It has also been picked up by a new generation of pro-housing campaigners (mainly my age and younger) who are basically crushed by the current housing market, whether sky high prices that you can’t get mortgages for, or sky high rents that take out more than 30% of your take-home income. That was the life I lived in London during my civil service days and it was just unsustainable – as was my daily commute from Cambridge which was my only alternative. Not surprisingly, both my work and health suffered.
During my civil service years I also worked in housing policy – sustainable new homes which crossed with climate change policy. It was probably the most intense period of my life, where I probably aged a decade in the year I spent in it. It was also when I started to realise that the social contract we had been sold since childhood was utterly shattered.
We know ‘the system’ is broken. But what can we do about it?
It feels like very little at the moment. To pick up on Sam Bowman’s point 6 above, he’s right regarding how development proposals are created and promoted. All too often the first thing local residents hear about them is as a nasty surprise. For example as a headline in/on the local news (Six Mile Bottom’s proposed 8,000 homes), a large advertising hoarding going up, or when they hear about a campaign to save a local beauty spot.
This was something I touched upon in my last blogpost – the expensively-commissioned brochures by some of the developers bidding for large plots of land to be designated as suitable for development in the 2030-41 Greater Cambridge Local Plan.
Above – screengrabs of the covers of proposals already submitted. Sometimes there will be a small newspaper article or webpage report in the local media that is easily overlooked or forgotten about. Here’s one for New East Cambridge from 11 November by Freddie Lynne of the Cambridge News. Recall that at the time the headlines were dominated by the threat of another looming lockdown – having just spent the previous eight months dealing with a once-in-a-century civil contingency/disaster for which we were utterly unprepared for, even though we should have seen something like this coming as the public inquiry will reveal. (During my civil service days I was a trained civil contingencies volunteer. There were things I was trained to expect in such a pandemic that did not happen, especially early on).
Trying to get to the roots of the problems
That is what sound public policy processes are designed to do: Find the roots and causes of the problems, and dealing with those in the longer term, while taking tactical actions to deal with the immediate symptoms of the crisis. The problem all too often in politics is that the world view of politicians is one that is so rigid and restricted that that they prevent themselves from considering a wider range of options until the proverbial hits the fan. As we have with the present Government. Boris Johnson’s administration is full of ‘small state, strong defence, pro-privatisation’ politicians. But this was not the approach needed to respond to a global pandemic. When faced with the choice of using local government public health teams, or the private sector for a test and trace system, he threw eye-wateringly large amounts of money at the latter – even after the problems had been widely reported.
When we look at housing, we have a similar problem. Since John Major’s Government there has been this moratorium on large scale council house building. A political decision based on a pro-private-sector outlook despite year-after-year being shown that the private sector alone could not deliver the right numbers and the right types of housing in the areas where the human and environmental need was at its highest. What would have been the impact on communities in central London and other large cities if instead of luxury apartment blocks, the state and local councils had the powers to insist on providing social housing to house the people who carried out the essential functions of a city? The public services, transportation networks, refuse and recycling? Instead we have in a number of cities – including Cambridge, a system that forces those on lower incomes either to live out of town and commute over long distances, or to stay living with their parents/move back in with family instead – as is the case with me.
This should force us to look at some very big issues to do with resource allocation. Yet it has only been in very recent years that politicians and public policy organisations have dared to start doing this. And for all his faults (and there were many), it was in part the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader that forced the Overton Window of politics to deal with these things in a way Ed Miliband says he should have done back in 2010-15 in this clip.
How things like the 15 minute city are incompatible with the current system of long commutes into high-rise office blocks in big cities
In my time living in London I got glimpses of this high-rise glass-and-steel lifestyle that for some reason I found to be utterly soul-destroying. And yet it was the very thing that was being built up around me. Everyone had their own little or not-so-little rabbit hutch high up a tower in an identikit part of redeveloped/newbuild London. Everything was standardised – the food, the clothing, the wall paintings, the lighting, the furniture, the flat-screen TV…it was all so minimalist and there was no room for individuality – because even the personalisation came in standardised fonts. Up-and-down one towerblock for living in, up-and-down another tower block for working in, lunch-shopping in the extended queues because of the standardised lunch hours where predominantly White affluent people would be queuing up to be served by predominantly non-White cohort of staff on much lower salaries/wages. This was just before automated check outs became standard – resulting in even more job losses for those least able to respond. Then off for drinks to meet people you hardly knew and might never see again in a ground floor bar of one of these towers.
Compare that to the 15 minute city concept that Paris is leading on. Stronger local communities and happier residents? It certainly leaves more time for people to get to know each other through shared activities when you don’t lose two hours a day being stuck in traffic. But is it possible to transfer to that way of living under our present economic structures and systems – as well as land ownership. With the pandemic showing the rich getting even richer, the UK stands out for all of the wrong reasons regarding multinationals and tax avoidance.
You’d have thought the British Government would have got to grips with all of this over a decade after the UK Uncut protests of 2010. It’s only a matter of time before the much larger Extinction Rebellion or one of their offshoots turn their campaigning focus towards this.
“That still has not got to the root of the problem other than ‘It’s Capitalism!’ – which makes most people switch off”
It’s one of the reasons why I avoid the C & S words – because there is *so much* historical baggage associated with them. In the end it’s a bit like the term “Sustainable Development”. It’s a term that has become so generalised as to be meaningless because people use it to mean whatever they want it to mean.
On housing, ultimately you have residential properties serving two purposes: The first is for people to live in, and the second is as a financial asset class. Our political, legal, and financial systems give greater power to those using residential properties as asset classes versus those who are homeless. Homeless people face far greater barriers engaging with the political system versus those with large financial and property wealth. The latter being the type that can also afford to make large financial donations to political parties. Hence there is a built in financial incentive for all political parties to tailor their policies towards those that are able to donate the most to their cause. The strength of a party’s political principles, its leadership, and its membership are some of the few things that stop political institutions from selling out to the highest bidder.
“What does the data say on who owns what?”
If there’s one thing that would be a game-changer, it is making the Land Registry data open access to all. This is something that would transform anti-corruption campaigns, and would also enable local campaigns to hold accountable the owners of properties that have remained unused/derelict for a long time. There was a risk that the Tories were going to privatise the Land Registry – again an ideological decision.
This would also allow further analysis on things like:
- Empty homes
- Ownership of residential properties by people and firms registered abroad
- Structures of how we live and how these have changed over time – from the two-up-two-down-2.4 Children, to single occupiers, extended families, and mosaic families.
- Population growth & decline whether through migration or birth/death rates
- Distribution of income, wealth, and assets as well as frequency/velocity of changes in ownership
How much land and communal space is given over to storage space for cars?
What would residential streets look like if car ownership were banned and the only options were pool cars, buses/trams/light rail, or walking & cycling?
With our current lifestyles, unimaginable. And politically very difficult as well – telling voters they cannot drive into work while there is no suitable alternative for them? Which is why the transition from what we are to where we want to get to has to be ever so-well managed and planned. Hence the Transition Movement.
The complexity is mind-numbing. Because the transition is:
- Local – at a neighbourhood level
- Municipal – involves entire towns and cities
- Regional – requires the co-ordination of villages, towns, and cities
- National – requires action by national parliaments to bring in the laws, and national governments to bring in the policies to support/incentivise/coerce and even compel the changes needed to stop the climate catastrophe amongst other things
- International – requires nation states and regional blocs to work together in the face of issues that are now global.
“Like that’s going to happen!”
I’m now in my early 40s. A geriatric millennial of sorts. Our generation is the first one to have learnt about the concept of climate change and environmentalism as children in the late 1980s. We were told all about it on Blue Peter. You can read the book if you like. It was on sale in Sainsbury’s who sponsored it.
“Which leaves us with all of the anti-housebuilding campaigns”
It’s not quite anti-housebuilding per se. Scanning through the campaigns listed, the concerns seem more about scale of developments, types of developments, and damage that will be done to local wildlife and green spaces, as well as the loss of farm land. Anecdotally, some villages have consented to some housebuilding conditional on them being sold to people who have a link with the community – such as children who grew up there but cannot afford market prices. But even that is not enough in the face of a broken system.
Given how international the property market now is, we might have stood a better chance collectively as part of an international economic and political alliance. Like the European Union. But hey, if the present Government can’t even align with the G7 on something as basic as global tax avoidance by multinational corporations, what hope is there in this present Parliament?
It’s not just the policies, or even the groups of policies that we need to get right, but the institutional structures, systems and processes that create those policies. This was something that John Dearlove wrote about the 1970s Restructure of Local Government in his book from 1979. The approach by too many of our political parties and public policy institutions take too much of the present set up as a given. As a result, we end up ignoring or dismissing actions until we are faced with a once-in-several generations crisis. Such as the Banking Crisis of the late 2000s. Or even the self-inflicted Brexit shambles (and the desperate attempts by successive ministers to patch up the outcome they had no contingency plans for, but which they had sprung on the country).
With the multiple challenges we face, we won’t solve them using 19th Century structures, systems, processes and mindsets. The problem is the present Government – and even political class, does not seem to know of any alternative.
If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to: