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How scrolling through ‘Nextdoor’ made me a YIMBY

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through Nextdoor, an app and social media platform for neighbours to connect and share information based on their location. For those unfamiliar with this, Nextdoor is probably best described as Facebook residents’ groups gone wild. Not my favourite place to be on the internet, but I’ve only recently moved into my current area of London and I’m nosy.

There was the usual fare. A mixture of missing animals, requests for decorators, and the occasional whinge about closed roads. I usually scroll past without a second thought. However, on this occasion I saw something that gave me pause for thought. A headline in bold and all caps read:

“6 STOREY BUILDING WITH NO PARKING MUSWELL HILL RD AT JUNCTION WITH WOODSIDE AVE”

No parking? Oh the horror!

I can’t say it was sympathy that made me pay attention.

I read on. It claimed the development would cause a “parking crisis” if allowed to go ahead. Fourteen car parking spaces would be lost, it went on to state. Furthermore, the planned buildings were “atrocious” and there was the classic objection of being “out of keeping with the area”.

And then, the final nail in the coffin for me was a comment that read “it is for social housing, so a good cause, but current plans ignore local impact”. The author might as well have literally used the words:

“Not In My Backyard’ or NIMBY for short.

It was this bit that really enraged me. I work as a Caseworker for two Members of Parliament in two London Boroughs. My job is trying to help people who are so desperate, who have tried every other option, that their last resort is to seek help from their MP. One of the biggest and most frequent issues by far is housing.

Now, I have many friends who know a lot about housing policy. I know people who look at the data and statistics in great detail, and who engage in debates with people about why most people my age will never be able to own property. I am not one of these experts. I have no idea about the detail.

But what I do know is that we simply do not have enough affordable places to live. I have dealt with too many people who are living in terrible conditions, properties in serious disrepair. I am sick and tired of telling people that they will have to use their living room as a bedroom, because they simply don’t have as great a housing ‘need’ as other people.

Every single person deserves a safe, warm and comfortable place to live. That should not be a controversial statement. Yet we’ve reached such a shortage that local authorities are put in the terrible position of having to tell families that there’s a waiting time of over 15 years for a property with enough bedrooms for their children.

Of course, unsuitable accommodation is only one issue. How can children focus on their schoolwork when they have no quiet place to study; when the block that they live in is a hotspot for anti-social behaviour because the front door is regularly damaged? How can anyone build a life in one place when their ceiling suddenly caves in and they have to be moved to temporary accommodation on the other side of the city?

Housing is more than just a place to sleep. It’s a place to live, a base from which to take advantage of opportunities. It should not be a luxury but sometimes, especially doing the work I do, it feels like it is.

It is for these reasons why I found it so enraging to see this kind of NIMBYism on my local Nextdoor social network. Social housing is great. But…not here. My car goes here.

I had a look at the plans for myself. 41 new properties, 32 of them let at social rent levels. 32! I couldn’t believe that so many new council properties might be built only an 8-minute drive from my house. The design didn’t look too bad, certainly not as jarring, and different as some blocks I’ve seen. Nor what I would describe as out of keeping with the area.

As for the parking, the plans included five wheelchair-accessible spaces. That was my last possible worry alleviated. I went straight to my council’s planning website, hoping I wasn’t too late, and wrote a comment informing the authority I support application “HGY/2021/2727”.

I’d never done this before, engaged with the planning process. As a 23-year-old renter, I’d never stayed long enough in one place to feel part of a community, the kind of person who should comment on these things. But this time I did.

To be honest, and without any research to back this up, I have to say that the entire process felt loaded towards objections. I remember being given several easy options to click for issues with the plans, but not very much at all in favour.

I wrote something short about the need for good social housing, with a reminder about the need to reduce private car journeys for good measure and submitted. Mine was the first comment in favour.

After a few YIMBYs (‘Yes In My Back Yard’ – those in the pro-housing movement in contrast and in opposition to the NIMBYs) I know spread the word, the application now sits with five supporting comments. And over 170 objections. Now, I’d like to think that more than five people in my borough would be supportive of this scheme, but the planning process does not seem set up to hear from them. Planning is too often associated with a ‘bad’ thing that must be fought, rather than a way for local residents to express what they want in their area.

At the time of writing, no decision has been made on this development. I haven’t got my hopes up, if I’m honest. NIMBYs are very well organised, and some political parties feed the beast as a way to win support. But if I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that I need to speak up more. I’ll be checking the Major Developments of my council’s planning website more often from now on. And hope other supporters of new housing do the same.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Hollie Wickens</span></strong>
Hollie Wickens

Hollie is on the Executive Committee of the Young Fabians and currently works as a case worker for Wes Streeting MP and Sarah Jones MP.

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Wealth Inequality Starts at Home

Housing wealth inequality is a key driver in the reduction of social mobility.

Every child deserves a chance of economic success, no matter what their background. In England inheritance has become an ever-growing share of national income since the 1970s. It is these inheritances that are to blame for increasing wealth inequality between those with richer and poorer parents. We know there are substantial inequalities in the distribution of housing wealth in Britain. Often related to social class an income.

Sadly, stringent restrictions on new housing supply effectively limit the number of workers who can access the opportunities to create this wealth.

This article explores to what extent attempts to reduce housing wealth inequality can tackle these issues and help win Labour soft Tory votes?

Neighbourhood factors and wealth distribution make or break upward mobility

We know from studies in the United States that if a child moves to a wealthier neighbourhood, it increases the likelihood that the child would go to college. It also increases earnings on average by over 30% by the time they reached their mid-20s.  We do not know exactly what the causal factor is in these studies, whether it be going to better schools or engaging with families with higher socio-economic status. But what is clear is that keeping people in places where earnings and job opportunities are not as good hampers social mobility and exacerbates wealth inequality.

Living in England means parental wealth is distributed extremely unequally. One fifth of people born in the 1980s have parents with wealth ‘per-heir’ of less than £10,000. Yet a quarter of people have per-heir parental wealth of £300,000 or more, while one in ten have £530,000 or more. Education and region are strong predictors of parental wealth. Children of Londoners have parents with over twice as much wealth, on average, as those with parents living in the North East such as my own.

Land use regulation is linked to house price increases, restricts the movement of labour, and is a causal factor of rising wealth inequality

It goes without saying policies that successfully redistribute these inheritances would have large effects on inequality and social mobility for later-born generations. The OECD recognises that land use determines health, environmental, social and economic outcomes. Arguing that rising inequality in recent decades is explained by “rising land and property prices”.

Even small changes in valuations of land and property can have major consequences on the distribution of wealth.  Meanwhile we know increases in land and property prices tend to benefit older and wealthier households. This often comes at the expense of younger and poorer households.

For most of the 20th century workers moved to areas where new industry and opportunities were emerging, with farmers and the like moving from rural settings to cities. In the Great Migration of the United States some six million African-American workers left the South for factory jobs in cities like Chicago.

Yet when housing supply is highly restrictively regulated in certain areas, house prices are higher and population growth is smaller relative to the level of demand. Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard University and Professor Joseph Gyourko of Wharton Business school make this argument. It is this tight regulation of land markets, often in a country’s most productive places, that leads labour to locate in places where wages and prices are lower.

NIMBYism and stringent restrictions on building new housing holds back the economy, harms workers, and hampers social mobility

In turn reducing a country’s overall economic output in the process. In arguably the single most influential article ever published on housing regulation, Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti’s “Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation”  determines such these restrictions that have held by the US economy by over 36% of Gross Domestic Product between 1964 and 2009.

The rise of the property-rights revolution that is “Not In My Back Yard” has reduced the construction of new homes tremendously. In particular where the economy has been strongest and most productive. This is not just an American phenomenon. In England we know the impact of supply constraints have a substantive impact on house prices. A fact we cannot choose to ignore.

The Social Mobility Commission released it’s “State of the nation 2021: Social mobility and the pandemic report” earlier this year in July 2021. It acknowledges that recent trends have shown wealthier families increasing levels of second home ownership and an apparent increase in intergenerational wealth transmission.

Its own findings highlight “as inheritance of these houses comes into play, we will see stark rises in inequalities”. The increasing sizes of inheritances received by those from wealthier backgrounds sets to limit the prospects of upward mobility for those from poorer backgrounds.

Labour needs to ask itself: does it care more about the preservation of housing wealth or the affordability of housing

As Michael Gove starts his new role as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities we must look back to his views on the matter. For example, he acknowledges in his 2013 Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture that “access to home ownership has become the preserve of those with family wealth”.  In England, with reference to superstar cities like London, we know that two-thirds of house price versus rent increases between 1997 and 2018 can be explained by labour demand shocks and supply constraints.

A strong labour market is one a full employment and where employers must compete for workers. This makes an area more desirable to potential migrants and increases one’s willingness to pay for housing in an area. If the Labour Party is to be the party for labour, it must understand its role alongside supply constraints.

This means finding ways to allow labour to go to move to where the jobs are. We currently limit the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. But this is why we must build houses there to allow more workers to create wealth of their own.

Labour voters should care more about housing affordability than protecting housing wealth

Interestingly, Labour Party voters feature as an instrument in research methods to identify planning restrictiveness. On average, voters of the Labour Party have below-average incomes and housing wealth. Thus, it is expected that we should care less about the protection of housing wealth. Instead more about the affordability of housing.

Campaigners are fighting for planning reform to make housing more affordable

Sadly, in England we have seen the housing wealth preservers successfully lobby Government into submission. This has come much to the horror of campaigners for affordable house prices. Director of Priced Out, Anya Martin, said:

“We are horrified that Government is u-turning on planning reforms.”

“Renters have faced decades of rising costs because of our failure to build enough homes, and our planning system is at the heart of this failure.”

Priced Out finds itself alongside the National Federation of Builders. Who also have cried out they won’t forgive Conservative backbenchers for derailing the planning proposals. To note, smaller builders used to deliver 40% of homes during the 1980s, but now that figure is just 12%. This is in large part blamed on the current systems barriers to entry.

While some on the left deem the reforms a “ferocious attack on democracy”, they find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the wealth preservation lobby of some of the most affluent areas of the country.

Maidenhead, where the house price to earnings ratio is 12.7x, see its MP Theresa May having led the Tory revolt against planning reforms. Theresa Villiers MP for Chipping Barnet, where the household income needed to buy is £140,000, railed against the alleged reduction of democratic involvement in the planning system.

Both of whom see the ability to veto new homes in their local areas as the holy grail. Sadly, ignoring the fact local plans are politically led community consulted processes in themselves.

Labour needs to think about how they can win Tory safe seats like the Isle of Wight

Other Tory backbench MPs, such as Isle of Wight’s Bob Seely, have vociferously made the case against the “planning revolutionaries”. He represents an area with one of the worst levels of child poverty in the South East. Boasting below average incomes and weak productivity.

Average disposable household income on the Isle of Wight languishes below the UK average at £18,366 (-13% lower). The constituency has 2,149 households on its social housing waiting list. You would think with such demographics it would present itself as a target Labour seat for Keir Starmer.

Yet the Isle of Wight boasts a Tory majority of over 21,000 votes. Labour, being the party of tackling wealth inequality, needs to think about how people like Bob are effectively challenged. Last time Labour ever came close to winning Bob’s seat was in 1945. The year the Attlee government put housebuilding at the heart of its agenda.

These questions come at a time where Labour recognises the need to win Tory voters. Director of Progressive Britain, Nathan Yeowell, says “Labour must be ruthless in going after soft Tory voters if it wants a swift return to national government”. Perhaps revised planning reform is Labour’s chance to show just how ruthless it can be. After all the Tories lost their majority of the council in the Isle of Wight in May this year.

Backbench Tory MPs block homes to preserve wealth off the backs of working people

The case of Bob Seely epitomizes how wealth preservers hamper housebuilding and damage equality of opportunity for his constituents. The wealth preservation lobby on the Isle of Wight are challenging the housing targets set for it by Government, with Bob Seely at the helm.

There are concerns about how the island will handle the additional 400 new homes per year. Most of which arising from the latest housing need calculation. This comes on top of the 640 calculated using the meagre standard method. Shockingly, the Isle of Wight has a price-to-earnings ratio of over 8x the average income. But this bears no relevance to the Tory preservation lobby, no doubt as they directly benefit.

Construction provides jobs, wages, and keeps income in the community. It improves the local economy as workers employed on each project have wages to pass onto other local businesses. The Isle of Wight is crying out for such opportunities. But those hell bent on preserving wealth continue to deny them the opportunity.

But the issue goes much further than the island itself. For example, the ONS states that those living in neighbouring Central Hampshire have an average annual disposal income of  £26,302 (+24.6% higher than the UK average).

For those looking across the water for opportunities from the Isle of Wight the outlook is bleak. New Forest District Council, next to the Isle of Wight, is only delivering half as many homes as it needs. In effect pricing out poor islanders who may wish to move to this more productive part of the country.

Backing meaningful planning reform means creating more opportunities for workers. Only then will wealth become redistributed more evenly.

Changes to land use regulations can form part of the biggest redistribution of wealth under a Labour government

Historically, local economic booms matched with local building booms. Prior to 1946 building was lightly regulated and housing was allowed to be built in areas of high demand. For example, there were 80,000 new build homes created in London in a single year of 1930 alone. Over 2.5x the net number of new homes delivered in 2017/18. A year that marked a decade long high, mostly by the private sector subsidised by government.

Source: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/housing_in_london_2019.pdf

We know extensive restrictions on land use and building leads to higher house prices, rather than more homes and workers. If Labour is to be once again the party of the worker, it must deliver more homes. People used to move from poor places to richer places. However, due to restrictive land use regulations this pattern is on the decline.

We must allow the population to seek work in wealthier places. These are places where demand is strong and productivity is high. In doing so we will avoid unequal mobility and poverty traps created by a lack of new housing.

We must counter the NIMBY property-rights revolution to improve prosperity for all – and say ‘Yes In My Back Yard’

For constituencies like Bob’s to prosper, we must tackle the misallocation of labour. This means allowing workers to cross the Solent to the New Forest West and building more homes. While wealth inequality starts at home, it ends with allowing others to access creating that wealth of their own.

Thus, Labour needs to present the country with a vision for prosperity. It must do this by challenging the NIMBY property-rights revolution. One steeped in a world of draconian regulation, high prices, and ever more entrenching wealth inequality. In allowing more families to build wealth through the property owning democracy, it can create one that will become less unequal.

Labour must focus on improving opportunities for the workforce through land regulation. By redistributing wealth more fairly through building more homes in high demand areas it can achieve this. After all we know that data on wages shows big cities do bring prosperity to their wider areas.

The problem is they just aren’t generating enough of it.

By moving to “Yes In My Back Yard” (YIMBY) Labour can tackle wealth inequality and become once again the party of aspiration. Equipped with this vision it will can attract soft Tory voters, while at the same time putting labour back at the core of its policy-making.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Christopher Worrall</span></strong>
Christopher Worrall

Chris is the Editor of Red Brick blog and sits on the Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

He currently is Chair of Poplar and Limehouse CLP, co-hosts the Priced Out podcast and is the Local Government and Housing Member Policy group lead for the Fabian Society.

He writes in a personal capacity.

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How do we reset the housing market?

England’s housing system has failed. We need to press the reset button on housing – let’s start with planning.

Rampant house price inflation. Hundreds of thousands of people trapped in unsafe buildings. Tens of thousands of families made homeless during a global pandemic. Our housing system is broken.

You would think given the state of things, that fundamental reform of housing would be top of the political agenda and an obvious vote winner. Yet this isn’t the case and we’ve seen no substantive policy action in decades, with the supply of new homes per year now well below the housebuilding highs of the  1960s and 1970s. Despite being badly needed, the popularity of the ‘not in my backyard’ mantra has made housing reform politically untenable, with devastating consequences.

This problem is most obvious at the local level. While many voters are often sympathetic to the problems of housing affordability and homelessness, they too often oppose the construction of new homes, including affordable homes. Building more homes would help tackle such problems by directly increasing the supply of affordable homes and expanding the number of housing options available to people more generally.

England’s housing crisis is a product of multiple local housing crises. In many of the areas where opposition to new homes is strongest, affordability problems are often the worst. Of course, the ramifications of this crisis are not felt equally. It is often the younger and less well-off residents who are eventually priced out of their own communities.

Building more and better homes is not a panacea. But we must acknowledge it is part of the solution. As Geoff Meen, one of the UK’s foremost housing experts has pointed out, it’s ‘perfectly possible for there to be both an absolute shortage of homes and a distribution problem’. In essence, we are not building enough homes in England, and we do not have the right policies to create more sustainable credit conditions or ensure fair access to housing for people on all incomes.

Once we acknowledge that building more homes is part of the solution, then the next question we must answer is ‘how do we build more’? Part of the answer lies in the way we deliver homes through England’s planning system. While the government’s proposed reforms aren’t flawless, they do present a vision. Significant questions about what these reforms could mean for the delivery of affordable housing persist and they certainly don’t go far enough in tackling high land values.

The answer to these weaknesses is better reforms, not no reforms. We must imagine a better alternative to our current planning system if we are to tackle the root causes of the housing crisis.

To show their credibility on housing issues, political parties must better sell a vision for a planning system that delivers the homes we need and in doing so, stops people from being priced out of their communities. That requires putting aside the short-term gains of winning immediate votes by objecting to local development and instead explaining why we need to build more homes in this country. Making the case for more homes nationally while opposing them in their backyard reduces the credibility of any national message politicians might have on housing.

The widespread opposition to the government’s planning reforms suggest that they were dead on arrival. That is not a reason to abandon attempts to address the housing crisis. At the moment, our planning system reinforces England’s broken housing market because land that obtains planning permission increases exponentially in value. This makes it increasingly difficult to build homes at affordable prices. Despite this, suitable policy solutions such as the introduction of zoning policy find few advocates and instead, the dysfunctional status quo persists.

We need to build a new consensus on housing. It is time to move beyond the short-term gains and quick wins that come from opposing new homes. Instead, politicians must present a bold and radical vision for how they will address England’s housing crisis. Now is the time for radical and ambitious vision that would improve the supply of high-quality and affordable homes, while also tackling the unfair distribution of homes.  The myriad of problems facing the housing market – from the building safety crisis to rampant unaffordability – will only get worse without action to deliver better quality and more affordable homes.

The longer the housing crisis goes unfixed, the more damage it does. Progressives must not fall into the trap of opposition for opposition’s sake. Instead, they should articulate a clear vision that that explains why the housing market is broken, why we need radical action to fix things and how a fairer society can be created if we get things right. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jonathan Webb</span></strong>
Jonathan Webb

Jonathan Webb is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @jrkwebb.

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Building a Coalition for Building Homes

In a way, it was almost inevitable that I would develop an interest in gentrification and housing. After all, I am a millennial and I grew up in Zone 2/3 of Inner London. I didn’t just watch my neighbourhood change as I grew up, I watched the door to a future my parents’ generation took for granted close before my eyes. 

My parents moved to Forest Hill, South East London in the mid-80s. Even back then my parents couldn’t afford to live in Hackney or Tooting (my mum had been a big Citizen Smith fan). Growing up, South London was the butt of jokes – most of which revolved around it being poorly connected, scary or dull. But by the noughties, my area would start appearing in the aspirational columns about London’s new exciting suburbs. Housing prices rose sharply and continuously. The global housing market crash in 2008 couldn’t stop this runaway train and the last decade has seen my neighbourhood transform. 

I noticed the most rapid changes taking place after 2011, when the London Overground was delivered to the area. I was away at university over this period and as I returned each summer, there were new cafes, estate agents and pizza places to replace the launderettes, sandwich shops and second-hand electronic stores. I remember chatting to the owner of Cafe No 41 on Brockley Rise around this period. He had owned Bertie Rooster’s Fried Chicken on the same site and he said he’d noticed the area changing, so he thought he’d better change too. Smart move. 

Local NIMBYs, true to form, opposed the transformative rail connections. I remember my dad, who worked in transport, railing against the local opposition to it. He had been arguing for greater capacity for the Overground, for longer trains, and an additional station between Surrey Quays and Queen’s Road Peckham. As the Overground now sits at bursting point — a victim of its own success — he should’ve been listened to. Ironically, the Overgound has been a huge boon to their property-owning NIMBYs that opposed it.

But while I infamously remain sniffy towards NIMBYism, I do understand it. A rapidly changing neighbourhood can be discombobulating and disconcerting. As a strange teenager, I remember pleading with my friends to go to the array of cornershops in Honor Oak instead of the new Sainsbury’s Local if they were buying drinks and snacks before we had a kickabout in the park. Instinctively, I didn’t like what I saw as the homogenisation of my local mini-high street and I knew that Sainsbury’s would destroy some of those independent shops (it did) that I felt I had a relationship with. My instincts were to, in a way, keep my neighbourhood ‘static’. 

I’ve been on a journey to try and understand the phenomenon that shaped my home town when growing up and understand my own feelings around it. While at university, I wrote my dissertation on the changing Toxteth and Canning areas of Liverpool. I had grand ambitions to start a university society that would work with the local community to improve ‘Town & Gown’ relationships in the nearby area. Like most of my plans, they crumbled due to a bad attitude and lack of endeavour. The dream ended with me getting into a fight at a Residents’ Association’s ‘cheese & wine’ night and quite literally being thrown out. 

However, looking back on the experience, it gave me a good understanding of how gentrification works and was a valuable insight into a world I would later inhabit. Gentrification is an organic process and one seen in major cities around the capitalist world. The cliched but illustrative example is as follows – artists move into an area due to cheap rents and large spaces. They create an artistic community and the area becomes ‘cool’. With it being cool, it then becomes desirable. The greater appetite for the housing then pushes up rents and prices and gradually the area’s demographics shift. 

It was once thought that cities would act like a pebble falling into a pond, rippling outwards and decaying inside. Yet from the 1970s onwards the shift has been back into the centre. Some hippies and squatters now own multimillion pound property in areas of our West End. Savvy boomers profited. 

The process of gentrification can be sped by developers who see the opportunities offered by a rent-gap to maximise profits. In this, developers are simply capitalising on a saturated housing market and building where demand is. Likewise, ‘gentrifying’ businesses are responding to their new clientele not moulding customers from thin-air and wishes. Cereal cafes and posh chicken shops are a symptom of gentrification, not a cause. Today, many of the anti-gentrification activists I come across are ‘first wave’ gentrifiers themselves, similar if not a bit older than my parents.

While it is an organic process, gentrification does cause profound issues. Sharp rises in the cost-of-living create havoc for low-income families and at its starkest, drives them from their neighbourhood. As I mentioned in my last blog, social homes with secure and affordable rent is a fire-wall against gentrification. But London is increasingly being hollowed out, swathes of North & West London in zone 1 & 2 have become binary and soulless places – the very well-heeled live alongside enclaves of council homes occupying parallel lives. I worry that the evaporation of London’s Little Italy, will eventually happen to our Little Bengal and our Little Portugal.

***

My blood still curdles at a previous generation of local politicians who seemed to actively encourage the gentrification of their neighbourhoods, as a means of improving their patch. Gentrification doesn’t solve poverty, it just kicks it down the road. But for some local politicians, that once seemed enough. Angered by what I saw, I vowed to campaign against it. It signalled my first forays into local politics. 

In my last blog, I wrote about Lewisham’s Residents Charter and how we’ve come along way from this era. Like our predecessors, we know that mixed communities are positive for social cohesion and shared uplift. Likewise, we also know that many of our large post-war estates are in need of urgent renewal. However, as an administration led by a new wave of politicians, we’re committed to ensuring that any regeneration produces a net gain in social homes, expanding our gentrification fire-wall in the borough. 

Yet I do not remain hopeful for the future. Writing this, I am struck by just how long I was part of the problem and what that says for the future. I was driven into local politics by the anger that while my neighbourhood was being torn up and built back up, none of these homes were for me.

Developers, greedily lining their own pockets, were building ‘luxury flats’. Councils were failing to stand up to them and accepting schemes with pitiful amounts of affordable housing. 

It’s been through sitting planning committee as a councillor that I learnt that most of these flats weren’t ‘luxury’. The only thing luxury about them was the unaffordable price. The housing crisis has simply become so insane in London that any market-value home is deemed luxury and therefore out of reach of someone like me — a young person without assets, earning the average London wage. 

This situation has bred a culture of cynicism among an entire generation. As we discuss rents at house parties and scoff in frustration at the mere idea of saving for a deposit, we’ve grown suspicious of new housing and growth. Moreover, the council-led schemes of the past have led to a sour taste in people’s mouths. While these schemes, directly reducing social housing, could be an example of top-down gentrification — it would be wrong to view gentrification as a whole, as planted from top-down from developers.

If writing to note to my younger self, I’d be rather pithy. ‘Dear Leo, sick of chain stores and the champagne et fromages under those new flats? Let many, many, more flats just like that be built, so rents and prices round here come down and the demographics that fed those independent shops and the sandwich shop you loved so much, can remain.’ As this article highlights, the forces that drive gentrification ‘do not come from the construction of specific apartment buildings or retail complexes, no matter how many granite countertops or artisanal coffee shops they might contain.’ Increasing supply will lower prices.

***

It is only now that I see how damaging the framing of gentrification as a top-down process, thrusted-upon benign communities by developers, has been. 

As a councillor, I have been shocked by the glacial and bureaucratic process of approving new homes in the borough. Not only that, I’ve seen how small interest groups have leant on councillors to reject new homes on spurious grounds. 

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. As this Centre for Cities report highlights, our planning system operates like the old Eastern Bloc, rationing supply through a permit system. ‘In both the former Eastern Bloc and the English housebuilding market, firms must apply to planners for a permit, or a planning permission, to get the inputs they need to do business.’

We currently have a system that cannot respond to demand. Developers need to go through the process of receiving planning permission which is slow, often costly and fundamentally uncertain (planners can downsize or councillors can strike down an application, years into the process). This means ‘the amount of land that they can develop tomorrow is fundamentally unknown.’

It is this risk, inherent in our system, that means developers hoard land that has planning permission (or is likely to receive planning permission). As Centre for Cities notes, ‘this ‘hamster-like’ behaviour is rational as it means they will always have land on which those assets can be operating, even if planning permissions temporarily dry up.’ The report also notes:

‘A site that has planning permission or is suspected to have a high chance of receiving planning permission can greatly increase this price, especially near cities and large towns with successful economies and expensive housing’. To illustrative this point, in 2010, agricultural land without planning permission around Cambridge was worth roughly £18,500 per hectare. Once it received planning permission for housing, the value per hectare increased to £2.9m.

Developers must cover these high land costs, and they cannot escape them by increasing production or efficiency as the planning system rations the supply of land they require. They therefore need to pass their land costs onto consumers and sell new houses at high prices.

Developers experience a disadvantage trying to acquire land which can be lawfully developed, they enjoy the advantage of a sellers’ market when selling new properties to consumers due to slow buildout rates. This means that predominantly only big powerful developers can get hold of land which will get large-scale planning permission, and once they have hold it, they can build a slow ‘absorption rate’ keeping house prices high due.

If developers could instead just buy land and develop it without applying for a planning permission, then “planning gain” and thereby the absorption rate would both disappear. The price of land would reflect local demand and, as firms would and could only buy what they immediately needed, they would be forced to build new housing as quickly as possible to outcompete rival firms that could now do the same.

It is our system which creates the circumstances for large developers to be able to buy the rationed land for development and build slowly as they face little competition. 

But this isn’t a cry to rip-up the rule book. Local planning frameworks should remain in place and offer clear rules of what can be built and where. However, areas zoned for development should be greatly expanded. As the campaign group Priced Out argues: 

‘For the areas that are zoned for development, there should be transparent rules about what cannot be built there — which could include what the developments are used for, and rules on look and feel — with everything that does not contravene these rules allowed. Alongside this we already have extensive national building regulations, rules on the sustainability of developments, and various other regulation which is already in place.’

Priced Out Manifesto | Rules-Based Planning

However, when reaching out to colleagues to express these views and concerns, I receive immediate and blanket push-back. Those I speak to see the bureaucracy of our planning system as a bulwark against lowering standards. They instinctively reject ideas about cutting red tape and increasing competition to raise standards. Developers are the bad guys that need to reined in by councillors, rather than firms rationally gaming a broken system that we uphold. 

It has become fashionable across the political spectrum to deny that our housing crisis is linked to a lack of supply. Campaigners against new market-sale homes often point to the fact that the UK has 216,000 long-term vacant homes, which could occupy a sizeable chunk of our 280,000 homeless people, if only they were happy to be bussed to Cornwall or Cleethorpes.

However, rather than suggesting that we do not need to increase supply, our empty homes highlight our nation’s stark housing shortage. In the UK, only 0.9% of homes are long term vacant. In a healthy market, surpluses provide ‘a strategic reserve which they can use to respond to sudden changes in consumer demand.’

Compare our situation to Japan, a nation with an affordable housing market. In Japan, less than 5% of homes are socially rented (here it is around 17%). Across Japan, 5.6% of homes are long-term vacant, while Tokyo the figure is 2.5% – which is a higher share of empty home than in Burnley – other most affordable city in England and the one with the most vacant housing. Suppressing vacancy rates in the UK will only make the situation worse. Instead, we need to build enough to homes to create a healthy surplus.

As I have written previously, the housing crisis cannot be tackled by local authorities building themselves. This blog succinctly nails the issue: The UK’s housing affordability crisis is too little supply, which cannot respond to prices. However, getting Labour Party colleagues and angry young millennials alike to accept that we need developments of market-rate properties on a huge scale in areas of the country where our housing shortage is most acute — will be an uphill battle. 

Steam-rolling through reforms won’t work. Instead, we need to start that process of chipping away – gradually building a coalition in support for house building. And maybe one day we can get more people to say yes-in-their-backyard to luxury flats.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Leo Gibbons-Plowright </span></strong>
Leo Gibbons-Plowright

Leo is a Labour and Co-Op Party Councillor for Forest Hill in Lewisham.

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Compromise and Council Houses

In part two of this three part blog contribution we continue to hear from inside the tent to what extent our planning system is truly representative and democratic. Do cries of ‘social cleansing’ hold any veracity, or does left-wing NIMBYism refusal to accept trade-offs manifest itself to the same effect?

Once upon a time, I would’ve stood on Reginald Street in Deptford in searing anger. Even with the land cleared and the hoardings up, I would still be bitter about what my colleagues had been put through. But today I’ve found myself mellowed. As I watch the diggers at work, laying the foundation for 117 new social homes, I wryly smile to myself. Today, the fight for these homes seems so easy, so tiny, so inconsequential. 

The old Tidemill school site on Reginald Road had long been earmarked for the development of new homes. Instead of allowing the vacated site to fester, Lewisham Council agreed to a ‘meanwhile use’ leased and the area was handed over to a volunteer community group to operate. With the land, they created a ‘community garden’. 

A ‘community garden’ is a bit of a misnomer, as it conjures up the image of an area open and shared by all in the neighbourhood. In reality, due to a lack of volunteers, by the time of its closure, the garden was overgrown, locked up, and open for a few hours each Saturday. Insiders say that a small clique living on well-heeled streets over in Brockley, operated the site as their own semi-private enclave. No big deal, we felt, because at least the land was semi-utilised.

The trouble only started when the council request the stewardship of the land to be returned so that our long-awaited housing development could get underway. Reneging on their promise to hand back the land when the ‘meanwhile use’ was up, the community group refused to hand over the keys. And thus, the ‘Save Tidemill Garden’ campaign arrived. 

It quickly snowballed. 

Opposite the development site, sits the Birdnest pub in Deptford. I like the boozer, but if I say it wears its counter-cultural chic a little too earnestly on its sleeve, you might get what I mean. It’s filled with students, old rockers and geezers, and was a perfect local meeting point for the Save Tidemill campaign.

Close your eyes and picture a row of wooden tables, on each one, sits a different segment of the Save Tidemill campaign’s coalition. 

  • Table 1: The founders of the garden, mostly your classic NIMBYs, primarily asset-rich and comfortable. They’ll miss their garden when it’s gone and they don’t want pesky social housing spoiling their Saturday afternoon sun-spot.
  • Table 2: Assorted Left-wing groups. Nearly all older NIMBYs as well, these lot are driven primarily by political opportunism and they want to find a wedge issue to campaign against the local Labour council (internally in the Labour Party, or externally). For this group, they’ll reject any council-led development programme from the pin-head of ideological grounds. Any development that is not 100% council ‘target rent’ is rejected, even if the private sale properties on-site are necessary to fund the building of the social homes. It means that in reality, they reject any new large-scale affordable house building.
  • Table 3: Eco-Nimbys, probably Green Party members, you know the ones — the type of people who weep over fallen trees on the HS2 path, despite HS2 being a piece of crucial infrastructure to increase our rail and freight capacity and reduce our over-reliance on private cars and lorries which has a huge knock-on effect on our nation’s carbon emissions and the death of more of your bloody trees.
  • Table 4: Anarcho-crusties / Green-Black Groups. A bit like the Eco-Nimbys but they are more inclined towards violence towards the man. 

The Save Tidemill campaign only got as noisy as it did because Tables 1 & 2 framed the building of this new social housing as corporate ‘ecocide’ and therefore managed to connect with Tables 3 & 4. The campaign itself was risible. Misinformation was spread in the neighbourhood and councillors who spoke up for the scheme were relentlessly attacked. Eventually, the rhetoric spilt over into direct action.

Cllr Joe Dromey, one of the few who were brave enough to face the misinformation head-on, would eventually be attacked on the street by masked protestors. Cllr Paul Bell, who led the scheme, would take his address off the Lewisham Council website out of fear of reprisals. He had been accosted in the street as well, while leaving a council meeting. 

But as nasty as the campaign got, I never felt like our plans were in jeopardy. Here were 117 new social homes, as well as 41 for shared ownership and 51 for private sale, replacing a ‘meanwhile use’ garden and an old and dilapidated block at 2–30a Reginald Road. The new green space on the development would be accessible to all unlike the Tidemill Garden, and the tenants of 2–30a Reginald Road would be provided brand new high-quality homes on lifetime tenancies. Those in housing need would be given what they deserved. The case was a no-brainer. 

Lewisham Council has a Residents’ Charter that guarantees all residents impacted by a regeneration scheme are given the right to remain on their estate and guarantees an increase in genuinely affordable housing. To me, these guarantees are not only morally right, but they also make political-strategic sense. 

Left-wing groups and other opportunist political opponents have desperately and repeatedly tried to leap into our estate regeneration proposals for political gain. And while they may have recruited a few new paper-sellers in the process of campaigning, they have failed to stop any major schemes.

Take the regeneration of Achilles Street, New Cross. Despite a campaign by left-wing NIMBYs spreading fearmongering and disinformation among tenants and leaseholders, an estate ballot returned 73% in favour of the regeneration. The likely outcome of this renewal will be 450 homes on site, with a minimum of 50% of the total homes built being affordable, and a minimum of 35% of the total homes built will be Council-owned homes for social rents.

Similarly, even Lewisham Council’s joint-venture with Grainger to build 324 new homes for rent off Besson Street in New Cross slid fairly comfortably through planning, with the ward’s left-wing councillors speaking in favour of the proposals. On the Besson Street scheme, 65% will be leased at market rent to fund the 114 homes which will be lease at London Living Rent. The scheme also delivered an array of other amenities for the area including a new GP surgery and community space for the New Cross Gate Trust. 

The left-wing NIMBY groups rejected Besson Street because London Living Rent is not social housing. Instead, these are genuinely affordable rents set by the average incomes in the Telegraph Hill ward. Each household will sign a secure 5-year tenancy that is automatically rolled-over if they want to remain. In Lewisham, we need to build all sorts of tenures, not just social housing, and these homes are designed and will cater to our key workers who will never be eligible for social housing. 

On the hoardings that line Besson Street today, someone has scrawled ‘stop social cleansing’. But in fact, these new homes will help key workers —  your nurses, your police officers, your school teachers, remain in our borough near where they work. Even more absurdly, the cries of ‘gentrification’ and ‘social cleansing’ were used for Achilles Street and Tidemill Garden. These schemes offer net-gains in social housing — they are a firewall against gentrification and help low-income families remain in our community. 

The left-wing NIMBYs have tried to peddle the falsehood that these estate regenerations are not supplying social housing because the new homes will be provided at London Affordable Rent — which is pegged at 2016 social rent levels. London Council target rent is now £105.87pw for a two-bedroom property, while London Affordable Rent is £158.85pw. The 13 residents of Reginald House who would be offered a new home on the development, would continue to be housed at their target rent. For the 104 homeless families being offered a new home, it’ll be a huge fall in rent and for many, the first time they’ve ever had a secure, decent home for their family. 

Affordable housing funding is extremely restricted by an austerity-driven Conservative government. But as this article highlights, in 2016, Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London, managed to negotiate funding from central government for new affordable homes. While funding for social homes, at target rent, were ruled out, the government did agree to fund new homes at Khan’s London Affordable Rent. London Affordable Rent is sent at 2016 target rent levels and is deemed a social rent. While target rent levels have fallen since, year on year – a plan devised by George Osborne to reduce the housing benefit bill — London Affordable Rent has stayed static, that’s caused the disparity. 

The long and short of it is that for these homes to be funded and built at all, they’ll need to be at London Affordable Rent. Working with a charitable provider and building at London Affordable Rent was the only way Lewisham Council could get this many genuinely affordable homes built at the Old Tidemill site. For activists, it’s a choice of viable developments, providing social homes at London Affordable Rent, or no new social homes at all. Sadly, I know where some groups would side.

The refusal of these left-wing activists to accept those trade-offs, reveals, more than anything else, just how out of touch they are with the lives of London’s precariat and working-poor. The median rent for a two-bedroom property in Lewisham is £365.75 per week, above the housing benefit cap. Moreover, ‘no DSS’ discrimination remains rife in the private sector. Many of our poorest residents cannot afford the private sector and if they can, they remain in overcrowded sub-par accommodation.

Even if new homes on Achilles Street and Tidemill Garden are more expensive than target rent council homes, they are seismically cheaper and more secure than the private sector. The homeless families moving into these homes will care more about a new chance in life than the fact that a registered charitable provider is supplying them a life-time tenancy and not the council. Nor are they likely to quibble about a rent far more affordable than their temporary accommodation or home in the PRS. 

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the working class. 

And that’s why these campaigns do not work and never build traction beyond those four tables. Because their arguments are devoid from the lived-reality of the housing crisis and the trade-offs necessary to build new social housing. Despite our reputation, councillors are not daft. We clock that no young renters joined the chorus against the Tidemill Garden development at our local Labour meetings, even if they did follow the Momentum whip.

During Lewisham Labour’s manifesto working groups in 2017, it was noted that it was our young Momentum members who were the ones most enthused by our Besson Street plans. Not only did they like that the income generated from the scheme would help provide services for our residents, they knew from personal experience how life-changing it would be to move into long-term, stable housing in the private rented sector. Like me, they can only dream of a home at London Living Rent.

Councillors speak to residents in our wards all the time and we know that the overwhelming majority accept schemes like Achilles Street, Tidemill and Besson Street are positive. Of course, we still take precautions — we ensure we engage early on any estate regen project and we ensure the facts of a scheme are widely disseminated. On Achilles Street, we held meet-and-greet drop-ins to tackle misinformation. Yet when push comes to shove, sensitive and policy-compliant council-led schemes to build new social and affordable housing are going to have broad support.

While not as politically-heated as large estate regeneration, smaller social housing developments, such as estate-infills can be trickier. Faced by densification of their area without an offer of a new home, current tenants and leaseholders on an estate often take a ‘what’s in it for us?’ approach to the building of essential affordable housing. Moreover, infills often only remain viable if they are larger in scale than many residents are willing to accept.

However, colleagues, alongside the wider public, accept the trade-offs needed to deliver social housing schemes and policy compliant applications will often be looked upon sympathetically. Broadly, public and institutional support (i.e. amongst the council’s political group) work in tandem. It is why councillors can feel emboldened to champion our promised new social and affordable housing schemes and face down the political pressure from noisy campaigns to abandon policy complaint schemes.

But in the grand-scheme of things, I know that all these battles for social housing are small-fry. Local authorities do not have the resources to purchase new land to build social housing on. The scope of what we can achieve is extremely limited. Despite our good work, we can’t even build enough council homes to replace the ones we continue to lose from right-to-buy. 

In short, only the private sector is going to get us out of this housing crisis. While affordable housing programmes have institutionalised support, across the political spectrum market-rate builds are viewed with suspicion. This suspicion leads to a widespread lack of public support for market-rate builds and in my view, this in turn leads to councillors having a pre-disposition to be swayed by NIMBY-campaigns.

In part three of this series, I’ll explain that if we don’t accept this reality, and take a new approach to development, the housing crisis will never be beaten. We need to build a new consensus — one that agrees that a lack of supply (+ building in the wrong places) is causing our housing crisis and that we need market-rate developments at large scales that we cannot deliver without reform.

This is option two, and the only one left. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Leo Gibbons-Plowright</span></strong>
Leo Gibbons-Plowright

Leo is a Labour and Co-Op Party Councillor for Forest Hill in Lewisham.

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‘Ship the poor out’: at least it’s honest

It’s always a mistake to buy a Murdoch newspaper.  But yesterday I couldn’t get an Observer so I bought the Sunday Times.  My defence is that it was an impulse buy.  Given that I normally read newspapers online I am now really pleased his papers are behind a
paywall that I will never breach.
My ire was stirred by an article by columnist Minette Marrin called ‘Crisis solved: ship the poor out of their costly homes and sell them’.  Seriously. It must be a cosy number writing a column like that, you take a report from a right wing think tank (in this case Policy Exchange’s ‘Making Housing Affordable’ ), add a couple of anecdotes and a bit of prejudice, and off you go.  It’s a bit like writing a blog but you get paid for it.
Anyway, her central thesis rests on 2 facts.  First that some social tenants live in valuable houses that could be sold and other housing provided ‘elsewhere’ with the money.  And secondly that old canard that social housing somehow causes poverty and unemployment. So, the thesis emerges: “to put it crudely, if people in social housing are not working and not thriving in one place, they might as well do the same thing somewhere much less expensive.”  At least it’s honest. 
Now, we’ve spent a lot of time on this blog trying to tackle the myths in housing, and in particular in social housing, so I don’t intend to repeat all the points.  Suffice to say that the fact that there is an association between 2 factors (in this case social housing and worklessness) tells us nothing about the causal relationship (ie social housing tends to house people who do not work, because they are in housing need,  rather than causing them to be workless).  And most of the tenants who do not work are not unemployed but economically inactive – the biggest group are retired (how shocking is that) and many others do not work because of disability, ill health or vulnerability and are unable to compete in the housing market.  In other words, social housing is doing its job.
What adds unpleasantness to inaccuracy is the line that ‘mixed communities do not work’ therefore it is a better use of money to ‘ship people out’ (the London example is used but all cities have social housing in their more valuable areas, and the arguments apply equally to unaffordable small towns and villages).  So the ground is prepared for social segregation, the concentration of poorer people in some areas and richer people in others, and the forced removal of people from communities where they might have spent their whole lives.
The concept of ‘elsewhere’ is central to the NIMBY’s cry – we need housing but somewhere else, not here.  But ‘elsewhere’ is already a poorer part of town with a higher proportion of social housing.  No doubt next week Marrin will condemning social housing ghettoes for breeding criminality and calling for more home ownership as the solution not more social housing.
The poor should not live here next to the rich, they can live elsewhere, this attitude was the
driving force behind Shirley Porter’s gerrymandering in the 1980s.  She may be disgraced, but she might also be quietly satisfied that her approach is now mainstream on the Tory right and increasingly central to government housing policy.