All posts from: November 2011
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.
Well, it’s not really a strategy, to begin with. A strategy is a master plan that identifies a problem, sets goals and marshalls the resources that will be needed to meet them. Within the strategy there will be a series of plans and tactics that contribute to the overall strategy.
A proper housing strategy for England would be a radical long-term vision, setting out how we restore balance to the failing housing market, how we green our homes and create sustainable and prosperous neighbourhoods, how we meet the needs of a growing population, how we reform the housebuilding and mortgage industries and how we provide housing to the most vulnerable. Today’s “housing strategy” does none of these things – it is merely a jamboree bag of short-term tactics that fail to address the big structural issues in housing. The strategy rightly identifies some of the problems with housing supply and it is great to see a Conservative-led government highlighting the economic benefits of housebuilding, but this is primarily a Treasury document that sees housing growth as a way to stimulate the economy. The strategy aims to “unlock the housing market” and get Britain building again, which rather ignores the fact that it was the housing market that got us into our present mess in the first place! Reviving a failing housing market is going to lead to the same old boom and bust.
The strategy says, “To kick start housebuilding we need demand from first time buyers and others.” No we don’t! Demand without supply merely creates inflation. Supply first, then demand.
But the proposals for increasing supply are mostly a re-hash of what has gone before with a dash of half-baked optimism. Underwriting 95% mortgages (Barclays already offers a 95% mortgage) will allow “up to” 100,000 households to buy. (That doesn’t build any new homes on its own.) The First Buy scheme will help “almost” 10,500 first time buyers into the market. (Ditto.) Releasing public sector land will provide capacity for “up to” 100,000 new homes (who will build them?) Cutting right to buy discounts is unlikely to produce 100,000 new affordable homes. It’s not clear how the Growing Places fund and the Get Britain Building Fund will increase housing supply. Is this public money? The strategy isn’t clear. Community right to build and neighbourhood plans are all covered in the Localism Act and the draft National Planning Policy Framework. One of the few new initiatives in the strategy is the proposal that developers should be able to re-negotiate section 106 agreements that were put in place during the boom years. That certainly won’t increase the supply of affordable homes!
The strategy points out that households are likely to grow by 232,000 per annum for the next twenty years. That means we should really be building 250,000 new homes every year to recover past under-supply and meet future demand. I don’t see anything in this strategy that will boost supply to those levels. The NPPF is our only hope, but that really needs to be backed up with regional or national housebuilding targets that are rigorously enforced by planning inspectors.
The strategy also says nothing about the principal problem of our housing system – the fact that we see housing as an investment, rather than as a commodity. In our hearts we know that house prices and rents need to experience a long-term decline so that we can start to invest our surplus cash in things that that actually help the economy to grow, rather than in meaningless bricks and mortar. I realise of course that no serious politician could ever propose such a long-term plan!
Moreover, the strategy says nothing about the monolithic housebuilding industry, which bears some responsibility for the current crisis. Mergers and acquisitions have created an industry that cares more about margins and profits than meeting demand. The number of smaller housebuilders has fallen significantly and the industry needs to be broken up and re-formed with assistance for smaller firms. The same applies to the mortgage industry, which needs to be broken up so that smaller lenders and greater competition are encouraged.
More analysis will follow in the coming days and months, but these are my initial thoughts.
For years our sector has been extolling the economic, as well as the social benefits of house building. It’s estimated that every house produces 1.5 permanent jobs and that investment in housing has a greater multiplier impact than any other form of investment because people who move house buy new carpets, furniture and white goods.
Well it seems that ministers have finally got the message. Yesterday’s Sunday Times says that housing will be the “prime target” of a £50 billion plan for growth that will be announced within the next two months. But the programme will not be funded from the public purse but by pension funds and future revenue streams, such as tolls on upgraded roads, like the notorious A14. The Treasury has clearly factored in housing as a major component of UK growth and as a way of avoiding a double dip recession. The “presumption in favour of sustainable development” in the draft NPPF is further evidence that housing is a principal element in the recovery programme.
So is this a matter for rejoicing? Well, up to a point Lord Copper. It may be too little too late. At this stage it’s not clear how the housebuilding measures will pan out but if there is no public funding involved it’s unlikely that we will see any social or even “affordable” homes being proposed as part of the programme. It’s clearly a good thing that a Conservative-led government sees the economic merits of housebuilding (although Stanley Baldwin and Harold Macmillan both presided over much larger housing programmes). But the problem is that the housing market is a fickle beast that rarely responds in the right way to stimuli. House prices continue to fall – by 2.7 per cent outside London over the past year according to LSL Property Services. Another survey from the Halifax says that 30 per cent of those surveyed predicted prices would fall next year compared to 28 per cent who said they would rise. A gradual fall in house prices is also a good thing, but although there are continuing signs that the mortgage market is reviving - last week, for example, Barclays offered a 90 per cent fixed term mortgage - who in their right mind is going to buy a property if they think that house prices will continue to fall, especially at a time when the Eurozone crisis is still unfolding? So even though there are 300,000 extant planning permissions few housebuilders are likely to start building new homes if there is no demand.
Meanwhile, the private rented sector has grown by about 1 million homes over the past five years. The cuts in benefits that came in this year were meant to suppress rents. Many letting agents are now refusing to take benefit claimants. Yet rents continue to rise – by around by 4.3% in the past 12 months, with tenants paying an average £29 a month more than they were a year ago. The reason for this is clear - all the young people who would normally have bought a place by now are still in the rented sector or living with parents. This unmet demand is building like water behind a dam and at some point will be unleashed on the housing market. My hunch is that we will then face another panic as these punters rush to get on the housing ladder, leading to yet another boom in house prices.
So we are in a bit of a pickle, if you’ll excuse the pun, and a stimulus to private housebuilding won’t necessarily have the desired effect, at least in the short term. Perhaps the answer is an FDR-style New Deal – a massive increase in affordable housebuilding that avoids the market turbulence of the past few years, creates jobs and provides much-needed homes for those who need them. “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Not likely, but stranger things have happened.
William Barnes was Director of Housing when I joined Camden as a fresh-faced housing management trainee over thirty years’ ago. From his sixth floor office in Bidborough Street, just south of St Pancras Station, he managed an empire of 40,000 homes. Four floors below, the Chairman of Housing, a councillor called Ken Livingstone, had his own office in the department (a rather radical notion at that time) and was often to be seen eating alone in the staff canteen wearing his trademark safari jacket.
To most of his staff, Barnes seemed a rather remote and patrician figure, but I’ve just read his obituary in The Times (he died in July aged 92) and it reveals that he was a truly radical and visionary Director, who made a lasting contribution to London’s housing. He arrived at Camden in 1970 when waiting lists were growing and realised that the Borough had to take a comprehensive view of housing that embraced all of Camden’s population, not just the service provided to council tenants. He developed one of the best housing aid centres in London and led a massive programme of municipalisation, buying up whole streets of Victorian terraces and converting them into flats, often using compulsory purchase powers. Many General Improvement Areas and Housing Action Areas were created, where enforcement action against poor private sector landlords was taken and environmental improvements carried out. He also ran a huge building programme of 3,000 homes a year, delivered by the Council’s own architects’ department.
Barnes also felt passionately about training and staff development. He recruited many bright graduates – many of them now senior figures in the housing world - and set up a housing trainee scheme.
William Barnes was the son of the Bishop of Birmingham and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge where he took a First in classics. A lifelong Quaker, he was a wartime conscientious objector and served with the Friends Ambulance Unit. After the war he became a civil servant and was involved in setting up the London Business School. He had a passionate belief in mixed communities and Camden had a policy of buying sites in the richer parts of the Borough, such as Hampstead and parts of Holborn, to build award-winning estates, often to the chagrin of local wealthy residents who found themselves living next door to people they saw as undesirables. But take a walk around many parts of Camden today and you will see the legacy of this vision – well- kept and well-designed council blocks jeek by jowl with private mansion blocks and expensive Victorian houses. It is not surprising that a Camden address is one of the most sought-after in London.
The remarkable thing is that he did all this during the seventies – a decade of recession and political instability, much like our current decade. He built new homes on a scale that is almost unimaginable today and provided a comprehensive housing service that is a foundation stone of our present approach. It is quite a legacy. Now, with little to distinguish between Labour and Conservative housing policy it makes me wonder if we have any comparable visionary figures in our sector?