Bringing back working class values?

First published in Culture Wars and republished for the sp!ked review of books

Public services cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy and the demographic pressure of an ageing society. Consequently there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four of us work for the public sector – councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7 million, making it the largest employer on the continent. Approaching half of GDP (around £700 billion) is spent on public services including welfare benefits which account for about £200 billion. In a bid to cut public expenditure by £80 billion by 2015 tens of thousands of workers have already been made redundant. But, says Tom Manion, ‘radical’ social landlord and author ofThe Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.

The authorities spend a ridiculous amount of resources on dealing with a minority of people who are just not behaving as they should. It would be far better, he says, to encourage good behaviour. ‘If bad behaviour improved, we as a society would have a lot more resources to spend’. Putting to one side the child-like simplicity of Manion’s argument, he is perceptive enough to identify a genuinely big problem – one of the defining ones of our age – and its many manifestations. We now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others’ that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated, he says. There is an £8 billion a year burden of dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’. A welfare safety net that has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. A crippling ‘contagion’ of absenteeism in the workplace: a ‘sickness sub-culture’ not confined to the public sector but nonetheless identifiable with it. Never mind the ‘yoof of today’ it is not unusual for groups of young adults to be making an intimidating nuisance of themselves. These ‘screeching, lurching lads and ladettes, peeing in the gutter and falling into fountains’ at the weekend are ‘back behind the building society counter’ come Monday morning. ‘Their parents would not have behaved like that’, says Manion, ‘so why do they?’ Why indeed?

He answers his own question. Old ‘decent’ working class values have been lost and we’re the poorer for it. He explains that as a ‘bad boy my behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture where I grew up, and I knew that and took the consequences’ he recalls. While his complaint that rent arrears have gone through the metaphorical roof is made by Manion the landlord; he also remembers how his mother’s generation ‘took pride in paying their rent, or indeed any bill, on time’. He invites us to compare this with the points-based public housing allocation system that has created an ‘arms race of need’ in which ‘people’s problems become their most valuable assets’. In place of the independence and pride of an earlier generation is a bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement. It has ‘infantilised’ tenants and kept them ‘locked into the dependency frame of mind’ and unable or unwilling to do anything for themselves. ‘Downloading help and sympathy on to people in perceived need doesn’t improve their situation’ he explains. ‘They’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and find their own way of including themselves in society’.

This isn’t helped, argues Manion, by the army of people with ‘social’ in their title ‘engaged in keeping their clients in a state of dependency’. He may sound very Daily Mail but he surely has a point? It does seem to be the case that ‘a lot of people reach adulthood without ever getting the hang of personal responsibility’. There is indeed, if one cares to look, an increasing tendency to blame other people for one’s problems. Unless you believe that living off the state is good for one’s health, it is hard to argue with Manion’s view that the welfare state – whatever its one-time merits as a system of social insurance – is now ‘entrapping people in conditions which stunt their development as human beings’. Manion’s book is welcome in as far as it challenges this culture of dependency. Far from being a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations – as today’s thoroughly conservative left-liberals would have it – a personally debilitating relationship with the state is a very real consequence of the way that a therapeutic mindset has undermined people’s sense of themselves as capable of running their own lives.

His solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). But his orthodoxy-busting and common-sense approach is refreshing. Manion is no fan of public services which he says ‘just aren’t that good’. Whatever remains of a public service ethic on the part of public servants is allowed to ‘dribble away in bureaucracy and ineffectual pettiness’. Instead of a ‘dynamic and productive’ performance culture we have a ‘survival culture’ he says. ‘People cling on to procedures’ rather than make a decision they may be held accountable for. Which is all spot on as far as it goes. But Manion doesn’t seem to notice that all of this is happening in the so-called performance culture he wants to bring into being. It is the very obsession with processes that is having such a corrosive influence over public service provision and has done for decades now. It has occupied the vacuum where a traditional public service rationale once existed.

Manion’s account of public sector absurdities and his own successes in challenging them suggest that there is much room for improvement. When he first became a social landlord he was baffled by the costly, off-putting and entirely unnecessary practice of ‘sheeting-up’ empty properties when tenants left. Despite much resistance, he says, he brought an end to it and employed estate agents instead of housing officers with a brief to move tenants in and out on the same day. But for all his wise words on dependency and welfare, and his challenges to daft public sector practices, he badly lets himself down with his supposed solutions. This is because he thinks that treating people like idiots will make them more responsible. Apparently oblivious to the economic dislocation of inner cities since the 1970s or the deliberate residualisation and run-down of public housing by successive governments since the 1980s; he insists that the mere presence of tower blocks and the ‘graffiti, litter and needles’ on the walk to school are to blame for the decline of the communities concerned. And that if only the ‘wrong sorts of behaviour by the wrong sort of people’ are dealt with, that will make things better again.

His desire to ‘restore pride and [a] sense of justice’ to communities seems genuine enough but it is soured by his contempt for the ‘wrong sorts’ and a narrow determinism that can see no way out except through his own petty authoritarian interventions. For all his talk of taking on local bureaucrats and liberal opinion more generally, Manion is actually today’s idea of a model social landlord. He believes in building communities rather than houses, and that housing is – despite what you might think – about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the sector failing to do just that. As Manion himself tells us, levels of investment in housing in the UK are roughly equivalent to that in the former Eastern bloc countries. We live in ‘poorer quality, more overcrowded accommodation’ than our north European neighbours, he says. But if this suggests rather strongly that the housing problem is a bricks and mortar one, why the obsession with tenants’ behaviour? And why go on peddling the ‘cycle of debt and despair’ that he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up in.

Manion is so intent on the naturalising of dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but a massive accommodation to, the problem he sets out to solve. So, while I can’t help but agree with him that we shouldn’t be subsidising fat people, via their GPs, to go to the gym (his gym!), nor do I think people like him who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’ are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is no business of the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision either. Manion is full of contradictions like this. He wants people to take more responsibility for their lives but his proposals would have the opposite effect. So while he is against the pampering of ‘undeserving’ dependents; he thinks the rest of us aren’t’ dependent enough and should be compelled to have an ‘annual health MOT with outcomes being linked to taxation levels’.

The same inconsistencies are true of his attempts to manage the behaviour, performance and motivation of his staff. While he seems to have achieved a remarkable turnaround in reducing rates of absenteeism his account of how he has done this is not convincing. His introduction of ‘heath awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’ seem to have less to do with it than an admirably no-nonsense approach to the sickie. If they pull one staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself but Manion goes much further. The Diamond employment package, he tells us, includes all sorts of perks but if the doctor thinks ‘they’re too fat or they drink too much, he will tell them’. And if they choose not to take his advice and make a ‘commitment to maintaining their health’ they ‘lose entitlement to most of the benefits’. Such is the deal you enter into when your employer takes an interest in your ‘wellbeing’ or ‘mental and emotional health’.

Ever the understanding boss, he worries about how difficult it can be for employees to leave their private troubles ‘at the door when they come to work’? But work can be a refuge or a welcome distraction from private worries too. Giving this up for lunchtime ‘fitness, guitar, dance, singing, yoga and massage’ classes may, and for the counsellors, coaches, mentors and ‘chill-out zones’ might sound empowering but the rationale is both an intrusive and bottom-line one. ‘We pay their wages and in return we expect certain behaviour from them’ explains the touchy-feely Manion. Turning the working relationship into one of counselled dependency can store up many more problems than it solves. For both parties. The fact that public sector workers tend to be a ‘bit jaded and tired’ isn’t surprising but Manion’s approach isn’t going to fill the hole where a public sector ethos should be.

‘Yes, it’s bossy and interventionist’ he concedes, ‘but the benefits to society will be enormous’. Really? As with his counter-factual treatment of the housing problem, Manion ignores much of the evidence in favour of personal anecdotes and prejudices. He manages to find a ’£4.6 million super-size mortuary’ to back-up his flabby argument that ‘excessive Western lifestyles’ will become increasingly unaffordable. We’ll have to spend ‘huge sums’ dealing with the consequences of a society that is ‘eating itself to death’ he claims. In truth, ordinary (as opposed to the rarer cases of morbid) obesity isn’t necessarily a health problem as study after study has shown. Again, as he is forced to admit when he refers to the data, the UK ‘fares reasonably well’ health-wise. Life expectancy is around the EU average; ‘healthy life years’ – those spent without the ill-health or disability associated with advanced age – are higher than the EU average and ‘exceed those in many comparable countries’. This is not to say that all is well with the health service – the NHS does not deserve its protected status as an officially ‘cherished’ institution as the crisis of care in many hospitals and care homes has shown – but it does make a nonsense of the dubious justifications for the lifestyle interventions proposed (and practiced) by Manion.

His obsession with behaviour – whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees – as if it were some disembodied dependent variable to be manipulated by public managers like himself is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s/90s into society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough they are now intent on the behaviour management of individuals too. Not only in health and housing. The same goes for schooling too. For Manion ‘education remains paramount’ not because it is important for kids to get a good education, but ‘because a well-educated person is more likely to understand the importance of healthy diet, exercise and so on’ which will result in ‘savings for the state’!

Manion, for all his radical pretensions, is more orthodox than he imagines. His belief that public services should be redefined so that they ‘support and promote a safe, decent, healthy, responsible society’ is already in the mainstream of public service reform. The problems that he raises – both cultural and fiscal – are no less real and pressing for that, however, and he is to be commended for taking them seriously. Many of his contemporaries don’t. But his attempt to build public service provision around these problems, rather than to try to understand them and address them in their own terms, can only make matters worse. While it may seem like a good idea to Manion for public sector bodies to tell people how to behave when so many are seemingly misbehaving; this has nothing to do with what public services should be (and used to be) about. Indeed, it makes it all the harder to build public services that meet society’s needs without nurturing more dependency, or taking responsibility out of people’s hands – ironically the very thing that he thinks he is challenging.

Going Soft on Rough Sleepers?

First published in Huffington Post

This is the time of year when homelessness – or, at least, sleeping rough – comes to public attention. Those charities concerned with getting people fed and sheltered who would otherwise be sat in doorways as the rest of us spend money we don’t really have on seasonal goodies, do their best to tug at our heart strings. But perhaps they could engage with our intellects too?

The problem of sleeping rough is often presented – not altogether unreasonably – as distinct from the housing crisis. It is well documented that those propped up under a cash machine or outside a tube station tend to have a whole lot of non-housing problems. Whether its alcohol abuse, a history of offending, family breakdown, losing a job, mental illness or a childhood in the care system, there is often more to their predicament than can be attributed to a lack of housing. But despite the many problems experienced by the street homeless, campaigns like the government sponsored StreetLink and the mayor-backed No Second Night Out are, for all their good intentions, often based on degrading assumptions. That they go beyond simply providing people with the warmth and shelter they need for a night or two is no bad thing. If somebody does have a serious drink problem or isn’t taking the medication they need then a well-judged professional intervention may be just what they need.

But the approach more often than not is more cynical than that. According to Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link, the role of charities like his is to put to a stop to “that cycle of drinking, drugs and antisocial behaviour” that puts people on the streets in the first place. Except it doesn’t. This stock diagnosis in which the homeless are mere victims of ‘cycles’ beyond their control robs people of any capacity to change their lives for the better. It also justifies interventions that can only further undermine their prospects of getting off the street. That many have big problems is undeniable but their potential with a little help to deal with those problems is not as diminished as Henderson and others would presumably have it.

There is also a difficulty with focusing on the various problems that some – not all – homeless people tend to experience. While the problem cannot be understood only in relation to the wider housing problem, it cannot be separated from it either. Rough sleeping figures are notoriously questionable but reportedly last year the numbers went up by nearly a quarter and in London there are apparently 43% more people living on the streets than there were a year ago. This is particularly embarrasing for the mayor of London who in 2009 pledged to end street homelessness by 2012. As Dave Hill writes in the Guardian, if he really wanted to solve the homeless problem then he, and the rest of the political class, should have set out to solve the housing problem too.

They could do something to address the housing crisis if only they had the will to do so. Hill describes the scale of the problem, from “unattainable mortgages and bloated rents to the squatting, ‘sofa-surfing’ and surge in households placed in temporary accommodation now so apparent amid a shortage of affordable homes worthy of the name”. Despite the 120,000 new homes promised in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement, I fear we’ve heard it all before. As Mary Riddell points out in the Telegraph, for all the pro-building rhetoric deployed by successive Labour and now LibCon governments, it remains a fact that between 2001 and 2011 there was a 4%fall in house building. And this was from levels that were already hopelessly inadequate.

Instead of focusing its efforts on the ‘vulnerable’ margins none too effectively, the mayor and the government need to build – or else create the conditions whereby others build – more houses to meet the historically massive shortfall. This would not only meet basic needs and begin to match people’s aspirations to own their own homes. It would also provide a much needed boost to the economy. And yet, somewhere between the paralysing cultures of sustainability and apolitical managerialism, the clarity of vision and unity of purpose needed to build enough houses for people to live in has failed to show itself. So yes, lets give our support to initiatives that respectfully give the street homeless all the help they need to get off the streets without undermining their ability to turn their own lives around by privileging their vulnerability. But lets also hope that in 2013 the political class take the longer and wider view on housing, and that they take a wrecking ball to the obstacles they themselves have erected to a rational solution to the housing problem.

Bring Back the Ronseal Test

First published in Huffington Post

I have recently come to the conclusion that nothing does what it says on the tin any more. Or at least what is written on the tin has ceased to have much to do with what’s in it. This has particularly come to mind over the past week. There was the announcement that, at last, there will be an inquest into the shooting of Mark Duggan which supposedly ‘triggered’ last year’s riots. A report making the case for local authorities to raid their employees’ pension funds in order to boost housebuilding, was another prompt. And then there was the story about how Cancer Research UK was voted the most popular charity ‘brand’, with the likes of Greenpeace, Oxfam and Amnesty International not far behind.

What struck me the most about the latest riots-related news was, first of all, this idea that Duggan’s death in some way caused the riots. I don’t think it did in any meaningful sense. It is perhaps better to understand what happened as akin to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. The events were connected but almost arbitrarily so. But in the absence of anything else, it seems to have become the stand-in for an explanation for something that was quite inexplicable and unexpected. While apologists for the rioters have talked up the poverty, lack of opportunities and poor relations with the police, none of these while attendant factors explain anything. While I don’t accept as some have argued that they weren’t riots at all – according to my dictionary a riot is a ‘noisy disturbance by a crowd’ – they were fundamentally lacking in any sort of content. The violent public display (what was written on the tin) rang hollow. Not that this stopped commentators, politicians and academics – no less opportunistically than the rioters themselves – hurriedly projecting their pet theories onto what were meaningless, if no less serious for that, outbursts.

The world of housing policy, not known for its outbursts of activity – as the absence of housebuilding attests – has also been failing the Ronseal test for some time now. The latest wheeze in an increasingly desperate attempt to boost ‘affordable’ housing and inject some life into an inflated yet standstill housing market, only confirms this. While all sorts of bad ideas from blaming under-occupiers and those with second homes for the housing crisis, to creating new confusing mixes of traditional tenures, are entertained by those hopelessly steeped in bricks ‘n’ mortar jargon; they seem not to notice that housing policy is no longer about housing as such. Social landlords, for instance, don’t build houses any more. They like to be known as ‘community builders’. They are providers of social services, on the one hand, ‘supporting’ their allegedly vulnerable tenants, and getting heavy on the other, policing the anti-social ones. According toDavid Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, ‘the mission is to improve people’s lives, to help them fulfil their potential, to support their aspirations and to create functioning and healthy communities’. Even if that was all all very well – which it isn’t – that’s not what it says on the tin.

The charity world, by way of contrast, has been guilty less of mission creep than of a complete absence of mission. Which is ironic when you think about it. The association of the very notion of charity with the religious orders of missionaries who sought to spread the word; or with the pious reformers of the 19th Century at home penalising and patronising as much as helping the poor, may not be entirely flattering. But it is a reminder of a time when there was no doubt as to the message. Today’s charities evidently have a great deal of difficulty articulating what it is they stand for. There are a number of reasons for this. The reliance of many, particularly the most well-known, charities on the state with regards both their funding and policy agendas, are foremost among them. But it is the absence of that desire to meet desperate need that led Dr Barnardo to create a school for the East End’s orphaned and homeless children; or of that sense of outrage at the filmic depiction of homelessness in Cathy Come Home that led to the creation of Shelter.

Its not that we lack social problems. While grinding poverty and child destitution are largely problems of the past, there are a few good causes I can think of that don’t get the attention they deserve. Whether its campaigning for real development rather than the so-called sustainable development that world’s poorest typically get, or in defence of those scientists and institutions experimenting on animals in the interests of medical science. Whatever you deem to be a good cause I urge you next time somebody rattles a tin – or in the case of a chugger, their clipboard – in your direction to enquire as to its contents. Not literally, but what is it that they are campaigning for and why should you help them with it? The same goes for Orr and the housing sector. If you are no longer about building and managing the housing stock but would rather manage tenants’ lives, then whose going to solve our housing problem? And if we are to make sense of what happened last summer then we need to get to grips with the mismatch between the rioters’ vandalism of their communities and the worthy excuses. I’m sure there are other similar wood-treatment products out there but only the Ronseal test will get us any closer to making sure that riots, housing associations and charities do what they say on the tin.

Public managers should stop telling people how to behave

First published in The Guardian’s Public Sector Network

There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the public policyagenda today. While on the one hand we are urged to build a big society where citizens run things for themselves, on the other we are told to ‘nudge’ them in this or that direction and make decisions on their behalf.

Something odd has happened to public services over the past decade or so. Services that were once a part of the social settlement that led to the creation of the welfare state, have increasingly become a tool for telling people how to behave. Whether it’s creating better citizens or trying to change their lifestyles, the only question raised is how best to do it.

The government’s approach to recycling is to fund local initiatives rewarding good residents with points redeemable at local retailers. “We want to see people helping us to boost recycling rates by putting out their rubbish correctly,” said environment secretary Caroline Spelman as she launched a public consultation on the matter, “but bullying them with fines is not the way to do it.” Opponents, particularly local authorities none too keen on reverting to the weekly bin collection, only object that scarce public funds would be better spent on other behaviour-controlling initiatives such as the cuts-threatened SureStart centres.

The world of social care, while rhetorically in favour of more independence, choice and control, for its users, is obsessed with vetting the behaviour of staff, volunteers, or anybody else that might come into contact with a vulnerable child or adult. The NHS, of Olympic opening ceremony fame, may be free at the point of use. But no expense is spared on posters in GP surgeries and hospital waiting rooms telling patients that they must change their lifestyles – stop smoking, exercise more, lose weight – or to remind expectant mothers that ‘breast is best’.

Housing associations are as busy managing the lives of their tenants as they are managing the housing stock and more interested in building communities than building new homes. Schools apparently cater more to the contents of children’s school dinners and lunchboxes and managing misbehaviour in the classroom, than filling young people’s minds with something that might encourage them to sit still for a moment. Meanwhilea mass movement co-ordinator for the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies is apparently using dance – in consultation with the Metropolitan Police and the Criminal Justice Board – to reduce youth crime.

Indeed for those driving public policy today the delivery of public services is not the point. It is all about shaping new ‘active citizens’ the better to meet corporate objectives. But surely this gets things back to front? A truly active citizen acts of their own accord and not according to the imperatives of public management. The good news is that by ditching the policing of people’s behaviour we might emulate the vision of a big society in which responsible citizens take the reins. This is why we should adopt an alternative approach: one that genuinely enables people’s autonomy rather than smothering their initiative.

Let’s take the politics out of housing policy

It may sound like a daft question given recent events, but what is ‘the housing problem’ exactly? Everybody with an interest in the discussion appears to agree – more or less enthusiastically, depending on whether they live on an estate or stand to inherit one – that there is indeed a problem. There aren’t enough houses for people to live in. We can agree on that. But why is it proving so difficult to build them? Despite Gordon Brown’s talk of 3m homes by 2020 and meeting the aspirations of a new home-owning democracy, the rhetoric and the reality parted company long ago.

The latest figures suggest that even if we go by the government’s own (and some would say inadequate) target of building 200,000 homes a year, we’re falling well short already. This is to increase to 240,000 in 2016. But regardless of whether it’s being met, even the grand target seems less impressive when put in its proper historical perspective. For instance, compare 3m homes by 2020 with the million built in the first five years of the post-war Labour administration. What about the Tory record of 300,000 every year during the 1950s? Though the era of competitive house building peaked in 1968 when 450,000 new homes were built, even during the years of Depression in the 1930s hundreds of thousands of houses went up. With this in mind, Brown’s apparently ambitious targets look anything but. They’re actually pretty run of the mill, especially when there’s so much talk of crisis and the need to build, build, build.

Clearly, the numbers game isn’t the only game in town. There’s something else going on. Just arguing for the planners, the developers or the government to get on with it isn’t enough. There are other agendas going on not far beneath the surface that detract from and inhibit the pursuit of a straightforward needs-led house building policy. They need to be dealt with head on. The Chartered Institute of Housing, for instance, thinks that housing is about more than just bricks and mortar. It is also about investing in “better educational performance, in tackling climate change, in improving health outcomes, [and] in empowering communities”. But it seems to me that the more housing policy is framed not in its own terms but as the continuation of other government agendas, the fewer houses are going to get built. Seemingly old-fashioned calls for more social housing, for instance, are getting bogged down in the politics of wellbeing and community building.

Apparently it is not enough that 1.5million people are waiting to get on to the housing list. In the hope of persuading the government to do it for the kids if not for us, the homelessness charity Shelter has made sometimes dubious claims about the damage done to the ‘wellbeing’ of the million children living in overcrowded housing. For Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates, it’s not just the kids who are having a hard time. The poor carry the stigma of run-down housing estates and broken lifts around with them into adulthood. This apparently damages their self-esteem irreparably and seriously compromises their ability to get on in life. Having said that, Hanley can’t quite shake her nostalgia for the welfare state, equating public housing with better times – when we were all more equal (if poorer) and knew our neighbours. Well that’s all right then.

But it really isn’t. Instead of coming up with at least the rhetoric to match the inter-war ‘homes for heroes’ or the post-war welfarist vision of decent homes for all, we are left with a housing debate that offers little hope of a better future. Indeed, it’s worse than that. The housing discussion has surprisingly little to do with the business of building houses or meeting people’s needs at all. The politics of behaviour seems to be never more at home, so to speak, than when on housing estates lecturing tenants and unruly youths. Rather than conjuring up visions of the good society, we are encouraged to settle for the ‘good life’. Whether that means neighbours not being noisy, kids not being anti-social or everybody obediently sorting through their bins, it is all pretty depressing stuff.

The ‘social’ in social housing means something else today. By imposing punitive sanctions on people’s conduct and worrying about community breakdown and people’s abilities to cope with everyday life, key players are avoiding having the most important debate of all – ie how they should go about meeting people’s housing needs. If they really want to meet those needs and, just as importantly, people’s aspirations for a better life, they should do so rather than spout the often meaningless rhetoric to which we’ve become familiar. We should be humanising housing rather than obsessing over matters on which its impact is somewhere between unknown, negligible or beside the point. Let’s not use housing to lecture people about how to behave responsibly, as a way of psychologising what are social problems or as an attempt to build ‘mixed’, ‘safe’ and ‘sustainable’ communities. We’re having enough trouble building houses as it is.

Read Shelter’s response here

The New Jerusalem – built on a house of cards?

In July, ahead of the Queen’s speech and the housing green paper, the newly-installed prime minister Gordon Brown announced with great fanfare that three million new homes would be built by 2020. This comes not a moment too soon. It is projected that in less than 10 years the average house will cost 10 times the average salary. Half of first-time buyers depend on financial help from family and friends to get on the first rung of the housing ladder.

This is at least in part attributed to the pressures on the market as demand massively outstrips the existing housing stock. The government’s own figures predict that there will be 223,000 new households formed each year up to 2026. Back when the target of houses to build per year was 200,000 (it is now 240,000) the minister for housing, Yvette Cooper, acknowledged that that figure ‘remains modest compared to what our predecessors achieved’.

‘There’s a growing consensus about what must be done’, intoned Cooper. ‘To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it’s about building more homes, stupid.’ And yet, the government’s housing strategy looks increasingly desperate. The annual rate of house-building has actually fallen over the last year to 173,400. As a consequence, there is a palpable sense of panic. Brown even convened an ‘emergency summit’ with house-builders, local authorities and housing associations.

Brown’s claim that his ‘government [is] on the side of people with aspirations’ is only credible in as far as the housing horizons of the opposition parties, and critics across the political spectrum, are even lower. Instead of trying to solve the problem, most contributors to the debate are apparently content to sling mud at their opposite numbers – the planner at the developer, the minister at the ‘selfish NIMBY’, the social housing bureaucrat at the ‘greedy’ landlords, and so on and so forth.

The blame game

Providing a clear example of such petulance was chief executive of the National Housing Federation David Orr. Though recognising that housing need cannot be met by ‘building only in cities’, Orr complained that the countryside has become the ‘preserve of the rich, dormitories for commuters and second home-owners’. Orr also blames landlords for keeping 500,000 rental properties empty and ‘excessive City bonuses’ for pricing first-time buyers out of the market. All this might seem entirely fair – but only if we forget for a moment that he represents providers of social housing who surely bear some responsibility for demanding more homes. As well as being evasive, Orr’s attitude is indicative of calls for a ‘levelling down’ in society.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has also gone on the offensive. As well as accusing those home owners who treat their houses as an investment of stoking the overheating housing market, it argues that there is more to the housing crisis than simply ‘releasing land’ for developers to build on. House builders are accused of holding on to land in the hope that prices will rise still further.

On their part, the Home Builders’ Federation predictably deny that they are blocking the development of affordable homes by hoarding land. Interestingly, they would rather call their critics’ bluff by stating their commitment to ‘providing sufficient housing to meet all requirements across the market’. That at least sounds like a move in the right direction. Indeed, the wrongheaded notion that planning is about the promotion of ‘a sense of community’, rather than figuring out how best to meet the nation’s need for more houses, actually makes the developers a force for progress. 

Social housing

There are around three million council tenants with a further 1.6m waiting to join them. There are plans to build 70,000 affordable homes (45,000 of which would be social housing and 25,000 shared ownership) every year until 2016. Despite a big increase in the rate at which they are being built, only 30,000 units of social housing are going up each year at the moment. So those on the council lists could be waiting a little while longer. According to Alan Walter of the Defend Council Housing campaign, ‘millions of people are voting with their feet for council housing’. The fact that this amounts to less than one in five of us suggests that most people would rather own their own homes, and there is little reason to believe that this is going to change.

Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates: An Intimate History and one of the more passionate advocates of a revival of social housing, disagrees: the dramatic fall-off in the numbers living in homes provided by local authorities and housing associations is to be regretted. Hanley longs to turn back the clock to the golden age of welfarism when, according to her, society was more just and less divided. For Hanley, 1979 represents not the pivotal moment in the demise of the British Left with the election of Margaret Thatcher, with living standards under attack and the divisions in society brought to the surface. Rather it is the year when the proportion of people living in council housing (40 per cent) was at its highest. People may have been poorer but at least they were more equal. From this point of view, the residualisation of social housing is not a measure of how far we have come but rather an indicator of what we have lost as a society. 

Hanley is nostalgic for the time when securing a tenancy was an end in itself. But is that a worthy aspiration for the rest of us a quarter of a century later? Hanley personifies a debate that refuses to move on. I too find our obsession with buying and refurbishing houses, and its popular expression in countless TV shows, less than inspiring (even if I, to a very limited extent, share such aspirations myself). This phenomenon is, arguably, just a sad feature of a culture that has lost any wider political visions of what the good life might look like. Hanley might, however, be onto something when she decries how, instead of chatting to neighbours over the garden fence, we ‘scurry about, disappearing into the comfort of our homes, because what’s outside feels broken-down’. Staying in appears to be the new going out at a time when people feel anxious and public life seems to mean little.

Hanley, however, is not really suggesting that we should be doing something more interesting instead. Her belief that houses are a ‘fundamental part of our psychological make-up’ is itself a symptom of that same malaise and withdrawal into personal life. The impact of bad housing on wellbeing and ‘parity of esteem’ means that tenants are not only poor but they feel stigmatised too. She agrees with the planners that housing is not about building houses as such, but about building communities that might heal these social ills. That is why she disparages the concrete tower blocks that went up in the 1960s and 1970s as disasters. Whatever one may think of ‘high-rise living’ and its alleged psychosocial impacts, there is surely something to be said for having high-rise ambitions.

‘If this is paradise I wish I had a lawnmower’ (Nothing but flowers, Talking Heads, 1988)

Unfortunately, not only are the Hanleys of this world telling us not to build upwards, but the prevailing orthodoxy is that we shouldn’t build outwards either! So where are they going to put these new houses? Two-thirds of the proposed three million houses will be built on brownfield.

By 2016, all homes will be zero-carbon, according to Gordon Brown. What are we to make of this? Well, there won’t be enough houses, but those that will be built will be ‘green’. The government has backtracked on its bullying of local authorities into relinquishing their diminishing housing stocks. The latter are now to be given the lead in solving the housing crisis, finding pockets of public land on which to build ‘sustainable homes’. The government itself has apparently found plots on which to build 100,000 affordable homes in five proposed ‘eco-towns’. That is still plenty short of three million.

Half of them are proposed for the infamous Thames Gateway, with other developments proposed for the south-east. According to the Guardian‘s environment editor, John Vidal, these new homes could precipitate an ‘environmental crisis’. Billions would need to be spent to ensure that the dirty water generated by these new settlements doesn’t pollute rivers and coasts. The waste will apparently be ‘unmanageable’, the water supplies inadequate, and money will have to be spent on protecting the 100,000 new homes built on flood plains. And so? Let’s get on with building the necessary infrastructure!

The reaction to the Planning White Paper published on the sixtieth anniversary of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act (which gave us the green belt) was similarly hysterical. The mere hint that the greenbelt might be loosened a little was met with outrage (and the idea subsequently rejected). Ironically, the idea of ‘piling on population’ at the fringes of existing urban areas was originally devised so as to avoid having to build developments further afield (thereby cutting all the associated carbon expelled by commuters as they travelled to and from the metropolis).

One proposal that did survive from the White Paper was to make it easier for people to attach renewable energy technologies to their homes. To date, the domestic solar panels and wind turbines subsidised by the Department of Trade and Industry’s low carbon buildings programme (LCBP) have been selling like hot cakes. But all this has little to do with housing policy per se and only serves to give a sense of how confused the rationale for housing policy has become. Similarly, a parliamentary committee recently concluded that despite the absence of any evidence linking power lines to childhood leukaemia, they would nevertheless recommend that homes be built no nearer than 60 metres away – another headache for the planners. Such a decision to ‘err on the side of caution’ can only slow things down further.

Designs on modern life?

There is a separate but linked discussion about ‘better design for better homes’ which inevitably revolves around ‘green’ concerns. But we should not be distracted by it. That discussion is (at least in part) a pre-emptive apology on behalf of the architects of the ‘low-carbon’ cities into which we will be squeezed. Much talk about architecture and the built environment seems to bring out the elitist prejudices of those who simply don’t like the modern world. As one critic puts it, ‘if much of modern life is rubbish, it is not surprising that much modern housing is too’.

Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic at the Guardian, thinks flooding and global warming are the fault of the ‘artless’ suburban masses, or at least those who refuse to keep them in their place:

In any case, sprawling new estates are a part of the very problem of global warming … Here the car is king. These gormless, supermarket-bound developments are gas guzzlers, contributors to global warming, yet useless when the floods invade their artless cul-de-sacs.


These and other contemporary prejudices and anxieties lie beneath the surface of the housing debate. They only serve to further inhibit a needs-led and rational housing policy. In addition to the problems experienced ‘out there’ by first-time buyers and others struggling to find somewhere to live, the political elite is hoping to solve its existential crisis by finding some way to connect with voters. But the policy formulations that have emerged so far suggest it is bereft of ideas and intent on conforming to orthodoxies that not only stifle the house-building programme, but are very much of its own making. The prospect of the halfway houses of ‘shared equity’, ‘shared ownership’ and the ‘right to own’ (as opposed to ‘buy’), for instance, make the old Tory visions of a home-owning democracy of the 1950s and the 1980s seem almost inspiring. Those shaping housing policy need to stop backing themselves into a corner, and realise that the only way they are going to solve the housing problem is by challenging all the old assumptions.

Bricks and mortar or flesh and blood

The plight of children is at the core of Shelter’s “Stick it to Bad Housing” campaign, which calls for funding to build 20,000 social rented homes. The campaign follows on from Shelter’s Million Children campaign, launched in 2004, which uses pictures of children and claims that “one in seven children are desperate to escape bad housing”. The charity’s chief executive, Adam Sampson , believes such an approach will help raise popular and political awareness. Others, including social policy writer David Clements, believe it is the wrong tactic. Here, an exchange of letters between the two gets to the heart of the challenges charities face in engaging the public and delivering change.

1 Stop hiding behind the children…

Dear Adam,

While few could fail to be outraged by the plight of children living in damp housing conditions or without room to do their homework, it is surely the material conditions to which they are subject rather than their reaction to it that is decisive.

It is for this reason that I ask why, when child poverty is a consequence of living in a poor family rather than the experience of being a child per se, does Shelter insist on placing children’s well-being at the front of its campaign against overcrowded housing?

The charity risks turning what should be a discussion about housing need – and how we as a society go about meeting it – into a therapeutic exercise that has little to offer but competitive victimhood. Is the homeless child any more deserving than the abused child, or the child living in relative poverty more so than the child looked after by the local authority, for instance?

Unicef’s recently published report condemning the UK’s record on ensuring children’s well-being exhibits a sadly familiar despair at the state of childhood itself as much as it reveals the many experiences of the vulnerable child, however ill-defined. Too often, the abused or neglected child – in reality a rare individual – is used to stand for all children and our apparent failure to protect them. Cue the horrendous experiences of Hagar, Melanie, Toure and Michelle on the Shelter website to get across that same message.

But this is to confuse our own moral despair as adults with the poverty that some families on the margins of our society experience. This is not to minimise their plight, but to seek to address it by clarifying what we are dealing with. In short, all I ask is that we stop hiding behind the kids, and campaign directly for more and better housing.

Yours sincerely, Dave Clements

2 …Shelter is about people, not houses…

Dear Dave,

We thought long and hard about the sort of points you make before we launched our Million Children Campaign back in 2004. But I still think we were right.

First, you say that Shelter should “stop hiding behind kids and campaign directly for more and better housing”. But Shelter is about people, not about houses. And what matters is not the housing shortage solely but the impact of that shortage on the people we are here to work for. Talking about the impact housing failure has on people’s lives is not cynical it is at the heart of what we do.

Second, the use of children in our “imaging” or campaigning is deliberate and, we believe, right. Combating child poverty is at the heart of the government’s agenda, and it is sensible for an organisation that is seeking to persuade government to invest in housing to capitalise on the links between housing and poverty. There is overwhelming evidence that children brought up in bad housing suffer lifelong impacts. Why should we not talk about that, or use images to portray their plight?

In the end, what we need is government money and what matters is that we get the job done. We should not be dishonest in our portrayal of the issue. But the points we are making in the campaign are real and are proving effective.

Yours sincerely, Adam Sampson

3 …That avoids political arguments…

Dear Adam,

You say that “Shelter is about people, not about houses”. Really? As the most well-known charity in the UK campaigning on behalf of homeless people – that is, people without homes – surely Shelter is all about housing people?

Dwelling on the personal plight of children might make sense if it is only, as you argue, to do with “imaging” or exploiting government agendas. But you are also avoiding having out the political arguments that might address the problem of homelessness, instead focusing on the alleged damage done by the experience of homelessness.

You say there is “overwhelming evidence” that children “suffer lifelong impacts” as a consequence of poor housing. Perhaps, but I would be more cautious in accepting such claims, however they may support your case. Too often it is assumed that children are fragile, not resilient and for ever marked by such experiences, and that disadvantage – whether as a consequence of abuse, neglect or poverty – damages them irreparably.

I’m not sure we do young people any favours by telling them that they will carry the scars for the rest of their lives. This is to psychologise what is a social problem, and can only distract from what is most critical: the inadequacy of the current housing stock to meet people’s needs.

Yours sincerely, Dave Clements

4 …Only the evidence divides us…

Dear Dave,

At the heart of the difference between us, I suspect, is the question of how we approach evidence. Before embarking on the Million Children Campaign, we looked long and hard at the available evidence about what sort of arguments engage the public and change politicians’ minds. You might want it to be true that a campaign merely based on the proposition that we need more houses would be effective, but sadly it is simply not.

You cannot expect people to buy into the proposition that more taxpayers’ pounds should go into funding social housing – at the expense of other, more immediately popular causes – without explaining why it is necessary. And, given the propensity of people to blame the poor and homeless for their predicament (for which, again, we have plenty of evidence), it makes sense to focus on the impact of poor housing on a group who cannot be held responsible for their plight.

You are, of course, right to be cynical about evidence. However, the evidence that poor housing does have a lifelong impact on children is overwhelming. Just ask Lisa Harker, the government’s child poverty adviser, who assembled the available evidence for us. If bad housing really does wreck some children’s lives, why not say so?

Yours sincerely, Adam Sampson

5 …I’m not cynical, just sceptical…

Dear Adam,

You say that I am cynical about the evidence and that this is what divides us. Well, yes and no. Yes, because the research evidence you refer to is inconclusive and your own take on it rather permissive. And, no, because I’m not cynical, but sceptical.

Indeed, I find your line of argument troubling, not least because it betrays your own cynicism about politics, and about engaging a public whose orientation to the problem of homelessness you find objectionable. You seem resigned to what people apparently already think. And yet I wonder at the implications of your own characterisation of the homeless problem.

While the man in the street might think that the man living on the street is responsible for his own misfortune, is it any advance on this to portray him as a hopeless victim of circumstance caught up in a “cycle of social exclusion and poverty”. These words, used to describe the fate of children living in poor housing conditions, are taken from a press release that accompanied the Shelter-commissioned report, Chance of a Lifetime.

In a section on health effects, the government’s child poverty adviser, Lisa Harker, describes this as “the strongest body of evidence” about the enduring impact that bad housing conditions have on children. However, scroll down a little further and she admits that the “evidence on the long-term impact of poor housing on children’s health is mixed and can be hard to interpret”. I assume this is the document you refer to when you claim that there is “overwhelming evidence” of the lifelong effects of poor housing on children’s well-being?

I hope that your campaign succeeds in meeting desperate housing need. But I fear that your willingness to exploit the figures and the image of the helpless child can breed only more cynicism. I think it is only fair that you have the last word.

Yours sincerely, Dave Clements

6 …You confuse health and well-being

Dear Dave,

I admire your rhetoric but am less convinced by your logic.

The words “helpless” and “hopeless” to describe people in housing need are yours, not ours. We would not dream of peddling those stereotypes (nor, indeed, of continuing to equate homelessness as being “on the street” as you do).

Nowhere do we argue that people may not be, to some degree, the architects of their own misfortune or portray them as incapable of effecting their own escape from the circumstances they find themselves in. Given that the last organisation I ran built its success on employing former service users as staff, I need no convincing of the power of individuals to transform their own lives.

All we are reflecting is that there are structural issues that create housing need: if there are fewer houses than there are people who need housing, someone will lose out. And we are pointing out to the public that, if people are not housed, it is not merely a tragedy for those individuals but for society as a whole.

Your scepticism about the evidence about the importance of housing is misplaced. You neatly manage to confuse impact on health with impact on well-being – it is, as I say, overwhelming. Indeed, I suspect you know this. Why else should you wish our campaign success?

Yours sincerely, Adam Sampson