Time to listen to the ‘silent majority’

DSCN1037Is it time to listen to the ‘silent majority’? That seems to be one of the questions asked in a recent Fabian Society report entitled – Silent Majority: How the public will support a new wave of social housing. The focus of the report is public opposition to new housing as an explanation for why successive governments seem unable to address the growing affordability crisis in UK housing. Lack of public support for new housing, particularly social housing, is often used as a reason for not doing more, for why government shouldn’t be involved and why this is no longer part of what the local state should be focused on. The Fabian report seeks to dispel this myth, suggesting that nearly 60% of people would actually support more social housing and many would be positive about the government playing a key part in provision.

I’m sure this is a report that the current government will ignore, as it certainly doesn’t chime with their approach to social housing, where the state’s role is reducing, with less and less funding available, and reliance for affordable housing provision resting more and more with housing associations and the private sector.

There’s a further strand to the idea of listening to the silent majority and that’s to down play the amount of coverage and credence we give to NIMBYS. How about we stop and consider all those who are currently living in cramped and overcrowded conditions, in unaffordable accommodation, living miles from where they work, still living at home with parents, ‘sofa-surfers’ and others living in unacceptable housing circumstances because they have little choice because they can’t afford the alternatives currently on offer. How often do we hear from them? Sadly it seems that when we do, people in need of affordable and social housing are frequently depicted in a less than positive light, stigmatised by circumstance!

The Fabian report calls for passionate politicians capable of carrying clear messages to the public to change perceptions and to deliver the change we need. What hopes and signs are there that this might happen? Well in the build up to next years general election there’ll probably be lots of promises, indeed the Liberal Democrats have already suggested that local council’s should be able to suspend the Right to Buy in their area to protect existing council stock. A good idea particularly where waiting lists are long and where council’s are building new homes with public money.

But then we have the knee jerk reaction of other politicians to the notion that we should be building more homes – enter Brandon Lewis, Minister for Housing & Planning. Last week as we had the announcement of the winning entry for the Wolfson Garden City Prize the government immediately distanced itself from the proposals (is there an election in the near future then?) writing them off as urban sprawl and top-down imposition of housing on local communities that just won’t work. Indeed if that’s what the winning proposal had suggested I’d have some sympathy with the response, but it’s not. In fact there’s so many good ideas in all the shortlisted entries that the government would do well to take a proper look at them before defining their own policy. The existing process of allowing local councils and communities to decide where housing should and shouldn’t go quite frankly isn’t working in many areas of the country – something has to change.

Everyone seems to agree there is a problem, we’re not building enough homes and housing is getting more unaffordable. Where we don’t seem to agree is on what causes this problem and how to solve it, we get argument and counter argument along with initiative after initiative. But does anyone have a long term solution that will actually create the change we need? A solution that we can begin work on now so the problem doesn’t just get worse and worse – sadly not. Perhaps the election process will draw out more solutions? Although somehow I doubt it.

Housing Crisis – Confusion Abounds!

DSCN0285Oh no, not another blog on the housing crisis! There seem to be so many at the moment and just as I think about writing one, someone gets there before me with many of the issues I was going to write about. So why am I bothering? Well over the last few weeks I’ve come across some interesting examples of good and bad policy and practice that impacts on housing and I’ve written about some of it briefly in different blogs or articles relating to different topics, but now seems like a good time to bring some of it together, as a contribution to this ongoing debate. So read on if you can bear to!

I’m certainly not suggesting I have the answers or solutions, but merely some thoughts on the type of issues that need addressing and some examples of just how much better they are addressed elsewhere. Also, my take on some of the solutions offered by others is that on their own they won’t work, but maybe together and combined with other things there are some answers out there that might just make a difference, we’re just not joining things up properly. And that’s about joining up locally as much as it is about joining up centrally at national policy level, not all the blame rests with central government, local councils can be just as much at fault for contributing to the problem.

What strikes me most about some of the debate is the serious lack of any strategic planning in the UK at the moment. Ever since the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Regional Spatial Strategies we have been left with a void of strategic planning, reinforced by the Localism Act and its emphasis on local councils taking control of decisions about the supply of housing. So we have a government that says it wants to build more homes but which refuses to set targets for local councils to meet. Local councils when agreeing their plans listen to the voices that shout loudest, those that want to preserve and protect. In cities that means all those that want to keep derelict or green spaces close to their houses just as they are and in more rural areas that means those intent on protecting every blade of grass from any form of development. The outcome is fewer homes planned for in Local Development Frameworks and fewer sites allocated for development and fewer houses built (a slightly simplistic overview, but you get the point?).

Interestingly, a recent case in North Somerset may well be the catalyst to change some of this, although the final outcome is still awaited as the council have yet to respond in detail to the ruling (for more detail see an article I wrote for Bristol 24-7). Effectively, the council has just been told its plan is likely to be considered unsound and doesn’t comply with national policy because it doesn’t make enough provision for new homes, according to a Planning Inspectors report, brought about after a challenge from Bristol University. Previously, the councils immediate response to the removal of national targets was to take over 10,000 houses out of its plans. The council is now having to reconsider that approach and accept that their assessment of need doesn’t fit with that of the most recent planning inspectors view, which brings into question the whole underlying approach of ‘self-containment’ at the heart of their plan. It both baffles and bemuses me how a council that sits so close to Bristol and its boundary can draw up a plan that tries to ignore the relationship with the city, but that’s what they did!

The lesson to be drawn from this, in my view, is that some form of national target for house building is critical. The Regional Spatial Strategies were by no means perfect, were hated by many and perhaps weren’t in place long enough to judge quite whether or not they would have delivered, but something that takes an overall strategic view of growth and the need to plan for it over a longer period has got to be better than what we have at the moment. A proper process of negotiation and compromise to agree local targets to help meet national targets has got to be better than the current conflict based approach where councils do one thing, developers challenge and government inspectors then impose housing numbers and changes to plans that have already been agreed locally.

Another issue that struck me relates to this whole debate about taxing housing and/or land. This seems to be something that rears its head every now and then, and used to be something that changed with every change of government, post 1947 when the Planning Act was first introduced. For me the critical point is about land value increases secured as a result of planning permission, again something that has been long debated, and is pretty unlikely to hit the agenda under the current government. Now I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that landowners shouldn’t be able to benefit financially from securing planning permission on their land, but in my view there needs to be some control on this, to reduce speculative permissions and development and to enable more affordable developments to take place. Perhaps we could try something like the system used in Freiburg, where there are few if any volume house builders as land is bought up by the council and parcelled off in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self build, custom build and cooperative housing schemes, something we see very little of in the UK. Over there they have a system that freezes land prices, where the value of land pre and post planning permissions is set at a more sensible rate, so there is still profit to be had but not to the extent of the land market over here. Now surely that makes land for housing more affordable which in turn makes housing more affordable – doesn’t it?

Understanding cities and how they operate seems to me to be critical to this debate about housing, most of us now live in cities and urban areas and that trend looks set to continue. The notion that we can keep cramming our cities with higher and higher density housing, using up every last piece of green space, without thinking about the impact this has on the people living in those communities and neighbourhoods is just plain daft. But that seems to be what is happening, there are constant cries that there is plenty of brownfield land to be developed, we don’t need to expand our cities and encroach on that sacrosanct piece of land that is the great British greenbelt. Well, sorry, but I disagree. Many people don’t want to live in high density areas, they don’t want to live in apartments without gardens, and they don’t want to live in urban spaces with no greenery or green space to enjoy. So at some point, something has got to give and as a town planner myself, I would rather it gave in a planned and coordinated way than a speculative, unplanned manner that will only lead to development in all the wrong places. I think it is time to have a proper grown up debate about the green belt, about expanding our cities and their boundaries to encompass sustainable growth along transport corridors, where local facilities can be planned in to meet community needs, whilst at the same time preserving and protecting valuable green space within and outside cities and creating new ‘green belts’ where they are needed.

The problem with all this is it means some form of government intervention, which pretty much goes against the grain of recent and current thinking. The focus instead is on relaxing state intervention, particularly when it comes to our planning system, as there are constant calls for fewer regulations so developers can get on and build. Or intervention is focused on the individual, through schemes like Help to Buy, rather than on a collective need requiring wider intervention which might actually make a difference.

So the debate continues, as I am sure will the many housing blogs, as government, both local and national, fails to get to grips with the issues and fails to make the difference that is needed.

 

Britain – A Land of Opportunity or Despair?

As the Tory Party conference draws to a close and Party conference season ends, what will we remember about any of them in a few weeks time? Did we get memorable announcements or just the same old politics? Could we have predicted much of it? I’m left feeling slightly confused and irritated – the middle ground of politics is well and truly crowded, with all 3 main parties vying for control, trying to appeal to everyone and only minimal differences showing between them.

I was looking for Labour to be more socialist, the Tories to show their true colours and the Liberals to break away from the constraints of coalition politics and show us what they are made of. And to be fair we got some of that, Labour showed they are the only party with an interest in reducing inequalities and providing opportunity for all, but didn’t go far enough on some of the issues that really matter, such as the railways, environmental policy and the Living Wage. The Liberal Democrats were a bit of a let down, with little substance to show us what difference they would make if they were in government for longer (except ban carrier bags!). And as for the Tories, well I guess they did actually show what they are about – penalising people who are out of work and characterising them as lazy scroungers, supporting big business and sticking to Plan A on austerity because it is clearly working!

The Prime Minister talked about Britain as a Land of Opportunity but is that what we really have under the Coalition Government and is it what we would get with Labour in Government? I have my doubts, there are policies across all 3 main parties and those put forward by the Green Party that would get my support but sadly overall no single party goes far enough.

No one made real commitments to adopt a minimum wage that is a Living Wage – why is that? How are people expected to live on a minimum wage that doesn’t cover living costs?How do we achieve a decent standard of living for all if the basic concept of paying people properly for the work they do cannot be implemented and doesn’t have the backing of all the main parties?

I’m no clearer now on how we are going to tackle energy policy to ensure we have both environmentally sustainable and secure energy supply for years to come. There were Tory commitments to fracking and nuclear power, Labour promises on energy price freezes and some talk of renewables, but overall, no convincing energy policy from any of them.

Housing was a key area of policy discussion, which in itself was pleasing, but again not entirely convincing. Promises were made about building more homes and helping people to buy, but I didn’t come away with the view that politicians have actually really understood why we have a housing crisis and what is needed to solve it. The discussions were often single focused, which really doesn’t help. You can’t solve the housing problem by just talking about housing. You have to consider our Industrial Strategy, our business focus, regeneration, regional policy, infrastructure decisions etc. All will contribute to solving the problem that we are not building enough homes in the right place at the right price. The constant focus on either the development industry or the planning system is not the answer – yes these are part of the problem, but so is our regional policy and industrial strategy, so are Government decisions around infrastructure spend. Until all these matters, and more, are brought together in a proper housing strategy the crisis will only get worse.

A land of opportunity or just muddling through? 

 

Greens to learn from UKIP!

The Green Party conference has now drawn to a close and attention has very definitely turned to the Lib Dems in Glasgow. But what did we learn about the Green Party?

Well, one thing that we learnt was they have some admiration for UKIP! Surprising? Not really when you look at why – as a minority party on the fringes of UK politics, UKIPs approach to campaigning and the successes they achieved at the last local elections are worth a detailed look to see how other less mainstream parties can learn from them, and that’s exactly what the Greens are doing.

But what of policies and direction? The two key speeches, from Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, were both great examples of what the Green Party have to offer. They put themselves over as the main alternative to the three mainstream “neo-liberal” political parties. Indeed anyone listening to their speeches and attending the Green Party conference could have been forgiven for thinking they had walked into the wrong place and instead headed to a Labour Party conference back in the days when Labour were truly socialist! And much of it was refreshingly good to hear. Continue reading