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EDITOR’S BLOG: Ladder or leg-up – give us a home

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13/04/2007

Gary Castle is a fireman based in mid-Essex and life is pretty good for him at the moment but for one tiny detail – he cannot afford his own home and it is driving him crazy.

“I got married to Stacey two years ago and we rent a nice flat near the centre of Chelmsford, the county town of Essex,” he explains. “It’s handy because we both work locally, the landlord is a mate of mine and the place has been done up really nicely. But, for all that, it isn’t our home and we are thinking of starting a family soon and I want somewhere to call our own.”

Stacey, who works as a shop manager in the town centre, agrees. “We bring in a fair bit of money between us each month and Gary is looking good for promotion, but we still cannot even think about buying in Chelmsford now,” she complains. “My mum and dad moved here from the East End of London in the 1970s and paid something like £12,000 for a three-bed semi. I just wish we could turn the clock back and do the same.”

So are the Castles just a pair of whingers who should get on their bikes (as Norman Tebbitt once famously said) and get themselves a property in an area they can afford? Well, it seems not, because mortgage lender Halifax has just stumped up a list of the “most unaffordable towns for public sector workers in the UK”, and the whole of East Anglia, where our happy couple reside, is “100% unaffordable for members of the fire service”.

Indeed, Halifax has found that 70% of UK towns are now out of the financial reach of public sector workers, which sounds like a terrible statistic to me. Not so, however, to housing minister Yvette Cooper, who proudly proclaims: “No Government has done more to help key workers; since 1997 almost 25,000 key workers have got their first step on the property ladder through Government shared equity and shared ownership schemes.”

Right, run that past me again. In 10 whole years the numerical equivalent of mediocre Nottingham Forest’s average home gate has been helped into property ownership by the very Government that at other times, as during the London bombings, sings these workers’ praises – “brave”, “selfless”, “dedicated” and so on.

Well, sorry, Yvette, that figure is pants. As Helen Adams, chief executive of self-help website first-timebuyer.com, points out: “These shared ownership schemes are complex and you still have to find a large mortgage. The average nurse starts on £19,000 and has course debts of £5,500. Nurses are simply not able to move to the more expensive parts of the country.”

Anne Mitchell at health workers’ union Unison also has an observation to make. “Health workers are effectively being given a pay cut and the idea that they can get on the property ladder is a non-starter,” she declares bluntly.

Absolutely, and her comments only reinforce the obvious need for a viable system that permits key public sector workers like teachers, nurses, police officers and fire crew to buy their own homes in the towns and cities of their choice. Indeed, the Government should commit to housing these people by offering them appropriate accommodation for which they would pay only half the asking price, with the Government (or, to put it another way, the taxpayers) picking up the rest of the cost.

As a taxpayer myself I would have no problems with this, and would much prefer to see those people, rightly lauded as “brave, dedicated, selfless” and so on, rewarded with my money rather than the raft of politically correct but utterly useless ‘cause celebres’ that the Government habitually wastes our money on. That way I know Gary Castle and his colleagues would definitely be in town if my house catches fire and I need a helping hand.

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