Category Archives: Ranty

Ranty McRanterson

The election is making me ranty. Today, the Tories announced their manifesto, the most newsworthy bit of which is about extending Right to Buy – from tenants in council-owned properties, to those in Housing Association-owned properties.

Now, the ways in which is this is stupid, badly thought through, unworkable, and probably illegal, are many and varied. Allow me to summarize:

  1. I’m not sure the Tories have a very clear idea of just what a Housing Association is. They are independent businesses. Social businesses, sure, not-for-profit organisations, but that doesn’t mean they’re allowed to make a loss, and since they are not owned or controlled by either the local councils, nor central government, it seems very odd to make an announcement like this which will essentially put them in a position of being legally obliged to sell their assets at a loss. Because,
  2. Right to Buy, as I understand it, entitles tenants who have lived in one property for five years or more to choose to purchase that property at 2/3 of its market value. Now, if a housing association happened to receive that property for nothing, or as near to nothing as makes no odds, in an asset handover from the local council, one could argue that they have made a significant profit, even if they’ve spent some money on maintenance or renovation in between times. But if they built that house themselves, having borrowed money to do so, on the assumption that it would represent an income-generating asset for the foreseeable future, then they run the risk of making a significant loss. Whether that loss is enough to send them bust is entirely dependent on the balance of their property portfolio – whether the tenants who want to buy happen to be living in properties that won’t make a loss if sold, in enough numbers. No-one saw this announcement coming, so no housing association is going to have a contingency for it. There are no reserves funds sitting in the bank, to insulate against this eventuality. They will just go under.
  3. The idiocy of declaring that the shortfall will be made up by councils selling their “more expensive” council houses and passing the money to housing associations, rather beggars belief. My council owns no houses. None. They passed them ALL to a housing association, years ago, and therefore have nothing to sell, expensive or otherwise. Even if they did have some, the chances of them being anything other than the cheapest properties, in the worst states of repair, in the dodgiest neighbourhood, are slim in the extreme. Unless your council happens to be Westminster, I suppose.
  4. Since this sets a precedent for central government placing a legal obligation on private organisations to sell their property assets at a loss, if I were a private landlord, of any scale, I would be looking distinctly anxiously at this development. Because, what is to stop them subsequently applying the same rules to me? My tenants have the right to buy my house, and at a price I wouldn’t normally accept, but I have no choice. That sounds ludicrously unlikely, on the one hand, but on the other, what’s the difference? My desire to make profit? Isn’t a tenant just a tenant, irrespective of the landlord’s business model?
  5. And finally, what is to become of social housing in the UK? There is already a massive shortage of decent, affordable rental properties in many parts of the country, which is largely attributed to the policy decision NOT to spend any money brought in through Right to Buy on replacement housing stock. Which is the obvious thing to do. By consistently diminishing the available stock of social housing, we have made a general housing shortage, which has brought private landlords in a lucratively desperate marketplace, where rents can soar to meet insatiable demand. When rent is high, property value also goes up – since even expensive property stands a good chance of being profitable – which then means that even owner-occupiers are affected by the sale of council houses they may never have used. But since Thatcher’s government was essentially driven by an ideological desire to get the state out of housing altogether, one can only assume that the extraordinary housing bubble that has characterised most of the last 30 years, was the point. If you own property, you win. If you want to buy property (and that includes up-shifting for the extra bedroom/big garden/better school catchment area, which is proportionally more expensive, and therefore out of reach of your fairly ordinary salary), you lose. It’s the Haves pulling the ladder up behind them, against the Have Nots. Unless you’re one of the lucky few Have Nots who are in social housing, because you can get a house for 35% off, for no apparent reason.

The thing is, I’m not necessarily against Right to Buy, as a principle. I believe in wealth equality, and the idea of putting a system in place that could, within a generation or so, give almost everyone the option of owning their own home, seems, as even David Cameron said today, an ultimately democratic redistribution of wealth. But only if you treat it as a policy for a generation – not a one-off sale of the family silver (and how overused that phrase was of Thatcher’s government), but an on-going philosophy of investing in new, affordable homes, for people to rent, or rent with a view to later buying. If you take the money you make, and use it to build new houses. If you are prepared to invest some actual government money into making up the shortfall, so you can continue to maintain social housing stock at a certain level. If you regard the job of government to make the world fairer, more even, to spend a little in order to reduce the inequality, and actually lift people out of poverty. Imagine a world where everyone who wants a house can have one. Imagine a world where no-one lives in low-quality rented housing because it’s the best they can manage, but where only people who have actively chosen the convenience of renting (of calling the landlord when things break, or of being able to move around frequently) are doing so. Not everyone wants to own their own home, but the basic security of doing so should be available to anyone, surely?

If you replace the sold social housing, then the private rental market doesn’t explode. The former council houses don’t end up in the hands of private landlords, because the market is so much less buoyant. No-one pays over the odds to live in a house, if they can still get the identical one next door for a reasonable rent. Private landlords have to up their game in terms of housing quality and customer service, if social landlords are in the marketplace, offering more for less. The housing market is ripe, nay, desperate, for disruption, and social housing is the way to do it. Offer the right to buy, by all means, but invest in making the scheme sustainable – don’t just sell all the houses until they’re gone.

Fat patients should use fat doctors

This is the life lesson I have learned, today, and which I am generously sharing with you.

Fat doctors are much more likely to get it. They, like the rest of us, have agonised about the weight loss debate, worried about the damage to their health that their BMI might be doing, have lost weight only to pile it back on again, with a little more for good measure, have hated themselves for being fat, for being unhealthy, for being unable to exercise the required self-control to magically become a thin person. It’s not guaranteed, of course, because a fat doctor can always decide to project their self-loathing onto you, and if they try that, you should seek another doctor. However, if they’ve reached a certain age, and come to the conclusion that, rightly or wrongly, fat is what they are, and isn’t about to change, you stand a good chance of discussing your health with someone who sees your body shape as a parameter, not a problem to be fixed. And that clears the way for an intelligent, grown-up dialogue about what health options ARE available to you.

The other thing I learned, today, is that if you are generally against random health-screening that doesn’t relate to the reason you went to the doctor’s in the first place, you should say so, and loudly, at every interaction. Because if I had been consulted 6 weeks ago, I would never have agreed to the liver function screening, which bore no relation to the random white blotches that had appeared on my face, and I would not now be in the middle of an investigative process to find out what is wrong with my liver, the end result of which will be, us knowing what is wrong with my liver. There is no treatment. There are no symptoms. There is no problem that we are seeking to solve. We just randomly screened my liver function, and now we know it’s abnormal, we can’t possibly resist finding out why.

That annoys me intensely. I don’t believe in random screenings. I think the medical profession – particularly at the policy level, rather than the sitting-in-a-room-with-you level – is inclined to entirely disregard the emotional toll of false positives (generally more likely if testing decisions were not risk-based in the first place), of being presented with a health “problem” you didn’t know about and which doesn’t affect you, of needing to spend your perfectly good and limited time and energy on visits to blood clinics and ultrasound labs, and so on. These things are not nothing. These stresses can actually bring a health cost of their own, though they are rarely evaluated in that way. I believe, instead, in risk-based testing. So, if there is evidence to suggest a child MIGHT be being abused, we investigate – we don’t do spot checks on every family just in case. If there is evidence to suggest that there might be a problem with my liver function, we test it. If we think my complaint might be caused by lipid deposits relating to high cholesterol, we test for that – and nothing else!

Essentially, the uncomfortable conversation I had about dieting and following a fitness program, with the previous GP that I saw, and the subsequent five weeks of worrying that there might be something seriously wrong with my liver (there isn’t), and that if there was, I was going to have to face a major confrontation with the medics regarding my refusal to attempt to lose weight, were unnecessary stresses, brought about by the first GP I saw (different one again) who took it upon herself to measure things that had nothing to do with why I had gone to see her, .

She should have at least asked me. Because that’s five weeks of stress that I could have been spared.

Publishers still trying to hold back the sea

It’s another self inflicted nail in book publishers’ coffins although I doubt they think so. France has passed the law allowing the publishers to set the price of ebooks.

Apparently “Signs are, consumers expect e-books to be priced considerably lower than physical books”. Well yes, I expect that the copy of the book that just required you to a digital copy of the book you already have should be cheaper than the one you have to send to print, bind, deliver and stock.

However unlike the music industry, I don’t think digital piracy will be the problem, self publishing will. Already self-publishing in the kindle store is make some people serious money and successful authors are moving away from the publishing houses.

The reality is, most of what a publishing house does is rapidly being replaced by the web. The cost of publishing has gone, marketing is now also much easier and cheaper, the wisdom of crowds is filtering the good form the bad and you can get yourself a copyeditor online and there are companies like san diego marketing agencies that can make the job even easier for you.

A combination of self promotion and the fact that the author gets more of the book sale, means self-published books are often among the cheapest on eBook stores and end up at the top of the sales chart.

In the mean time, heads are still in the sand, and we are trying to protect the ‘independent bookshop’ by keeping the price of the digital copies artificially high.

I might start buying real books again

It saddens my little heart when I pickup a book and see my Kindle lying unloved next to the bed, but until some quite fundamental things change, I think I will be do that more often in the future.

A Kindle, they're very good.

Don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is an amazing reading device, it really is one of the best thing to read on, ever. I prefer reading on it to books by quite a long way, but the efforts of the publishing industry and the reluctance of government to move with the times is beginning to get in the way of what should really be a pleasurable experience.

At the moment there are 4 main reasons why I am turning back to real books

  1. Tax: in the UK there is no VAT on real books, because sometime ago we decided books are a necessity for society to function and flourish, ebooks however are an electronic service, and we tax them – so all ebooks have a 20% VAT on them.
  2. Publishers: The net book agreement was broken sometime ago; mainly because it was price fixing, but that hasn’t stopped publishers putting a ‘pricing agreement in’ that means the publishers are setting the price of ebooks. (The EU are looking in to this)
     

    That is why eBooks are sometimes more expensive than the print ones! – Why? It can’t possibly cost more for me to download something; compared to it being printed on paper, stuck in a van, sent to a warehouse, put on a shelf, taken of a shelf, put in a package, put on a van, sent to a sorting office, put in a bag, carried to my house and shoved through my letter box!

  3. Publishers don’t like eBooks: That can be the only reason they are still not putting half the books they print out as ebooks.
  4. Copyright law: Copyright law is stifling ebooks. Now I am a firm believer in copyright as a principle, but the current law is way too aggressive. Copyright remains on a literary works for 70 years after the author dies, even if the book goes out of print! 

    Books: these a very good also.

    For the ebook world this means there are loads of books, that you can just not get, because they are out of print and no one can legally scan them in and sell them to you, and because of point 3 the publishers won’t let this slip.

    This to me is a bit of an economic nonsense, you are a publisher / author your 30 year old book is out of print, someone wants to without expense to you, digitise your book, then sell it online and give you some money – where previously you had none.

    This (oversimplified) is what the publishers and authors don’t want Google to do with it’s Google books library project.

The net effect of all this is:

  1. Books that cost more as ebooks , for example Freakenomics (paperback £5.51, eBook £7.99)
  2. Classic Books you cannot get eBook copies of for example Catcher in the Rye
  3. Books that have just fallen out of print, that can’t be revitalized online.
  4. Books you can’t share because publishers are scared of that too.

And I am being driven to put down my kindle and start buying real books again.