The charge of the Brexit brigade

For some strange reason, these lines are running through my head ahead of the triggering of Article 50.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

It’s not so much because I think we will be metaphorically blown to pieces by the guns of the other 27 EU members. Nor because that verse is a pretty accurate description of MPs trooping through the lobbies to vote for something they know is a historic mistake. It’s because our generals seem to think those are reasons to send us even faster into the valley.

Without stretching the metaphor too far, the famous charge into the Russian guns at the Battle of Balaklava was the result of ambiguous orders, arrogance and personal rivalries. Lord Raglan probably said something about ‘having a punt, having a go, that’s what pumps me up’, Lord Lucan (yes, really) gave a speech in front of a bus and the Earl of Cardigan obeyed an order he knew was suicidal while mumbling something about a country that works for everyone.

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Relegation zone

Originally published on March 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

No wonder Sajid Javid wants to go to Finland: a report out today confirms it as the only country in the European Union where homelessness is falling. The remarkable performance compared to the other 27 EU members is attributed to 20 years of implementing housing policies based on Housing First.

That will only add to the attractions of the approach highlighted in a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice that apparently made the communities secretary so keen to go to Helsinki.

But as his boss gets ready to trigger Article 50, something else in today’s report may also give him pause for thought: the UK has fallen badly behind other EU nations in its performance on housing and homelessness.

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2016 and the end of the end of history

As we near the end of 2016 history is everywhere. Everyone seems agreed that it was the year that marked the end of something – but of what exactly?

Does Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton mark the end of neoliberalism? Does the fact that it happened 27 years to the day from the fall of the Berlin Wall mark the end of the post-Cold War era or the start of a new counter-revolution? Does the vote for Brexit mean a return to the ‘golden age of free trade’ or the protectionist, fear-ridden politics of the 1930s?

Does the West’s failure in Syria and the rebirth of Russian power in the Middle East mark the end of American hegemony? Does all of it mean that the Age of the Internet is experiencing the same upheavals as the Age of Discovery?

Both Trump and Brexit appealed to the past for their core support. Nostalgia was weaponised through slogans like ‘take back control’ as they promised to Make America (or Britain) Great Again. The same arguments were made in reverse in the first European referendum – the sense of national decline, of losing an empire without finding a role was a big reason why people voted yes to Europe then – but the Brexiteers harked back to a supposed golden age before 1975.

Trump appealed to the common man and promptly appointed the richest Cabinet since the Gilded Age. One young Republican with no sense of history or irony celebrated the great news that the party was set to control the presidency, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court for the first time since 1929.

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10 things about 2016: part one

Originally published on December 23 on my blog for Inside Housing

It was a year that fell neatly into two halves: before and after everything was turned upside down. The vote for Brexit on 23 June transformed politics, and the complete change of government and ministers has shifted priorities that had seemed set in stone until 2020.

But as some things change, others remain very much the same. Here’s the first of my two-part look back on the things I was blogging about in 2016.

1. Ambitions for new homes

The year began with what David Cameron hailed as a “radical new policy shift for housing”. The prime minister said that “for the first time in more than three decades” the government would directly commission homes itself on public land, giving priority to small builders. It was a welcome move but it was hard not to think of previous housing strategies that turned out not to be as “radical and unashamedly ambitious” as he claimed.

Cameron’s commitment to a million new homes by 2020 – or 200,000 a year for five years – seemed to be exactly that when the government’s own housebuilding figures showed completions running at around 140,000 a year. However, in May I questioned whether the target was really as ambitious as it seemed. It was already becoming clear that ministers were using higher figures for the net additional supply of homes as their yardstick. The total for 2015/16, the first of the five years, was just 10,000 short of the 200,000 a year benchmark.

An influential House of Lords committee gave short shrift to a claim by Brandon Lewis that the housing plans were “very ambitious”. It called instead for 300,000 new homes a year, backed by a series of radical changes to policy on investment, planning and tax.

2016 ends with Lewis in a different job, Cameron out of a job and the promise of yet another housing plan. The White Paper will no doubt be equally as ‘ambitious’ when it is finally published but the signs are that this one will have fewer adjectives and more substance.

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Falling and failing

Originally published on September 27 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Cuts in housing benefit are being blamed for a slump in the UK’s position in a European index of housing exclusion.

The UK was the biggest faller (down eight places) in the 2016 index and now ranks 20th out of 28 members of the European Union. The only countries doing worse than us are three in Southern Europe that were worst hit by the Eurozone crisis (Greece, Italy and Portugal) and five in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia).

That puts us behind not just Scandinavian countries with more generous welfare states but also the rest of Western Europe and even Eastern European nations like Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland. The UK has the second biggest economy in the EU behind Germany.

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Skills and homes

Originally published on September 23 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

If ‘Brexit means Brexit’ should it also mean a new programme of investment in social housing?

After a referendum that saw 63% of social tenants vote to leave the European Union, the attractions should be obvious. For ‘left behind’ voters it could mean both homes and jobs. For the government, now apparently edging away from an obsession with home ownership, it could offer a big pay-off from Philip Hammond’s ‘fiscal re-set’. For the purposes of this blog I’ll ignore all the other arguments in favour.

But it could also play into the wider politics of Brexit. Theresa May’s soundbite has yet to be translated into anything substantial but seems to be heading towards a ‘Hard Brexit’ outside the single market on the grounds that the referendum was a vote for controls on immigration.

That has huge implications for the housebuilding sector and the wider construction industry. Berkeley Homes boss Rob Perrins even claimed last weekend that a block on EU immigration could cut new homes by half. That is an exaggeration that could say more about his own workforce in London than the industry as a whole but this is still a huge issue. An alliance of construction organisations warned Brexit secretary David Davis earlier this month of a skills crisis if he does not make it a priority in the negotiations to come.

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A shameful conquest of itself

I just checked my passport to see when it expires. On the front it says ‘European Union’ and ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Inside it says ‘British Citizen’.

After the referendum that the winners believe ‘took our country back’, the chances are that by the time I come to renew it none of these things will be true.

My citizenship of the European Union, giving me the right to live and work in any of the other 27 member states, will be gone. The United Kingdom and Great Britain, political constructs of centuries of history on these islands, will more than likely be gone too.

Great Britain, the union of England and Wales with Scotland, could soon cease to exist: the Scots may have voted No to independence but after voting to Remain in the EU on Thursday even unionists are coming out for a second referendum.

Northern Ireland, which also voted Remain, could see itself transformed. The majority of people may be proud to be British but they also know that Brexit could wreck the Good Friday Agreement and end freedom of movement between North and South.

Even the future of Gibraltar, for so long the rock at the heart of the British Empire, looks uncertain following its 96 per cent vote to Remain.

So by 2020 I could be a citizen (or subject) of a very different country. Whether we call it England, England and Wales or Rump UK, the constitutional clock will be turned back more than 400 years.

I will be an inhabitant rather than a citizen of Europe, the cultural clock turned back more than 40 years to the days when we used to call the land mass across the English Channel ‘The Continent’.

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