A general election is coming and the parties are showing an interest in housing that has been wholly absent for three decades. They are falling over themselves to declare how many more houses will be built if they win power than if their rivals win. Parties whose previous approach was more or less, Let them sleep in tents, and who slept comfortably in beds in houses at night while millions didn’t, now ply us with their genuine, deeply-felt concern, newly discovered like stout Cortez’s Pacific.

Look in the Daily Telegraph here for a brief guide to the parties’ policies and numbers. I shall focus on the two main parties of government, Labour and the Conservatives. One of them will be in government after the election.

Labour

The Labour party, the party of progress and reform, with an appalling, indefensible record of indifference to people’s need for housing and with scandalously low numbers built during its thirteen years in office, says there will eventually be 200 000 a year of all sorts of new houses built if it wins power. Of course the party and government won’t be building any; a Labour government would merely create the conditions for others to do the work.

I am not convinced. The Labour plan, unambitious in numbers about both market and affordable homes, nods towards the funds necessary for this but it lacks sufficient worked through details for me to believe that it is anything other than the hasty combination of guilt and imminent election. I should be happy to be very wrong.

Conservatives

Along come the Tories who are the chief authors of our housing shortages: from 1980 they sold off public housing for good and bad reasons and disastrously prevented a replacement program so that the public stock of housing diminished; the numbers of market houses built also fell. It was a signal and stupid failure by Tory ideologues and we live with the consequences today.

Alas, these Bourbons appear to have learned nothing. Their election bait is 200 000 starter homes for purchase: see the part in the Labour comment above about the government itself not building any. The details are sketchy – a feature of all the parties’ plans – but it appears that to fund a 20 percent discount for the first-time buyers purchasers of each home the Tories will remove from the developer any requirement for a proportion of the homes built to be affordable or to pay money to the council in lieu of his building them (and they will remove infrastructure requirements too). This will have sure effect: a reduction in the number of affordable homes for rent that are built. Additionally, small developments will be exempt from the requirement for a proportion to be affordable, another policy which will reduce the number of affordables built. The current Tory Libdem one-for-one replacement program is turning out to be one-for-ten or-so thus also reducing the public stock of affordable houses for rent.

Centre v local

The major need now is for affordable homes to rent; the purchase of ‘affordable’ homes is now out of reach of most on housing waiting lists. Neither Labour nor Tories have faced up to this.

Nor have they resolved the central difficulty of housing policy. The government proposes, the planning committee disposes. Even if the developers draw up schemes and find the funds and the construction industry can find the labour and materials, the parties’ house building targets can only succeed if the plans are passed, the site and house tenures agreed. At present the government in effect leans on councils and most plans are passed but enough are not to throw doubt on aims to double the current annual number of houses of all sorts built. New county (local) and parish (neighbourhood) plans are likely to restrict building in direct challenge to the parties’ aims. In many places, including Cornwall, localism doesn’t like more than a handful of new houses for locals and even jibs at current inadequate totals. There is a chasm between the parties’ aims and local aims.

The question is then, Who gets to decide whether new houses are built? The government or the local councillors with local electors breathing down their necks? And which locals: do the comfortably housed locals drown out the voices of those locals looking for an affordable house?

Housing and localism

I discussed some of the problems with localism and housing three years ago in the post The trouble with localism. I think some points are worth repeating.

<<The other [problem with localism] is the likelihood that the locality wherever it is will consult its own immediate interests, or perhaps rather the interests of the noisiest with the sharpest elbows, and disregard the wider interests of the community and country or even the interests of quieter, powerless people in the locality. Yet those wider localities will be expected to pay the bill for local decisions…

I point out again that localism might mean very few affordable houses get built anywhere if locals decide. Read this report [Localism is making housing shortage worse, warns new report, Guardian 24 June 2011].

Two years ago, during a debate in the Commons on 3 June 2009 about the relationship and distribution of powers between central and regional and local government, Peter Soulsby, then Labour MP for Leicester South, made a telling point which shattered the simplisticism of a hymn to localism. The debate begins at column 352 and I urge you to read it.

Soulsby argued reasonably that, while subsidiarity, the devolution to the local level of as much as possible, mattered, there was a tendency for local councils to reject housing plans in their areas on nimby grounds (column 357). This meant that a higher authority — in his view regional — had to tell them they must provide the housing. He added, absolutely rightly I think, that that the voices of local people seeking their first house and affordable housing ‘are far too easily drowned out by those who wish to oppose housing development in certain areas’ (column 362). Central government had to overcome the local tendency to say no by setting housing targets ‘to reflect the needs of people throughout the country.’

I think Soulsby demonstrated that localism has its limits and drawbacks.

Andrew George, Libdem MP for St Ives, who initiated the debate, endeavoured to reconcile the desire to see local powers with the reality of how such powers could be used to frustrate affordable housing. He agreed that a local council failing to meet local demand for affordable housing should be subjected to ‘pressure’ from central government, whatever ‘pressure’ means (column 357).

What is interesting in all this is that fairly uncritical and simplistic claims for more powers for local decision-making by local councils or local people are confronted by two egregious examples of the likely failure of localism, the provision of affordable housing and gipsy sites. I think outside direction by central or regional government is needed to secure desired ends and those ends might well not be what many local people wanted. Additionally, localism turns out to be, well, not quite as local as people thought it would be.>>

Previous posts
Numerous posts on housing and affordable housing can be found through the blog search box. Similarly for localism.


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EMPOWERING CORNWALL

8 March 2012

The other day I read this blog post about decentralisation and devolution in Cornwall.

Linking Cornwall in
While the post gave some staples of Cornish political nationalism, the last two paragraphs were most interesting. I think the current particularist approach of Cornish political nationalism to autonomy was questioned and a practical way of achieving maximal decentralisation here was suggested: Cornwall campaigning not on its own but rather with a general project for all England and “linking into the wider debate about devolution and decentralisation within England”.

If such an approach was adopted, Cornwall “would not be alone; people in other areas would doubtlessly seek greater devolution as well”. In response to comments the thrust of the post was neatly summed up: Cornish nationalists “can help their own cause by supporting decentralisation across England”.

All-England project
I warmly support the idea that we should look for an all-England project for decentralisation and empowerment within England, rather than focus exclusively on Cornwall and contended claims that it is uniquely different (nationalists can insert the word initially before the word within). I advocated this approach as the way to do it in a post on Dan Rogerson’s 2009 bill: How should Cornwall be governed? writing:

“It is in the initial context of a general and ongoing program of decentralisation throughout England that the case for Cornwall should be made not on the ‘fly-blown phylacteries’ of an unconvincing political nationalism. The bill will deservedly fail because it fractures the case for coherent decentralisation across England; and in centring its appeal on the particularist sentiments of Cornish political nationalism it excludes many in Cornwall who do not share them.”

Decentralisation and localisation
There is a rational and democratic case for decentralisation and localisation to the cities and counties of a fully recognised and devolved England which I support. However, I have pointed out in several posts that localism, of course, has drawbacks and can mean postcode pay and benefits and the privileging of parochial prejudices; for example I think that the prospect for affordable housing is very vulnerable under localism. And I have argued that the new unitary experience in Cornwall shows that one man’s localism is another’s centralisation, most recently here. Localism certainly demands a coherent answer to the question of who decides and I deplore that its advocates shy away from these issues. For Cornish nationalists there is also the question of who pays with what money.

Balkanising England
Let me add that I also think that the empowerment of cities and counties is distinct from regionalism, or at least that based on large, artificial regions in England, which few relate to and which many see as the balkanisation and dismemberment of England. Such regionalism has no part in localism and decentralisation. Keep England whole, as it were.

Shift to all-England approach
The shift to an all-England argument for decentralisation from the current and notably unsuccessful Cornwall particularist one would be a pragmatic advance. It is the way to get to the future in Cornwall. Nationalists could see this as an initial approach and could argue for an exit from England afterwards; I
should be happy with an empowered county in England. However, I think that Cornish nationalism, shackled to the idea of exceptionalism, is not yet ready for the all-England approach but we shall see as time goes by.


CENTRIPETAL CORNWALL

27 February 2012

One of the arguments for a single authority for Cornwall – one council/assembly/parliament – is that Cornwall would then speak more strongly and more effectively with one voice for all the people of Cornwall; Cornwall knows best where the shoe pinches here and Cornwall should decide. However, the all-Cornwall unitary council isn’t working out like that.

It appears that Cornwall may not know best what Cornwall wants after all. Concerns, expressed soon after the unitary council was established, have come from people in north, east, and west Cornwall and I have explored before the beliefs of some that unitary Cornwall has replaced the ogre of London-centric with the home-grown ogre of Truro-centric; that we have new peripheries and a new centre. The old notion of onen-hag-oll Cornwall of the unitary council/assembly/parliament, of county/country/region, is challenged; Cornwall is redefined and envisioned as a collection of empowered neighbourhoods.

This throws up questions that no one is answering. What is meant by localism in a unitary county? How do we make it work? Who gets to decide what? Take difficult questions: affordable housing, the incinerator, and the Penzance/Scilly ferry. Who should decide such issues?

The political parties and organisations in Cornwall should work through these issues and give their answer to the question: Who gets to decide what?

Meanwhile, here are two interesting recent comments cut from longer pieces:

“…ever more centralising Cornwall Council…the Truro-centric nature of the authority” (Dick Cole, Mebyon Kernow, Cornish Guardian 8 February 2012, on selling former district council property)

“There is a perception in Cornwall that Truro always gets the cream” (Andrew George, Libdem MP, Cornishman 5 January 2012, on NHS dentistry)

Read the wholes here and here.

Earlier posts about this

Cornwall unravels 21 November 2011

Onen hag oll
30 May 2011

Disunitary 26 October 2009

A regular columnist wrote about the all-Cornwall unitary council “leaving the west to rot while millions are spent in Truro and Camborne” (Cornishman 26 May 2011)

“…an insidious, creeping but increasingly inescapable feeling that Cornwall Council feels it can impose cuts in west Cornwall because we are at the tail end of the county. That because we are remote, out of sight of Truro and far from the authority’s mid-Cornwall heartland, we can be imposed upon and fobbed off…” (Cornishman 20 October 2011)

“Many of the contributions from the public were asking why, in their opinion, the East of the county did not appear to get its fair share of expenditure yet paid as much if not more than the rest of Cornwall.” (Cornish Guardian 1 February 2012, in an account of a meeting at Launceston)


THE TROUBLE WITH LOCALISM

24 October 2011

Ah, localism. Let the local people decide rather than people far away in, oh, where shall I say … hmm, London.

I have explored before my concerns about localism and I’m raising it again because, despite naivety among its fans, I don’t believe it does what it suggests as two current items show vividly. I think localism also carries difficulties in the delivery of social justice, especially in terms of affordable housing, which is a major interest in Cornwall as elsewhere. I think awareness of the limitations and drawbacks of localism is increasing here and I expect our experience is found across England.

I see Stephen Gilbert, Libdem MP for St Austell and Newquay, extolled localism the other day in the Commons. He said: “Is not the big hope for the transformation the government are undertaking that planning will in future happen with communities, not to them, reflecting local need, not centralist tendencies?” ( Hansard 18 October 2011 column 200WH).

This takes me straight to one of the problems with localism, the scope. Who’s locality gets to decide? Which community is that?

Localism without the locals
Who should decide – or should have decided – about the county incinerator at St Dennis? The locals who live there and will be most immediately affected by it, or the unitary council, or councillors from, say, Launceston and Penzance? In what way is any decision by anyone other than the people who live in the locality of St Dennis a local decision? Is it not an incinerator imposed on them, done to them?

Is an incinerator a decision that it is inappropriate for only local people to decide, something which a larger constituency should have a say in? How do we decide which are such decisions (just calling the decisions strategic does not answer the question) and how do we decide how farflung the deciding constituency should be – the county, region, nation, the government, the EU?

Now look at the proposal to move a heliport to Rose an Grouse. Who should decide whether that goes ahead? The residents around there, who will be most affected by it, or … well, you get the idea. In what way is any decision by anyone other than the people who live in the locality of Rose an Grouse a local decision? Would that not be a decision imposed on locals by people who live elsewhere?

Truro-centric is the new London-centric
Where’s ‘elsewhere’ in such issues? It isn’t necessarily London, the regular bogey of Cornish nationalism. It could be down the road. I see in this nationalist blog a reference in a post about changes to the hospital at Penzance to the “corridors of power in Truro and London”. Earlier I looked at the debate on the ferry terminal at Penzance and the view there that decisions were making far away in Truro. Look especially at my posts Onen hag oll and Disunitary (links below) for a discussion of a new centre and new peripheries in Cornwall.

So localism often turns out to be a decision by people nearer to the relevant location than London but still by people who don’t live anywhere near that location and who are not always directly affected by their decision: anyone but the UK central government. And unitary Cornwall turns out to be disunited Cornwall.

Indeed, the controversy about centralisation-within-cornwall issue is a difficulty for nationalism. It challenges the naive view of a united Cornwall, onen hag oll, that some have. Look at some of the comments captured in those earlier posts.

Delivering social justice
I said ‘one of the problems of localism’. The other is the likelihood that the locality wherever it is will consult its own immediate interests, or perhaps rather the interests of the noisiest with the sharpest elbows, and disregard the wider interests of the community and country or even the interests of quieter, powerless people in the locality. Yet those wider localities will be expected to pay the bill for local decisions, just as the whole of Cornwall would pick up the county part of the incinerator bill or ferry bill.

I point out again that localism might mean very few affordable houses get built anywhere if locals decide. Read this report, Localism is making housing shortage worse, warns new report from the Guardian 24 June 2011.

Two years ago, during a debate in the Commons on 3 June 2009 about the relationship and distribution of powers between central and regional and local government, Peter Soulsby, the Labour MP for Leicester South, made a telling point which shattered the simplisticism of a hymn to localism. The debate begins at column 352 and I urge you to read it.

Soulsby argued reasonably that, while subsidiarity, the devolution to the local level of as much as possible, mattered, there was a tendency for local councils to reject housing plans in their areas on nimby grounds (column 357). This meant that a higher authority — in his view regional — had to tell them they must provide the housing. He added, absolutely rightly I think, that that the voices of local people seeking their first house and affordable housing “are far too easily drowned out by those who wish to oppose housing development in certain areas” (column 362). Central government had to overcome the local tendency to say no by setting housing targets “to reflect the needs of people throughout the country.”

I think Soulsby demonstrated that localism has its limits and drawbacks.

Andrew George, Libdem MP for St Ives, who initiated the debate, endeavoured to reconcile the desire to see local powers with the reality of how such powers could be used to frustrate affordable housing. He agreed that a local council failing to meet local demand for affordable housing should be subjected to “pressure” from central government, whatever “pressure” means (column 357).

Gipsy sites
George also said that he accepted there was sometimes a need for “outside intervention,” that is by central government, to ensure that gipsy and traveller sites were provided where prejudice and discrimination prevented local provision (column 362). We’re back to taking powers of decision from locals and giving them to a larger deciding constituency again. I suspect the provision of gipsy sites is a serious problem for progressives advocating localism.

Interestingly, earlier George had argued in the Western Morning News for 26 July 2007 that “The simple principle should be established that decisions which affect one community and no other should be taken in that community and not by others outside it.” I explained here why I thought that an inadequate view.

What is interesting in all this is that fairly uncritical and simplistic claims for more powers for local decision-making by local councils or local people are confronted by two egregious examples of the likely failure of localism, the provision of affordable housing and gipsy sites. I think outside direction by central or regional government is needed to secure desired ends and those ends might well not be what many local people wanted. Additionally, localism turns out to be, well, not quite as local as people thought it would be.

Ask
Localism: it’s not a simple principle and always, ask Who decides? Who should decide? Who pays? Whose voice is drowned out?

Additamentum 24 October 2011
I see the editorial of 20 October 2011 in the Cornishman, a Penzance weekly paper, writes of the local view in west Cornwall: “an insidious, creeping but increasingly inescapable feeling that Cornwall Council feels it can impose cuts in west Cornwall because we are at the tail end of the county. That because we are remote, out of sight of Truro and far from the authority’s mid-Cornwall heartland, we can be imposed upon and fobbed off …”

Some earlier posts
Onen hag oll 30 May 2011

Localising benefits 31 October 2010

Disunitary 26 October 2010

Localism again 8 September 2008


I have examined affordable housing in Cornwall in previous posts and in those have looked at why we should care about this issue, what is affordability, the size of the need for affordable housing in Cornwall, and intended solutions that focus on empty houses, the right to buy, and second homes.

Now I wish to look at how we can best tackle the provision of affordable houses in Cornwall.

Build more
How we should meet the demand from local people for affordable houses?

The answer is straightforward. Forget assaults upon second homes; they are a separate issue from the provision of affordable homes and restrictions today will probably not provide a single additional affordable house. Put minor forays about empty houses into their place. Focus, relentlessly, on building affordable houses which stay affordable in perpetuity. Put all the diverted energy into this. Ensure that by hook or by crook the Cornwall Council target is met and overshot. Face down unreasonable opposition. Enlist Cornwall MPs in this to support councillors and planning officers. Celebrate each and every affordable house built. Press the government to make more resources available as the recession recedes; press the financial institutions to make loans. Expose reluctance. Build and remember John Ruskin’s adage, When we build, let us think that we build for ever (Chapter 6, The Seven Lamps of Architecture 1849).

Obstacles and necessities
Of course there are obstacles to be overcome and necessities to be met: finding and funding sites, funding the building of affordable houses for rent and funding the purchase of some affordable houses, and local opposition. There is no coherent program that faces up to these and provides practical solutions. The approach has been and remains piecemeal and sporadic.

There is opposition to affordable houses, especially effective in middle class areas, and opponents produce a myriad of reasons for not building the houses here but rather somewhere, anywhere, else. It is unrealistic to expect elected councillors to be unmoved by vigorous opposition from their constituents; and those on the housing waiting list are usually quiet. Local opposition is a serious obstacle to the provision of affordable housing and will be more so as the Tory Libdem government gives a veto to a minority among local people, for example, removing a central government driver which is advantageously remote from local antipathies. Localism has drawbacks and it may be that local authorities struggle to successfully deliver an affordable housing program because of local opposition. In this post in 2008 I said: “I wonder whether, if left to a decision by the neighbourhood, any affordable housing would be built anywhere in England. At present central government, able to act for the whole country and able to limit the power of local self-interest, lays down expectations and some regulations about affordable housing.” The involvement of central government in the provision of affordable housing can ensure that the rights of local people looking for an affordable house are not vitiated by other locals who already have a house and fear the impact of affordable houses. The present Tory Libdem government appears to be withdrawing from the field and creating serious obstacles to building affordable housing.

There are difficulties in the recession in ensuring a responsible flow of finance for the purchase of development sites, which are often difficult to secure, and for the building of affordable houses for rent and purchase and any subsequent purchase or part-purchase of the latter. Finance for purchasers of market-price houses is important too because in some developments the affordable component is subsidised by market-price houses, and, as I explain below, I think mixed developments are very much to be desired. As the economy and confidence grow, construction and purchase funds will become easier. The flow of public finance has been cut and will depend not only on the economy but also upon the importance that government attaches to affordable housing; much of the money for affordable housing comes ultimately from taxpayers.

Labour did not give affordable housing any serious priority and its record is dismal; the Tory Libdem government is now beginning to demonstrate its policy in practice and it appears set on only cheering unconvincingly from the sidelines and the suggestion that the requirement for a minimal proportion of affordable houses in a development will be dropped by the government is alarmingly reactionary. The homes and community agency – scroll to item number 9 – has suffered serious government cuts in its funds for affordable housing in the recession.

Additionally, the physical resources for an enhanced house building program cannot be conjured up with a snap of the fingers. More skilled workers have to be recruited and more materials produced and sourced. This takes time but, again, determination makes all things possible. However, physical resources are a factor to be considered in setting a house building target.

Desiderata
I think too that there are additional very desirable conditions that affordable housing should meet.

Of course we should aim to build well-designed affordable houses with roomy accommodation and well-maintained, uncrowded estates.

Building monotenurial council estates has been a mistake; public housing has become in the last decades strongly associated with deprivation and people either on benefits or earning low wages. We should avoid housing which separates residents from the wider community and seek housing which integrates residents. Community cohesion, the modern term which skates around the fraternity and social solidarity of the French Revolution and socialism, is desirable. This means that it is important to build mixed developments, with mixed tenures, a mixture of privately owned and publicly owned and publicly rented, mixed ages, mixed marital status, mixed familial status. The aim should be integrated developments not isolating ones. Encouraging only affordable housing and not also private housing is an error.

Coda
Now a diversion from the chief issue.

Housing in Britain has become a brew of confused facts and fictions and views.

The provision of affordable housing for local people – universally approved in principle – gets mixed up in Cornwall with questions about second homes and the number of open-market houses being built which many locals cannot afford; as well as the shortage of affordable houses for local people to rent or buy.

Any central target of houses to be built in Cornwall will now go, abolished by the Tory Libdem government which seems to believe it can rely on local sentiment for providing affordable houses. Increases in Britain’s house-seeking population are inevitable and, while there are legitimate arguments about what Cornwall’s share should be and thus about the number of market-price and affordable houses that should be built here, I think that Cornwall must respond positively to the actual and projected population increases in Britain and play its full part in housing those increases.

Other posts on affordable housing and Cornwall

Bleak outlook for affordable housing in Cornwall 25 November 2010
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 1
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 2
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 3
Housing
Housing the people in Cornwall
Goldilocks and Cornwall

___________________________________________________

LOCALISING BENEFITS

31 July 2010

I have set out previously the Tory and now Tory-Libdem proposals to end national rates of public pay and benefit.

These three posts explore this:

Tories eye benefits and wages in Cornwall

Vote Tory today, cry tomorrow

Tory-Libdems to localise NHS pay in Cornwall which refers to paragraph 4.36 in the NHS white paper Equity and excellence: liberating the NHS of July 2010.

The Department for work and pensions (DWP) has now published a consultation paper, 21st century welfare, which has a brief section on “localism” in chapter 4 paragraphs 8-9. This localism is not simply about more local discretion in administration but also about the rates of benefits. Read the arguments in this article in the Independent of 31 July.

Should benefits in Cornwall, for example, be lower than in areas like London with higher costs of living? Answering a similar question on Radio 4 the DWP secretary of state said, “We want to talk to people from different areas to see whether or not they would prefer that.” The DWP would like to hear from you.

ADDENDUM 3 August 2010
This post on the Liberal Conspiracy blog shows that, contrary to a claim in chapter 2 paragraph 9 in the DWP consultation paper, welfare payments do reduce the gap between the richest and poorest, do reduce income inequality.

Tory ideas on localising benefits will punish people in Cornwall

Last September I wrote on Conservative ideas about localising benefits which for Cornwall looked to mean lower benefits than elsewhere.

Now comes a variation or addition to that story. This time the report is that the Conservatives may give local councils the power to set lower benefits where jobs are easier to find. A council would have the power to set the level of job seekers allowance, for example, in its area.

Is this merely relating benefit rates to local labour markets? Hmm. Philip Hammond, the Tory shadow chief secretary to the treasury, said there were “huge potential savings” to be made. We lack details but that has to mean in some areas lower benefit payment than a uniform, national standard would set or a reduction in the number of benefit recipients, or indeed both, as well as infrastructural improvements.

Taken together the Observer and Guardian reports suggest that the Conservatives appear to be seriously thinking about the localisation of some benefits, administered by councils not central government, and matching them to the local availability of jobs and local living costs; and I think local wage levels too would inevitably be included in the matching criteria. What would the abandonment of uniform, national levels of benefit payments mean for Cornwall? We might escape the ‘easier to find work’ criterion but certainly local wages and probably living costs would mean lower benefit payments here than in many other areas. It is unclear to me whether it would mean lower benefits than now, an absolute cut, or a lower rate of future benefit increases. The result either way would be in effect a reduced income for many people in Cornwall, a falling below national standards.

It isn’t just benefits. The localisation of benefits and the consequent saving of money may encourage the localisation of public service pay. In Cornwall we should then see pay in education and healthcare, for example, matched to local circumstances, local wage rates, rather than set nationally. The mandatory, national minimum wage also looks vulnerable to Conservative ideas: see this post.

We may not have before the general election the details of what the Conservatives plan for the localisation of benefits, indeed they are still exploring the topic, but the direction of their thinking is very clear. Many people in Cornwall stand to lose out.