Sunday, 23 November 2014

Inside out

All posts from: February 2012

We'll need more tanks...

Tue, 28 Feb 2012

It’s only February and already a drought is forecast for many parts of England with farmers predicting a shortage of key crops and rising food prices as a result. Whatever your views on man-made climate change there is no doubt that our weather is changing; the eastern region, for example, has had only a quarter of its average February rainfall. But apart from the lack of rain, it’s also the case that, as a country, we are hopeless at storing and conserving our water resources. Last year I went to the Alpujarras region of southern Spain where the locals use an ingenious system of water-channels called acequias (first built by the Moors) to irrigate their terraced fields. They also have a widespread network of water tanks, both covered and open, called albergas, which allows them to harvest water during times of plenty and use it up over the hot dry summers.

By contrast, farmers in the UK store very little water. Almost all irrigation comes from local rivers and streams and this has been growing by 2 per cent annually, leading to amenity and wildlife problems in the lower reaches of watercourses. Farmers need to be encouraged to build on-farm water tanks, like the albergas system and they need to be doing it now. Of course, the NFU blames a lack of subsidy and a bureaucratic planning system for this failure to respond to changes in climate.

The housing sector also has a responsibility to think more seriously about water conservation and longer-term climate change. Do you remember the old “Brick in the Cistern” advertising campaign? We need to be getting across the message that water is as precious as air and food – encouraging tenants to use water wisely and using grey water to on their gardens. Apparently, we all use 145 litres each day, and a typical house roof could harvest 85,000 litres of rainwater each year.We also need to look more seriously at building grey water systems into new and existing homes and providing free water butts for sheds and outbuildings.

In the longer term, our response to climate change requires a clear vision and a strategy. I wrote about this five years ago in a report called “The Future is Unwritten – Looking towards 2050”, which was launched at a CIH Eastern conference (available on request!). In the future, it is likely that more people will die of heat than hypothermia, so this means “cooling” our properties using heat-absorbing and reflecting materials, and creating cooler sitting out areas, perhaps with water features. Subsidence could become a bigger problem and we could experience flash flooding and gustier winds. Our housing stock will need to be able to cope with more extreme weather, so asset management strategies need to be re-written. New homes in flood plains could incorporate undercrofts so that they can cope with rising water.

On a positive note, we can expect balmier temperatures and lower fuel bills as temperatures rise. But doing nothing is not an option. Smart housing providers will be planning for these longer-term changes. Are you?

The National Trust responds...

Mon, 20 Feb 2012

My last blog “Crying Wolf in the Countryside” obviously hit a raw nerve with the National Trust, because one of their Directors, Ben Cowell, has written a piece for their website objecting to my description of the Trust as “pretty clueless on housing.”

Describing me as “One of the National Trust’s fiercest critics in the debate over the NPPF” (I can live with that!) Ben argues that the Trust has a long and proud record of involvement in housing. He points out that Octavia Hill, the patron saint of housing management, was one of the National Trust’s founders and that the Trust has 2,000 tenants and is a housing developer in its own right.

I fully accept these points, although Ben omits to mention that the Trust has also built homes against fierce local opposition, notably when they developed an exclusive gated development of 200 homes at Cliveden in the green belt. What I should have said, of course, is that the Trust is “pretty clueless about housing numbers.”

Ben accepts that some homes will have to be built on greenfield land but as usual is evasive about how many should be built and where they should be built. The National Trust will not or cannot accept the fact that we will need to build at least 3 million homes on greenfield land over the next twenty years and it is this lack of honesty on the part of countryside campaigners that is the real problem with the NPPF debate.

Ben’s final point that building on only 1.3 percent of the unprotected countryside is too high a price to pay for meeting the country’s housing needs is where we part company. I think it’s a small price to pay, and well-planned developments would help us to protect and enhance the best landscapes.

His strange calculation that 3 million new homes in the countryside would require half as many roads as we have already makes no logical sense and rather proves my point about the Trust’s cluelessness. Given that we already have 22 million homes how would 3 million new homes increase the amount of land required for roads by 50 per cent?

Ben makes the valid point that Octavia Hill campaigned for open space to go alongside housing. That is why I believe a blanket brownfield-first policy is so misguided. When brownfield land becomes available in our towns and cities we need to analyse the costs and benefits of developing it. In some cases it may make more sense to return brownfield land to open space or to urban food production rather than cramming new homes onto every inch of our already dense cities. I’m sure Octavia Hill would approve of such an approach.

Steve Hilditch at the respected Red Brick blog has also joined the debate, pointing out that the NPPF contains no housing targets at regional and national level. I completely agree, and that is the greatest defect in the NPPF, but it is still a step in the right direction towards releasing the land that we need to address our housing crisis. He also makes the salient point that the National Trust is too close to the CPRE (“an organisation that does not in my view have progressive leanings”) and it is interesting to note that the NT and the CPRE have worked almost hand in glove on the anti-NPPF campaign, Of course the Trust’s Director General is a former head of the CPRE and I understand several senior CPRE staff came with her. But the Trust may come to regret this lack of independence as I sense a growing unease among some Trust members about the elitism and politicisation of their anti-NPPF campaign, as indicated by the comment from disillusioned Trust member Lorna underneath Ben’s blog.

In the meantime, we await the publication of the revised NPPF, due out very shortly. You can expect the debate to heat up considerably from publication day onwards.

Crying wolf in the countryside

Wed, 15 Feb 2012

It seems the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England are becoming desperate. Over the past six months they’ve run a brilliant scaremongering campaign against the draft National Planning Policy Framework, claiming that the government is putting the entire countryside at risk of development. But on Monday they issued a report claiming that, in fact, the opposite is true and that the NPPF will have very little impact upon growth and new development. Confused? Read on.

The draft NPPF was launched last July and was met with a barrage of opposition from groups like the National Trust and the CPRE - although it’s interesting that the people who actually live and work in the countryside, like the NFU and the Countryside Alliance, support the NPPF. They know that the countryside has to be a living, working place where development is essential for its long-term prosperity.

The re-drafted NPPF is out shortly, and everyone in the housing world should be hoping that three of its core principles are retained. First, a plan-led approach – where local authorities set out the housing and other needs of their district and allocate the land to meet them, whilst preserving the best landscapes. Second, a presumption in favour of sustainable development where land is allocated for a specific purpose, or where plans are silent. Third, no return to a blanket brownfield-first policy, which did so much damage to some of our urban areas.

The government, to their credit, believes that the planning system acts a brake on growth and fails to deliver the homes we need at a price we can afford. That is certainly the view of most credible commentators on land use and planning.

But this latest report commissioned by the National Trust/CPRE (and written by an economics outfit called Vivid), takes the opposite view. As an exercise in evasion, dissembling and obfuscation it’s hard to beat and makes for an hilarious read, since both organisations appear to have moved from a position where the entire countryside is at risk of being “concreted over” to a position where none of it is now at risk! Or at least in the “short term”. The report aims to prove its point by bringing in all manner of non-economic issues, but its basic headline is that planning reform won’t boost growth. I can only guess that this bizarre volte face is based on their view that the NPPF is a Treasury-led document and that if the economic arguments are undermined then the whole document will fall.

Yet the National Trust/CPRE have always put forward the firm view that planning controls do not act as a barrier to economic growth, so it is axiomatic, by their lights, that any change to the planning rules won’t affect growth. This report is therefore internally incoherent and a pointless commission! Not only that, but its conclusions are refuted by a plethora of more credible reports, notably Kate Barker’s 2004 and 2006 reports on housing affordability and land use, and a series of reports from the LSE’s Spatial Economics Research Centre, which all show that our planning system hinders economic growth, raises house prices and increases market volatility. Who would you rather believe in this debate?

So this really is desperate stuff on the part of the National Trust and CPRE. The problem with scaremongering is that it can come back to hit you in the face. Like the boy who cried wolf, people stop believing you after a while. I’ve consistently argued in these blogs (and the CPRE, at least, seem to accept this), that we need to build at least 5 million homes over the next 20 years to cope with population grown. No more than 2 million can be built on brownfield sites (and I think the CPRE accepts that as well), which leaves 3 million to be built beyond the existing urban footprint, either on well-planned urban extensions or new settlements. But this is where the National Trust and the CPRE fall silent (actually the Trust is pretty clueless on housing issues). Rather than engaging in a rational grown-up debate about how and where we should build these new homes, and protect the best countryside into the bargain, they rely on scaremongering or emotive terms like “sprawl” and “concreting over the countryside” to make their arguments. It’s like a child sticking its fingers in its ears and screaming. No sensible local authority, with a sensible local plan in place, is planning to create sprawl or “concrete over the countryside”. What’s more even if three million homes were built on greenfield land this would take up only about two thirds of one percent of the existing countryside, or just 1.3 percent of the unprotected countryside.

The National Trust and the CPRE really should re-think their tactics. After all, we all know what happened to the boy who cried wolf.

To the Editor of The Times

Mon, 13 Feb 2012

There’s an old football chant that goes: “And if, you know, your history, it’s enough to make your heart go woooooaahh…..”

For people who work in housing I think it’s always rewarding to look back at the historical record and to remind ourselves of the awful living conditions that people endured in the not so distant past. At a time when the social housing sector is under attack it is also helpful to reflect upon the immense improvements that social housing providers have made to the lives of millions of people.

I wrote about Charles Dickens last week, and came across this extraordinary letter sent to the editor of The Times newspaper. It was signed by 54 people living in a slum in St Giles, London, on the site where Centre Point now stands.

Amazingly, The Times published the letter on July 5th 1849 under the headline “A Sanitary Remonstrance”. The spelling is as in the original.


Sur, — May we beg and beseech your proteckshion and power. We are Sur, as it may be, livin in a Wilderniss, so far as the rest of London knows anything of us, or as the rich and great people care about. We live in muck and filth. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place. The Suer Company, in Greek St., Soho Square, all great, rich and powerfool men, take no notice watsomdever of our complaints. The Stenche of a Gully-hole is disgustin. We all of us suffer, and numbers are ill, and if the Colera comes Lord help us.

Some gentlemans comed yesterday, and we thought they was comishioners from the Suer Company, but they was complaining of the noosance and stenche our lanes and corts was to them in New Oxforde Strect. They was much surprized to see the seller in No. 12, Carrier St., in our lane, where a child was dyin from fever, and would not believe that Sixty persons sleep in it every night. This here seller you couldent swing a cat in, and the rent is five shillings a week; but theare are greate many sich deare sellars. Sur, we hope you will let us have our complaints put into your hinfluenshall paper, and make these landlords of our houses and these comishioners (the friends we spose of the landlords) make our houses decent for Christions to live in. Preaye Sir com and see us, for we are living like piggs, and it aint faire we shoulde be so ill treted.

We are your respeckfull servents in Church Lane, Carrier St., and the other corts. Teusday, Juley 3, 1849.

Signed by John Scott, Emen Scott, Joseph Crosbie, Hanna Crosbie, Edward Copeman, Richard Harmer, John Barnes, and 47 others

I don’t think I need to add anything to that. It speaks for itself. What became of these “corts” and their residents I do not know.

Charles Dickens and housing

Tue, 7 Feb 2012

So it’s happy Birthday to Charles Dickens who was born 200 years ago today in Portsmouth. Throughout his life he defended and championed the poor, the disabled and the down-trodden. But apart from being England’s greatest novelist he was also passionate about housing and sanitary reform. “In all my writings, I hope I have taken every available opportunity to showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor”, he wrote in 1849.

Many of his books contain passionate indictments of housing conditions, like this passage from “Sketches by Boz” (1836), his first published work.

“Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three - fruit and ‘sweet-stuff’ manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a ‘musician’ in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one - filth everywhere - a gutter before the houses and a drain behind - clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”

Household Words, the magazine that Dickens edited between 1850 and 1859 contained regular features on housing and sanitation and he lambasted the authorities about the conditions that working people had to endure. He condemned slum landlords and he advised England’s wealthiest woman, Angela Burdett-Coutts (of Coutts Bank) on the model flats she was building in Columbia Square in the East End.

Less well known is the fact that Dickens set up and ran a home for “fallen women” (i.e. prostitutes) in Shepherd’s Bush. With Coutts’s support, he supervised every aspect of finding, setting up and running “Urania Cottage” in Lime Grove. It provided a home for more than a hundred women over a twelve year period and they were fed, educated and then shipped off to the colonies to start a new life. (Whether this was related to Dickens’ guilt at using prostitutes himself is a matter for speculation.)

Claire Tomalin’s recent biography really captures his restless genius – he would go on daily 12-mile walks and often spend the whole night walking around London or Paris. He was above all a London writer, documenting the shifting life of the capital – a city that increased in population from 1.4 million to 3.2 million between 1815 and 1860. In his lifetime Dickens was read by millions of people around the world. Thousands would queue for the monthly serialisations of his novels to learn with shock and disbelief about the death of Little Nell or Paul Dombey. He opened the eyes of the middle and upper classes to the wretched lives of the poor and he had a major influence upon the housing and sanitary reforms that improved the lives of millions of people in Victorian Britain. For that alone we should celebrate his bicentenary today.

'The end of social housing' (cont…)

Mon, 6 Feb 2012

Do you remember this iconic Inside Housing front-page headline on the 29th October 2010, announcing the launch of the government’s “affordable rent programme?

Continuing on the same theme, I don’t like to say I told you so, but the news that the overall benefit cap could force housing associations in the south-east to stop building “affordable” family homes came as no surprise to me.

In July last year I wrote this about the affordable rents’ programme:

“Our sector appears to have swallowed the affordable rent canard hook, line and sinker. Admittedly it is the only game in town, but are some associations really so desperate for growth at all costs that they are willing to sell themselves for a few extra units? …. There is a danger that housing providers are about to fall into a trap that will further stigmatise the sector, similar to the trap we fell into thirty years’ ago when we complied with a purist needs-based approach to allocations, shutting the door upon large sections of the working working-class and causing the sector to become residualised.”

The way that the overall benefits cap works is that income comes first and rent comes last. So, according to figures provided by the CIH,  an out-of-work family with 4 children will receive JSA, child benefit, child credits and council tax benefit of £397 a week, leaving just £103 a week for the rent to keep them within the £500 overall cap. I can’t imagine many housing associations in the south east being able to provide an 80 percent of market rent “affordable” 3-bed property, let alone a 4-bed, for £103 a week or less. A family in this situation paying more than £103 a week in rent will therefore have two choices – either they use their income to top up their rent (thus making themselves even poorer), or they move to cheaper accommodation.

I must say, I’m surprised that the Equality and Human Rights Commission hasn’t taken up this issue. The fact that the cap blatantly discriminates against larger families must surely have some race or equalities implications, I would have thought?

But this conundrum is just part of a wider squeeze on social housing. We seem to be only belatedly waking up to the fact that this government views our sector with disdain. It’s great that several prominent chief executives have recently gone public with a robust rebuttal of Grant Shapps’s characterization of the “lazy consensus” and the “injustice” that we are apparently responsible for. But where were they, and our representative bodies, in 2008 when Policy Exchange published this report, or in 2010 when the Centre for Social Justice published this? Everything that is now happening to social housing can be traced back to the thinking contained in these reports, and others like it. Collectively, I think we have failed to respond with enough muscle to these changes. I hate to say it, but if we had reacted to these reforms with even a fraction of the campaigning zeal that the National Trust has deployed in response to the National Planning Policy Framework we would not be where we are now!

The truth is that we have walked into a trap and it’s hard to know what the answer is. Does anyone seriously believe that the affordable rents’ programme is going to be replaced in 2015 with social rents set at 50 or 60 per cent of market rents? If not, where does that leave us and our mission to help the people in the greatest housing need?

It’s hard to predict how the social housing sector will look ten years from now as a result of these changes. I think it could go in two directions, depending on whether we go on developing or not. It’s quite clear to me that the affordable rent programme is a potential poverty street for many of our traditional customers. Therefore if providers carry on building new homes and converting voids to “affordable” rents we could be forced up-market, providing homes that are only genuinely affordable to people on middle incomes, leaving the poorest to fend for themselves, and failing to provide any family homes across much of the south east. But if we stop building, we will be left with a shrinking sector that will start to look increasingly like the USA model of social housing – residualised, stigmatised and catering only for the poorest and most vulnerable. Either way, we are, if you will excuse the pun,  in a bit of a pickle!

The president has a problem

Wed, 1 Feb 2012

Apparently Newt Gingrich is planning to change his surname to Estament in a last-ditch bid to appeal to Bible belt voters, although this may still be too modern for some of them.

Jokes like this, the “Google problem” of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney’s tax secrets have been the only things to enliven a fairly lacklustre election race, but whoever the Republicans choose to face Barack Obama the state of the US housing market could well be a key election issue this Autumn.

I was struck by this last night when watching Channel 4 News. A UPS truck driver was shown in his Miami Beach condo – he’d bought it for $500,000 at the height of the boom, and it’s now worth $190,000. For him, the Presidential candidates’ housing policies will be an election deal-breaker. Half of all homeowners in Florida are now below water (in negative equity) and last week Burt Reynolds dropped the price of his Florida mansion from £9 million to $4 million.

The housing crisis in the USA is on a different scale to ours. Out of 88 million homeowners in the States, around 14 million are facing eviction, in mortgage arrears or in negative equity. 11 million mortgages are under water. Since the sub-prime bubble burst over 3 million homes have been repossessed and house prices continue to fall. Las Vegas is the eviction capital of America - last August, 70 percent of home sales were of repossessed properties or properties where owners were fleeing from mortgage debt.

As a result, the owner occupied sector in the USA has shrunk from 73 percent to 66 percent of the total stock and the rental sector has grown. Homeowners have lost $7 trillion in housing equity.

President Obama responded to the housing crisis with programmes to help people in negative equity. His foreclosure prevention programme, known as HAMP, aimed to lower borrowers’ mortgage payments to no more than 31% of monthly income, but only 910,000 homeowners have been helped so far, well below the target of 4 million. Other programmes designed to engineer lower interest rates have been similarly unsuccessful. In last week’s State of the Union speech, Obama announced new legislation that would allow homeowners to save around $3,000 a year in mortgage costs, to be funded by a tax on the largest banks.

Some commentators see a fall in house prices as a success story in the long term. It will make properties cheaper to buy and put more money into people’s pockets to boost the economy, whereas a rise in prices sucks money out of the economy. The same argument applies in the UK. In the long term negative equity always disappears, either through death, inflation, evictions or sales. And let’s not forget that Obama did not create the housing crisis - it was a Bush creation.

But a recent Gallup poll showed that 58% of Americans want the government to prevent foreclosures, (whereas 34% prefer the housing market resolve its problems on its own), although there is clear partisan divide, with 76% of Democrats and 61% of independents supporting government action and 64% of Republicans opposing it. So Obama’s housing policy, as he gears up for this Autumn’s election, will need to steer a careful path to appeal to both sides of the divide without alienating either.

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