Build more homes to strengthen families and reduce poverty

25th Jul 2014

We need a political model that values social as well as economic growth, says Tim Montgomerie.

In the war on poverty we need both capitalism and the state. We need the free market economy to create jobs and reward innovation. We need government to invest in public infrastructure and to provide a safety net. But in the great contest between the market and the state – and the debate about which should have the dominant role – we perhaps forget what they have in common.

Capitalism and statism are both essentially materialist and individualist philosophies. Both are about providing material goods or services to individual agents. Capitalists are interested in consumers and workers and investors. Statists are concerned with taxpayers and public servants and welfare claimants. Where is the political philosophy that puts parents, neighbours and volunteers at its centre?

The two dominant philosophies in the public debate in all so-called advanced nations are largely uninterested in the social setting in which we all live. At its worst this means big, footloose companies feel little loyalty to locality and may close down factories without any consideration of the impact on geographical communities. And on the statist side of the equation the government will always know the financial implications of policies but it will rarely examine the relational implications. Many tax, benefit, childcare and housing policies discourage or discount the contribution of the extended family network, for example. A relational politics would actively reward grandparents who care for children. It would also provide significant tax incentives to families who build extensions to care for ageing relatives.

The neglect of social structures would be of no consequence if material wealth could compensate for an absence of relational wealth. We don’t need statistics to prove it that it doesn’t. Far too many children have learnt the hard way that the state is a very poor parent. Children brought up in state care homes are brought up at considerable expense to the taxpayer but they rarely flourish in later life. Children that have parents reading to them at night, teaching them the difference between right and wrong, transporting them to and from social activities and helping them out in later life – when financial shocks hit or when they need to buy a home – will always do better than children with no one in their corner.

We can start turning the tide by requiring the Office of National Statistics to measure social as well as economic growth. If politicians are partly judged on whether voluntarism, philanthropy, marriage and active grandparenting are growing or declining governments might do more to encourage these socially useful things – in the same way they currently encourage learning, saving and hiring.

A massive housebuilding programme would be at the heart of my policy agenda to strengthen the most important of all social institutions – the family. High house prices mean many families move from one rented home to another – causing instability for their children’s education and their parents’ job prospects. For other families, high house prices mean large debts and we know what debt does to relationships.

We need a revolution in how our politics works if we are to provide more children with relational as well as financial security. That revolution begins with building more homes. A lot more homes.