Theresa May and Old Joe

Originally published on June 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Ever since the advance reports of what would be in the Conservative manifesto, I’ve been wondering where the party’s new housing agenda comes from.

As I blogged at the time, the manifesto programme seems to go well beyond the Housing White Paper. It involves not just ‘a new generation of social housing’ but also enhanced compulsory purchase powers for councils and land value capture.

The obvious answer – one that all governing parties do in their manifesto – is to take what is already on the stocks in the relevant department and spin it into a more visionary-sounding idea.

That seems to be what happened with the discussions already underway between the DCLG and three councils – Stoke, Sheffield and Newark and Sheffield – about a package of measures that would enable them to build more homes.

As Inside Housing reported last month, the deals with those pilot authorities involve not just flexibility on borrowing caps but potentially new deals on rents and land assembly too.

That is important because councils have identified a range of barriers to them building new homes, including the caps, the way Right to Buy receipts are treated and (especially) the rent cut. Funding would come from the £1.4 bn allocated in the Autumn Statement

But the manifesto seems to be about more than just a few pilots and some existing money.

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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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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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Shrinking the state

What would it mean if George Osborne succeeds in cutting public spending to its lowest level since the 1930s?

The scale of the cuts for the rest of this decade implied by the deficit reduction targets in the Autumn Statement takes us into territory uncharted since the war. Many people believe Osborne has moved from the realms of the unlikely to the realms of fantasy and it’s not hard to see why. If the chancellor missed the deficit targets he set out in 2010 by a wide margin, why should we accept what he says in 2014? Especially when he says he can cut taxes at the same time.

Osborne must have hoped that all the headlines would be about stamp duty reform. Instead, news coverage has instead been dominated by the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projections of what further austerity would mean for the public sector. This graph on government consumption as a proportion of GDP sums it up:

1930s

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England, Brazil and me

The four-yearly cycle of hope and disappointment is complete. England’s early departure from yet another World Cup got me thinking about how much things have changed since the first one I can remember.

Everyone who loves football has one World Cup that seems frozen in time. For me it’s 1970. I was six years old when England won in 1966, old enough to realise that something important was happening but not quite old enough to realise what it was. West Germany 1974 and Argentina 1978 were memorable but by then I was a bit more cynical and England failed to qualify for both of them. To the ten-year-old me, though, Mexico 1970 was a thing of wonder, an almost impossibly exotic version of the game I played with my friends in the school playground.

Some of this is to do with age. As with David Hemery and Mary Peters winning gold at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 or Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon in 1969, it happened when I was old enough to appreciate what was happening but young enough to be seeing it for the first time. Add weeks collecting stickers for my Soccer Stars Album and I was hooked:

SS cover

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Rachman, rogues and renting

Scandals hit private renting. With an election in the offing, the Labour opposition pledges help for tenants. There are definite parallels between now and the 1960s.

Everyone (especially those who oppose the party’s current modest reform plans) thinks they knows what happened in the wake of Rachmanism but the truth is far more complicated and so are the lessons for the future.

My interest in the period was first caught by a 2012 Radio 4 documentary called The Real Rachman – the Lord of the Slums. I thought I knew about Rachmanism but the programme told a much more nuanced and mysterious story that I blogged about shortly afterwards.

That blog prompted an email from Professor David Nelken, whose 1983 book on the aftermath of Rachmanism has just been reissued. The Limits of the Legal Process is a classic study of the sociology of the law that should be required reading for anyone involved in the current debates about regulating renting (or indeed regulating anything). The book is subtitled ‘a study of landlords, law and crime’ and it tells the story of the response to Rachmanism, first by the politicians with legislation, then by landlords with evasion and then by local authorities and the courts with implementation and enforcement.

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Giving hope

Housing and philanthropy seemed to go together naturally in the 19th century. Can they do it again in the 21st?

An interesting report out today from the Smith Institute, New Philanthropy Institute and Peabody Trust sets out to answer that question and in the process asks some more of its own about what the relationship should be between the state, housing providers and the private sector.

Peabody is of course one of the prime examples of Victorian philanthropy. American banker George Peabody donated a total of £500,000 (the equivalent of £40 million now) to ‘ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy’ in London. Thanks to careful management of its money, requiring a return of 3 per cent on its capital, it developed into an organisation with 20,000 properties housing 55,000 people.

Yet, as I blogged in celebration of Peabody’s 150th anniversary last year, that begs the question of why there are no equivalents today. Inequality is back to levels last seen in the 1920s and the super-rich grow ever more super and richer. So why is there no contemporary equivalent of Peabody or William Sutton or Octavia Hill? Why is there no Richard Branson Trust or Fred Goodwin Model Dwellings Society? The last major housing development funded by a philanthropist was Silver Edge, a model village in Essex founded by window magnate Francis Crittall – and that was in 1925.

Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing