Property Prices, Uber Drivers: Real News Or Two Twists Of Reality?

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I see two “facts” are now being repeated with such emphasis and regularity that I think we need to throw some extra effort into putting the record straight.

Fact one is that falling property prices, as reported prominently in the London Evening Standard on Friday, are bad news for homeowners.

It is absolutely nothing new for house inflation to be used as the apparently sole criterion by which we measure health and happiness of Britain today.  The price falls induced, it seems, more by Brexit than austerity will obviously mean that property assets will be worth less.

That’s fine if the unavoidable and wholly desirable characteristic of property is to be a commodity.  But the absolute fact is that for most people, that is a collateral, coincidental and tangential issue. Is not the primary purpose of property to provide somewhere for people to live?  Is not the lack of affordable housing amongst the biggest, most pressing, most socially disruptive and damaging crisis faced by our country –and especially the young in our country?

Because insecure housing leads to lower productivity, reduced educational outcomes, less cohesive social structures and potentially a host of public health issues. And investment in affordable housing generates positive economic returns like few other things.

That’s why the fetishism over housing’s commodity status is not just misguided – it’s surely dangerous.  It’s why intervention by national and local  government  in the housing  market – even  on the modest scale propped by Karen Buck MP’s  Homes Fit For Human Habitation  private members’ bill – is politically  justified,  economically prudent and morally right.

And the flip side of a fall in the value of housing in London? It means a fall in the price. And half of Londoners are said to agree that is no bad thing.

So to disreputable truism number two:  Uber.  A much more recent phenomenon.  Clearly lots of people like Uber and meetings are to take place to try and see if the company’s fulsome though broad-brush apology  is accompanied by sufficient action to see their operating licence in London restored.

But can we please please stop talking about Uber drivers as though they are employees of the company about to be trashed.  The fact that Uber drivers are not employees, and Uber still seem to have no intention of remedying that, is a key element in this scenario.

This is for three main reasons – first, the absence of corporate responsibility that accompanies no-employee set-up is a regulatory nightmare that TFL were right to end.  Second, in large measure Uber’s popularity is economic – they’re cheap. And they’re cheap because of an exploitative, precarious, one-sided relationships with Uber drivers.  Third, there is a serious challenge to the Uber non-employee model,  with  successful Employment Tribunal cases establishing  that the drivers were at least “workers” (a distinctive  employment status,  sitting between employees and the self- employed) and were thus entitled to some  basic, limited rights. (A decision that has now been emulated by the GMB on behalf of drivers at rival firm Addison Lee)

So Uber does not employ drivers and it is wilfully misleading to say or imply that they do. In fact, a swift commitment to do so would probably resolve the whole mess – but inevitably lead to higher prices.

At the heart of this is not just an inconvenient truth, but also a view that all who work are entitled to be employed on decent terms and conditions, that such one-sided commend-and-control management rarely makes for happy or productive enterprises, and that the employee and the economy both benefit from people having money to spend – on cab fares or anything else they like.

Having railed and nailed these two contentious distortions of current affairs, I’m happy to let readers know about the wonderful and fairly new-on-the-block Update News.  If you want to see sparky local news-gathering , with smart use of new technology to bring stories that matter in an effective way that rarely gets into the mainstream, I’d invite you to check them out.  In doing so, you’d be joining over 400,000 visitors in the last year.  And these folks are still at college. So it’s not all bad news.

Have a good weekend.

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