All posts from: June 2012
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.
I’m setting off for Manchester shortly, but I thought I would leave you with one of those quirky housing stories that this blog is fond of.
I believe I first became aware of the Mole Man of Hackney in the nineteen-eighties, when I lived in Hackney Wick. But I may be wrong, for this is a story that is so Gothic, so bizarre, that it seems to belong more to mythology than to real life. Charles Dickens would have loved this case of a classic English eccentric who, quite literally, undermined the peace and tranquility of his neighbours. Iain Sinclair, the chronicler of hidden London, devotes a chapter to the Mole Man in his recent book: “Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire”.
In brief, William Lyttle was a civil engineer who bought a pair of semi-detached houses in Mortimer Road, De Beauvoir Town, Hackney in the early seventies. He started building rickety extensions in the garden, which was soon filled with assorted car wrecks and piles of junk. But he also had a strong desire to “improve’ his property by creating new spaces beneath the house. Unbeknown to his neighbours and using only a shovel and a homemade pulley system he tunnelled into the soft London clay and built a vast network of tunnels beneath and beyond the property, stretching for 20 metres in all directions, some going down ten metres. Some of them were big enough to stand up in. He planned a leisure centre and a sauna, but it was only when a bus fell into a hole in the road outside the property that the Council became aware of his activities. After years of legal action he was finally evicted by Hackney Council in 2006 and ordered to pay £350,000 towards the cost of remedial works. Hackney’s engineers took away 20 tonnes of material from the property and estimated that he had excavated 100 cubic metres of soil.
After his eviction, he was put up in a hotel for three years and then re-housed on the top floor of a council block. But he continued his excavations and knocked holes into several of the walls, causing a huge amount of damage, until he was found dead of natural causes in 2010 aged 79. His Mortimer Road property is now to be auctioned and is expected to fetch £750,000.
For myself, I can think of little worse than the thought that someone was digging beneath me and undermining my house, unseen and unheard. Conventional anti-social behaviour can be dealt with eventually, but William Lyttle’s activities were of a different order completely. Part of me believes that he must have been THE neighbour from hell, (or at least from the underworld!), but I also admire his eccentric individuality. But was his obsessive behaviour any different from that of Joseph Williamson, the man who built the strange network of tunnels under Liverpool? Lyttle could devote just his own labour to the task, but Williamson had an army of unemployed workers at his disposal.
In just a few days from now the great and the good of the housing world will be assembling in Manchester for their annual conference.
This time last year I wrote here about the demise of Harrogate and said that, although it had been a good and loyal venue, it hadn’t quite portrayed the right image for our sector. By contrast, I said, “Manchester will be gritty and serious, and it sits at the heart of a cornucopia of interesting housing schemes that delegates will be able to visit during their trip. Manchester is also easier to get to and has a better range of hotels, bars, restaurants and cultural attractions.”
I hope that I don’t eat my words, but the prospects for the new venue are looking good. The programme is full of interesting stuff covering all of the main issues affecting the sector right now, with more than 100 speakers taking part in over 40 sessions and a range of think tanks and fringe events, plus the biggest housing exhibition in the country (or even the world?). What remains to be seen is whether Manchester city centre will swallow up the expected 4,000 delegates and visitors, and destroy the intimacy and chance encounters that made Harrogate such a good venue. I’ve visited Manchester a few times and I’ve been studying a map of the city centre and I think it will work well. Most of the bars, hotels and restaurants are within a five-minute walk of the conference centre, unlike Harrogate where many delegates had to bus in from York, Ripon or Leeds.
And if you get tired of housing (!) there is always the excellent City Art Gallery where you can see paintings by the man who taught L.S. Lowry - the brilliant Adolph Valette. Just a short tram ride away there is the Lowry Centre, where you can continue your housing studies by viewing the biggest collection of paintings by the world’s most famous rent collector. Nearby is the Imperial War Museum or you could pay a trip to the real Coronation Street where you can see the famous Salford Lad’s Club, of Smiths fame, not to mention Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium. The People’s History Museum is also well worth a visit. Oh, and there is also some interesting housing to be seen in all directions from the city centre - several study tours are included in the programme, or you can just do your own thing. All in all, I think Manchester will have a great deal more to offer than Harrogate. But by this time next week the jury will be out.
I hope to see some of you there.
“King blames Queen for stifling Growth” was the rather brilliant headline on the front page of the Independent’s i paper a couple of week’s ago when Mervyn King claimed that this long Jubilee weekend would harm the economy.
I’m sure Her Majesty is not personally to blame for the festivities and would rather be putting her feet up at Windsor Castle, but sixty years of stonewalling inscrutability is quite an achievement.
So how do we assess the past sixty years on the housing front? Well, like the curate’s egg, it’s been good in parts. Housing conditions have improved immeasurably. Almost two in three households had no hot water supply after the war and most people have seen a dramatic improvement in their living conditions. House prices have increased 86 times, from an average price of £1,891 in 1952 to £162,722 now. In 1952 only a third of housing was owner occupied, now it’s two thirds. 50 percent rented privately, compared to 17 percent now. Yet affordability has worsened and a whole generation is now being denied the right to buy or rent a home of their own at a price they can afford. The last sixty years have also seen four boom-and-bust periods in the housing market, a level of volatility that has caused immense damage to our economy and to people’s lives.
But it is in housebuilding that we have seen the greatest changes, with a slow and stuttering decline in production over the second half of the Elizabethan period. It really has been a reign of two halves with nearly 8 million homes being built in England in her first thirty years compared to only 4.7 million during the subsequent period. In 1952 in England we built 197,000 homes. That’s nearly twice as many as now, and 84% of them were council houses, but the rest of the decade was even more impressive. Between 1951 and 1960 2.4 million homes were built in England and 54 percent were council homes. In the sixties we did even better with a total of 3.3 million homes, peaking at 352,540 in 1968, the year when the rest of Europe went up in flames and Hey Jude was the best selling single. 41 percent of them were council homes. Between 1970 and now, the best year for housing was 1976 when the Labour government built 263,430 homes. The nadir is right now, 2012, with housebuilding just over the 100,000 mark and about to dip below it according to the latest figures for housing starts.
Over the past sixty years, private housebuilding has remained remarkably constant with 100,000 to 150,000 homes being built each year. It has been the dramatic fall in social housebuilding that caused the long-term decline in production. Housing associations were simply unable to take on the level of housebuilding that had previously been carried out by local authorities.