Forces housing revisited

On the 26th January 2007 I posted a Reading Evening Post article about the need to improve forces’ housing. I took the proposals to the Defence Secretary, who expressed enthusiasm for some such scheme. I am reissuing it today, because nothing seems to have happened, and it is time to take it up again. Our armed forces are getting a rotten deal. The very least we could do is offer them some stability in their family housing, and offer them a way of improving it. We need to ensure that when they leave the services, they have a deposit for their own home and are not left trying to obtain poor quality accommodation from reluctant, hard pressed local authorities.

“I was upset to see the poor living conditions many soldiers have to put up with in the recent revelations about the modern army. It was a reminder of how the public sector can let its staff down in important ways.
We saw the lack of maintenance, the poor facilities and run down state of some forces housing. We did not hear about the other problems besetting forces families from the nature of army life. It isn’t just a case of broken bathrooms or worn out kitchens.
Soldiers and their families get moved around a lot. This can disrupt schooling, employment for the non soldier in the marriage, civilian friendships and wider family life. As the accommodation is rented, when the soldier leaves the forces he or she has no accumulated investment in a house or flat and often finds it very difficult or impossible to get the first foot on the housing ladder. Most of their friends and contemporaries have owned a property of their own for several years by the time the soldier’s tours of duty end.
So what could be done about this? I am proposing a means of bringing greater stability, better housing and an investment to those soldiers who would like it.
The MOD should invite tenders from outside financial and property companies to run a scheme which permits the soldier to buy all or part of his married quarters from the army on a mortgage. Very run down quarters would be sold at appropriately low prices with a requirement for the soldier to renovate it. If he chose to renovate it himself he would gain an extra investment for his work. If he used private contractors he would need to borrow the money as part of the mortgage.
When the soldier left the army he could sell the house or flat. The army would have the right to buy it with and for another soldier wishing to enter the same scheme. The transfer would take place at open market value, as if the soldier owner were selling it on the open market. The retiring family would have capital from the sale to buy a new home. The incoming soldier would have the chance to build up his investment over his time in the army.
Each soldier would buy at a barracks which became his home barracks. In all normal circumstances whenever he was in the UK he would be based at that barracks. His family would stay there if he was abroad on duty without them. If the family went abroad the army and its contractors would organise a short term tenancy so the rent could help pay the mortgage payments.
This scheme would be voluntary, but I think it would be popular with many army families. They would like more freedom to do up and look after their own property like the rest of us, and they would appreciate keeping up with the housing market when it starts to rise again in due course. They would welcome money coming in to improve the quality of the accommodation. The army would still have the right to allocate the home to a new soldier when the old owner left the service, and in the early years would have substantial capital receipts allowing it to buy better equipment, or more land and buildings for other purposes. It would be a win win.
Perhaps there are some bright entrepreneurial businesses out there that would like to make it happen. Something needs to be done, and it doesn’t look as if the Treasury is going to come up with enough money to do up all the run down houses anytime soon.”

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10 Comments

  1. lucysharp
    Posted May 15, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I applaud you for championing the cause of the armed services, but I think the scheme you have proposed might be too complicated. When a unit moves there can be hundreds of families changing quarters at the same time, to be replaced by others from the incoming unit. The administration of tenancies and possible sales in those circumstances would be very time-consuming and expensive. I would prefer to see the money that they presently pay as rent for their quarters given back to them on leaving or, better still, for them not to have to pay it in the first place. While on the subject of service life, a recent report also suggested that the Pay As You Dine system is not working as well as it might. While it was hoped that it would be an improvement on the former system, it seems that it has resulted in poorer quality meals and hungrier soldiers (sailors, airpersons etc.). Would it be so unthinkable for three free square meals a day to be provided by the cookhouse as part of the terms and conditions of service? We ask an enormous amount of men and women who join up. The least we can do is feed and house them as part of the deal.

    I should add that I am not anything to do with the armed forces, just someone who has been shocked at the attitude of this government and who hopes that the conservatives will do better by them.

    Reply|: yes, the meal arrangements also need improving. Please see comment above on housing.

  2. Rose
    Posted May 15, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Well done. How would it work for bachelors? They are vulnerable to destitution after their service, one of the many distressing things about life under New Labour.

  3. Posted May 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Not a good idea John. Far too complicated and it misses the reason why some military housing is poor.

    1. Military housing is not poorly maintained because a soldier does not own it but because the occupant does not own it. This fact would not change under your proposal. With trickle posting (the substitute for infantry arms plotting), the occupant of the house will rarely be the owner. Now that the arms plot has stopped (or is in the final stages of being stopped), a soldier will rarely be sent to the same barracks more than once and it is not feasible for a soldier to be housed in Catterick garrison whilst serving in Tidworth garrison.

    2. Military housing is also poor in many areas because the house itself is so often made of prefabricated material and is the size of the most basic council house of the worst totalitarian design. You know the ones I mean. They are dotted around London and they remain in the major military garrisons.

    3. Military housing is also poor because the owner (Defence) simply does not invest enough in the property. That is down to two things: first, money as it always is which is easily remedied by reallocating the enormous waste in public spending to defence, and the second reason is down to will. Defence often tries to keep property up and running but they simply fail on too many occasions because those responsible do not have the motivation to do it well. Ironically, the ceasing of the arms plot might just have the effect you desire. Now that all units and regiments are tied to a particular barracks and as they gain a personal and professional attachment to their accommodation you can bet they will begin to focus more effort on improving standards. It is no coincidence that much of the poor housing went to infantry units that moved location from every 2 to 7 years.

    4. Finally, I agree that soldiers would benefit from investing for the future but why would you propose they invest in property when the value is on the way down and likely to remain stagnant for some time to come? This seems like a scheme to give undue and potentially damaging encouragement to invest in a particular asset type: property. If anything, soldiers need to be encouraged to invest wisely in whatever asset class is best at the time for their future prosperity. And if it is right for them to invest in property, why would you encourage a system where they are encouraged to invest in military property? Surely it does not matter where they invest and perhaps they would like to buy a house where they think they may retire at the end of their career?

    I commend your concern for military personnel and your attempt to improve military accommodation but your plan seems a little misplaced to me.

    Yes, accommodation needs to be improved but the owner, defence, needs to do the improving with more finance, a better attitude and better houses built in the first place. And yes, soldiers need to be encouraged to invest for their future but in a way that does not distort their market leading them to invest in assets that may not be the best for them.

    Reply: You make some good points. My proposal offers soldiers an option, related to married quarters especially where the quality of the underlying house is often better. In most years buying a house is a good way to help save, but I agree that this year is not a good year. it will take time for the government to set the scheme up. I have linked the proposal to a home barracks approach, so soldiers would always come back to the same barracks, and their wives and children or husbands and children could stay there whilst they undertook tours of duty abroad if they wished.

  4. John
    Posted May 15, 2008 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    It wasn't many weeks ago that I read in the Western Morning News that the MOD were spending millions by renting private housing for service personnel whilst hundreds of their own houses remained empty and unused.It even reported that the whole accomodation at a motel had been rented by the MOD for returning troops.
    Firstly, what a waste of resources and taxpayers money.
    Secondly, I am one of many who are forced to pay Council Tax on an empty property (despite working to renovate it). This is used as an 'incentive' to get the property back into occupation considering the 'shortage' of property (although there is no shortage when it comes to the multiple homes MPs happen to have especially former Labour PMs, what is it- 7 at last count)
    Does the MOD have to pay Council Tax on living quarters? If so why isn't the same 'incentive' or penalty used on them.

  5. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted May 15, 2008 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Well done John ! As with your transport policy ideas your radical , common sense approach is both morally right & bound to be popular . I do hope that you have told our excellent Shadow Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox about your superb ideas for improving the housing prospects for our armed forces .

  6. ScotsToryB
    Posted May 15, 2008 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Or perhaps make all forces accommodation transferable condominium. That way they can release or save equity(it could. of course be made compulsory to save) and when they leave they have a lump sum and the property meanwhile is upkept.

    A little more simple if I may be so bold.

    STB.

  7. mikestallard
    Posted May 15, 2008 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    This seems to me to be an excellent idea.
    Today as I was walking in Lynn past "Connexions", I saw an advert for people to join the Army. Excellent starting salary – £12,000 p.a. with opportunities for foreign travel!!!! This is actually less than a minor civil servant.

  8. Posted May 23, 2008 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    John,

    Just seen your reply. Missed it earlier but I have one extra comment:

    You said "so soldiers would always come back to the same barracks" but this is not in line with the concept of trickle posting.

    Trickle posting is central to the plan post arms plot because where infantry soldiers once experienced different roles as they moved with their unit, they now do so by being moved themselves as their unit stays put.

    Therefore, you cannot give soldiers the right to return to the same barracks after an overseas posting because they will be expected to move around to gain that experience the infantry requires.

    You may of course argue that soldiers should be allowed to serve where they wish but that is not the system and it would make for a 2-tier infantry where some just stay put whilst others have to move.

    This is not conducive to the infantry ethos. They are all in it together and subject to the same rules, demands and risks.

    Again, I commend your efforts but whilst defence provides for married quarters, I feel your time would be better spent on fighting for more (new) money for defence specifically to keep accommodation standards high and brow beating garrisons to make the effort and where new builds take place to make them of a good standard in the first place.

    reply: You may need to do as I say to recruit and retain enough soliders. There will be consequential changes to ops.

  9. angie
    Posted June 12, 2008 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    my husband has 5 years left to serve in the army, we have 2 children in there last few years at school and would very much like to buy a house and settle down so the children can sit there gcse's without been disturbed again. we are entitled to long service advance of pay, but that is only £8500, this amount is just not enough to put down on a mortgage, we need the lsap amount rising to a decent amount to put down on a mortgage.
    we dont want to live in the service accomadation as it is horrible, but we dont have alot of choice. the only time we stand a chance of getting on property ladder is when my husband retires in 5 years time, a little to late to give the children any chance of stability in there important years of schooling.

  10. Malcolm
    Posted July 19, 2009 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    Hi folks

    ref your housing for soldiers, the sale of MOD housing has been going on for years, many soldiers have invested in these houses and purchased them, tho some of the better housing has not been available to the ranks, all the same it has been there to buy.

    Myself I came out after 22 years took council accommodation in cheshire. I was given the area I wished to move to, some councils are giving houses to service personel retiring. Then after 4 months went on to buy the property I moved into, forces personel are classed as living in council accomodation for the length of time served so I had full discount and was able to purchase my house for as little as £16000

    Perhaps the other option of course is to go back to what the army had years ago and that was called credits. this was an amount of money taken from your pay and then you could draw it when ever you went on leave, This time of course you could only pick up your credits on leaving the army that way youd have a decent deposit to buy a house. if they were to do it this way then perhaps this time they would also give us the interest that would of been gained and pay it to us as they keept our money in what ever bank it was left in.

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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