Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Wall of separation – housing…

For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.

Having ‘reasoned’ in the previous post in this series that the Green Party were the Almighty’s “chosen” – or, at least, to my atheistic way of thinking, more in tune with God’s earthly, Anglican representatives than the other major political parties – I wanted to return to my original objective: of trying “to delve deeper into [the House of Bishops’] letter… examining… some of its statements and manifold themes; and the way these contribute… to my feelings about, perspectives on, and connections to, current politics” – but, this time, attempting to ascertain how some of the Green’s published policies specifically relate to the statements made by the Church of England: hopefully proving my supposition correct (or at least “reasonable”)!

So, having already discussed environmental issues, I thought it logical to move on to housing – with an emphasis on its social dimensions (which are also the bishops’ principal concerns) – especially as the sustainability aspects – having initiated this blog just over fifteen months ago; and informed many of its earlier posts (because of its centrality in the fight against Gladman Developments) – have already been dealt with in great depth (and at great length).

By the way, the main reason I will only be discussing, politically, the Green Party’s policies (apart from my blatant bias; and the views I believe they share with the House of Bishops) is that the Conservative Party doesn’t appear to be very good at sticking to its promises; nor understanding the true definition of ‘localism’; and the Labour Party seems overly keen on fabrication, fabrication, fabrication – just for the sake of it. (And I can’t remember who the LibDems are.)

The Tories have had five years in Government to come up with something less divisive and disastrous than encouraging unaffordable, unsightly, sun-blocking tumescences rising like bubos across London’s incurable, infected skyline: gleefully descending into planning hell via the rickety helter-skelter that they constructed on the foundations of the short-sighted sweetener of the 1980 Housing Act (when Margaret Thatcher – aided and abetted by Michael Heseltine – introduced what Owen Hatherley has described as “The sinister right-to-buy housing policy”). But, as Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP recently stated: instead, they “have overseen some of the most brutal cuts, to the most vulnerable people, meted out in modern history.” I shall therefore be giving them no shrift whatsoever.

In Who is my neighbour? – a title which feels immediately germane, if not essential, to this post’s topic – the bishops, in their accompanying guide, first focus on paragraphs 50 and 51, from the section ‘A Community of Communities’ (the phrases and sentences they cite are again highlighted in bold, below). But I’m also including the preceding paragraph because of the importance I too (repeatedly) place on its companion theme: the significance of a genius loci, and our attachment to it:

[49] It would be easier for people to forge strong social bonds if we could recognise that a sense of “place” helps to form people’s identity in community. Information technology may mean that physical presence is no longer necessary for many purposes. This has often been positive, and has made many kinds of human interaction easier. But people cannot so easily be uncoupled from the geographical spaces they inhabit.

[50] People are not so much divorced from place as seeking a place where they can be most at home. Following the great rehousing boom of the 1950s and ’60s, numerous studies explored the effect of dislocation on people and communities. Strong social bonds, forged in the adversity of poor housing, frequently did not translate to the new estates, despite their better conditions. And today, attempts to address the shortage of suitable housing will create new problems if they neglect people’s attachment to particular places and the social networks they create there.

[51] The Church of England has always had a strong commitment to place through the parish system. We are present in every community of England. We therefore see day by day how important “place” is to all kinds of people. Social policies which assume that everyone is happily mobile and footloose miss the crucial point that “place” is not just about territory but about informal networks which people build to make life sociable, neighbourly and worth living. Policies which are careless of this attachment to place do not serve people well.

Additionally, in the section ‘Strengthening institutions’, they write:

[83] …Housing Associations work best when there is “buy in” from a broad social spectrum. They are institutions with a strong unifying potential.

[84] We are living through both a banking crisis and a housing crisis….

Perhaps because it is more of a concrete (hmm) subject, limited to certain undertakings – unlike disability, and the environment – the bishops do not stray beyond these two sections: and there is no specific mention, elsewhere in their letter, of “homelessness”, for instance.

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

Sadly, God’s will isn’t yet “done in earth, As it is in heaven” – and there appear not to be enough “mansions” here to satisfy demand. This “housing crisis” – at least under the current rules of the richer rich versus the poorer poor that fuel its existence – therefore shows no signs of abating; and, unfortunately, in their letter – understandably – the House of Bishops proffer no solution. I have written before, however, about the primary school mathematics that would make this an ostensibly simple problem to crack (thereby removing that “understandably” from the prior sentence):

…there is actually more than enough housing to go round – at least for the moment. Not only in the UK (which has more than 700,000 empty homes); but in the rest of Europe, too (with more than 11 million empty, in total – “enough to house all of the continent’s [4.1 million] homeless twice over”).
     …the reported lack of available homes [is a terrible problem] that is – I am told – at the root of the carpet-bombing of proposals to cover our green fields with swathes of unsuitable, unsustainable, identikit boxes: with a legislated proportion being ‘affordable’ to almost no-one that would qualify for their residence, or actually needs them to live in….

But, of course, it isn’t really as straightforward as simply parachuting families or individuals in need of accommodation into those empty properties. Even if they are rendered habitable, they are unlikely to satisfy most “people’s attachment to particular places”; or complement readily-available employment opportunities. Then, of course, there is the contentious matter of affordability (either to purchase or to rent – the latter fragilely combined with security of tenancy) – which the Greens describe as “a basic human need” [policy HO101] – and the fact that 80% of an extortionate rent (often calculated behind closed doors) is still “an extortionate rent” – however generous such a legal definition may appear to its wealthy proponents. (The perspective from on high is always skewed.)

In rural locations such as Tysoe, this problem is aggravated by a “change to planning rules slipped through by communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles at the end of last year, [meaning] that affordable housing no longer has to be part of the mix on small-scale developments… at a time when [Hastoe, the biggest single provider of affordable rural homes in England] is receiving calls from parish councils every week asking for affordable homes to be built in their villages.”

What is lacking here, I believe, is a set of meaningful connections between all of these requirements (needs and wants) – which I believe can be supplied by understanding and appreciating the original intentions behind the development of social housing (we do not all need to be homeowners): whether that be almshouses; council houses; or, perhaps most appositely, workers’ villages – such as the stunning Port Sunlight; or, more locally, beautiful Bournville. This latter example, of course, was informed by the Quaker beliefs of the Cadbury brothers: and therefore followed on, in essence, from the provision of almshouses – which were usually provided by religious orders (and usually Christian) with a real, pragmatic desire to support those less fortunate (in the same way that Sikhs now feed the homeless – of all faiths). It is also proof that caring for your workers (as governments should care for their constituents…) is beneficial to both employer and employee – as any fule kno. And yet this appears to be a fact that we are incapable (through reason and/or greed) of grasping in our zero-hours world.

Returning to the Green Party – the ‘Background’ section of their Housing policy similarly states…

[HO104] Commonly owned and social housing includes: housing owned and/or managed by local authorities, housing provided by or managed by housing associations primarily funded by the Housing Corporations, and co-operative and CoHousing projects. The emphasis must be on local provision for local needs, more decentralised forms of housing management, and the empowerment of tenants.

…which, to me, begins to pull together those “meaningful connections”. However, they are not as non-judgmental as the bishops when it comes to their views of housing associations – even though their concerns and posited ‘solutions’ are, I think, extremely similar (the Greens are considerably more detailed, as you would expect; and, of course, look to future solutions – whereas the House of Bishops limit themselves, mostly, to outlining the zeitgeist):

[HO105] Housing associations are potentially effective providers of housing to rent. However, in their present forms they are deeply flawed. In particular in financial decisions which affect rent increases they are answerable to private investors. They must be democratised, with a fundamental shift of power in favour of tenants and increased accountability to the local community, aided by reduction in size.

[HO106] Housing Co-ops should be encouraged as effective providers of low cost housing with good participation by tenants. Some housing co-op principles would be well taken on board by local authorities and housing associations. However a true housing co-operative is co-operatively owned not just co-operatively managed and is in a position to use any assets to support the development of more co-operatives.

You could argue (as do housebuilders, of course; and, almost unbelievably, the Labour Party, still Tory-lite in their approach…) – despite the availability of sufficient existing, empty properties – that we simply aren’t building enough (and failing to do so by a huge margin – probably calculated using the same greed-propelled “mathematics” that the Core Strategy housing supply is based on…). I would only go so far as to agree with that argument by tagging the emotive words “council houses” on at the end (and then only in the right locations – i.e. where there is employment; where there is family; where there is a deep connection to the land, to “place”). But, as we have seen, there can be problems with rented social housing when handed over to the private sector, or made available for sale.

Realistically, though, a mixture of publically- and privately-funded accommodation is probably the only way forward. And, despite the incontrovertible fact that a small, fluffy bunny dies every time a noddy-house is built; and my non-Nimby heart breaks at every single tiny despoilment of the English countryside; I accept – as the residents of Tysoe did in their briefing paper against Gladman, Sustainable Tysoe? – that we – as a village; as a district; as a county; as a country – “must evolve and grow”.

The Green Party’s desire to provide housing in large numbers therefore is described in terms much more nuanced than Ed Miliband’s eager “non-stop drive to build” – propelled, as it is, by the “real, pragmatic desire to support those less fortunate” and the “social dimensions” discussed above:

We want to build half a million more homes, available at social rent levels, funded both by a change in tax-relief for landlords and by fully lifting the artificial restrictions on councils borrowing against their assets.
     We estimate it will cost an extra £4.5bn a year. This would be a major investment in a national asset, which would create jobs and stabilise the economy. The policy is radical, it is different, but it is fully costed….
– Natalie Bennett: The Guardian

Although this discussion was at the centre of Natalie Bennett’s much-vaunted “brain fade”, it doesn’t make the Green Party’s approach – demonstrated most clearly by their policy section entitled ‘Local Authorities’ – any less valid:

[HO403] The Green Party believes in public ownership under the control of elected representatives as part of mixed provision for social housing. Council housing and the secure tenure it affords is an essential form of social housing provision. National Government must ensure adequate and good quality council housing stock is retained and provided by every local authority. It should also ensure that sufficient funding is available to councils for the provision of effective repairs and maintenance services.

However, I think that a large portion of this funding could also originate from “modifications to Council Tax” (Green Party policy HO607) – for example: “creation of new Council Tax bands above H to ensure that as property values get progressively higher so does the tax paid on them; [and] reform of the multiplier rates applied to the bands, to make the tax paid more proportionate to the value of the house” – which would result in increased local government funding; rather than Labour’s proposed Mansion Tax: the revenue from which would go straight into central government’s coffers. Now, that can’t be right….

But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality…
Because it affects us all (either in its provision or lack), there is so much more that could be said – both politically and theologically – about housing, planning, architecture: but I am writing a blog, not a book (although I have made my view on these subjects quite clear many a time – just click on those links…). Personally, though, if you want to dig deeper – especially into the social and economic aspects – I would recommend Danny Dorling’s devastating All That Is Solid – which investigates that outwardly commonplace (certainly calm, to all appearances) statement from Who is my neighbour? that “We are living through both a banking crisis and a housing crisis”:

Housing was at the heart of the financial collapse, and our economy is now precariously reliant on the housing market [and] is the defining issue of our times. Tracing how we got to our current crisis and how housing has come to reflect class and wealth in Britain, All That Is Solid radically shows that the solution to our problems – rising homelessness, a generation priced out of home ownership – is not, as is widely assumed, building more homes. Inequality… is what we really need to overcome.

I would be very suprised if both the Green Party and the House of Bishops hadn’t studied this book intensely.

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