South Bank by public transport – so easy that she has never needed to own a car – and the National Theatre has discounted tickets at some performances.
In the meantime, something dramatic has happened. From being downmarket and down-at-heel, the area between the Angel and the Balls Pond Road has become fashionable and highly sought-after. Most of the Georgian houses have returned to single family occupation and have been restored to their former glory. A future Prime Minister has even owned one for a while. High-earning City folk have discovered that it is only a short taxi-ride from the City, you could even walk if you are moderately fit, so the frequent train and bus strikes no longer prevent them from getting to their offices. Their children are privately educated so they never actually meet the primary school teacher who lives in the square. As a result of what has come to be known as gentrification, the houses have become extremely expensive, outstripping most other areas even during a period when the rise in house prices has been phenomenal.
Suddenly, the government of the day announces a new tax. They call it a mansion tax and it must be paid by all those owning properties valued at more than £1,000,000. The restored and repaired Georgian house is easily in that bracket. What is our retired primary school teacher to do? There is no way she can possibly pay the tax. Well, the government says, you must. She has no option but to sell the house where she has lived for almost 60 years, where she knows the shops and the shopkeepers, the GP, the bus routes.
The same government has recently capped housing benefit. The reaction has been immediate and vociferous. Its opponents claim that it will force families to move from areas where they have been settled for many years, perhaps even for generations, simply because those areas have become more fashionable and the rents are therefore higher. Our retired primary school teacher wonders who will protest on her behalf, where is the outcry against a tax which will punish people because, long ago, they bought a shabby house in an undesirable area, spent their lives and a great deal of money looking after it and were still living there when the area became fashionable and expensive.
After all, we are all in this together.