Tag Archives: Housing

The principle of using housing wealth to fund social care is a fair proposal – just not in this form

‘Heartless, nasty and cruel’ said Tim Farron. An ‘incompetent U-turn’ claimed Ed Miliband. The outcry surrounding Conservative plans, branded a ‘dementia tax,’ to reform social care funded by pensioners’ property wealth culminated in the attempted reassurance by Theresa May that ‘nothing had changed.’ Even the most casual observer to politics will be aware that the party’s electoral success depends heavily on its core support of the elderly – the so-called ‘grey vote.’ An ICM/Guardian poll last month for instance demonstrated that 85% of the over-75s asked intended to vote Conservative. The problem which the country is now squaring up to, however, is the universally accepted notion that social care is underfunded. Following David Cameron’s victory in 2010, the following statistics were deemed a key issue for parliament – 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old.  The latest projections are for 5½ million more elderly people in 20 years time and the number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million by 2050.

Funding, as we know, would have to be generated to pay for this by a) higher taxation or b) greater borrowing by government. Rather than simply funding this through a national income tax, the idea of drawing on the vast piles of accumulated wealth through residential property to fund elderly care is, on the surface, a sensible idea to partly redress the wealth disparity between young and old. Torsten Bell’s piece for the Resolution Foundation marked this as a turning point for ‘intergenerational fairness,’ given the faltering of past political attempts such as the mansion tax to swing the balance away from the economically active to the more affluent elderly.

The idea based around a false sense of meritocracy that one should not be penalised for ‘working hard, paying your taxes etc.’ is so deeply engrained in society that it fails to recognise the spectacular post-1980s boom in housing values which were caused by complex economics totally outside the control of the vast majority of the population. The reaction to this also highlights the anxiety in this country regarding the transfer of wealth inter-generationally. Assets passed down to younger family members are, aside from further inflationary schemes such as Help to Buy, the easiest path to future housing wealth and create a dramatic range in prosperity among the inheriting classes.

Resolution Foundation - ONS

source: Resolution foundation

The levels of fear which snowballed among middle-England pensioners over the weekend was the prospect of entire life savings and property disappearing down to the last £100k all through no fault of their own. The attempt by the Government to save vast sums of money on funding social care by having no cap on the upper limit was what proved so toxic.

A fairer idea would be to pool wealth from all pensioners with assets over £100k, either through a fixed sum or a percentage of total assets upon retirement or death which contributes to a national programme of social care (see Gordon Brown’s 2010 policy.) The same thinking can be applied to the often wasteful use of the ubiquitous winter fuel allowance and free bus passes for property-rich over 65s. It is misleading and outdated to cast all pensioners as ‘vulnerable’ and given that 76% of them own their properties, it is sensible to use this uplift in property value over the years to contribute to public services. What is clear, however, is the utter outrage this causes when put to the electoral test.

Why Mclaughlin’s Darbishire Place should win the Stirling Prize

Darbishire-Place-Niall-McLaughlin02-664x490

 

A message to the RIBA jury: (keen followers of this blog as they are) please award the Stirling Prize for the first time to a social housing scheme. In October we will reach that uncomfortable time when architecture threatens to penetrate the outer boundaries of mainstream public exposure. The architectural equivalent of the Oscars, a time when chartered British architects, individuals who have seemingly reached the pinnacle of their powers, a position more often than not reached through immense sacrifice, struggle and graft at which they may bask gloriously in the knowledge that they have reached the peak of British architecture, Stirling Prize winner and the rather comical prize winning fee of £20,000.

This years’ shortlist has been warmly greeted by architectural critics across the board as a tonic of modesty, restraint and sensible spending in the face of outlandish form producing from previous winners in past years. A 2015 list which arguably James Stirling, an architect most commonly attributed with a shift into Postmodernism, would not be wholly satisfied with. Looking back over past winners reveals a wide array of programmatic types but is also interspersed with occasional wanderings to more obscure and peculiar architectural forms perhaps in some vain attempt to appeal to a wider non-architectural audience.

Reading through the Design & Access statement for Niall Mclaughlin’s scheme in Whitechapel reads as an instruction manual for contemporary social housing. Commissioned by Peabody, a housing association with ever growing muscle in the pockets of developable land all over London. The Whitechapel Estate was designed by Peabody’s very own architect Henry Darbishire as part of London’s slum clearance programme in 1881, comprised of six, five-storey blocks producing 286 units. The estate is today made up of ten blocks, which have been internally reconfigured over the years, remaining socially rented flats with the exception of those sold off privately under the Right to Buy programme. Mclaughlin’s remit was to build on ‘Block K,’  a block bombed during the War and develop the land into 13 units. A small output of units made up of one 4-beds two 3-beds, seven 2-beds and 2 1-beds.

Darbishire-Place-Niall-McLaughlin13-676x409

What is fundamentally important to recognise however, is on the one hand the willingness of the local authority (Tower Hamlets) to invest in quality affordable housing with the genuine prospect of longevity as a public asset and the role of the architect in designing something which clearly does not fit the stigmatised version of what this country defines as social housing, a responsible and serious response to the basic need of inhabitation. Those that now inhabit will rightly consider themselves extremely lucky individuals in a borough which now has London’s longest waiting list of 22,000 families in need of social housing provision. Within the extremely tight budget of £1,870/sqm, the architects have managed to create a result which exceeds the standards of the vast majority of privately sold offerings in London. Partly funded by a subsidy provided by the Homes & Communities Agency, this development characterises the traditional financing structure of a social housing scheme. Applied on a larger scale, this model needs to be updated to benefit from the councils’ vast land stocks all over London and their ability to sell off a proportion of their stock, for the time being at least, at exorbitantly inflated prices to subsidise the construction of affordable housing units. As council housing rediscovers a place for itself on the frontline of public debate, awarding Britain’s most valuable award to an affordable housing scheme would be a timely and particularly resonant call beyond the confines of the architectural establishment.

All on our own

TOPSHOTS-British-Finance--009

As the Tories toast a successful post-Budget weekend in the polls, edging into a 2% lead, debate over George Osbourne’s seemingly popular proposals rumbles on. Along with immigration, Europe and the NHS, the subject of housing forms a platform upon which political sparring partners do battle. Housebuilding figures are sprayed around, heavily-laden with nostalgia for the postwar boom years, Labour offering the construction of 200,000 homes by 2020, now matched by the Conservatives, and the Greens promising 500,000 socially rented houses in the same period.

Underpinning all of this is an overriding trend, of which housing is only one element, of an impotency in any form of public action and intervention. The myth that politicians are able within the current framework to enact any national housebuilding programme merely illustrates a polarised reliance on either investment from the private market or individual means in order to have any chance of prospering in today’s distorted property market. While real earnings have stagnated in recent years, rising property values have supplied those with established wealth a meaningful buffer which they can rely upon in later years in the absence of adequate pension funds. The sterile nature of the coalition government’s housing schemes is nothing new, as witnessed with the original introduction of ‘Help to Buy’ in 2013, which enabled the government to guarantee loans to banks on borrowing of between 80 and 95% of the property value. While passed in seemingly good faith, preventing buy-to-let investors or second home buyers from accessing the scheme, the initiative purely functions as propping up middle-class buyers to an already inflated market in order to desperately keep the ball rolling. The 25% Help to Buy ISA scheme proposed by Osborne last week, while glaringly popular at face value, in effect perpetuates the same problem. As Paul Cheshire, professor at London School of Economics states, ‘rising real house prices mean that house owners feel richer.’1

Despite the fact that there is enough built fabric in the UK for each of us to have 2 rooms for ourselves, the consensus among analysts seems to be instead of producing seductive saving policies and easier to swallow mortgage packages, a genuine strategy for mass housebuilding would be far more potent in securing greater affordability. But then what kind of homes would they be? It is now almost common knowledge that major house builders dominate the UK market to such a degree that they, not the politicians, command the outcome of development sites through land banking. Chris Brown from Igloo Regeneration claims that two-thirds of the British population would rather not buy a home from a housebuilding company if they had the choice, but up until now, they simply haven’t had a viable alternative.

The reality to all this may be that, at one point, the underlying dissatisfaction and rejection of this phenomenon may materialise into an alternative method of living. Rather than a future commonly characterised by multiple occupancy, job insecurity and the insistence on treating your home purely as a tradable international asset, there might be the opportunity to form a more autonomous way of life. The capacity for a self-motivated and self-organised mode of living does not currently comply with the policies of mortgage providers, insurance firms and suchlike for self-build to be taken seriously as a possible remedy for the mess we have found ourselves in. The proposal of the Self-Build bill under Richard Bacon MP signal a point at which there is great potential and, more importantly, willingness among the public for a cheaper, more specific and independent way for us to house ourselves.

Whether or not custom-build takes off (or is even allowed to) as a meaningful threat to the housebuilding monopolies is yet to be seen and the kit home model is certainly not applicable to all, any progress made to create a future policy for self-builders should be encouraged if there is to be a positive outcome to the crisis facing the UK over the coming years.

Guesthouse living: Yarmouth’s hidden housing market

IMG_3374At 6 o’clock each morning migrant workers line up at the Nelson Street bus stop in central Great Yarmouth, bound for Bernhard Matthews poultry farm in Holton, Suffolk. The chartered route is one of 12 run across parts of East Anglia by the established turkey farmer who advertises overseas in recruitment agencies from Poland to Portugal. The scene is repeated in the afternoon for the second shift of the day, a picture which to many in the town exposes a wholly unsatisfactory condition, a level of immigration which in their eyes has become totally unmanageable. Politically the seat of Yarmouth is, and has been ever since the arrival of UKIP as a major threat in Westminster, a seemingly easy target for Nigel Farage’s party representing as it does in such uncensored fashion, a left-behind Britain in UKIP’s ‘Eastern heartlands.’

Arriving into the town on a January morning, it appears difficult to shake off the stigma attached so heavily to Yarmouth, a seaside town gripped by deeply woven deprivation, unemployment, ever diminishing seasonal tourism and simmering societal tensions. Acting almost as a solitary island on the East Anglian coast in which a tasteless Vegas-inspired strip commands the seafront, containing within it the usual amusement paraphernalia undergoing a sleepy off-season refurbishment.

IMG_3384 copy

Walking past the boarded up tourist information office and the series of garishly-painted shopfronts, one of which proudly declares itself the ‘World Class East Anglia Mini Albert Hall,’ I venture inland to meet the swathes of terraced seaside guesthouses. Unanimously declaring with dated signage offerings of colour televisions and en-suite rooms, whole streets are lined with 2-storey terrace buildings built during the booming  periods of the 1960s and 70s.

IMG_3385 copy

Perhaps one of the most revealing stages upon which current sentiment can be gauged is UKIP’s own office in Great Yarmouth. I peer in through the shopfront window to see a series of white A4 sheets with black Arial text outlining policies soon to be formalised into the glossy colour prints blazoned with Nigel Farage’s face ready for the upcoming election campaign. Without fully contemplating my actions I wander in to a room which resembles a doctor’s surgery waiting area. Two individuals rise simultaneously from their seats and warmly welcome me in, quickly introducing themselves as Robert and Lynne before the charm offensive duly begins.

A large map of South East England above Robert’s desk outlines UKIP’s concentration of Eastern support, namely in  the seats of Boston, Clacton, South Thanet, Thurrock and Great Yarmouth. Various figures are cast in my direction, the most puzzling of which stating that immigration levels in the town have risen between 6 and 30% in the past five years, which struck me as fairly vague data. ‘What we’re seeing is those who would have voted Labour in the nearby areas moving over to UKIP.’ Robert tells me. ‘You used to never hear a foreign voice in the streets around here and now people are thinking to themselves: where have all these people come from?’ While I listen intently Robert’s assistant places a piece of rock candy in my palm, coloured in UKIP purple-and-yellow with the title ‘Together we Rock’ below the face of  candidate Alan Grey. She points me in the direction of a women’s clothing store opposite which she claims was set up with the aid of a £54,000 government grant by a Portuguese speaking couple from a former colony in Africa. The shop remains closed all year round she tells me, the couple only surfacing to show their face in order to collect their post from the premises.

When I bring up the topic of tensions within the community the pair point in the direction from which I had just arrived, namely in and around St. Peter’s Road, a hotspot of migrant community stores and activity. Tensions spill over particularly in the evening hours, Robert informs me, due in part to the presence of gang-controlled areas by Eastern Europeans who habitually carry knives (a trait backed up in Robert’s experience from his time working as a prison officer). Living in the town of Caister-on-Sea, however, Robert is unable to confirm these claims first hand and is, like many in the town, relying on the local press for such information. ‘We did have one case where a Portuguese cafe put up a sign saying ‘We don’t serve the English.’ Trading standards had to come in to sort it out. You can’t have that.’

Suggesting I speak to the chairman for UKIP Great Yarmouth, Lynne’s had already picked up the phone before I could respond. Robert kindly opens the door for me, doing up his waterproof jacket as he suggests escorting me down the high street to a shop run by a close friend of UKIP candidate Alan Grey, chairman for Great Yarmouth Peter Fitzgerald. Speaking in hushed tones as if revealing some inner gossip in the corner of a secondary school playground, Robert eyes up a man ahead speaking in Portuguese who he tells me he sees daily on the street on crutches, thereby not working and emblematic of the prized UKIP target: the benefit tourist. Shortly after we arrive at the Army and Navy store which Peter runs, clad in multiple layers of camouflage clothing and a baseball cap (which seems to be a ubiquitous accessory in the town). Peter appears instantly on guard and far more measured than his colleagues. Dividing his time between running his shop, overseeing UKIP’s activities locally and managing a series of properties all of which he revealingly lets to Portuguese tenants, individuals his party would prevent moving to the UK under current party policy.

IMG_3394 copy

Asked whether or not he felt immigration in Great Yarmouth has spiralled out of control he remains reserved in his opinion, searching for a more manageable level of migration to ease familiar issues of sanitation, infrastructure and healthcare provision. Fitzgerald reveals the story of asylum seekers arriving under the export of people from areas from which he was brought up in East London to Yarmouth where he has lived for 12 years. He describes immigration rather conservatively as being ‘above a level to which a town can sustain’ and crucially comprised of those seeking to settle and raise future generations who will inevitably require healthcare, schools and services like anyone else. Although migrants do work in seasonal agricultural tasks, those working in the food packaging factories and poultry farms are generally here to settle and to attempt to improve their own individual opportunities.

Fitzgerald goes on to explain Yarmouth’s (almost) unique policy of housing provision. Seeing as such a large amount of building in Yarmouth was intended under the heading of hotels, guesthouses, boarding houses and accommodation catered for the tourist, the relatively small remainder dedicated solely to housing combined with the stagnant rate of housebuilding means that as a town it is operating at or above capacity. From 1999 or so onwards under the immigration policy of Blair’s Labour government, parts of London in particular became overwhelmed with asylum seekers and other migrants whom they were required to provide housing for. Increasingly desperate hoteliers and small businesses in peripheral areas of the UK such as Yarmouth ended up offering up unoccupied rooms as temporary housing for a typical fee of around £15/night compared with the cost of around £50/night to provide an equivalent East London home. Yarmouth became in Fitzgerald’s eyes ‘a housing estate by the sea’ with a ‘skeleton crew’ in place to keep things running in off-peak periods. Whereas previously the town would be occupied solely by permanent or retired residents and small business owners in the winter months, the town became populated by totally unfamiliar tenants looking for low-paid work.  As such inevitable overcrowding ensued, with six people to a room being commonplace in many guesthouses. Efforts by local councillors to revise planning policy to provide more appropriate conditions have diluted this trend yet this remains a major issue for local government. While ‘everyone should have a roof over their head,’ Fitzgerald adds, ‘it is all about controlling the need.’

Integration, Fitzgerald argues, is something of a myth which is prevented from happening by a series of complex factors the most obvious being the simple restrictions in language. He argues that all evidence in Yarmouth illustrates the tendency for incoming migrants to congregate and organise themselves in a specific area within the host community. There are of course visible sub-divisions and cross-overs in this pattern, where Portuguese and Lithuanian residents for example overlap in  the contents of local stores which are put in place to serve the migrant population. One such store is the small chain of Lusa, selling Eastern European products alongside sardines, salt cod and pastries from Portugal. The shopkeeper Susana has lived in Yarmouth since moving with her family from the city of Porto twelve years ago. Aside from the usual qualms she makes in broken English about the ‘time’ (tempo meaning weather) she speaks optimistically about prospects of money and work in the UK.

IMG_3396 copy

Apart from the intermittent signs of migrant life such as an FC Porto scarf hanging in a bedroom window, the town is far from overrun and the most recent UK census indicates 6.2% of Yarmouth is made up of non-EU migrants, lower than that of Norfolk as a region and the UK as a whole, indicating a far removed story from the rhetoric of Robert and Lynne safely garrisoned in the UKIP offices. The Portuguese-speaking population is also an interesting one for its representation in local media. When looking into fieldwork by  social anthropologist and community worker at Great Yarmouth Borough Council Rob Gregory, many migrant workers in Yarmouth were, alongside native Portuguese and Eastern Europeans, from countries such as East Timour, Mozambique and Brazil yet categorised under the Portuguese community label. Research by Gregory also indicates a highly individualistic set of people within the migrant community, despite their physical presence in the town’s streetscape. Portuguese cafes and stores have sprung up independently in shops which would otherwise remain boarded up on the town high street, perhaps resulting in a disproportionately high representation in spatial terms within the town’s fabric.

However Yarmouth remains undoubtedly a particularly severe case, occupying the list of forgotten British town such as Blackpool, Skegness and Hastings each vying for lucrative national investment funds. The prospect of mass housebuilding to accommodate a rising population appears to be a particularly unpopular one in the face of fierce nationalistic sentiment in peripheral areas of the UK. All statistical evidence points to the overriding net benefit of migrants to an ageing UK population and if one thing is for absolute  certain it is that Yarmouth, like most of the UK, needs migrants in order to somehow shake off the dust from years of stagnation. The question is not perhaps integration but planning a framework within which different intertwined social groups, brought together through pure circumstance, can inhabit.

“People assert community, whether in the form of ethnicity or locality, when they recognise it in the most adequate meaning of expression for their whole selves” (S.Cohen)