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.


Does Bristol needs its own think tank?

IMG_0594Over the last 6 months or so several people have approached me to talk about how we can create the right opportunities to generate and encourage debate about the key issues in Bristol and how this can be done in a collaborative, inclusive and positive way.Typically for a place like Bristol, there seem to be several groups of people discussing and considering this at the moment without necessarily talking to one another! The interests of the different groups do however seem to be focused on similar issues, that is, how we challenge decision makers and influencers, how we help to inform and raise awareness of issues and challenges and finally how solutions can be developed and discussed.

That’s not to say that these things don’t happen, just that maybe they don’t happen in a coordinated manner, sometimes the approach might be too challenging and negative, or simply that important issues get missed and are not discussed. Equally, there also seems to be a tendency for some decision makers (in our local Councils and the Local Enterprise Partnership) to get too defensive about criticism and challenge, to  actively discourage debate and discussion on key issues and to ask for the views of a select group of people and organisations rather than encourage wider engagement.

So it got me thinking about how you could approach this desire for involvement and engagement with the decision making process and decision makers in a different way, as clearly there is a gap that needs to be filled, as perceived by a range of people including politicians, professionals, partnership managers, community activists and academics. As part of some of the recent discussions the term “think tank” has cropped up regularly – one of those terms that often means very different things to different people: “universities without students”, “ideas factories” and “enclaves of excellence” are just 3 of the terms used to describe think tanks. I personally favour the definition used by McGann & Sabatini in their book on Global Think Tanks (2011), which in summary basically says they are about generating policy focused research and advice to enable policy makers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues.

So if we were to consider this for Bristol, what would it do and could a Bristol focused, independent and progressive think tank be part of the answer? Traditionally the main roles of think tanks can be grouped into 4 main areas all of which I believe are relevant to what is potentially needed in Bristol:

  • Think tanks as educators – informing debate, providing research and raising awareness of issues
  • Think tanks as influencers – acting as a clearing house for ideas and helping to develop policy
  • Think tanks as networkers – facilitating networks to support and develop the exchange of knowledge and policy transfer
  • Think tanks as translators – helping to make academic work more accessible to politicians, the media and policy makers

It is this kind of intervention and independent thinking that Bristol might well benefit from. As an important city region Bristol is clearly successful but equally faces many of the challenges that other cities in the UK face. Surely providing an arena for debate and discussion on  a regular basis, from a range of independent experts, academics, interested parties, communities and others will provide us with better solutions to these challenges than continuing to rely on the input of the same people and groups that have always had good access to decision makers? There is an opportunity here for Bristol, and the Mayor, to lead the way and respond to the Centre for Cities “Think Cities” campaign by creating the right environment for challenge, by being open to debate and criticism and by widening the networks for participation. The potential benefit for the Councils and the LEP is they get more constructive criticism focused on solutions and positive policy change rather than negative, angry criticism with few answers and they get a wealth of easy to understand information and research, focused on the needs of Bristol, with clear, simple messages and solutions. What’s not to like?

We already have some of the structures in place that this could sit under, it needn’t mean a big new organisation costing lots of money. A logical starting place could be with the work of Andrew Kelly and the Festival of Ideas/Economics, the main emphasis of which is to engage and encourage debate and discussion. It could be linked informally to the work of our excellent universities – for example at Bristol University we have the School for Policy Studies, which in its research and teaching covers many of the policy issues of importance to Bristol: city leadership and governance; housing policy; poverty and social inclusion; health inequalities; social justice; and economic development. The expertise is already here we just need to tap into it better and use it to help support creative and innovative thinking in a way that is welcomed by local decision makers and that can help us to make positive and real changes.

There may well be many of you out there that say you are already doing some of this, or who want to part of anything that might happen – I welcome comments so please let me know if you think this is an idea that could work in Bristol.

Would you support the development of an independent, progressive think tank focused on  the Bristol city region?

The Problem with Housing Policy: Part 2

DSCN0285What’s missing in UK housing policy and housing supply is clear and relatively simple – voice and choice. Those on the margins most affected by lack of delivery and supply rarely have a voice in decisions taken around housing policy and most of us have little choice in the form of supply available to us.

There are a whole host of statistics bandied around to illustrate the scale of the problem, but one that caught my attention was that the average time needed to save for a deposit is now 22 years compared to just 3 years back in 1997 – wow! now that is depressing!

Emma Reynolds, shadow Housing Minister, said in a recent speech that this is an “important moment for housing”, I would go further and argue that this is a critical moment for housing in the UK. Which, if we make the wrong choices now could see devastating long term social consequences for many. Now’s the time for politicians and policy makers to be bold, to plan long term and make those unpopular and difficult decisions – not something that comes naturally to many perhaps?

A good start, potentially, is the Labour Party decision to set up an Independent Housing Commission, chaired by Sir Michael Lyons. The remit of the Commission is to look at the changes needed to housing and planning policies and practice in order to deliver more homes, pretty wide ranging in many respects, but also quite narrow in others. What stops us building enough homes is not just about housing and planning policies; it’s about competition, land values and land markets, community resistance, lack of political will, inherent conservatism etc. the list goes on and at the heart of it maybe it’s also about deep-seated cultural and behavioural aspects. The need for housing has moved from a basic human need for shelter to one that sees housing as a commodity and an investment for the future. This in itself reinforces the need for house prices to rise or at least remain stable, so people can see a return on their investment, which in turn skews how we see the economics of the situation and the decisions we then make about housing policy.

So what’s the solution and what will come out of the Lyons Housing Commission? The questions/issues it sets out to address, do on the surface, to a non expert like  myself, seem pretty sensible and useful:

  • unlocking land for housing development
  • investment in housing and associated infrastructure
  • role of new towns and garden cities
  • the right to grow
  • share the benefits of development

For me, one of the biggest issues within this debate is the issue of the land value change created by the granting of planning permission – something successive governments have wrestled with ever since the introduction of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act. I leave others far more qualified than I to talk about this in detail, but it seems to me that we never quite manage to get it right. We don’t seem capable of extracting enough value back to the community purse to enable us to provide appropriate and necessary infrastructure or to invest in enough affordable homes to meet demand, simple as that! So a state introduced form of regulation provides fantastic opportunities for private landowners to generate significant wealth for themselves, whilst putting little back into the communities and areas they are affecting, not exactly a philosophy I am comfortable with. But a massive issue for the Lyons Review to address if we are to crack this problem once and for all – although I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath on that one.

The issue of cities and their hinterlands is also an interesting one. The Lyons Review documentation talks about the relationship between neighbouring councils and a city’s right to grow, and how we provide the incentives for growth outside of tight city boundaries. This is a big issue, which plays out rather painfully in the Bristol area, with the city boundary currently drawn so that any space for real expansion to meet the growth demands of the city is only possible within neighbouring authorities who are consistently resistant to housing growth. There’s an obvious answer to this one, if cities are the centre of our growth strategy for the UK and play such an important role in producing GDP and GVA growth, then allow them the control over their own ability to grow. Redraw the boundaries and give places like Bristol space to grow, without the need to cajole, negotiate, liaise, discuss, persuade, and argue with other surrounding councils, who quite frankly are never going to agree! Give cities control over their own hinterland.

I like the idea of a new wave of garden cities and new towns, I’m a big fan of the concept personally. The issue here though, as with many aspects of the housing supply debate, is about location, location, location. As soon as you start talking about lines on maps, plots of land and possible locations, all the negatives start coming out, all the resistance begins. So we can talk about it in the abstract and many people will agree the concepts, politicians will sign up to the idea, as they are at the moment. But as soon as that first notion of where one might be built is in the public domain or even first mooted, everyone begins to have second thoughts, politicians get nervous, the anti-protest begins. If we rely on localism and community buy-in, we will never deliver a new town or garden city again, it just won’t happen. Politicians will need to be brave and risk upsetting a few people if they want to build bold new projects, HS2 is a prime example of that, if the need is there and there are clear benefits to more people then difficult and unpopular decisions will need to be taken.

Some would argue that actually what we need to solve the crisis is more of a bottom up approach rather than greater controls and imposition by government. That is, the people and communities most disadvantaged by the lack of affordable housing need to be encouraged and enabled to find solutions for themselves. They need to understand the full range of choices that could be available with the right encouragement and the right financial, land and legislative framework. That includes self build, custom build, co-housing schemes and  community land trusts as very real options for increasing our housing supply. We seem a world away from this at the moment.

It will be interesting to see just how much comment and feedback the Lyons Review gets from non-vested interests, people outside of the housing and planning professions or building industries. At the moment I’d be surprised if many people had actually heard about it, let alone considered responding to it.

I’d like to see both a top down and bottom up approach combined, that brings together the best of what’s happening elsewhere in Europe and the world, that provides both voice and choice to people in their housing decisions. Interesting times indeed for housing policy, but will we rise to the challenge?

Lies, damn lies and statistics!

Cities Outlook 2014 is out, the latest report from the Centre for Cities on how our cities are doing and how they compare with one another in terms of growth. And it’s causing quite a stir in Bristol, because it has the temerity to put Bristol at bottom of the pile when it comes to private sector jobs growth! How can this be? We are constantly being told by all those with power and influence in the city that Bristol is growing; one of the best economies outside of London; a great place to be! So how can it possibly score so badly when it comes to such a critical indicator? Could it be that things are not quite as rosy as some would have us believe?

Overall the report is quite positive, the economy is back on track, the UK is experiencing more sustained growth, cities are coming out of the depths of recession and beginning to grow again. However, the general figures and overall positive messages hide a complexity of diverse problems faced by very different cities.

The private sector jobs figures are interesting in many ways, not least because Bristol is at the bottom of the worst 10 cities for the period of growth between 2010 and 2012 – not sure that has happened before. We always pride ourselves on having a strong private sector, being less reliant on public sector jobs and for weathering the storm. The figures however tell a different story – we are worse than Hull, losing a staggering 13,900 jobs over a two year period (2010-2012).

So, one might expect a bit of a response from the council and the Local Enterprise Partnership, maybe suggesting how they are responding to the issue and what plans they have to turn it around? But no, what we got was the Mayor and others very quickly questioning the accuracy of the figures, making out that things are not that bad, that Bristol is thriving and performing well. That’s all very well but burying our head in the sands and ignoring the difficult stuff seems to be becoming a bit of a habit in Bristol. Sure we can point to all the positives, as the somewhat unbalanced article in the Bristol Evening Post does, but what are we going to do about the negatives? Pretend they don’t exist and hope it will all come good – I don’t think so, in my experience that just doesn’t work.

A better response would surely be to recognise that not everything is great, that there were significant job losses in Bristol and we have some ground to make up. Then you develop a plan to do that, to address the problems that are identified, over 13,000 job losses in a 2-year period is a big issue, even if things have got better since. There are people out there in Bristol who need help and support to get back into jobs; that need welfare support whilst out of work; and who need our political and business leaders to understand their plight. Pretending everything is fine and ignoring the problem really doesn’t help or fill people with much confidence.

Complacency could once more become our biggest problem!

The Problem with Housing Policy

The problem with housing policy is we are all just too passive, we don’t take control. We know there is a problem, even if some deny it. We know volume house builders and housing associations seem incapable, unable or unwilling to solve the problem – that is they are not building enough homes each year to house all the people that desire a home at a price they can afford. Yet for some reason we just sit back passively waiting for someone else to sort it all out. Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from history?

In UK housing history there are some fantastic examples of people taking control for themselves, of claiming areas of land and building their own home. Perhaps the best example is that of the ‘plotlanders’ of South East England in the early 20th Century, where areas of disused agricultural land were sold off in small plots to people wanting to build their own holiday home or small holding, these were then gradually improved and extended into permanent homes. This was all pretty much unregulated (before the introduction of the 1947 Planning Act) and led to quite strange areas of ad hoc layouts and designs around the Essex coast. But whatever they looked like, these were fiercely independent communities, who had built their own homes, without help from those in power, they’d done it through self help and mutual aid – an interesting concept often mentioned by Colin Ward in his writings on housing and planning – borne out of anarchist philosophy where people come together in voluntary cooperation without the need for state intervention, authority and control. There are many examples of squatters and others who have reclaimed the land, taking over derelict or empty properties to turn these into much needed homes, or travellers who have purchased land and tried to settle on it.These examples in recent times are, however, all to infrequent and unsuccessful, often written off as the fringe activity of a radical few and stifled by regulation and enforcement action.

Given the large numbers of people who can no longer afford a decent home to live in you have to wonder why it is that more direct action or self help has not been the order of the day. What is that would generate this tipping point where people seek to take control for themselves? Or have we really become a nation of passive people happy to rely on the private market or state to provide for our basic needs? It’ll be interesting to see just how bad things have to get before we see real change in this area.

One of the things that does appear to be happening at the moment is a slight shift of attention away from mass build towards self build or custom build as an option for housing supply. In the UK this is but a tiny proportion of current build (7-10%) compared to other European Countries where the figure is more likely to be over 50%. Recent reports by Alex Morton of the Policy Exchange and the Self Build Government Industry Working Group both refer to the potential of  self build to make a much greater contribution to housing provision. Both also refer to the planning system as a major barrier to this happening at the moment, as well as land values, difficulties of financing schemes, mortgage lenders etc. So it seems there could be a solution, based on the idea of self help, that is gathering some interest at last.It remains to be seen whether or not anything will happen as a result of these various reports and to what extent the Lyons Housing Review recently set up by the Labour Party will even consider this as part of the solution, or whether it will focus instead on typical mass scale solutions like new towns and garden cities?

Alex Marsh in a recent blog on housing talks about the need to go back to first principles and suggests that 2014 could just be the year where we see the housing policy debate get serious – couldn’t agree more and let’s hope he is right. But to do that could involve some quite radical thinking and radical change in not just housing policy, but also planning policy and other areas too.

One things for sure, something needs to change or we might just reach that tipping point where people do begin to take control for themselves!

A Focus on South Bristol – Let’s Redraw the Economic Map of the Bristol City Region

South Bristol has many advantages – it is close to the city centre, surrounded by beautiful countryside and well located in relation to Bristol Airport. It has some lovely houses, in garden suburb layouts, with large gardens and green open spaces close by. But to many it is perceived as inaccessible, with a poor quality environment, unskilled workforce and high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Look at any table of statistics for the Bristol City region – on house prices, crime, educational attainment, skills or employment levels and one thing will quickly become obvious. The central area and the northern fringe are making great strides but South Bristol is lagging behind:

  • The worst 2 areas nationally for lack of attainment amongst children/young people are in Knowle West
  • 6 areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 100 nationally
  • More than a third of people in South Bristol live in areas which fall in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of education, skills and training deprivation
  • Of the most deprived 20 areas in Bristol in terms of education, skills and training, 18 are in South Bristol
  • 35% of people aged 16-74 in South Bristol have no qualifications
  • Four areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of health deprivation and disability
  • Of the worst 10 areas in Bristol in terms of crime, eight are in South Bristol
  • 3 areas in South Bristol are in the worst 50 areas in England in terms of crime.

That’s a sad reflection on Bristol itself and all those who have been, or are, in a position to do something about it. But with vision, leadership and ambition all that can change. So why hasn’t it? We have been talking about South Bristol as an area of multiple deprivation and disadvantage for decades, but how much has actually changed? Yes there have been some improvements in recent years; new schools, the redevelopment of Symes Avenue, new housing at Lakeshore, a new community hospital, skills centre and a leisure centre. But is this the best we can do?

Just what are our aspirations for South Bristol?  From so many points of view it seems once more to be left behind. Do the Local Enterprise Partnership have plans to bring jobs, regeneration, housing and skills to the area or has it been forgotten in their plans or maybe just placed in the too difficult to handle box? Have the Mayor and Bristol City Council got plans and will they work with the local community to see what they want?

From the outside looking in, South Bristol just seems to keep missing out and will continue to lag behind other areas of the city until it features high enough in political aspirations and action.

Rather than allocate South Bristol as an Enterprise Zone or major growth area, like other areas of the city region, the Local Enterprise Partnership instead decided to focus entirely on transport links – the North Fringe to Hengrove BRT route and the South Bristol Link Road. Will this really deliver what is needed for South Bristol or is it just the tip of the iceberg?

South Bristol could be so different but what do we need to do to make it happen and whose job is it?

Is this something the local communities themselves can take control of and outline what they would like different areas of South Bristol to be like, or is it up to the Local Enterprise Partnership to remember to include it in their plans and focus funding on the area, or is it down to the Mayor?

I suspect it should be a combination of all of these but so far there is little evidence to suggest that much is actually happening?

The economic map of the Bristol City region could be redrawn to embrace South Bristol and make it the focus of everyone’s attention but will it ever happen? I’ve been waiting 20 years to see real change and all I can see at the moment is piecemeal, ad hoc, low quality developments that look like no one in authority really cares about the people or the area!

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?