All posts tagged: grant shapps
There’s a row going on down in Eastleigh and it’s all about housing, which is good, (it’s about time housing became a major by-election issue), but it also exposes the hypocrisy and double standards of some of our politicians, which is bad.
Let me explain. This week, the Lib Dem-controlled Eastleigh Council gave outline planning approval to a scheme of 1,400 new homes, (including 420 affordable) and community facilities at Boorley Green, a site that is currently occupied by an old golf course and country club. I’ve looked at the plans and it looks like a decent, sustainable scheme with plenty of open space that complements the surrounding landscape. It will bring much-needed jobs and homes to the area. You can read the whole story here and here, and note that 600 local people have been marching against the new homes, claiming it will ‘tear the community apart’. Eastleigh District has a population of 125,000.
But the point is that Eastleigh Council had little option but to approve the scheme, because the national planning policy framework, (overseen, let’s not forget, by Conservatives Eric Pickles and Nick Boles) contains a presumption in favour of sustainable development where local plans are absent, silent or out of date. Eastleigh has no local plan and faces a shortfall in its five-year housing supply, so the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies. According to the officer report to the planning committee: ‘With an inability to demonstrate such a supply, it is appropriate to apply the presumption in favour of sustainable development unless the adverse impacts significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the National Planning Policy Framework policies.’ Had they refused the scheme, Eastleigh would probably have faced an appeal and significant legal costs, and other greenfield sites would then be up for grabs.
But this has not stopped local and national Conservative politicians from attacking the Lib Dems over the Boorley Green scheme, particularly because their candidate Mike Thornton has, in the past, pledged to protect green open spaces. To his credit, Nick Clegg said that some greenfield sites need to be sacrificed for the greater good. ‘Protecting green spaces doesn’t mean you don’t provide homes for people to live in. People need affordable homes to live in,’ he said.
But last week, Grant Shapps, no less, attacked Nick Clegg for ‘planning to concrete over Eastleigh’s countryside’.
Grant Shapps was the housing minister for over five years. He of all people should understand the seriousness of our housing crisis. In the light of the heated debate over the implementation of the NPPF, and the misleading propaganda put out by countryside campaigners his use of the term ‘concrete over the countryside’ is unforgiveable. Just last year he said that 200,000 homes should be built in England every year, which he described as the only way to prevent further rises in rents and meet housing need. Does he see no disconnect between the petty, nimbyism he is espousing in Eastleigh and the wider national picture that he ruled over as housing minister? He and other politicians cannot expect the public to take them seriously if they play politics with such a serious issue, especially when Eastleigh Council has acted properly and is merely implementing the policy of Shapps’ own government. This spat also highlights the split within the Conservative Party between those who understand the key planning and housing issues, like Nick Boles, and the MPs of the counties who are instinctively anti- development.
The scale and complexity of the housing crisis is deep and wide. Few people fully understand its magnitude and its possible remedies. But politicians who have studied the subject have a duty to try to explain it in simple terms to the electorate. They also have a duty to lead and not to follow, to try to mould public opinion and not to cave in to it. If they ditch their knowledge and their principles and seek to woo the nimby vote as soon as an election comes around then we are all in serious trouble.
But this begs the wider question of why so few politicians at a local level take a firm stand against those who oppose new homes. Why will they not face down those who selfishly and routinely oppose new house building (people like these) and instead stand up for the priced-out generation, the homeless, the badly housed? Is it because this group is not so well organised, not so vocal and not so pushy? I fear so. It is always easier to protest against things than in favour of them. But if you have ever read Sherlock Holmes you will understand the story of the dog that barked in the night. Perhaps the people in housing need, who have been unheard at Eastleigh, will bark in the future and be heard above the noise of those who oppose new homes. We need to work with politicians who can help them to find their bark.
Support appears to be growing within the Conservative Party for an overhaul of the Council Tax system to make the rich pay more.
The Sunday Times revealed recently that the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs is ready to back a reform of the council tax system so that people in larger properties pay more tax, in return for LibDem support for further deficit reductions. It was reported that this could raise up to £650 million. The group proposes two new bands of council tax, one on properties valued at £1m-£1.2m, and another for those above £1.2 million. Other senior Tories are supporting the proposals. The average charge would be £4,000 and £7,000 a year respectively. This echoes Vince Cable’s call for a rather more complex mansion tax. So it appears that momentum is building for a reform of the system.
Just to remind you of the details, there are eight council tax bands in England based on property valuations in 1991, ranging from £40,000 in Band A to £320,000 in Band H. For London, that equates to approximate current house prices of £120,000 to £970,000, which means that almost every one of the 60,000 London properties in Band H would now be worth over £1 million.
Housing folk don’t tend to pay much attention to the Council Tax but it’s worth our attention for two reasons reasons. Firstly, it is innately regressive and unfair. Properties in Band H are eight times more valuable than those in Band A, yet people in Band H pay only three times as much as Band A. Because the bandings and valuations have been left virtually untouched since 1991 it has thrown up all kinds of anomalies in the way the charge is levied. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reckons that 3.7 million households are worse off because they have not been moved to cheaper bands. The comparisons between London and other parts of the country throw up the most extreme anomalies. Someone living in a £50 million mansion in Westminster will pay the same as everyone else in Band H – just £1,369 per annum. I live in a terraced house in Cambridge (Band D) and pay £1,479, whereas someone in Band H in Cambridge pays £2,958, more than twice as much as the mansion-dweller in Westminster. It’s a completely unfair system.
But reform of Council tax could also have beneficial impacts upon housing supply. By making a fairer link between the value of the property you occupy and the tax you pay it could incentivise people to downsize and consume the amount of accommodation they need rather than what they want. The Welsh are one step ahead of us – they introduced a Band I in 2005 for properties worth more than £424,000. In England, we would need to introduce at least a couple of additional bands at the top end for properties worth more than £1 million and above.
You may remember that Grant Shapps attacked the social housing sector for its lazy consensus, but the lack of action on Council Tax by successive governments is just about as lazy as you can get. Tragically, with the memory of the Poll Tax riots still fresh in the memories of many politicians, local authority taxation is seen as a political hot potato that is best left untouched by governments of all persuasions. Yet taxing property makes sense, it cannot be hidden or moved and by and large the bigger your property the wealthier you are. Some readers may recall the removal and eventual abolition of MIRAS, which was achieved over a number of years. The way forward for Council Tax, it seems to me, is for a determined and clever government to take the same approach – subtle changes year by year that lead to a fairer and more progressive settlement over a period of years.
The latest house building figures are disappointing, but not for the reasons you may suppose
The figures for England show a net increase of 134,900 dwellings after taking account of new homes, conversions and demolitions. New build has increased by 10,460 to 128,160 over last year – which was the worst since 1923 remember.
Most of the net increase occurred in the South East, South West and East Anglia. London fared less well, with 9 of the 33 London boroughs showing a net decease in housing numbers, which perhaps helps to explain this story.
But the position on affordable housing is less rosy. Nearly 60,000 affordable homes were provided in 2011/12 – a decrease of 4 per cent on the 60,430 built in 2010/11. Of these, 37,540 were for social rent – a decrease of 3 percent – and 930 were “affordable” – the first time these have appeared in the official figures.
My problem with these figures is that they present two dangers to our sector.
The first is that this slight increase in numbers will let the government off the hook with its housing strategy and lead to complacency. Ministers, including Grant Shapps, will be cock-a-hoop that house building is on the turn even though we are still building less than 50 per cent of what is needed.
But the second danger is that the recent GDP figures showed a growing economy even though construction output had declined, (which seems hard to square with these latest house building figures, I must say). This may lead the government to believe that the economy can grow without the house-building stimulus that was deemed so essential a few weeks ago. If this is the case, ministers may be more inclined to place less emphasis on supporting the housing sector and to cave in to those Tory MPS who have a natural tendency to oppose new homes in their constituencies.
Worrying times ahead for our sector perhaps?
I’ve always disliked the term “social housing” so Grant Shapps’s suggestion that we should re-brand our sector as “taxpayer-supported housing”, is a great idea. Not only would this new name remove the “social” stigma from our sector but it would put our tenants on a par with MPs, government ministers, the Royal Family and much of the military, who all occupy housing that is supported by the taxpayer. While we’re at it we could re-name other parts of the nation’s housing stock. Some of London’s most expensive housing could be re-labelled as “offshore tax-evasion-supported housing” or “obscene banker-bonus-funded housing” or even, in the case of some of our murky foreign investors, “organised-crime-supported housing”.
More seriously, the Housing Minister’s proposal contains as many holes as a very large thing that is full of holes. To begin with, the notion that social housing is the only tenure to receive taxpayer support is, of course, complete nonsense. As John Perry makes clear in this article, owner-occupiers and others have received significant taxpayer support over many years, and what’s more this subsidy has been forever lost in the pockets of private individuals or companies, whereas the subsidy held in social housing is retained in perpetuity, like the National Trust’s priceless heritage assets, in trust for the nation as a whole.
I did a quick calculation on the value of England’s social housing assets. If we assume the average social housing property is worth a conservative £145,000 at open market values then our stock has a value of around £565 billion, against an outstanding historic taxpayer subsidy of £68 billion (£21 billion for council housing and £47 billion for the HA sector, as per the debt allocated to local authorities earlier this year and the HCA global accounts.) So only 12% of the market value of our social housing stock is represented by historic subsidy. I call that a pretty good taxpayer investment by any measure.
What’s more, much of our social housing stock is over fifty years old and its historic cost has been paid for several times over by its occupants, so it is not strictly taxpayer supported at all.
So that’s the position on capital subsidy, but if you look at personal subsidies the situation is even less clear-cut. Owner-occupiers can receive benefits to cover mortgage interest payments, and 1.6 million private tenants receive housing benefits, compared to 3.3 million in the social housing sector. But, as Joe Halewood has shown, private tenants receive significantly more per capita in housing benefit than social rented tenants for the simple reason that private sector rents are around twice as much as social rents. In fact, for a comparable number of properties, taxpayers are paying £2.25 billion a year more in benefits to private sector tenants than they are to social housing tenants. So historic capital subsidies have kept rents low in the social housing sector and this produces a massive saving to the taxpayer in housing benefit payments. Roughly speaking, a current annual investment of £1 billion in capital subsidies saves £5 billion on the annual housing benefit bill. That is value for money by any measure.
So remind us again Minister, which sector is taxpayer-supported?
On this specific point, Grant Shapps displays a pitiful level of ignorance about rents and subsidies. In his Telegraph interview he said this: “I think it is worth reminding people two things. First of all, the taxpayer pays a fair whack subsidy to build the house in the first place, and then, secondly, there is an ongoing week by week subsidy against what would be the full market rent.” Minister, it is the historic capital subsidy that keeps the rent low. There is no “ongoing week by week subsidy”. If the rents had been set at market levels at the outset there would have been no need for a capital subsidy. This is how social housing works - the equity and revenues of older stock, together with an up-front capital grant, subsidises the newer stuff. (We’re all in this together, remember?).
The truth is that Grant Shapps’s re-branding proposal is just another salvo in the naming, shaming, and blaming game that this government and its supporters are engaged upon against the social housing sector. This brick-by-brick sniping began with Policy Exchange and Iain Duncan Smith and is a work in progress, and let’s not let any inconvenient facts get in the way, eh?. Rather than seeing the social housing sector as an important part of a mixed housing economy these people see us as part of the problem and, whatever words they may say to our faces, at conferences and seminars, their deeds prove that they think and feel the opposite. They want to see social housing re-defined, re-packaged, re-named and ultimately absorbed into the private sector, with a rump of U.S style welfare housing left behind. Lara Oyedele made an impassioned plea in last week’s Inside Housing for us to stand firm against these divide and rule tactics. She is right. We have been too passive for far too long.
If you haven’t responded to the CLG “Pay to Stay” consultation, I suggest you do so because it may save you a lot of unnecessary hassle in the long run. The consultation paper is a wonderful example of the civil service struggling to interpret the prejudices and half-baked opinions of a minister. You can almost hear the civil servant who drafted the paper muttering “why me?” as they struggle with the complexities and absurdities of the subject.
In brief, Grant Shapps thinks it’s a scandal that people like Bob Crow and Frank Dobson live in “subsidised” social housing and he want them out, or if they won’t go he wants their rents increased to market levels. “This is an issue of principle and fairness,” says the paper. CLG estimates that up to 6,000 households in England have a combined income over £100,000 per annum, and between 12,000 and 34,000 earn £60,000 or more. Subsidised housing is worth around £3,600 per annum for every tenant.
The proposals raise a number of fundamental questions about the purpose and scope of social housing, not least the argument about what is or is not “subsidised” housing. Steve Hilditch at Red Brick has covered the key objection to Pay to Stay, namely the huge bureaucratic exercise that would be required to assess the incomes of every tenant. The CLG admits that, “Linking rents to income would be breaking new ground. Our present view is that primary legislation will be required to enable landlords to access tenant income data if this policy is to be fully effective.” There are also issues raised in the paper about the potential handback of social housing grant and the fact that registered providers could charge no more than 80% of market rents without falling foul of charity rules. So it’s a tricky issue.
I accept that the proposal has the potential to free up some homes and to raise additional income for landlords (up to £1.2 billion per annum if you accept the government’s very best estimates of the numbers involved, although this is still a piffling amount in comparison to the housing beneefit bill).
But there are several other objections to the Pay to Stay proposals, quite apart from the bureaucracy involved in checking the income of every tenant. Firstly, I would guess that high earners are likely to be long-standing tenants who have probably paid their rent, been no trouble to their landlord, improved their properties, carried out their own repairs and paid for the historic costs of their property many times over, so the notion that they are “subsidised” is questionable. Second, linking rents to income is yet another attack upon the principles of social housing and will eventually lead to the Americanisation and ghettoisation of social housing, something we should resist at all costs - we want diversity and mixed income communities in our housing stock. I’m no fan of Bob Crow or Lee Jasper but I quite like the notion that these people are happy to live in social housing and contribute to their communities. Third, this is yet another example of making policy on the basis of exceptional cases, which is always a bad idea. Fourth, if we want to have an honest debate about “principle and fairness” let’s discuss the far greater subsidies that the wealthy enjoy in areas such as land ownership or the arts, or the damage done to our society by the greed and incompetence of bankers. As always, this seems to be the classic conjurer’s trick of trying to divert attention from the big issue onto a smaller detail.
If the government really wants to encourage richer tenants out of social housing this is not the way to do it. It’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A more subtle approach would be to appeal to the moral conscience of high earners and allow them to make their own decisions. You will need to respond to the consultation by the 12th September if you want to avoid another daft policy being imposed upon you.
I spent a few days in Manchester last week at the CIH Conference.
To begin with, I think the new venue is excellent, the programme was stimulating and the vibe was good. Thousands of intelligent conversations took place, (followed by thousands of semi-intelligent conversations as the nights wore on.) Lord Freud and Grant Shapps glided smoothly through their sessions with barely a ripple of impoliteness from the not-so-cheap seats (apart from a couple of impertinent questions that were either ignored or rebuffed).
On day one, the latest housebuilding figures were released, suggesting that England could build fewer than 100,000 new homes this year, the lowest ever in peacetime. So everyone left Manchester in agreement that the housing crisis was deepening, that housebuilding was the key to economic stimulus and that we need we need to find new models of funding.
So far so good. But if you searched through the national press at the end of the week you would struggle to find any mention of Manchester and the serious issues that had been raised at conference. Issues that are fundamental to the health and wellbeing of the nation. In fact, apart from the JRF report on housing options for young people and the excellent Hannah Fearn in The Guardian, the conference, and housing in general, was largely ignored. For the average man or woman in the street the thousands of people who assembled in Manchester could have spent their time grouse shooting on the nearby moors and they would be little the wiser.
Does this matter? Hannah Fearn thinks that those who shape policy read The Guardian so our sector’s lack of national coverage is not a big deal. I beg to differ. To start with, if policy shapers are reading The Guardian then it has hardly done us much good of late! But politicians respond to the public mood. They may get bagfuls of desperate people in their surgeries with housing problems, but unless the well-housed start to lobby them about the need to invest in housing then we stand little chance of making an effective case.
To compare and contrast, look at the impact that the National Trust had during the NPPF debate. They mobilised their 4 million members in a wholly impressive way. Hundreds of tweets went out each day, a quarter of a million signed their petition, the Daily Telegraph ran its spurious “Hands off Our Land” campaign, their Director General was invited to Number 10. Their misleading message that the countryside was about to be concreted over entered the public consciousness, and the government was rattled. By contrast, the housing sector was virtually silent throughout the campaign, even though the outcome had the potential to change the shape of our housing system for a generation. We really need to do better.
Now we may not have 4 million members but we do have 4 million tenants and we could and should be doing more to mobilise them in favour of housing investment. Former Housing Minister John Healy said that he had never come across a more introverted sector than housing. He is right. During her double act with Grant Shapps, Grainia Long, the new Chief Executive of the CIH, talked about setting the housing minister his annual objectives. Well if I could set one objective for Grainia it would be this: your media operation needs a massive shake up. We need a Max Clifford for the housing sector, someone who can make housing stories interesting and understandable and help to shift pubic opinion about the scale of the crisis. We also need to link up more effectively with others in the wider housing sector, including groups like PricedOutUK, who aim to speak on behalf of a generation that cannot afford to buy. We also need to be less polite. The National Trust was extremely robust in the way it dealt with ministers, but their campaign was effective. To be frank, cuddling up to successive housing ministers simply has not worked. It’s time for a re-think.
The government should look to the 1930s for innovative ways to encourage self build, says Colin Wiles
Grant Shapps is keen on self-build and the housing strategy takes a step to encourage it. But desperate times call for desperate measures so here’s a radical idea: how about reviving a scheme from the 1930s that would allow people not only to build their own homes but to grow their own food and live a self-sufficient lifestyle?
The Land Settlement Association was set up by the government in 1934 to offer smallholdings to unemployed workers from the industrial areas of England. The first one was at Potton, in Bedfordshire where 30 smallholdings were set up. Between 1934 and 1939 1,500 smallholdings were created in 26 settlements, housing 4,000 people on 11,000 acres. Each family was given a cottage and 5 acres to grow food and keep livestock. The settlements were like collective farms and each was expected to grow cash crops, such as cucumbers and salads under glass, to pay for their running costs. The scheme was a mixed success; about half of the settlers moved on because the rules were rigid and many families did not take to agricultural life. After the war the LSA was absorbed in the county council schemes for smallholdings and then wound-up in 1983 and the properties privatised.
But imagine a modern version of the LSA. It would chime with current thinking on sustainability, self build, self-sufficiency, food miles and a yearning for a more spiritual approach to life. What’s more, it would help to soak up some of the surplus labour that capitalism no longer needs and allow people to learn relevant new skills and live semi-independently of the conventional system.
As I’ve written before, it’s a myth that we live in an overcrowded island. We have plenty of surplus land and there is scope to make it more productive. I was struck by a recent Guardian article about a scheme near Hay-on-Wye run by Dr Paul Benham that produces an annual turnover of £25,000 from just one and a half acres. He uses permaculture and organic systems to produce much more produce than conventional farming could ever do. Imagine what would be possible on five acres.
During the twenties and thirties, there was a significant self-build programme called the plotlands, but it developed independently of government control, mainly driven by Londoners buying plots of land in the countryside to build holiday homes. Places like Jaywick and Dunton are the legacy, but they never had the proper infrastructure to make them work properly, whereas this scheme in Holland, which has apparently caught Grant Shapps’ eye, began with the infrastructure and then parcelled up the plots for self-builders. Large swathes of Victorian England were developed in this way - streets and infrastructure were provided and then the plots were marked out and sold off to small builders and self builders who created a diverse and eclectic streetscape, so unlike the mass produced rabbit hutches that have been imposed upon us over the past fifty years.
A revived version of the LSA, with less rigid rules, would hit many nails with a single hammer. Social enterprise structures – co-operatives, community land trusts or community interest companies – could be set up to deliver the vision. The Emmaus communities and places like Findhorn already follow this model to some extent, but the missing elements are land and a too-rigid planning system. Yet according to the HCA there are around 158,000 acres of brownfield land in England and some of it, old airfields for example, is not suitable for large-scale building but could be converted into an LSA-style project. A pilot scheme would only need a few acres to get started off and I am sure there would be a huge demand for it.
Watching Ian Hislop’s excellent BBC programme on bankers this week was a welcome reminder that some Victorian capitalists possessed philanthropic urges and a firm moral compass, unlike many of their present day counterparts.
George Peabody is a case in point. A single man, he had the reputation of a curmudgeonly miser, but late in life he suddenly decided to give away much of the huge fortune he had amassed through trade and banking. Most notably he set up the Peabody Trust in 1864 to provide housing for London’s poor. But the “undeserving poor” need not apply. Potential tenants had to be in work and of good “moral character” to obtain a flat. In the same year, another Victorian stalwart, Octavia Hill (the founder of our dear CIH) adopted the same approach. With backing from John Ruskin, she acquired a 56 year lease on 3 slum houses in Marylebone for £750 and set about improving the moral and spiritual character of her tenants. Again, the “undeserving poor” were excluded. She wrote, “I say to them, ‘You must either do better or you must leave; which is it to be?”
The Old Nichol in Shoreditch was one of the most notorious slums of Victorian London, immortalised in Arthur Morrison’s brilliant novel “A Child of the Jago.” It consisted of 730 houses and 5,700 inhabitants and had a mortality rate that was twice that of surrounding areas. In 1900 the London County Council cleared the slum and built the (now listed) Boundary Estate, the first council estate in London, comprising twenty blocks of five story flats around Arnold Circus. But the inhabitants of The Old Nichol could not afford to live in the new flats; they were the “undeserving poor” and were forced eastwards into the hovels of Dalston and Hackney.
Do you see where this is going? The new tenancy measures in the Localism Act have already been seized upon by some local authorities as a way of dealing with the “undeserving poor.” Fixed term tenancies will be granted conditional upon the tenant being in paid employment or training. Announcing the reforms this week, Grant Shapps said that they would restore the original purpose of social housing, “to provide a flexible alternative to help tenants achieve their aspirations.”
Now I’ve read a lot of housing history but I have never seen the “original purpose” of social housing defined in that way. Providing decent stable housing for the working classes to rescue them from the misery of the slums, yes, Homes Fit for Heroes, yes, but never a “flexible alternative to help tenants achieve their aspirations.”
Grant Shapps’ statement about the new tenancy arrangements also stated that, “Ministers believe the current system has failed…for too long social housing has been seen by many people as a byword for failure, a home for life in a dead-end street. I want to restore pride to social housing, so a social tenancy is once again seen as a launch pad to fulfil aspirations.”
You can trace this thinking back to Alex Morton’s 2010 Policy Exchange report “Making Housing Affordable” which forms the backbone of current Conservative policies on housing. Morton stated that “social housing is large, expensive and is failing its tenants” and that “social housing is “acting as a barrier to reducing poverty for its tenants.” I would urge everyone who has an interested in current policy to read it.
Make no mistake, social housing, with its proud traditions and heritage, is effectively dead under this government. Just as the slum-dwellers of the Old Nichol were pushed out to make way for the “deserving poor” I can guarantee that these tenancy changes, combined with the welfare reforms and a growing shortage of affordable homes will create a housing underclass that would be familiar to our Victorian forebears. Over the coming years you can expect to see more of this and this and even this. And then perhaps we will begin to re-discover the real original purpose and value of social housing.
In a nod towards Thatcherite populism, Grant Shapps has pledged to revive the Right to Buy and promised that every sale will be matched with a new affordable home. This may go down well in certain parts of the press, but how it will be achieved in practice is something of a puzzle. The Question and Answer document produced by CLG raises more questions than it answers, as does this blog.
Right to Buy sales last year stood at 3,960 in England compared to well over 150,000 at the height of the RTB boom in 1982. Clearly the only way to prompt more sales is significantly to increase the level of discounts. At present, these range from £22,000 to £38,000 depending on the region. Even if the discounts are doubled will this be enough to tempt buyers, given the drought of mortgage finance? Remember that there are now fewer council houses than housing association properties and the Right to Buy has a shrinking pool of potential purchasers.
But here is the puzzle. According to the government’s own figures the average market value of Local Authority properties sold under the right to buy in 2010/11 was £103,970. The average capital receipt was £77,470 and the average discount was £26,510 per property. But under current Treasury pooling rules 75 per cent of the capital receipt has to be returned to the Treasury for redistribution to receipt-poor areas. Any increase in discounts leads to a reduction in receipts. Let’s say the average receipt drops to £50,000 - that leaves only £12,500 to be re-invested in housing. Even under the affordable rents’ programme, which these receipts will be funding, the average level of grant is around £32,000 so how does a receipt of £12,500 build a new home?
This raises a whole series of questions. Is there to be another source of subsidy to ensure one home is built for every sale? Will Treasury rules be changed to allow for all of the receipt to be retained? Will receipts be ring fenced both to housing and to the local authority? Has the government carried out any financial modelling to see what level of discounts will generate sales?Lots of questions and few answers at this stage.Even if the number of sales increased tenfold, which seems optimistic to me, we would still only achieve fewer than 40,000 sales per annum, so where does Grant Shapps come up with the figure of 100,000 new homes every year?
Sorry to be cynical, but unless the Treasury is willing to relax the current rules on capital receipts this looks like another of those populist conference soundbites that will be quietly buried within a few months.
Does Inside Housing exert an influence on the minds of housing ministers and the right-wing press? I only ask because my article in July extolling the virtues of Ebenezer Howard and his Garden Cities has been followed by both Grant Shapps (The Guardian 19th September) and The Daily Mail (26th September) claiming that Garden Cities are the solution to many of our housing problems.
The Daily Mail article (“Proof you can build new homes, and keep England green”) claims that Garden Cities could be a solution to the current battle over the draft National Planning Policy Framework. They highlight the role of the Mail’s proprietor Lord Northcliffe in supporting Ebenezer Howard (he invested in £1,000 of shares) and in promoting the Garden Cities in his papers, to the extent that they were called “Daily Mail Towns”. For the first time in my life I am in agreement with the paper that once supported the Blackshirts. The headline may sound slightly oxymoronic but I’ve argued before that Letchworth probably contains more wildlife in its parks and gardens than much of the surrounding countryside. I was there last week and counted six black squirrels in a twenty yard stretch of hedgerow.
Grant Shapps praises the Garden Cities for their self-sufficiency and their freedom from state control, unlike their later counterparts the new towns. They chime with his passion for self build and community land trusts. And he is right. Howard built both Letchworth and Welwyn entirely with the help of private investors like George Bernard Shaw and without any government support. The question is, could it happen today?
Howard’s vision was for self-sufficient towns of around 30,000 people where the municipality would retain the freehold interest in land and use the income from ground rents to fund its activities, including education, welfare and pensions. The town would be self sufficient in employment so that people could cycle or walk to work, and sewage would be recycled into the surrounding market gardens. This is a revolutionary concept, based on the writings of Kropotkin and other visionaries, and is reflected in the 2007 prospectus for eco-towns. But the problem of eco-towns, apart from local opposition (only one of the original fifty sites is still active) is that they were simply too small to be self-sufficient. Howard understood that you need at least 1,500 hectares and 30,000 people to make a town self-sufficient – that means secondary schools, shops, cultural facilities, swimming pools and all the other facilities that stop people going elsewhere for their basic needs. But are we seriously going to find sites of 1,500 hectares for new Garden Cities in the south-east where they are most needed? My housing association colleagues in Hertfordshire tell me that they can barely build a garden shed without howls of protest from local residents. It will need resolute action from the housing minister and his colleagues to see this vision through. Given the furore over the relatively mild provisions in the draft National Planning Policy framework I see little chance of success, but I wish the housing minister well in his endeavour.
I think Grant Shapps is on to something with his latest plan to encourage people to live on boats.
Here in Cambridge we have hundreds of people living on boats along the river. Some of them are a bit ramshackle and lack decent sanitation but the occupants seem to like them and they are affordable and close to the centre of town.
On a similar theme, I listened to a recent Radio 4 programme that re-assessed the world’s slums and shanty towns and found that they are actually very useful in providing low cost housing for workers who need to live close to the centre of cities. I fully accept that conditions in the shanty towns are often awful but their inhabitants have a good sense of community and high levels of social capital. We could follow this model in London, pick a couple of the big vacant sites like Chelsea Barracks or Battersea power station, or even a corner of Hyde Park, and allow people to move in and build their own shacks.
It could be really popular with eastern Europeans who work in nearby hotels and restaurants. We could follow this model elsewhere in the country by relaxing the planning rules to allow people to build habitable sheds in their gardens and on allotments. These measures alone could produce thousands of new homes.
I’ve also been reading Orlando Figes’ book The Whisperers, a brilliant account of private life under Stalin. As the populations of Russia’s cities grew the regime responded not by building new houses and flats but by forcing people to share apartments. Families often lived in a single room and shared bathrooms, kitchens and toilets. Admittedly there was the odd argument about space and some petty squabbling over the use of shared facilities, but many children recalled how much they enjoyed the sense of community and companionship as they grew up. We could adopt this model in some of the big apartment blocks in Belgravia and Knightsbridge. Some of the rich, older residents may appreciate having someone billeted upon them. It would bring back memories of the war and the privations of rationing and they would have someone to talk to.
I think all of these ideas taken together could solve our housing crisis at a stroke and we wouldn’t have to build any new homes.