HAYES IN THE HOUSE: By MP John Hayes
Recently when asked in the House of Commons about the curious notion of renationalising the railways, I drew attention to one of British Rail’s last advertising slogans: “We’re getting there.” One would have thought that “getting there” was a fundamental requirement of any journey(!) but this forlorn slogan — suggesting both doubt and guilt — typifies the dismal service which had made British Rail, by its end, a national joke.
What a contrast with what’s happening now. On a network roughly the same size as 15 years ago, there are now 4,000 more services each day; 850 million more passenger journeys per year than there were at the time of privatisation; and investment in railways is at a record high.
The biggest modernisation programme in a century is being delivered, with the five rail franchises let by the Government due to pay over £9billion to the public purse over the lifetime of their contracts.
The State, of course, has a responsible role in ensuring that the consequences of the free market are in tune with the best interests of the people. As such, there is more for Government to do. We have committed to cap regulated fares, but further action is needed to ensure that prices are fair and affordable. Similarly, we know that the many people who depend upon railways to get to work deserve better than hot, overcrowded carriages. Personally, I lament the loss of restaurant cars and the stylish liveries of old, replaced by either the monotony of corporate ubiquity, or clumsily designed trains with crudely appointed carriages. Oh for the days of the Mallard and Pullman carriages, the Brighton Belle and Flying Scotsman!
Must we be obliged to tolerate the triumph of utility over style?
But private ownership is not simply about big companies; it is about everyday lives too, for the principle of ownership is one of the cornerstones of a free society, and the desire to own one’s own home is at the heart of that. Anthony Eden first called for a “property-owning democracy” in the 1950s, and the 20th century saw great steps taken to achieve his goal, with almost 70 per cent of families living in homes they owned by the year 2000. Sadly, the last census revealed that proportion to have fallen for the first time in a century.
Too often today, the consensus amongst planners rests upon so-called “affordable housing”, which has nothing to do with helping people to afford to buy their homes. Affordable housing has routinely become a proxy for social housing, which traps those who would like to buy by depriving them of the means to do so.
This cultish preoccupation must be challenged at every turn by those who share an understanding of the virtues of home ownership. In truth, people’s housing needs change over time, and many may be obliged or choose to rent at some point. But all surveys show that the majority aspire to own, including many of those who do not at present.
As Shadow Housing Minister in 2005, I developed schemes – including shared equity – designed to help more people own their home. Now, the Help to Buy scheme has done so, with over 90,000 households buying a first home, and up to 145,000 likely to do the same by 2021.
Such efforts, as Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher well understood, help to create a society in which we all feel we belong, and must form the bedrock of future policy for a country of which — in part because ownership is spread and shared — we all feel proud.