Housing White Paper: Keep on renting

Declaring the housing market as ‘broken,’ would have been an appropriate title for any white paper on housing since the early 2000s. Eric Pickles, Brandon Lewis and now Gavin Barwell have overseen Conservative housing policies at a time when ownership has been continually dropping and housing has become increasingly present in the public conscience. 

The end of home ownership as a priority?

The main soundbite which strayed in and out of national news this week was the departure from subsidising home ownership under Cameron/Osborne to the belated green light to PRS developers under the May government. The idea of convincing a nation to shelve its Englishman’s castle mentality to prepare for a future of renting is one which will take time to absorb. While sold as a way of providing security to those currently trapped in the often damp, inhospitable and unreliable conditions of the private rented sector, this was an altogether new strategy to support purpose-built developments which are more likely to provide long-term secure tenancies.

Underpinning this policy is the fact that the rental sector is a gigantic unearthed commercial opportunity. The UK’s private rented sector is, in the most part, loosely regulated, informal and used by buy-to-let individuals to derive a second income. Government support for a more comprehensive PRS sector will please financial institutions who are always on the lookout for new ways to channel the pot of idle pensioner savings in the region of around £90bn according to property analyst Andrew Teacher. The likelihood is that a boosted PRS sector will do more to improve the quality of rental housing in this country than its affordability.

Is this government getting tough on developers?

No. While the white paper does acknowledge the problems of land banking and the oligarchic nature of volume housebuilding, there is nothing that will stir up rabid discontent among the big players in the market. Speeding up construction starts from the point of planning approval from three to two years is now put to consultation and is caveated crucially by the fact it must not impair the financial ‘viability’ of a scheme. There is some encouraging news for SME builders in terms of making it easier to access finance however.

A ‘Downsizing Revolution?’

This was the Daily Mail’s Monday morning headline, who joined the Telegraph in sensationally overplaying the content of the housing paper on encouraging elderly people to move out of large family homes.

The academic Danny Dorling describes not a ‘housing crisis’ per se but a crisis of accommodation, by which if all the available stock was redistributed in the right areas, the demand for housing would be satisfied. One major social divide in the housing sector is a generational one, which leads to a gap in the fortunes of young and old. However there is a serious undercurrent to the lack of appropriate housing for the elderly, which is tied in with the incapacities of social care at local level. Similar government backing should be made to providers to improve this sector.

We need to move on from blaming local authorities

In general, UK governments, whether local or national, do not build housing. Our fate is very much commandeered by the large house builders and their motivation to build. Thus it is simply counterproductive and misleading to imply that councils are at the heart of a lack of housing supply. Capital controls still exist which prevent local authorities to borrow sufficiently to pursue their own housebuilding programmes. Isolated examples exist of positive and forward thinking work by the public sector to make this happen, but in the majority of cases there is simply not the political will to make it happen. The white paper does all councils to charge up to 20% more for planning fees, which has to be reinvested directly into resourcing costs which will be a welcome boost. However the financial tools on offer remain limited to personnel rather than directly commissioning housing itself. Rather than blame councils, or even developers for that matter, politicians from across all parties are beginning to reluctantly see that the public sector has to be reawakened if the level of housing supply is to meaningfully change.

All in all, the white paper provides a good statistical argument for the issues facing the industry. However it’s suggestions, of which there are few, will not tackle head on the glaring disparity between incomes and house prices and the role of inflationary housing finance. The government would have done well to feed off ideas such as the London living rent which tie rents at a third of average local earnings and be far more interventionist in addressing the planning systems’ impact on the affordability of land. Social housing remains sidelined by national government as a principle, while Right to Buy looks to be expanded rather than curtailed.

One MP described the white paper as a ‘Macmillan-like effort’ to get Britain building again. Harold Macmillan was of course acting at a time of national emergency in the postwar period and was able to pull a number of levers (most notably those of local authority departments and prefabrication) in order to reach his fabled 300,000 new homes a year. This white paper provides a mirror for our current situation, where the problem is made blindingly clear through government publications which set up questions rather than act upon them. Without fully supported local authority housebuilding, we will remain inept at building at the rate we need.

Are garden villages politically viable?

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Roll the clock back twelve months from now and you might stumble upon a number of news pieces on grand housing plans, bound together by a narrative of national government tackling the problem of ‘sink estates’ head on. Pre-referendum, the government needed to be seen to be dealing with domestic issues in order to divert unwanted attention from its relationship with Europe. This year the same early January pattern was visible, using housing to create a business-as-usual distraction from Brexit uncertainty and indecision. However the announcement this week of a wave of ‘garden villages’ to create 50,000 new homes is at first a startling one to digest.

Most people living in rural areas or towns will be aware of nearby local authorities using land used for housing and typically be concerned about pressures on local infrastructure and services. Small scale additions to existing villages and towns are of course underway all over the country, whether they are branded garden villages or not. Much like the hype around garden cities in 2014, they are used fundamentally to dress up old policy in new clothes.

Dig a little deeper into the government’s press release issued on Monday and you will find that in reality the announcement merely places additional pressure on local authorities to deliver on their local plans with a fund of £6 million intended to cover resourcing costs to follow through on local planning policy.

Now the presence of a political will to build more homes is of course in simple terms a good thing, however it fails to ignore the fact that government is continually asking local authorities to approve more planning approvals with scarce resources through their local plans and zero influence on the economics of land value and housing delivery. Garden villages, after all, will only provide 48,000 homes nationally as a maximum and consume vast amounts of political capital given the sacrosanct nature of Britain’s greenbelt.

Take, for example, the site of Dunton Hills in Essex, one of the 14 proposed garden villages. Before the nearby postwar new town of Basildon was built to house over 100,000 people, the area of Dunton was home to a wave of Plotland settlements, sold to individuals at prices based on the cost of agricultural land. They are now almost all but vanished, in part due to their temporary nature and patchwork construction, but they represent a time when land was considered a resource within the jurisdiction of local government rather than an asset to pump up with the help of planning permission. Far from a New Year revelation, Dunton Hills village began its life as Dunton Garden Suburb back in 2014. Planned to provide 4,000 to 6,000 across two boroughs, it was rejected by 84% of respondents during local consultation. As the respective borough councils of Brentwood and Basildon battle with the blunt tools of local government in approving the revised scheme at Dunton Hills, messages coming from Westminster such as those from the DCLG this week fuel local anger and contribute to a sentiment of powerlessness and resentment towards an external force.

Local plans should be undoubtedly be encouraged and supported, however they should not be dressed up as a means for meeting arbitrary housing targets nationally. Local extensions to towns on greenbelt land will remain politically impotent in the near future until a strategic plan is in place to build truly ambitious 100,000+ home new towns. Placing pressure on local authorities to give green lights based on numbers alone will generate sub-standard developments which fail to provide local infrastructure or affordable housing. The housing white paper due to be produced later in the month will shed further light on the appetite of this government towards local additions to existing towns, particularly on greenbelt land.

A five-point manifesto for next week’s Autumn Statement

Next week is an important one for the immediate future of housing. A government white paper on housing will be published alongside Phillip Hammond’s Autumn Statement within the backdrop of a looming Brexit-induced rise in living costs and a growing budget deficit on the horizon. Cheap credit however is likely to herald a new phase of infrastructure spending along with greater national investment in housebuilding.

Truth be told, if any of the following are put into practice it would be a fairly drastic departure from present housing policy but here are five recommendations nonetheless:

    1. Tackle land-banking once and for all.

    50% of new housing is built by eight FTSE-100 listed companies. Collectively they are sitting on land which could be used to build over 600,000 homes. Volume housebuilders are heavily responsible for the high cost and inaccessibility of land for housing development by refusing to build at a rate which would lower prices. Effective zoning or a land value tax would speed up construction times.


    2. Grow the Private Rental Sector.

    Inflationary policies such as Help to Buy do not help those without an adequate inheritance to get on the housing ladder. If we accept that home ownership is unreachable in the current system we must improve the quality of the rental sector. This is most appropriate in urban areas of high demand where lifestyles suit the facilities and flat layouts that PRS offers.


    3. Build more social housing.

    Housing benefit stands at £13bn a year. Most of this goes into subsidising the out of control rental market and does not provide security of tenure or a guaranteed quality of living. Conservative and New Labour governments have proved ideologically opposed to the mere idea of social housing however along with its numerous benefits is also extremely efficient economically. Social housing is generally cost-neutral after 30 years and generates long term income streams for local government or housing associations.


    4. Invest in skilling up the housebuilding workforce

    Technical colleges became stigmatised in the UK as they morphed into universities, providing courses which were not always linked to need in vital areas such as construction. Post-Brexit uncertainty over the capacity of long term migrant labour means we must return to the idea of apprenticeships as a way of ensuring adequate manpower for housebuilding.

    5. Promote open-source land data

    Local authorities do not have the resources to map out every square inch of their respective areas and assess suitability for development such as custom or self-build for example. We should be encouraging tech firms to embrace this and open up land ownership data to the public via a digital format. Thankfully plans to privatise the land registry are currently on hold and we must rethink the way we assess land for development, primarily by making it more transparent.

    Looking to build your own home? Policy is slowly adapting to suit demand

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    Housing policy tends to end up packaged up into short catchphrases; Right to Buy, Pay to Stay, Help to Buy, Build to Rent and so on. The latest of these is the Right to Build, which comes into effect from October 31st (today). The aim of this in simple terms is to make it easier for those with the ambition to become self or custom builders to gain access to plots of land. This quietly processed piece of legislation has potentially drastic changes to a growing sector of the housing market. It is more or less common knowledge that the private market has proved unable or unwilling to plug the supply gap since the straitjacket on local authorities was buckled tight through the imposition of borrowing caps from the mid-1980s onwards. The custom build and self build industries in this country have emerged, almost reluctantly, against the will of monopolising volume housebuilders and have only prompted legislation by swelling demand from would-be customers.

    The bill originally proposed that councils would be responsible for providing serviced plots which would be appropriate for individual or collective builders. However the complex reality of undertaking this task in the context of dwindling local authority resources meant that this became refined as a requirement to maintain a list of those willing or considering to build (in varying degrees) their own home.

    The success and popularity of similar housing sectors in other Northern European states, combined with the freedom and open-sourced potential of developing technology would hint at this being a no-brainer. The UK market has proved typically suspicious about the idea, mainly given the inertia and lack of investment in what is perpetually deemed a risky boom-and-bust industry.

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    Wikihouse open-source design and build

    Perhaps the best place to start when unpacking this policy is in addressing the cost and accessibility to land. Land value taxation for instance would be an effective way of forcing developers who bank land into building on it or sell up. Stringent planning and zoning policy in favour of custom and self builders on local authority land would limit risk with, for example, custom build developers and the open the possibilities for a more varied typological approach to developing sites.

    Media outlets in home improvements and DIY serve their purpose of fuelling desires or confirming embedded suspicions among Britain’s potential custom and self builders. However the sector is now longer confined to the time-rich upper middle classes but to both the young and old generations as a meaningful alternative to the dreary options proposed in the new-build housing marketplace. Policy has been late coming, led by Richard Bacon MP and backed by heavyweight industry evidence, the new act will now require local authorities to grant planning permission for self and custom build development in line with the demand recorded from local authority registers. Interest from those willing to engage in this opportunity for a more customised and user-specific solution is vital to maintain momentum.

    Register with your local authority here

    The decision to block the CPOs on the Aylesbury Estate is good news, but why was it taken?


    Sajid Javid recently made the shock decision to overturn Southwark council’s attempt to buy out the last remaining leaseholders in order to begin demolishing the Aylesbury Estate in south London. A shock both because it came from Javid himself (a former investment banker at Deutsche Bank not typically associated as a saviour of social housing) and because it was made on the grounds of ‘human rights’ despite the wealth of available historical examples where such rights were seemingly of secondary importance. Used by Tony Blair as the location for his first speech as Prime Minister and by Channel 4 to depict a damp, dreary scene of satellite dishes and washing lines, the estate has arguably the most turbulent past of any in the UK, pummelled by years of neglect and contempt. The design of the estate has well known architectural shortcomings, both in the inadequate lifespan of the construction method used and the sheer scale of its resolution. However the issues of estate management, affordability and rehousing of existing tenants go well beyond the discourse of design.

    The question remains as to why this decision was made at all. Is it part of a wider message projected by the new government’s initial promises of fighting inequality and social injustice? Is it an attempt to declare allegiance to leaseholders as opposed to social renters? Or, more optimistically, is it the beginning of a fresh view on problematic viability calculations on soon to be developed estates?

    At face value, the decision seems to be at odds with any government policy on social housing since the 70s. It would be a mistake to extrapolate this move as any meaningful shift towards protecting the rights of those living on threatened estates. It seems unclear how far the government want to develop the recent political construction of a move towards the centre but it is unlikely to generate a sudden swing in its appeal to voters on inner city estates.

    The process of estate regeneration in recent years to densify public land is renowned for its complexity and the precarious state in which it can leave residents. Countless examples of ill-fated revamps on estates have produced an entire generation of organised groups such as 35% or Architects for Social Housing (ASH) which campaign actively on behalf or alongside residents. The crucial political fact was recently pointed out by Paul Watt, academic at Birkbeck University, in a talk titled ‘Forgotten Estates,’ where he explained that social housing is one the three pillars, alongside the NHS and state education, which form the foundations of the welfare state. However it is the most likely, he explains, of the three to be left behind within public opinion. While we depend on state healthcare when we fall sick or send our children to state schools, the reality is, for a multitude of reasons, most of us do not live in a council property and therefore do not have direct physical or emotional connections to it as an idea. It may form the subject of superficial televised documentaries in order to expose the dire situation of those faced with eviction, but the simple fact remains that social housing does not rank high enough alongside immigration or the NHS as political treasures worth investing in or dealing with.

    It also would be a mistake to explain the decision simply because it referred specifically to leaseholders as opposed to tenants. This episode brings to light once again the catastrophic combination of the Right to Buy and estate demolition. While it must be said that in many cases leaseholders are indeed able to get a good deal for their property which they invariably acquired at a massive discount, there are also huge losses from this process. As recently explained by George Turner, while the principle of buying your own council property at a discount understandably seems an attractive prospect, the eventual reality is that you have only marginally more rights than social tenants. If the price paid by the council for your property in the event of demolition is pegged by its ‘market value,’ then the property is invariably worthless on the open market and often generates a CPO value of around a third of similar local properties. Consequentially this means residents either move out of high value areas such as London as they cannot afford to buy a similar sized property outright or typically take one of the shared ownership offers available on the newly built part of the site.

    Javid’s decision noted that ‘The proposed purpose of the order will have considerable economic and social dis-benefits in terms of consequences for those leaseholders remaining on the order land.’ This has called a halt to the demolition phase and brings hopes of a better deal for the eight remaining leaseholders. While Southwark contemplates legal action against this decision, this episode merely confirms the absence of a national level plan to strategically locate new, affordable housing. The lack of available land means invariably councils are pressured into densifying their stock at unsatisfactory levels of affordable housing. This decision will at least make those developing public land to think twice when offering buyouts to those refusing to leave the estate they call home.

    ‘Inventing the future’: A review

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    By 2050, between 47% and 80% of all current jobs will become automated. This is both a terrifying and potentially liberating prospect. While the dystopian version of this proposition resembles a future represented by a Matrix-like society of humans controlled by machines, the future of our working lives inevitably depends on our relationship with technology. As the Western world experiences stagnant economic growth and increasingly precarious and insecure jobs which are often low-paid and low-skilled, these crises pose new questions for the kind of economic model we wish to follow. As the ageing working classes of Western Europe and the US struggle with the loss of identity connected to stable industries into anonymous and demeaning new careers, the purpose of work as it is traditionally defined comes under scrutiny.

    What kind of jobs are we creating?

    The global reality is that there is a growing ‘population surplus’ – meaning there are simply not enough jobs to go around and that we are continually having to artificially create new, often unnecessary ones just to plug the gap, while keeping unemployment high enough to put sufficient downward pressure on the labour market. Automation has created a polarised job market – on the one hand deskilled roles completing repetitive and menial tasks and also facilitating job prospects for highly-skilled operatives of improving technology, programming and data management.

    Self-fulfilling protest

    Discourse as to the solution to these issues falls decidedly within leftist political thought, often with disappointing or non-existent alternatives as part of the preparation for a post-capitalist society as a rejection of neoliberalism. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams however go further than this – calling for a radical rethinking of society in a post-work environment. While representing a leftist argument, the authors are in fact as critical of the left’s current strategy as that of the right. Srnicek and Williams take the reader on a comprehensive tour of current geopolitical crises, the stagnation of the West and the current ineffectiveness of alternative political challenges to the status quo. ‘Folk politics’ is a phrase used repeatedly in a chapter on the failure of the left and recent protests such as Occupy to enact any long term structural change. The feeling of doing ‘something’ on a local level is, according to the authors, a futile and selfish attempt at gaining any meaningful change in an era where simply rejecting the current situation is regarded as radical.

    What can be done?

    Inventing the Future calls for the full automation of society, a process which has been picking up speed ever since the introduction of ATMs, self-scan checkouts and so on. Srnicek and Williams argue that this has previously been held back by the access to cheap labour and the levels of investment required in some cases to make automation viable. This process is, we are reminded, happening all across the developing world, as countries bypass the manufacturing sector in pursuit of a low-skilled service economy.

    Now there is of course a sizeable section of society for whom technology has created and enhanced jobs and added complexity and value to the skills required to perform them in their relevant sectors. Agriculture for example has benefited from mechanisation and automation in order to free workers from the hardships and graft of working the land into new roles for farmers and scientists to operate in make farming a more productive enterprise.

    Alongside the proposal for full automation is the somewhat underdeveloped argument for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This policy has enjoyed a recent renaissance within European states, introduced by Finland and recently put to a referendum by the Swiss government. The idea nearly became a reality in 1960s Britain and dates all the way back to Thomas More’s Utopia in 1510. The idea of handing over state money across the country at a standard rate might seem absurd politically in the context of our declining welfare state and continued reminders of the importance of ‘living within our means.’ Would this grant the lower income population freedom from the drudgery and insecurity of contemporary work, an opportunity to spend time on things which actually bring a sense of purpose and direction to our modern lives. Or will it create a chaotic society where an irresponsible public needlessly blow away their incomes on pointless goods?

    Srnicek and Williams put forward a careful and viable argument for automation and the freedom from unnecessary menial jobs. In comparison to other proposals for alternatives to the current neoliberal model, the detail is lucid and comprehensible to a mainstream audience. The question one might ask however is whether or not a future of full automation (leaving aside the fact that it is practically impossible) is something we want to pursue in a social sense. Srnicek and Williams appear unperturbed by the rise of machines and the manipulation of these tools by corporations. The ‘freedom’ associated with a life free from work seems to be offset by the prospect of a future determined by technological processes which have ever increasing control over the way our lives are led in a physical sense. Given the value associated with personal data and the ability to convert this into models for everything including our voting and purchasing intentions, a fully automated world brings with it alarming consequences which are perhaps underdeveloped in  this otherwise comprehensive study in alternative future scenarios for the way we define work.

    Should London become a city state?

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    The term Ecumenopolis was invented by the Greek city planner Constantinos Doxiadis in 1967. It imagined a future world where urban areas combined to make a single, global state. This was refined to a European version- an amalgamation of London, Paris, Amsterdam and the Ruhr region of Germany into a powerful urban state. The idea of a cosmopolitan collection of global hubs with shared values fighting against its rural neighbours holds more relevance than ever in the aftermath of Britain’s decision to abandon the EU project.

    Since the early hours of 24th June, inner city Londoners have reacted angrily, howling in dismay at the parochialism of Britain’s rurality. The decision for the UK to leave the EU, leaving to one side the matter of Article 50 and the problematic nature of its initiation, will no doubt affect the likelihood for global firms to locate headquarters in London and distort the image of the capital as a progressive, incredibly open place to live. But should, as one of the many petitions issued recently suggests, London break away from its peripheral regions and form its own city state?

    The economic argument is relatively clear; London contributes more to the UK economy than Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales combined and would have a GDP exceeding that of Sweden or Switzerland as it its own state. The benefits of such an agreement for London would be the ability to cut off tax revenues currently siphoned off to parts of the UK in more urgent need of investment. Infrastructure would focus on the global rather than the domestic, potentially enhancing London’s status as an international hub. Hong Kong and Singapore function as business-friendly global cities albeit with widely different political and social contexts. There is an argument to say that the UK’s dependence on the financial sector is largely due to London’s comparative success, meaning a clean break would potentially allow the rest of the country to focus more on manufacturing in order to restore some lost identity to northern towns.

    The question also remains as to where one would draw the line. ‘London’ is now an ambiguous entity of around 8 million people, spreading out and beyond the M25 with an electorate of varying economic opportunities and political tendencies. It is often forgotten that London has both Britain wealthiest and most deprived local authorities and a move to independence may well lead to these inequalities becoming more apparent. Barking & Dagenham for example voted in favour of Brexit in a 62-38 majority as opposed to Islington which voted 79% in favour of remain.

    Perhaps this binary question is after all missing the point altogether. The suggestion for London to become an independent state is not the result of lucid, strategic planning but a rejection of the rest of the country – an emotional reaction similar to that which has caused so much hatred and anger towards leave voters. Perhaps one of the most misleading and simplistic conclusions from the referendum is that of a rich, globally orientated London compared with an impoverished periphery. While elements of this have validity, it also fails to register the disconnection among London voters themselves and the levels of poverty within London which largely goes unnoticed on a national level.

    London is already an established international city, inhabited by a young, mobile population and the question of its independence from the rest of the UK was a valid one even before the wheels of the Brexit steamroller began turning. The political freefall which has taken place in Westminster over the past two weeks has compounded the emotional impacts of the decision, resulting in a reaction by global financial markets in accordance with the pre-referendum predictions. Dismissed as scaremongering over the course of the campaign, the moving of financial services jobs from London to Paris, Dublin or Frankfurt are now in uncomfortably plain view.

    This will of course please those aiming to ‘stick it’ to the establishment, a result stemming from the post-2008 condition which lingers on across Europe. Not only has the result of the referendum had a psychological effect on those EU citizens currently living and working in the UK but also created the potential for a less documented out-migration of skilled UK workers to Europe and beyond. 

    Whether or not this becomes anything more than fiction remains to be seen, but merely the level of discussion on this issue reveals the appetite for change in the capital.