One cannot escape the unending updates of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s upcoming royal wedding. So, a Conservative councillor, Simon Dudley, really put his foot in it when he called on police to remove the ‘epidemic’ of rough sleepers, vagrants and beggars in order to make conditions more pleasant for residents and tourists ahead of the royal nuptials.
Such words from a politician were disappointing. He found himself being ‘slapped down’ by his own Prime Minister. It conjured up memories of 2016’s Rio Olympics, where officials invaded and walled up favelas (slum communities) behind colourful facades to mask their city’s societal blemishes from polite TV audiences and tourists. Similarly, my own native Sydney Olympics saw authorities intimidate and drive homeless people away from media areas for identical reasons. Disgraceful.
A week later and Councillor Dudley had clarified himself: emphasising he was referring to ‘anti-social behaviour’ [aggressive begging] not homeless people per se. Say what you will about Councillor Dudley, I for one saw a silver lining to his faux pas: precious light being shone on the issue of homelessness. And, that is what I am interested in: exploring ways to ameliorate homelessness and poverty…
Reasons why someone might lose their accommodation are infinite. Perhaps, this is why some people might harbour a furtive disdain towards homeless people: they think it cannot happen to them? But homelessness can happen to anyone.
Arguably, a prime cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. People cannot afford to rent a room. And, benevolent natured people find it harder to afford a charitable bed.
To remedy the ‘homeless problem’ many people simply demand that government smooth over another of life’s bumps by providing more public housing, again. This fobbing off the issue to slick politicians has serious downsides… Often our poorer residents find themselves locked into poor housing in poor locations, with poor employment and educational opportunities. Even government admits that such well-intentioned public housing can actually entrench poverty. The so-called ‘sink estates’ we have all seen. But, public housing allows government departments to keep growing their budgets and bureaucracies too. This, of course, means more taxes dragging down the economy, which in turn diminishes the very employment prospects those vulnerable people need to get their lives back on track. So, yes, public housing might get some people off the streets, but it also puts many people permanently onto the backs of the taxpayer when we already know that public housing is a poor substitute for a vibrant private housing market.
An abundance in private housing puts downward pressure on prices and rents. It also means charity becomes more affordable as the supply of homes, and beds, increases. Economically it seems straightforward. So, how should we proceed?
Relaxing the nation’s choking planning laws would go a long way to breathing life into the home construction and renovation market (increasing supply). Also, reducing (or abolishing) taxes on home construction is wise: Penalising home construction is to shoot yourself in your foot. Taxes discourage capital investment, which home construction sorely needs more of. This recipe applies to both the United Kingdom and Australia, or to any economy for that matter.
These measures would encounter opponents and vested interests, like existing home owners who benefit from higher home prices, particularly if an investment property is an expected income stream.
However, if it is easier for entrepreneurs to make a dollar by building affordable accommodations, or renovating existing ones, “good on them,” I say! We all agree we need many more of those. Pursuit of profits by increasing the supply of homes exerts downward pressure on home prices. ‘Profit’ is neither a dirty word, nor is it a zero-sum game. It is voluntarily given by society: people, to reward and encourage those people who take on the risk of providing more of what society values, namely, more homes.
Nor is profit the sole motivation for people to provide homes and beds. Benevolence exists. Sadly, these days, benevolent civic virtue seems to be derided too often. Yet, Britain boasts an impressive history of civic virtue, which Australia inherits, including with regard to social housing.
Some famous public benefactors include Henry Ford, who “in average years, gave away about a third of his income.” Australia’s own Kerry Packer is another example: he donated his personal wealth to equip all of New South Wales’ ambulances with defibrillators. ‘Packer Whackers.’ But, we do not need to be a billionaire to practice benevolence and civic virtue. Millions of regular Aussies and Brits donate their personal time or money to charitable causes and mutual aid societies every year.
UK Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said “How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity.” ‘How’ being the operative word. To paraphrase Penn Jillette:
“It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use force to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.
“People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it by force.”
Of course, no policy portfolio exists in a vacuum and there are many other areas of government which could also be examined. Liberalising wage laws, industrial relations, and business licensing, to name a few would also help those who want to get their lives ‘back on track’ and off the streets and off the taxpayer.
Even if you disagree with me and have other ideas, exploring practical solutions together, is surely a better use of our time than merely bleating that beggars should be ‘swept from our gaze.’ Shoot me an email, Councillor Dudley, and let’s talk about sensible ways to get government out the way of us providing homes for those who need them.
TOP IMAGE: Via Pixabay
Andrew Kollington is a contract lawyer and property entrepreneur. He is a self-described “politics economics and history junkie, and Formula One tragic.” Andrew is also a panellist at the London Debating Society.