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The old and young don't talk anymore because house prices are disfiguring our society



A couple view properties for sale in an estate agents window in London, Britain August 22, 2016.
A couple view properties for sale in an estate agents window in London Credit: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

It was depressing to watch. Three generations of one family were sitting in a garden in South Wales in June, talking to a Newsnight reporter. The family was at odds.

The matriarch would vote for Brexit, she said: “We’re being told what to do by people we haven’t elected!”

Her granddaughter called her “stubborn.” “It’s my generation that has to deal with the fallout if we go, so please, think of me,” she declared.

It wasn’t the subject matter that was depressing. It was the lack of respect each generation had for one another. The granddaughter showed little interest in the years of experience guiding her granny’s instincts. In turn, her grandmother showed no understanding of how, for a young woman, the chance to live and work elsewhere in Europe had come to feel like a birthright. They were talking across a divide of decades, but it might as well have been centuries.

At the root of this problem are our inflexible planning system and building regulations, which make it a nightmare to build new houses or alter exiting ones. Developers who want to build new homes have to jump through an endless number of social and environmental hoops, rather than being able to supply what people want.

And home-owners are tied up in the same knots: for example, elderly residents who want to rent out part of their houses have to apply for planning permission first. At a time of chronic housing shortages, that is simply crazy.

Before the referendum, it was common to hear wildly different predictions about what Britain would choose. In the shires, I heard the same refrain several times: “I don’t know anyone voting Remain.” And each time I came back to the youthful city, I heard the opposite. These two spheres simply weren’t in contact with each other anymore.

The segregation fuels resentment on each side. The pro-EU young joke that the old ought to be disenfranchised. And many of the rural elderly dismiss support for the EU as a sign of debauched and corrupt urban attitudes. This mutual disgust isn’t healthy.

Housing costs are a malign force disfiguring our society. Until the government shows some courage with housing policy, the problem is only going to get worse.

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