Top of the Blogs – my favourite reads

As someone who writes the odd blog myself, I also read quite a few that other people write. These cover a range of topics but are mostly focused on politics, planning and housing, as well as a few about Bristol. I tend to use blogs to keep me up to date with what is going on, to find out what others are thinking and talking about and to challenge my own thinking.

So, here’s my top ten list of the ones I read regularly, in no particular order, the best of the best!

  1. Municipal Dreams – a blog about municipal reformers and a time when we used to build public housing, with grand visions and dreams;
  2. Jones the Planner – a blog about planning, architecture, cities and design, covering many of my areas of interest and always a challenging read;
  3. Guerrilla Policy – a great collection of blogs from lots of different bloggers (including me) on many different topics, always worth a look to catch up on what’s going on and who’s writing blogs;
  4. Alex’s Archives – a blog I’ve been reading for a couple of years now, covering housing, economics and policy process amongst other things and coincidently written by my PhD supervisor;
  5. Paul Cairney  – a blog about politics and public policy, and a valuable resource for any public policy student. I used his 1000 words blogs regularly during my MSc as a quick introduction to new topics;
  6. Jules Birch – a blog mostly about housing, from someone who seems to know a lot about housing and who I find myself agreeing with regularly;
  7. Red Brick – a housing policy forum, linked to the Labour Housing Group, but challenging to both left and right;
  8. Policy & Politics – a blog linked to Policy & Politics Journal, covering a whole load of policy issues (I may have written a couple on there myself);
  9. Joseph Rowntree Foundation – for regular commentary on social issues, poverty and housing backed up with research evidence and information;
  10. Bristol blogs – a compilation of blogs about Bristol (including mine) which cover a whole load of topics about what’s going on locally. I couldn’t leave a heading about Bristol blogs without a special mention for two of my favourites – The Bristolian, because well it really is different and so anti-establishedment; and Stockwood Pete, because it’s a good local blog that I enjoy.

 

From practice to academia – a personal conundrum

puzzle2This year, 2014, has been an interesting, inspiring and challenging year. It’s the year when I began the transition from manager and policy specialist in the practical world of business to enter the world of academia, as a student of policy. It’s not been an easy transition. The biggest struggle I have faced, and still do, is learning to think like an academic rather than a practitioner. My focus is still too much on identifying practical solutions and real answers to problems, on understanding things from the practitioners point of view and on reading about what’s actually going on in the world. I am beginning to realise my mistakes, but still find myself with an internal battle, between being practical and being academic. I know it’s not that clear cut, but it is how it feels sometimes!

The year started with me in the second term of an MSc in Public Policy and finished with me having completed my MSc and started out on a PhD (see my blog for Bristol University Doctoral College on PhD life). During the year I sat through 9 taught units, submitted 8 assignments (1 still to complete) and a dissertation – that’s a lot of writing, with a lot of reading to back it up! Some assignments worked better than others, some I spent a lot of time on, others less so – the marks frequently did not reflect the time spent writing them. The one consistent issue I found with my writing, which was probably highlighted most by my dissertation, was the battle I encountered every time when it came to focusing on theory. After 20 years of working in practice, focusing on issues and solutions, with theory a distant memory, I have found the relentless need to use theory as the basis of my work a real challenge. It’s just not the way I am used to thinking any more. So the conundrum for me is – can academic work be both academic and practical? In the field of public policy one would hope so, but the focus is still very much on developing or challenging theory.

If, for example, I was doing a phd on housing policy, do I need to know what is going on in the world of housing policy? Do I need to know what the different political parties are proposing, or what the latest think tank report is saying, or about the difficulties practitioners face when it comes to delivering new housing? Or, can I ignore all of that and focus entirely on theoretical developments, what other academics have written and how these models and theories can be challenged or developed further? In the academic world it appears to me that the latter is actually the norm in some disciplines, but is it right?

The obvious answer is perhaps that the theory is there to inform practice, that we need theoretical developments to help us understand what is going on in the real world. But surely that means we need to know what is actually happening in the real world as well? So the two worlds overlap and the battle begins as to where the focus really is. That’s my conundrum and challenge for 2015. In 2014 I had successes and failures with the concept – some assignments went well, whilst in others the battle was won by the practical side of my brain. As an example, I wrote my dissertation on barriers to affordable housing and found myself more interested in answering the question about what the actual barriers are and why they exist in practice, than exploring a particular area of the theory. So I used the research I did to actually answer the question, but largely without making full use of the beautifully crafted conceptual framework I developed at the beginning of the dissertation, which talked about Kingdon’s multiple streams framework coupled with central-local and local-local relations. Needless to say I didn’t quite achieve the mark I wanted and hoped for! But a valuable lesson was learnt the hard way – theory, theory, theory – the foundation of all academic work.

The challenge for me over the next year is to begin with the theory, to see theory as the foundation of my work and put the practical side of my brain into second gear for a while. Start with the reading on theories of the policy process, governance theory and housing policy, rather than political manifestos, think tank reports and actual government policy. Whilst also remembering that, for me at least, there has to be a point to my research, that it will have some purpose in the real world, as well as in the academic world – a tricky challenge indeed!!

Top of the blogs 2014 – politics, poverty and housing

Well it’s come to that time of year when everyone does their ‘best of 2014’ so I thought I’d join the crowd and highlight the most popular blogs on my site this year. It’s always difficult to know which blogs will take hold and generate interest and comment, and I am always surprised by those that do and equally by some that don’t. This surprise is compounded by my constant amazement that anyone is actually interested enough to read them to begin with!!

My blogs during 2014 have been mostly about housing, planning and inequality, often based on what’s happening in Bristol, as well as elsewhere, but always just about issues that are important to me! Whilst my posting of new blogs tends to be erratic and irregular, readership of my blog has steadily increased over the year, with more views and comments as time goes on.

So to the blogs that were most popular on my site:

  • Time for grown up politics? this one came top of the popularity stakes by a long way and even though it was written back in July it still receives a steady trickle of views now. It’s about the negativity of politics and our distrust of politicians;
  • Economic growth & poverty – LEPs take note! which talks about why just creating jobs isn’t enough to tackling the rising poverty experienced in our cite. This was one of several blogs about this topic and why LEPs need to do more to address inequality of opportunity;
  • Bristol – a divided city? this one was about one of the biggest issues Bristol as a prosperous city faces, about the divide between rich and poor and the lack of a strategy to address the issues that need addressing. It was sparked by my involvement in a BBC programme about the same issue.
  • A Mayor for greater Bristol? a controversial blog about bringing the 4 councils around Bristol together more formally to take strategic decisions, working in partnership and collaboratively under one leader. To say opinion is divided on this one would be an understatement;
  • Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy? a popular post that gets regular views, which challenges the short term approach to housing policy adopted by many of our politicians and calls for a coherent, long term plan for housing, locally and nationally.

Well that’s it, a mix of posts about politics, poverty, housing and democracy, that seem to have captured some interest. I thank everyone who reads my blogs for their interest, forbearance and support.

I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and New Year, and look forward to 2015, a year when politics, housing and poverty will undoubtedly be central issues once more.

#HousingDay – why housing is important

DSCN1033This is a special short blog for #HousingDay, an event that celebrates the positive impact of social housing on thousands of people across the UK, shows off the positives of working in the sector and living in social housing, and why it’s so important. I write about housing some of the time on this blog, mostly from an abstract position – I don’t work in the housing sector, I’m not a housing professional or an expert, but it is at the top of my list of issues to talk about, raise the profile of and debate how we improve provision for everyone. Whenever I travel abroad I seek out interesting housing schemes to visit, wherever I am and I’ve seen a few in now all over the place, in China, Hong Kong, The Caribbean, Amsterdam, France, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and even in the Maldives! Many of them fascinating, different and challenging in equal measure. Regular readers of this blog will know I use the picture of social housing in Vienna regularly in my housing blogs – I visited it a few years ago and it’s such a great scheme that I just can’t resist using it again.

For #HousingDay I thought I’d pick out the three most popular blogposts I have written on housing since I first started this blog just over a year ago and here they are:

  1. Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy – my thoughts on party conference season and why it seems politicians are still not taking the housing crisis seriously enough. I also make some comments about a couple of recent books that contribute to the debate – Housing Where’s the Plan? by Kate Barker and Rebuilding Britain by Hugh Ellis & Kate Henderson.
  2. Housing in a civilised society – how did we get it so wrong? – as a novice to the housing debate I talk about how it just doesn’t make sense the way governments in recent decades how tried to address the issues, how our approach is just not logical and how the so called solutions could never be expected to work!
  3. Bristol needs more homes – one of my many blogs about issues in Bristol, my adopted home town, where there is a growing affordability crisis. This blog looks at recent attempts to draw up a plan for housing in the city and questions whether it will go far enough.

Housing is one of the most fundamental issues we face as a society, yet it yo-yos in and out of the opinion polls in terms of whether or not the public think it is an issue of importance, and falls on and off political agendas. Housing Day is a great opportunity to debate the issues and to talk about all the positives, to remind people why social housing is so important and to help point the way towards a better housing future.

Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy?

380451857_ce9bad11e3_zAs party conference season draws to a close are we any closer to knowing how to deal with the housing crisis? Housing has certainly featured on the agenda and been the subject of much discussion at many fringe meetings, but have any of the parties come close to a comprehensive policy approach? Sadly, my initial conclusion would be that once more politicians have failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem and have instead come up with a whole load of ‘initiatives’ that play at the edges of the issue rather than provide a strategic, co-ordinated and coherent plan. We continue along the lines of a “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to housing policy, where pet projects and short term ‘solutions’ are promoted for electoral gain – appealing to target groups rather than providing solutions for those most in need.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent proposals and some that will undoubtedly make a difference to a small number of people. But where’s the plan? From the Tories we got a promise that they would build 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers under 40 which they could buy at 20% below the market rate. An interesting idea perhaps but not one that is going to solve the problem for many! Labour’s announcements were on a grander scale but perhaps lacked a little detail. They talked about building 200,000 homes per year, halting land banking and diversifying the house building industry – all laudable aims but talk is cheap. Where were the policies that many would have expected? The ones that focus on social housing, enabling councils to borrow and build, limiting right to buy options and facing the affordability crisis head on – mostly not there I’m afraid. And so, what have the Liberal Democrats offered us so far on housing? Well perhaps a slightly more comprehensive approach that focuses on building 300,000 homes per year, with new towns and urban extensions as part of the package, more power to local councils to build affordable housing and the ability to suspend right to buy. To be honest they came up with more of what I was expecting from Labour!

We have a housing crisis that means too many people can’t afford to buy or rent decent homes. And on the basis of what we have seen so far from our politicians we can be relatively certain that the comprehensive plans and policies are not going to come from the political parties, so where will the answers come from? We are of course still waiting for the full report from the Lyons Housing Review instigated by Labour, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime there have been a couple of publications that caught my attention. The first, “Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future” written by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson is an excellent attempt to hit back at all those who see planning as the problem and instead takes us back to the pioneers of the planning movement and reminds of what is actually possible when you have “passionate ambition”. The second, “Housing: where’s the plan?” written by Kate Barker is more direct in its criticism, describing our inability to build more housing as the UK’s biggest policy failure. Its focus is on analysing the problem and providing some policy recommendations. Both books are excellent in their own way, they raise some interesting questions, provide a more comprehensive assessment of the problems and suggest some practical solutions.

In Rebuilding Britain the authors talk about access to land and land reform as a critical ingredient of achieving utopia, with smart choices needed along the way. As with the original garden city concept, capturing and redistributing the increase in land values generated by development are seen as central to future large scale development. The characterisation of Britain as a divided nation, as a nation without a plan and  where people are disengaged from politics and planning will resonate with many as some of the major concerns we face as a nation. Their ‘solutions’, or practical steps as they are called in the book, focus on planning and take us through five main areas of change including a fair and efficient society; rebuilding trust; building the homes we need; providing a resilient and low carbon future; and paying for utopia.

Underpinning all of these areas is the need for a new kind of planner, a national plan for England, a new structure for planning and a new kind of government – big change indeed! Quite rightly Ellis & Henderson identify the housing challenge as moving beyond the question of whether we need to build more homes (of course we do), to the question of “where to build them, how we fund them, what the mix is and how do we ensure they are high quality”. Their answer is embedded in a new honesty about the problem, the opportunities and the constraints; about quality not just quantity; and through a varied housing offer including “high-quality social, affordable and market homes”. They do of course focus on ‘well planned new communities’ as a big part of the solution, based on Garden City principles which it is hard to disagree with. But as ever the big question is how you pay for the levels of social housing and infrastructure needed to make these places work. Of course the solution is there, it’s the same as it has always been – capturing the increase in land value for the benefit of the community. That’s the exact same principle as garden cities were based on and it remains the obvious solution now. Indeed it happens to an extent now, through S.106 agreements, Community Infrastructure Levy and planning conditions, but it is ad hoc and prone to difficulties and disagreements over viability. The political acceptability of extracting value from land for the benefit of the community has long been debated but perhaps it is time to revisit this issue with a new debate based on need?

Kate Barker’s book is based on the premise that we need to build more homes at a faster rate but that our ability to do this is held back by competing and vested interests that are inherent in our society and by government failure to address the issues systematically. Instead what we get are short term policies and initiatives that satisfy a few. The dynamics of the housing market perfectly exemplify many of the divisions in our society – the widening gulf in wealth between those who own their home and those that don’t and the increasing inequality between generations that this serves to reinforce. Barker suggests that many would define success in housing terms as “everyone should have access to a decent home at a price they can afford”. Difficult to disagree, but as she explains, the terms are open to extensive interpretation – the difference between need and want for instance?

Barker also addresses the thorny issue of taxing housing when so many people have so much of their wealth already tied up in property. Her solution is a mix of proposals from reforming Stamp Duty, higher council tax bands, and a move to charge Capital Gains Tax on main residence – potentially a rather radical suggestion but one which would help to deliver fairer housing outcomes. In total Barker proposes 11 main policy recommendations, which include providing stronger incentives to local authorities to produce sound housing plans, so they take responsibility for increasing local provision, with greater borrowing powers encouraging them to play a bigger role in land assembly. She also calls for direct financial incentives to those affected by a new development, an attempt to reign in the influence of the Nimbys, which may work but is it the right approach? Barker backs the call for garden cities and urban extensions, with new forms of funding and land assembly, as well as the encouragement of self-build as potentially more acceptable in some areas. Above all what Barker is looking for is a steadier, coherent, long term view of how to manage housing supply to meet housing needs – something I’m sure we can all agree on?

The reasons for our housing crisis are undoubtedly complex and embedded in decades of policy failure. The solutions will also be complicated but need to be built on a coherent plan, that deals with a long term approach to immediate problems and resists the temptation to meddle in short term, pick and mix solutions that satisfy no one!

My journey of discovery

DSCN0159I wrote a blog a few months ago about being made redundant and how that had led to me going back to being a full time student. Well, this is a follow up to that blog, it’s about the final stages of that MSc process – the dissertation! I have now successfully managed to negotiate my way through that first 2 terms of lectures and seminars, as well as the 6 assessed essays, achieving marks well beyond what I thought was possible at my age and after so long away from the academic world. Now to the really difficult bit, choosing a subject, researching it and writing it all up as a dissertation.

Embarking on an MSc dissertation is like taking a journey of discovery, not just about your topic but also about your own thinking and that of others. It’s about rediscovering the challenges and opportunities presented by an issue, finding out what others have written about it, how they researched it and what conclusions they draw from that process. The journey of discovery starts with an idea, an often ill-informed notion that is of interest but perhaps little more than that. This idea is then reworked, explored, reframed and revised before a plan can be put together, a plan that takes you on the next stage of the journey where discovery becomes central to the process.

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From benefits to bricks – IPPR report

After so many different pronouncements on housing and welfare in particular over the last few months, it was great to see a centre-left think tank produce a comprehensive view on a range of policy areas – IPPR’s report on ‘The Condition of Britain: Strategies for Social Renewal‘. Whilst this is by no means comprehensive, it is a good starting point for some policy discussions around the key issues of power devolution, encouraging engagement and joining up approaches to tackling complex social problems. I was encouraged by much of what is in the report, its focus and its conclusions – even if some appear somewhat random. Whilst the report covers six main areas: families; young people; working life; housing; crime and exclusion; and older people, my focus is on the housing ideas discussed and the recommendations that are drawn out. It is clear that with the endorsement of Ed Miliband and others in the Labour Party, the recommendations in this report may well form a key part of Labour policy for the next election, so may need to be taken seriously.

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