Coping with the crisis

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

A health warning to begin with. This blog is a series of unrelated musings about the crisis. There’s so much to take in that it’s hard to construct a tidy narrative. I take the Jürgen Norbert Klopp line that this is something for the experts to comment upon, but I’ve just written a briefing for HQN on how housing providers should respond so I think I can write a little about the impact upon our sector.

Things are changing hour by hour, so everything we write can be out of date fairly quickly. That’s why it’s important that you keep your eye on official advice on the gov.uk, Public Health England and NHS websites, as well as information from your professional and trade bodies. It’s also crucial to ignore all the waffle and hysteria on social media, including all the anecdotes presented as evidence (“A friend of a friend is a doctor and he says blah blah blah”). What we’re learning is that this crisis is bringing out the very best and the very worst in people – but the worst, as ever, are a tiny minority. Most people are good.
To start with, how are you coping? Are you cooped up in a tiny flat with kids or do you have a spacious house and garden with online deliveries of food? Do you have a network of friends and relatives that can offer help, or are you alone? Do you have Netflix and a supply of books? This will be a real test of our fortitude and the quality of our homes.
My partner is in Germany and I have no idea when I might see her again. They are ahead of us in terms of their lockdown (they closed schools and non- food shops two weeks ago and have the same rules about distancing and being outside). I’m in small flat in a small town but I’m making trips to the allotment (exercise and food production combined, not seeing anyone or touching anything on the way). But I spent seven years in a military boarding school and she grew up in the GDR, so we can cope. Others are not so lucky.

I’m also collecting prescriptions and shopping and posting parcels for old folk around here. One of them has offered German lessons in return. The BBC has produced some useful tips on looking after your mental health and wellbeing and Sport England has produced a guide on how to exercise at home. I’ve also registered on the NHS volunteer scheme, see here for details.
I’m finding that friends and family are coming together like never before. Even the most IT illiterate are signing up for WhatsApp, Zoom and HouseParty and seeking regular conferences. So much so that it’s hard to get on with other things! All positive but it makes you wonder why people didn’t do this before. Perhaps we’re so bound up in our lives that we forget that the only three things that matter in life are health, friends and family.
I’ve a number of friends who feel they’ve had the virus and haven’t been tested or reported. My gut feeling is that the number of cases will be five or ten times higher than the official figures. This seems obvious given that the mortality rate appears to vary from 0.3% in Germany to over 8% in Italy. So perhaps the actual mortality rate is closer to influenza – but there’s no vaccine and no indication of when it might appear. But surely we need testing? And tracing.  If so many people are asymptomatic we need to test the population so that people who have had it can be free to circulate, without infecting anyone or being infected (assuming re- infection is unlikely). But, as I said at the beginning, I’m no expert, so what do I know?
The virus is awful, but there are silver linings. We’ve a government that’s intervened in the state in unprecedented ways, in peacetime. The magic money tree has been found and the government finally recognises that profit-driven businesses aren’t always the best. Rail franchises have been nationalised. The NHS is being pumped with money. Surely things can never be the same again? We cannot go back to the levels of greed, consumption, inequality and self-absorption that existed before, can we?
In addition, we have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution and road traffic accidents. The climate can recover for a while (“The virus that saved the planet”). On the downside there will be a spike in suicides, domestic violence and child abuse. Criminals will have a free rein to rob and plunder. At some point the negative impacts of lockdown might outweigh its medical benefits, but that time isn’t now. But think how much has changed in just a couple of weeks. This is a long haul and, well, “Events, dear boy, events”.
My final thoughts are about housing. This is a stressful time for everyone but even more so if you live in bad housing. This will be a severe test of the quality, durability and adaptability of our homes. We have some of the smallest in Europe and they’re going to be stress tested to the extreme. The wear and tear will be enormous and repair requests will rise at a time when many contractors are disappearing. Domestic abusers and child abusers will be able to operate with impunity. Neighbour disputes are likely to escalate and providers need to keep an eye on this and to protect their most vulnerable residents. You’ll need clear policies and protocols on entering homes where people are self-isolating or shielding. There’s plenty of advice on the gov.uk website. These are testing times but I’m sure everyone can face the challenge head on. It will pass.

Keep busy. Learn a language. Read. Exercise. Stay safe.

 

This blog was first published by HQN on the 26th March 2020. 

Brexit: the key question

Tomorrow, we shall be out of the EU. Depending on your point of view this is either a triumph, a tragedy, or something in between. But after three and a half years of often angry debate, this is where we are. It is happening, whether we like it or not.

But I do hope that our exit does not mean that we stop co-operating with and learning from our European neighbours, because there is certainly a lot to learn.

In December and January I spent a few weeks in Germany, in the southwest city of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, and I can tell you that everything they do there planning, housing, transport, recycling, leisure is, in my opinion, better, smarter and greener than in the UK.

Take transport: Freiburg is a city of only 230,000 people yet it has an extensive tram network that provides around 60 million journeys a year. There are 40 kilometres of track and 70% of the population live within 500 metres of a tram stop, with a tram every eight mins. A ticket of any distance costs €2.30. Can any city in the UK of a comparable size boast such a system?

Freiburg has a huge central pedestrian zone where no cars are allowed. There are cycle lanes everywhere. Two weeks ago, I cycled to a village seven miles away to see an evening performance of Guys and Dolls and the whole route was either on quiet back streets or well- lit cycle lanes. There are easy-to-use car share schemes with their cars parked in designated spaces in every neighbourhood.

Take recycling. Every supermarket has a machine where you can insert your plastic and glass bottles and receive money back 25 cents for a plastic bottle and eight cents for glass.

Or take planning and housing. The city has a number of well-planned traffic-free suburbs where social and private housing sits side by side. On the south side of Freiburg is an eco- settlement called Vauban with over 2,000 homes and 5,500 residents. It was previously a French barracks (France occupied this region post-World War II). It was occupied by squatters for many years and still has a slight hippy feel. All the homes are low energy, with social and private mixed together. Many of them are Passivhaus.

 

Vauban has its own power station fed by wood chips and many homes have solar panels. The Solar Settlement of 59 homes is the first housing site in the world to produce a positive energy balance, with the surplus being sold to the city-grid. A tram runs through the site and most of the roads are car free: stellplatzfrei – literally, “free from parking spaces”. Parking is banished to the edge of the site where a space costs over €20,000 plus a monthly fee. Around 70% of households have no private car. The number of cars per thousand residents in Vauban is about 180, compared to a national average of more than 500. Does the UK have anywhere like this?

 

The housing that I have visited also appears to be far superior to UK homes in terms of the quality of construction and finishes, insulation, windows, doors etc. The apartments I stayed in comprise about 120 flats in eight modern blocks set in landscaped car-free grounds, all built to a Passivhaus standard. The blocks are connected underground by a vast parking garage which also contains bin stores, cycle stores and a personal cellar for each flat of about 12  square metres, where you can store all your stuff. The roofs are green; there is a water wheel on an adjacent stream that feeds the communal electricity supply, and heating and hot water  comes from a wood chip power plant.

 

But one small example, the key question, will suffice to highlight the differences between the UK and Germany. In the UK renting or owning a typical flat will require you to have a bunch of five or more keys: one for the flat, one for the communal entrance, the garage, the balcony door, the bin store etc. In this apartment there is a single key that opens nine separate doors, viz. the flat door, the communal entrance door at ground level, the communal entrance in the garage, the bin store, the entrance to the cellar, the entrance to the cellar store, the pedestrian entrance to the garage, the car entrance to the garage, and the bike store. That means that when I went out I carried a single key and a key for my bike lock. It is quite liberating. Does anywhere in the UK have a similar system?

 

As I say, Brexit or no Brexit we still have a lot to learn from our European neighbours. One of the problems in UK housing is that we tend to be too insular, too bound up in our own petty rules and distractions and too resistant to learning lessons from other sectors and other countries. I hope that we can still take the time and effort to visit and learn from places like Freiburg. If you want to visit I am open to approaches!

 

(This blog was first published on the Housing Quality Network on 23/01/2020)

Wanted: housing weirdos

Happy New Year to you all – although it has to be said that the new decade has kicked off with anything but happiness: instead there is a sense of Apocalypse, with Australia on fire and Iran threatening retribution in the West for the assassination of General Soleimani.

But in housing we have more prosaic matters to attend to, not least dealing with a new Conservative government with a large majority. How should the sector respond to the new political situation? Grudging co-operation; enthusiastic collaboration; opposition? I have written before about Boris Johnson’s views on housing, and it is obviously disappointing that the Tory manifesto said little about social housing compared to the other parties. For some, the future looks gloomy, but there are chinks of light, as I wrote here.

One of the more interesting developments over the Christmas break was a “job advert” published by Dominic Cummings calling for people to apply to work in government.

I have to say I find Cummings a fascinating character. Depending upon your point of view, he is either a genius (perhaps an evil genius) or a charlatan, but the fact that he has twice outwitted and outmanoeuvred his opponents, first as Director of the Vote Leave Campaign, and then as éminence grise directing the 2019 election, suggests the former moniker is more apt. If only we had living writers of the calibre of Dickens, Thackeray or Evelyn Waugh – what a glorious satiric banquet they would create out of this scruffy, weird individual sitting at the heart of Downing Street. If you want a flavour of his spiky, belligerent character take a look at his appearances before the Treasury select committee, or his encounter with Lewis Goodall of Sky News (Goodall is now policy editor of BBC’s Newsnight).

There are some in our sector who would describe Cumming as a “disruptor”. Others would be less charitable.

Anyway, back to his rambling blog post in which he calls for a range of experts to apply for posts in government, including data scientists, software developers, unconventional economists, policy experts and “Weirdos and misfits with odd skills”. Cummings has a low opinion of most MPs and civil servants, and he is clearly trying to overturn and subvert the Whitehall machine. The mandarins have already hit back by claiming that he is not able to recruit directly. But I am sure he will find a way to by-pass them.

I suggested on Twitter that people in our sector should consider applying for these jobs but my SHOUT colleague Tom Murtha demurred, “Why would you want to work with the most corrupt government in my lifetime?” he asked.

Tom has solid principles, but I think this is rather short- sighted. If you look at the historical record, the Conservatives have governed for around two thirds of the post-war period. Labour has only been in power for barely 27 of the past 75 years. It is no good waiting forever for a Labour government to appear. And which year saw the greatest output of social housing in England? It was 1953 when 198,200 council homes out of a total output of 263,680 were built. Harold Macmillan, an old-school Tory, was housing minister. This was far in excess of Labour’s annus mirabilis of 1967 when 154,500 council homes were built (albeit out of a total output of 342,740). So the political picture is less clear cut than many would imagine. For the housing sector, opposition is self-defeating; you have to work with whoever is in power and I think that many more Tories now accept that tackling the housing crisis is a very high priority for this government.

Yes, it is true that the Conservatives have a poor recent track record on social housing. But Boris Johnson has accepted that Tory votes in the so-called Labour Wall and other deprived areas have been gained on a short-term lease. One of the very best ways to bring real jobs and prosperity to those areas is to invest in infrastructure and housing, especially social housing. That is the message we need to be promoting with the utmost vigour. That means every housing provider reaching out to their local Conservative MPs with tenfold the effort they have employed in the past, to make the case for investment. If it does not happen, then the voters will eventually return to Labour, inevitably.

But having a voice at the heart of government is also critical. We need people making the case for social housing in Number Ten. So if you are a housing policy expert and perhaps a weirdo to boot (I can think of a few) then make your application now!

This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 9th January 2020.

 

 

 

Always look on the bright side…

After this week leaders’ debate I am going to stick my neck out and predict that the Conservatives will win a working majority at this election, perhaps by as many as 30 seats. A month from now, when Jeremy Corbyn is in Number 10, feel free to call me an idiot. At this stage of the last election the Conservatives had a stronger lead in the polls, but I don’t think Boris Johnson will make the same mistakes as Theresa May.

I know that a Johnson government will be a huge disappointment to most people in our sector, but I’ve always taken the view that we need to reach out across the political spectrum to make the case for social housing. When we founded the SHOUT campaign in 2014, we made sure that the launch included Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Green politicians. I also wrote an article for the Conservative Home website making the case for social rented homes.

If there is another Conservative government by Christmas, we’ll need to carry on arguing for social housing.

I wrote a recent blog about Boris Johnson’s views on housing. They are not encouraging. But the floor-crossing shenanigans of the last year have shown that political parties are not monoliths: they contain a range of views, and within the Conservative Party and on the right there are many voices calling for urgent attention to our housing crisis, which means that there’s some potentially fertile ground upon which to scatter our seeds of housing wisdom. Persuading the new government that social housing is a big part of the answer will be a struggle but “say not the struggle nought availeth”.

As an example, here are a few selected words from a senior Conservative politician:

“I want to see housing associations taking on and leading major developments themselves…your social mission can ensure developments are rooted in a conception of the public good, rather than in a simple profit motive…creating genuinely mixed communities with the right infrastructure and truly affordable housing…you also have a much broader role to play…changing the way tenants and society as a whole think about social housing…for many people, a certain stigma still clings to social housing…some residents feel marginalised and overlooked, and are ashamed to share the fact that their home belongs to a housingassociation or local authority…I want to see social housing that is so good people are proud to call it their home.”

That could have been in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn, but it was of course Theresa May, speaking to the NHF in September last year. If you search for housing-related articles on the Conservative Home website you will find a range of views on housing, some very positive. For example, here is Bob Seely erstwhile MP for the Isle of Wight, calling for between 250,000 and 340,000 net additions a year; for upwards of £9bn of funds to go to registered providers to buy up and convert bungalows and provide a new generation of key worker and starter homes; for an end to the automatic right to buy; and for government to pass government land to councils more swiftly.

 

Next is our ally Lord Gary Porter bemoaning the rampant nimbysim among traditional Tory voters, and arguing the case for better funding of infrastructure and new homes to attract younger middle-aged voters.

Or here is Will Tanner, a former advisor to Theresa May, describing how careful resident consultation can overcome nimby opposition, citing a scheme in Newquay where the community was persuaded to support a four-times larger mixed use development on the edge of town that will increase the size of the town by 20%. A development that “will serve Newquay’s housing needs for not just five but the next fifty years”. By engaging sensibly with local people and meeting their needs, and not just the short-term interests of developers and landowners, nimbys were turned into yimbys, he writes.

Of course, there are also voices at the other end of the spectrum, like our old friend Harry Phibbs asking why we have targets for housebuilding, since we don’t set target for the the number of dishwashers or pairs of trousers we need each year.

Some commentators from the right-leaning press are also making a very strong case for radical reforms to build more homes, arguing that the Tories will lose unless they address the housing crisis. Foremost is Liam Halligan (“Tackle Britain’s housing crisis or risk socialist rule”). He has been economic correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph since 2003 (he shared a flat with Dominic Cummings in Moscow in the mid-nineties) and his new book, Home Truths, sets out a radical reform agenda. He calls for supply-side stimuli rather than the £billions that have been wasted on Help to Buy. He rails against the oligopoly that is the housebuilding industry and urges stiff fines for developers who fail to build out their sites. He supports selective building on the Green Belt (yes!), and, above all, the repeal of the 1961 Land Compensation Act so that landowners can be fairly taxed for any uplift in land values.

To take a typical example from recent government figures, a hectare of agricultural land around Reading might sell for £22,000, but the same land with residential planning permission could fetch £5m. Halligan suggests a 50/50 split in the uplift for the landowner and the state. This revenue, he says, could be ring-fenced to fund the new schools, hospitals and other infrastructure that would make housebuilding more popular with local communities, and allow local authorities to build millions of social homes. This is a call that is being supported by, among others, Sajid Javid (it would ease land speculation, he says) and Tony Pidgeley, founder of Berkeley Homes.

All this is hardly traditional Tory fare – in fact, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Labour manifesto. It seems that the scale and range of the housing crisis is finally hitting home.

So, look on the bright side, there are chinks of light on the horizon. To quote another song, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.