6: NOVEMBER 7th 2014 - “COMMUNITIES FAMOUSLY HAVE A REPUTATION FOR ASKING FOR THE EARTH!”
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So said the chief executive of one of London’s largest housing associations, at a conference yesterday on estate renewal in London. ‘So unlike ‘normal’ people, or me, who are so selfless to want less than the best for themselves,’ is the speaker’s implied message. In forty years of working in housing and estate renewal, I have never met these unrealistic ‘communities’, but I have worked with many wonderful citizens, who give years of their lives to be the voice of their community in regeneration, for free, while all around them are paid handsomely.
I’m sort of speechless…with rage…at the duplicitous condescension and double standards implicit in this statement, that are sadly more common in the world of housing ‘providers’ than they ought to be. ‘There, there, we know what’s good for you. We take the big decisions, but we’ll indulge you in the layout of your homes’, as indeed the speaker then outlined. Different bath fittings? You can have them. Thank you.
I’m doubly upset, of course, as this assertion was a direct challenge to me. The conference chair invited me to make an impromptu contribution to this panel discussion. 'Are there examples of estate renewal being used to achieve good outcomes that benefitted estate residents, the surrounding community, the local authority as well as the development partners: for the common good?' My advocacy for the merits of ‘coproduction’ clearly fell on one pair of deaf ears. I would only say in support of my view that it is based on the experience of working on 127 estate renewal projects in my professional lifetime. (I only know this number as a prospective client once challenged me ‘Well, how many estate renewal projects have you actually worked on?’) In my top ten schemes that achieved this elusive goal of the common good, every single one was the result of coproduction, in which power and responsibility was shared equally amongst citizens, the council and commercial and social housing providers. No exceptions.
The fact that such condescending and damaging ideas still have any currency is due to the fact that they are shared and given house room by some local authorities. As one senior planner once told me: “My housing colleagues would always say how difficult it is to get people from the community to agree what they want. They don’t really know. The best that they [the officers] hope for is that they [the community] end up thinking that it [the council’s proposal] was their own idea.”
Thankfully on the evidence from the floor of the conference, this is an attitude held by a diminishing number of councils. The conference concluded with London’s Deputy Mayor for Housing praising the virtues of the 200+ home Brixton Green community led housing project at Somerleyton Road, and echoing the call throughout the day for ‘The Holy Grail …affordable intermediate market housing’…exactly what Community Land Trusts have been delivering, unsung and sometimes resisted, for over a decade.
Coproduction and affordable intermediate market housing are evidence of what citizens can do, and what they really want. This is their ‘asking for the earth’. This is their response to the obvious question that we all…that is communities and normal people alike…think about every day…and this is where my originally planned blog really begins…
THE SCOTTISH QUESTION: HOW SHALL WE LIVE?
CITIZEN LED HOUSING AND THE OPPORTUNITY FOR A DIFFERENT KIND OF POLITICS OF THE COMMON GOOD
CITIZEN LED HOUSING AND THE OPPORTUNITY FOR A DIFFERENT KIND OF POLITICS OF THE COMMON GOOD
To mark the start of the two year Urban CLT Programme, in partnership with the Oak Foundation, I was asked, as a National CLT Network Board Member to share emerging ideas from my forthcoming Churchill Fellowship report ‘Property, Justice and Reason’. This blog examines why citizen action through CLTs should be seen as sign of frustration with the politics of today, and an opportunity to think afresh about the relationship between the citizen and the state. The next blog will look at how this could be operationalised in relation to the affordability of all housing and the use of public and private land for the common good.
A shorter and politer version of this blog on http://www.communitylandtrusts.org.uk/StephenHillBlogNov2014. The views expressed are my own, and do not represent the views of either the National CLT Network, or the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.
This weekend the country will pause to consider the cost and the legacy of the First World War. Four years of fighting and the post-war settlement at Versailles shaped the modern world as we now experience it. One of the casualties of that period, now forgotten, deserves fresh attention: the radical pre-war land reform agenda lost in the turmoil of modern warfare, but now reclaimed by citizens 100 years on.
“There are only two ways in which people can acquire wealth. There is ‘Production’ and there is ‘Plunder’. I have never used that word before. Production is always beneficial. Plunder is always pernicious, and its proceeds are either monopolised by the few, or consumed in the mere struggle for possession. We are here to range defiantly on the side of Production, and to eliminate Plunder as an element in our social system…
We have to face all the resources of a great monopoly, (land), so ancient that it has become almost venerable. We have against us all the money power. We have to deal with the apathy and levity of all sections of the public.”
Modernise the language, and this could be London and the South East today: extraordinary inflation and speculation in land and housing markets at every price point, driven by the accumulation of wealth by the already wealthy, a public policy definition of ‘affordability’ absurdly and incompetently linked to 80% or indeed any % of market value, and the acquiescent acceptance by existing property owners of their effortless enrichment by a market that has visibly damaging social and economic consequences for those not already on the ‘property ladder’, not to mention for the nation at large.
Our 1907 speaker is not radical Keir Hardie or Ramsay MacDonald, founding members of the Labour Party, but a very junior Liberal Minister, of a rank that today is never seen or heard, and would be of no consequence in the political hierarchy: a minor Under-Secretary of State…for the Colonies… Mr. Winston Churchill.
What would his elegant society audience have made of this broadside against…people like them? More to the point, what would we make of any politician who today delivered such a courageous speech in the national interest against the self-interests of his own property owning kind? Mansion tax is not in the same league as Churchill’s proposition: an economically illiterate and populist soundbite of a policy that will devour political capital and generate paltry revenues.
This speech was certainly not populist, nor an ‘off-message’ aberration, but part of a carefully researched and promoted set of political ideas culminating in the 1909 People’s Budget. The Budget contained proposals for a tax on land development profits, and for annual land value taxation: both considered essential to help eradicate the structural causes of poverty, not just moderate its effects. Later, as President of the Board of Trade, Churchill was to introduce the Minimum Wage and Labour Exchanges, also tackling causes not symptoms.
In 1909, the Liberal Government had already passed legislation to give councils powers to make new housing schemes, and to buy the land for them, at existing use value, thus eliminating any speculative uplift in land price.
These economically sound land reform measures were doomed. In the inevitable compromises to get the Budget passed with the land owning members of the House of Lords, they were abandoned. The war intervened and diverted the Liberal government from its extraordinary programme of social and economic reforms. It was an historic lost opportunity to create a long lasting public policy framework for stable housing and land markets.
We are still living with the consequences. The present extreme structural inequalities in wealth distribution, caused by the absence of effective fiscal policies relating to property ownership of all kinds, are all there in Churchill’s analysis. Nothing has changed, except the development of extraordinary computing power to commodify any kind of property asset, opening the door to the culture of gambling that has turned development land and property into the world’s speculative commodity of choice.
But Churchill forgot, as our 21st century politicians continue to forget, that big political ideas are not just their prerogative. Politicians have to govern with the consent of the people; if they are wise, they govern not just with consent but with the citizens’ direct participation in political action.
In his architecture for social justice, Beveridge envisaged a welfare state of ‘private action for social advance’, that was never understood or adopted by politicians or civil servants. Governments of the left and right have never taken the bold leap of letting go of power to liberate the agency of citizens in tackling the wicked problems of modern political life. Governments have lost, because they have become victims of their own self-belief that they alone have the capacity to make policies or to do things for people. And the people have lost, because they can now see that their politicians don’t have the power to do anything that really matters in the modern world, except to fiddle at the margins with tax rates, public service contracts, or parliamentary expenses.
Brighton and Hove CLT looking at the opportunities for a
citywide citizen housing initiative with the City Council on
its urban fringe sites
and does not even dare offer.
Granby4Streets CLT reclaiming the streets, Liverpool
The London Citizens’ London Living Wage campaign is now regularly endorsed and promoted by local and national politicians, but would have been undeliverable by mainstream political action. Through community organising, ordinary citizens created the space for political action. Generation Rent, also based on the principles of community organising, is mobilising private renters for the general election in over a 100 marginal seats where private renting is now the largest form of tenure to raise the voice of a group not often heard within the political mainstream.
Rural CLTs have already shown what they can do in housing markets that were damaging their communities. Citizens, land owners, councils and housing providers achieved together something that none of them could have done alone.
In urban areas, progress has been hard won. The battle for political airtime, resources and territory is much more contested. Amongst local authorities and housing providers, there can be puzzlement and even resentment that citizens should be trying to plan and deliver their own developments. “Who are you? Why are you trying to do this? We do this…we provide housing for you.”
Then, there is always that crucial question that might seem legitimate, but is often mistaken when used with the intention of undermining the legitimacy of citizens trying to provide for themselves. “What community do you represent?” where the word ‘community’ is being used to define ‘otherness’, and to diminish and marginalise the importance and validity of what is being attempted: those unrealistic and unreasonable communities asking for the earth, again.
So, the right answer to that question is ‘We don’t represent anyone. We elected you to represent us. We are just ourselves: the community, citizens, acting to house ourselves and lead a normal life, here in our part of the city.’ Citizens can unlock the radical changes that politicians may want to achieve, but would never manage alone. The agency of the citizen can empower the state to do the right thing for the common good.
The National CLT Network’s two year Urban CLT Programme, starts today. Eleven urban CLTs in towns and cities, in widely differing housing markets, all over England and Wales, will show how much more is possible when citizens take the initiative, and take back the rights to the city, and the right to live a normal life. Next year, there will be funding for a second cohort of nine more urban CLTs.
To quote the East London CLT “Buy or rent a CLT home, and live a normal life, in a well-connected place with neighbours you know, free of unnecessary debt, and money left over for energy, food, clothes, transport, school trips and other stuff you can buy in shops, supporting your local economy and community.”
It doesn’t seem much to ask. How did it become so difficult? Think back to 1907…