Tuesday, 14 March 2017

12. BIG, BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL Pt.I …with soul!

This essay was prompted by the publication of Shelter’s Manifesto for New Civic Housebuilding and its resonance with the theme of my Churchill Fellowship report “Property, Justice and Reason” (published here, by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, and a version for academics at Academia.edu) and previous blogs here.

Time for a civic housing revolution
In the age of fake news and hysterical tweets, let us welcome Shelter’s quietly spoken but undeniably revolutionary Manifesto for New Civic Housebuilding,
published recently.
The Manifesto calls for homes that are well built, environmentally efficient, and genuinely and permanently affordable, in places with a distinct community identity that are neighbourly, well connected, and properly stewarded over the long term. That doesn’t sound too much to ask…isn’t that the purpose of planning?

But, as the Manifesto asserts, it doesn’t often turn out like that. The main reason, Shelter claims, is the price of land, and the fact that much housing land in the UK has been financialised as a globally traded speculative commodity, divorced from the normal dynamics of local housing markets. At the heart of this transformation are UK firms of surveyors whose business model is “to get planning for our clients; promise as little as possible at planning, and sell for as much possible” (with their fee based on a % of sale price); normal business practice, perfectly legal, but not in the public interest, and a clear case of conflict of interest with the profession’s Royal Charter promise to 'secure the optimal use of land…to meet social and economic need'.

That’s not just the verdict of the policy ‘experts’. Working with a Neighbourhood Plan Forum, just a few days ago, I heard exactly the Manifesto’s wish list of wants for the new developments now overwhelming their parish. Located on the outskirts of London, development pressures are now acute in a historically affordable and typically everyday place. The pressure is coming from Londoners looking to buy a more affordable home, but more often from Buy-to-Let ‘investors’…no, that’s too generous…they too are speculators’, as the Manifesto would have it. New family homes are being bought for letting into multiple house shares, changing the character of that community as you read this. “These new places have no soul!” is the verdict of the citizen ‘experts’.

Even here, new development appears to be so unviable that placemaking quality and affordability fall off the bottom of the wish list. The deficit of four decades of under-investment in infrastructure, (since 1976 and the IMF crisis), takes priority over the affordability of the very homes the infrastructure is intended to serve; whilst national planning policy now obligates the planning system to levy a land value tax on the rest of us in the sum of public goods and infrastructure not provided, just so that it can enrich landowners for luckily being in the right place at the right time. “How did you get yourselves into this situation?” a Danish property investor recently asked me.

Little wonder that in this part of the country, the political narrative of ‘Taking Back Control’ now resonates more strongly even than last June. It’s plain to see that Brexit itself was only a small part of the control that citizens wanted back. Passionate concerns about identity and attachment to place and people feature strongly in discussions about the Plan: a rare opportunity to have a role in shaping the place in which they live, and more immediately achievable and rewarding perhaps than any post-Brexit Jerusalem.

Prefiguring the revolution through Civic Agency
A Neighbourhood Plan is certainly one way of taking more control. “But then what?” asked MP Nick Boles, when Planning Minister. A plan only takes you so far. Making the plan happen is the next challenge, and in the absence of the market or housing policy meeting their needs, citizens are increasingly finding ways of doing their own housing developments.

“Every plan should have a Community Land Trust!” Nick Boles suggested. But of all the types of community housing, why did he single out Community Land Trusts (CLTs)? Like his political colleague, Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith & the Borders, and staunch advocate for CLTs in his constituency and nationally, he understood that a CLT wasn’t a ‘model’; it’s a political idea about local governance and how we citizens want our communities to work. Genuine local accountability was the reason that the Cornwall CLT programme doubled the rate of supply of new affordable rural homes: something it managed to do in partnership with a small local housing association.

One of the most significant but barely noticed political acts of recent years was the inclusion of a legal definition of CLTs in an amendment to the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, promoted by the National CLT Network and CDS Coops. CLTs must be set up expressly to further the social, economic and environmental interests or wellbeing of their communities (i.e. directly aligned with the wellbeing powers of all councils and the purposes of planning). They can hold and use assets only for the benefit of the community, and they have to be democratic institutions, locally accountable to their communities.

The primary concern of CLTs in the USA, Canada, the UK, and now mainland Europe, has been the dysfunction of the land and housing market in their place. So, just as Shelter’s Manifesto advocates, citizens need to find ways of legitimately stopping the land and housing market from working in the ‘normal’ way. They have done so, over the last decade, by constraining the price of land to ensure that CLT homes are genuinely and permanently affordable, with a defined relationship of housing costs to local incomes over the very long term. Frequently written off as naïve, unrealistic or just plain annoying, citizens prefigured ‘new’ political ideas like the London Living Rent : many years ago.

Whether deliberately or unintentionally, the parliamentary draftsmen at the time created a unique legal concept that does not otherwise exist in English and Welsh law: the giving of democratic legitimacy to communities to ensure their land can be used only for the common good. Even though the law makers were reluctant to adopt this measure in 2008, they subsequently conscripted the CLT definition into the community rights agenda, to describe the kind of organisation that could give itself planning permission through a Community Right to Build Order in the Localism Act 2011. The Order is a similarly revolutionary policy idea, through which the citizen is empowered to take on the public interest planning functions of the state: something that might be more vigorously championed by New Civic Housebuilders, perhaps?

CLTs have no specific legal or financial form. They were never intended to be a ‘model’ of community housing, though they are often mistakenly described as such, but they do have very clear values and purposes. Citizens promoting CLTs are not only ‘problem solving’, they are ‘problem defining’. They embody an approach in which citizens can take the time to explore and understand the complexity of their villages, towns and cities, and their communities and what makes them work, or not work.

It is then their choice to promote the housing developments their community needs, either directly through self-development or in partnership with housing associations or developers. But it is their choice; they don't want to be vulnerable to decisions taken by partners taking up their projects and then dropping them just when it suits the partner's business plan. Where's the accountability and control in that? 

It is that very localised democratic legitimacy that genuine community led or citizen inspired housing organisations will not give up lightly...nor should they! It took over a decade's hard work to be in a position to lobby for and obtain that amendment. It's not about 'just housing', but about control and power...and many 'just housing' organisations, however community friendly, just don't get that!

Through civic agency, citizens are ‘policymaking by doing’. The CLT definition is perhaps much more revolutionary than was supposed or probably intended by law makers: though not by the promoters of the amendment.

Civic Ambition and Leadership, or Sentimentality and Short term horizons?
If I have just one word of criticism of the Manifesto, it is the use of that word…‘model’… used to describe New Civic Housebuilding. So much of current political discourse has been focussed on defining identity and thus the ‘otherness’ of those not in our ‘model’. Perhaps we should be looking more carefully for what we have in common.
Language is important here. ‘Model’ runs the risk of characterising new approaches to housing, like New Civic or community housing as only having validity if they fit into the ‘small is beautiful’ category: a minor bit player rather than an agent of systemic change.  Scale and appropriateness to place are critically important, but it is the responsibility and right of citizens themselves to make their own choices on what is right for them; it could well be ‘small’, but sometimes it will be ‘large’. Highlighting the merits of smallness for its own sake is missing the wood for the trees, as some other organisations have already managed to do.
In London, just now, there are four significant citizen led projects, with 2500 homes, that could maximise the financial return to the current public land owner, and still aim to offer upto 100% affordable housing. These could be significant market and policy changing interventions, to create a new not-for-profit socially responsible civicly owned build-to-rent sector…but only if the political leaders in City Hall and councils have the courage to work with their citizens and the financial institutions that could back them.

A large urban council outside London is considering transferring 2000 homes to a citizen owned entity, with land to double that number. Such strong political leadership can create new types of civic partnership, in which the state does development ‘with’ its citizens, achieving more than either could on their own: better together, in fact.

There is a growing realisation that the build-for-profit to create cross-subsidy for affordable housing is a dinosaur model of housing delivery, nearing the end of its time, at least in London and other overheated cities. It has become part of the problem, reinforcing all the damaging effects of financialisation of land markets that Shelter documents. There needs to be a major shift to long term equity financing, as the best property analysts have been telling us for nearly a decade.
The author and critic V.S Pritchett once wrote “Sentimentality in art (is) having the idea of the feeling before the feeling”. ‘Small is beautiful’, as EF Schumacher intended, should be a powerful idea about ways of driving systemic political change. But where it has been used as a description of the defining characteristic of community housing, it is just a sentimental and superficial public relations corruption of what community housing is really about, or how the organisations that support it need to change. It describes an outcome without understanding either the market or the political context in which community housing must learn to operate, become competitive and bring about change in mainstream housing: the ‘idea of the feeling’, but not the feeling itself.

‘Small is beautiful’ community housing expresses an objective of such jaw-dropping political naivety and ignorance, that it actually represents a potent threat to the ability of community housing to be scaled up or out. It is also a threat to democratic renewal. It reveals both a lack of ambition and leadership capability to grasp the real issue, which is about ‘power’…civil society power and market power: who has it and what can be done with it.

The Vermont Tradition
Inscription in the State House, Montpelier, capital of the State of Vermont,
Home of the largest community land trust in the USA,
and the first nation in the world to declare slavery illegal in 1777.

New Civic Housebuilding and all the different traditions of community housing…none of them are ‘models’…they are political ideas about how we want to live: affordability, neighbourliness, mutual support, freedom from debt, land reform, sustainable living and so on. In the spirit of the Vermont Tradition, these ideas belong to neither the Left nor the Right. All of them are dependent on civic agency: the power and drive of citizens to act autonomously for themselves and in the public interest. 

In Part II of this essay, (due in early October), I will explore how new approaches like New Civic Housebuilding and the community housing sector can become a force for transformational change in housing markets and policymaking.
Stephen Hill is a Churchill Fellow, and public interest planning and development surveyor. Since 2009, he has represented the RICS on DCLG’s Housing Construction Roundtable, Government/Industry Working Group on Self-Build, and Housing Sounding Board till it was disbanded in 2016, and is still RICS’ observer on the board of the Housing Forum. The views expressed in both parts of this essay are his own, and will also be featured in Hill. S Taking self-build out of its ‘small and special box’: citizens as agents for the political and the social of self-build in Eds. Benson. M and Hamiduddin. I (2017 Forthcoming) Self-Build Homes: Social Discourse, Experiences and Directions UCL Press, London