Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Brick Society

There are 2.65 million unemployed people in Britain. 1.7 million people are on the waiting list for social housing, while 2 million say they struggle to pay their rent or mortgage. I would not be the first person to point out that a mass programme of house-building would go some way to alleviate the unemployment problem. However, what if we made this a real ‘something for something’ project? What if people built their own homes?

Hear me out. The government sets up a public company to build a housing development. They provide the land, there’s plenty of it. If we run short we can always repeal a few of those Enclosure Acts as Peter Lazenby suggests. Then, you hire the usual medley of skilled labour; electricians, plumbers, carpenters etc. Finally, instead of searching round for the low-skilled labour which is part of any large scale construction project, you invite local people on JSA to apply. To be clear, these will be jobs paying at least the national minimum wage. The added draw is, you won’t just be lugging bricks around to build a home, you’ll be doing it to build your home. Every person who switches from JSA to working for the company, and stays in that job for the length of the build, is guaranteed a place in the completed development.

We can go even further, and nick an idea from Henry Ford. We could allow someone to contribute a portion of their gross income towards a shared ownership scheme for their property. They would not pay tax or national insurance upon this contribution, boosting it further. Since these people would essentially be deferring their wages, the up-front costs of employing them would be even lower.

Think about what this would create. At the end of the build, you would have dozens of people who had worked together now living in the same community. You would already have the social bonds that come from collective enterprise. In addition, no individual is going to tolerate vandalism to what they themselves built. You would have that sense of ownership, that sense of cohesion right from the beginning. When looking for new opportunities, people would have a proven track record of work and achievement, but they would also have those informal networks through which opportunities so often travel.

The old cry goes up, ‘where’s the money going to come from?’ The net salary for someone on the minimum wage working the standard 37.5hr week is £10,424. JSA annually is £3,692, so these are indeed significant increases. However, you could employ every one of those 2.65 million unemployed for two years for the projected cost of HS2. Further, the money spent would be offset by that saved over the longer term as the housing benefit bill fell and rents produced an income stream, to say nothing of previously jobless people going on to further employment. At the last, you have an asset: hundreds of thousands of new homes to house the people of Britain.

If you’re a conservative, love it because it rewards those who work. If you’re a socialist, love it because it is infrastructure investment by the interventionist state. And if you’re a woolly liberal, love it for those bonds of community it creates. Let’s have the Brick Society.

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