Posted by: Jules Birch07/12/2011
So is The Great British Property Scandal a fantastic exposé or a dangerous over-simplification? Or both?
I’m talking here about the documentary at the centre of Channel 4’s season of programmes this week rather than the season itself which is doing a great job of highlighting some key housing issues.
The season began with an excellent second instalment of John Snow’s Landlords from Hell on Monday. And it continues tonight with Phil’s Empty Homes Homes Giveaway (Mr Spencer has a piece for Inside Housing here) and on the next two Thursdays with Kevin’s Grand Design (what happened when Mr McCloud put his own project where his mouth is).
But the centrepiece of the whole thing is George Clarke’s two-part documentary on empty homes that went out on Monday night and last night.
Fantastic exposé? Clarke, the architect and presenter of Restoration Man, is passionate about the waste of leaving homes empty in the middle of a housing crisis.
The passion came out loud and clear as he filmed streets of boarded-up houses and interviewed people desperate for homes.
He’s channelling it into a campaign to do something about it: a change in the law to give communities and individuals the power to turn abandoned properties back into homes; and access to low-cost loan funds for the conversion work. It has 58,000 signatures so far.
And he’s on to something with his support for grassroots action on the housing shortage. It’s more than past time we had a new generation of housing activists and housing organisations and it’s vital that the funding that is available gets used in the most effective way.
Dangerous over-simplification? As well as praise and signatures, the programme has attracted some criticism too for arguing that empty homes will be enough on their own to solve the housing crisis.
Little wonder that George Clarke’s arguments seemed to go down so well at the Conservative conference, when empty homes (like brownfield land) can be used as convenient cover for nimbyism. Watch last night’s episode for a transparently staged meeting with David Cameron.
As my fellow IH blogger Colin Wiles argues, the housing shortage cannot be ‘solved’ without building new homes on greenfield land.
Any argument that obscures that fundamental point risks making things worse. And my guess is that most people who watched last night’s programme will come away thinking that empty homes are the solution – rather than part of the solution.
George Clarke has been careful to make that point in print but in the broadbrush world of TV it did not come across. In the programme he attacked cuts in capital investment and right to buy in one breath and said the government did not seem to get that it was all about supply, then added: ‘But before we start building more new homes we’ve got to tackle the number of empties.’
Similarly, although he mentioned the fact that 88 per cent of empty homes are privately owned, the implications of that were not explored.
While the government is keen on anything that lets communities take over council-owned property, it’s been steadily reasserting private property rights (for example by more legislation against squatting and restricting the use of empty dwelling management orders).
It’s hard to see how those 88 per cent of empties can be brought back into use without much greater incentives – or much greater penalties – for those private owners. The Lib Dem-inspired council tax changes that are out to consultation might be a start.
Nor did the programme look at the complex arguments about the housing market renewal areas where most of it was filmed: was it the renewal programme that caused the empties or the cancellation of the programme halfway through?
The renewal areas themselves were born out of the widespread idea when the Labour government was elected in 1997 that the key housing issue was low demand. That in turn was heavily influenced by the fact that the key ministers had constituencies in the North West, Yorkshire and North East.
In renewal areas, the theory was that you could create sustainable communities by demolishing some homes to save the rest. In social housing, the problem was seen as the condition of the existing stock, not the construction of new homes.
‘Low demand’ helped blind Labour ministers until it was far too late to the rapid emergence of the exact opposite as the housing boom took off in the 2000s.
It would be a tragedy if a campaign to bring empty homes back into use distracted attention from the even greater need for new homes now. Just as it would be if the overwhelming case for new homes drowned out the one for grassroots action on empties.
We desperately need both.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context