One of the basic claims of capitalism is that people are rewarded in line with their effort and productivity. Another is that the economy is not a zero sum game. The beauty of a capitalist economy, we are told, is that people who work hard can get rich without making others poorer.
But how does this stack up in modern Britain, the birthplace of capitalism and many of its early theorists? Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released new data tracking how wealth has evolved over time. On paper, the UK has indeed become much wealthier in recent decades. Net wealth has more than tripled since 1995, increasing by over £7 trillion. This is equivalent to an average increase of nearly £100,000 per person. Impressive stuff. But where has all this wealth come from, and who has it benefitted?
Just over £5 trillion, or three quarters of the total increase, is accounted for by increase in the value of dwellings – another name for the UK housing stock. The Office for National Statistics explains that this is “largely due to increases in house prices rather than a change in the volume of dwellings.” This alone is not particularly surprising. We are forever told about the importance of ‘getting a foot on the property ladder’. The housing market has long been viewed as a perennial source of wealth.
But the price of a property is made up of two distinct components: the price of the building itself, and the price of the land that the structure is built upon. This year the ONS has separated out these two components for the first time, and the results are quite astounding.
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