Many commentators correctly attribute the UK rioting to decades of misgoverning and miseducating youth. Contributing to this has been the breakdown of family discipline, the replacement of working fathers as role models and the creation of a culture of entitlement. Tony Blair has talked about a breakdown in public morality. Less convincingly, many on the left have attributed the cause to the social expenditure cuts of the Cameron Government, cuts that have actually made barely a dent in the proceeding Blair/Brown years of tumescent expenditure growth.
Adding poison to the brew are government appointments and procedures that deflect police forces away from law enforcement into institutions that “reach out” rather than prevent wrong-doing, seek to understand miscreants rather than enforce the law, and try to contain disturbances rather than prevent them. The soft sociological and managerial ethos that has undermined policing in Britain is all too familiar here in Australia.
But there are other factors at work. This is especially evident given the nature of those arrested. Many turn out not to be part of some jobless underclass but relatively affluent working people, some in their late twenties and early thirties.
And the rioters are black and white – though hardly any Indians or other Asians. One reason for this is Asian family background, bringing values based on self-improvement by work rather than theft, reinforced by religious teachings, especially in the case of Muslims, the only group where a large majority are religious practitioners.
While the complexion of the rioters will be subject to considerable analysis over future months, we can be confident about one hypothesis: few if any of the rioters own their own homes. This is because nothing engenders respect for property and others’ possessions more than people having a personal stake in property themselves. Property ownership – for most of us this means home ownership – is the key to creating a law abiding society. Where riots in England take place outside of areas other than those hosting electrical and sporting goods, they take place on council estates, in areas where people rent. If in owner-occupied housing areas, the rioters are outsiders.
British families owning their own homes rose steadily up to the early 1980s, reaching 75 per cent. The figure has since fallen back to 70 per cent. More critically, the ability to get on the house ownership ladder has become increasingly difficult for large numbers of young people. Demographia reports that the average house in England now costs over five times the average family’s income. That’s up from three times the average family’s income 25 years ago. In London and other major cities the cost is much higher than this.
Countless reports in England, Australia and the US demonstrate planning restraints over land use are the cause of houses becoming expensive. Governments do their level best to impose additional costs on house builders, especially through energy saving requirements, but the building industry is highly competitive and finds ways of largely offsetting these costs. However, when government regulations constrain the amount of land that can be built upon this engenders unavoidable costs.
Ironically, after decades of acquiescing in creating shortages for new home building, the UK Government last month finally expressed a determination to do something about freeing up more land for building. That was met by the usual howls of protest from incumbent home owners wanting to avoid having “riff raff” moving close to them, barking on about preservation of villages and anxious to see a continued shortage of available properties in order to boost their own house values. But these self-centred blockages of new housing stock are contributing to an alienation of many people from mainstream values.
British Labour Party leader, David Miliband, is arguing that a gulf between rich and poor is a cause of the rioting. He may well have home ownership in mind in offering as his solution, "we need to give people a stake in this society". But "giving" is not a policy that will work. It morphs into an entitlement regime, which reinforces divisions within society and weakens the self-improvement ethos. Applied to housing, it is reminiscent of the US policy which required banks to make housing loans to those who were not credit-worthy, a policy still unraveling in mortgage defaults and collapsed price bubbles. Removing regulatory restraints that have driven housing prices into unaffordable ranges is the better approach.
Not being a participant in a home owning democracy provides no excuse for trashing and thieving. But it is clear that there is a vast number of young people who have decided they are excluded and have become eager participants in hooliganism. Policies of tolerating misdemeanors and acquiescing in slack educational supervision will clearly be re-thought in the UK. But so also must be the policies creating barriers that shut people out of home ownership.
There are lessons in the UK developments for Australia. Not the least concerns home ownership. A fundamental cause of the present economic malaise has been over-investment in US housing as a result misguided attempts to foster home ownership through forcing financial institutions to lend to people who were not creditworthy. This was motivated by the hope that the subsequent property stake would lead to an improvement in civil society on the part of those who found themselves excluded.
These measures failed because they created a housing price bubble. However, removal of cost enhancing planning restraints would not be likely to bring the same housing inflation outcomes (indeed in states like Texas where the artificial price boosting caused by planning restraints is absent, home price inflation and busts has been modest).
Planning restraints in Australia have created home costs that are six times family incomes (nine times family incomes in Sydney). House prices in Australia are therefore even higher than in England and urgent steps need to be taken to reform the planning policies that have caused this. If this means a society closer to the ideal of a property owning democracy, so much the better.
Alan Moran is the Director, Deregulation at the Institute of Public Affairs.
Photo by bobaliciouslondon.