Let’s get one thing straight to start with: we’re the best at having a property boom. We Irish even have a psychosocial justification for it that we can wax lyrical on in pop sociology books.
We reference the Land League (think the Justice League, except rural) and John B Keane’s the Field (a light-hearted comedy about killing a rival bidder) and before long we’re ranting on about 800 years of oppression and own patriotic investment properties in Cape Verde.
But Manctopia: The Billion Pound Property Boom (BBC Two) suggests that Ireland is just one of many places experiencing a socially destructive wave of global real estate speculation. Okay, it doesn’t explicitly make that point. It takes a more Dickensian route by following several people in different parts of the housing supply chain, each represented as pins on a graphical map of greater Manchester. We meet estate agents, developers, struggling single mothers, housing officers and homeless people.
We see cranes and new skyscrapers gleaming on the Manchester skyline and we see Jennie Platt, an estate agent, showing people luxury apartments worth £1.4 million. We learn that only 20 per cent of the new homes being built are affordable. Abbie Russell, a housing officer overseeing a housing waiting list of 97,000 people, tells us, after a while, that she’s on the list herself. We visit a Christian shelter in which a kindly singing pastor puts up thirty men and women every night in one small dorm room.
For some people, houses and apartments are just investment vehicles no different from CDOs, and unfortunately for those people, some of these investment vehicles come with things called “humans” who complicate the joys of abstract speculation. A developer named Tim Heatley discovers this when he has to evict squatters from one of his properties in an old red light district he wishes to rebrand as Piccadilly East.
Heatley certainly isn’t the most nefarious developer they could have followed. He’s from the city and clearly cares about it. He even tries to offset the effect building luxury apartments is having on the city by helping run a fund-raising event to help homeless people. Which seems like a very roundabout way of helping people who need houses when your literal skillset is building houses.
We learn that, in a way, it’s hard for everybody. Working mother Christina, for example, is about to be evicted and struggles to find two bedrooms in which to keep her children. Meanwhile Helen, a wealthy stylist, struggles to find a sufficiently expensive penthouse apartment with two spare bedrooms in which to keep her clothes. Then she shows us her clothing collection. If you don’t think, at this point, ‘Those will burn well when the revolution comes’, you’re probably a member of the Fine Gael executive council.
Manctopia is a very good, clear and well told documentary. It never bangs you over the head with an argument, but it’s hard to watch a rich woman planning extra bedrooms for her clothing collection while a hardworking mother decides she can do with one less bedroom for her children without coming to a left wing conclusion.
The most heart-breaking part of the documentary follows two homeless friends, Michael, a recovering alcoholic, and Richard, who had a breakdown after his brother died.
“Let’s go go-carting,” says Michael as they leave the shelter in the morning
“I can’t. I’ve got no money,” says Richard.
“Let’s go paintballing.”
“I can’t. I’ve got no money.”
“Let’s walk down the street.”
“Alright we’ll do that.”
They’re funny and kind and vulnerable and no more deserve to be on the streets than Helen deserves to have special rooms for her clothes. As people note sporadically here, Britain was once a place where Michael, Richard, Abbie and Christina would have received good council homes as a matter of course.
Furthermore, people like Helen would have had to pay more tax and thus would have less money to fuel her demented fabric addiction. And people like Tim would have a different job that would probably suit his aching conscience better.
The documentary makers are too good to knock you over the head with a conclusion like this, but I’m going to knock you over the head with it here anyway. Governments need to get back into the business of building homes and we should top incentivising a psychopathic real estate market that creates human misery as a by-product. We already know this. Manctopia is just more evidence for the prosecution.