Last Thursday saw the launch of the Bristol City Office, an idea that has been six years in the making. It’s an idea that seeks to address some of the challenges faced by the public sector, with ever decreasing budgets and reducing powers. It’s about partnership and collaborative governance, bringing organisations, individuals and budgets together to tackle the issues that we have failed to tackle before, where collaboration and joint working are essential, alongside the willingness to be creative and innovative. But why will this approach work when other attempts have failed and how is this different?
Well, we’re almost there, the election is next week. It’s time to decide who will be the next directly elected Mayor of Bristol. With all 70 seats on the Council also up for election it looks set to be an interesting week. Hopefully this time the turnout will be higher and local people will be more engaged in having a say over who governs their city.
Over the last few months I’ve been looking closely at how housing policy has been discussed and debated publicly during the election process. At the beginning of this process it wasn’t clear quite what the political priorities would be and whether or not housing would feature as a key issue. But as time has progressed housing issues have certainly become a big part of the debate. Perhaps not surprising given the very real pressures people are feeling in relation to housing in Bristol.
The announcement in the Budget that the West of England had signed a devolution deal with Government came as a bit of a surprise to many. This was partially because the deals have been shrouded in so much secrecy that even many of our local politicians didn’t know what was happening and what would be included, let alone the local residents. It was also a bit of a surprise when you consider the general level of local opposition to the notion of a combined authority and a metro-mayor. This opposition has been pretty much unanimous amongst local politicians, with few supporting the idea of a city-region mayor, and most suggesting that current, informal arrangements are sufficient and that there is no need for any form of formal structure. So definitely surprising to see that all four leaders have signed up to a deal that includes arrangements for a metro-mayor and combined authority structure.
There are a number of questions that initially spring to my mind when considering this whole devolution agenda. Firstly, if we weren’t part of it would it matter? Secondly, is what’s included worth it? Thirdly, is this the right structure for our area? Lastly, what’s missing? I’ll take these questions in turn and share my thoughts.
The emphasis of this post is a bit of a departure from my normal topics, but related in a number of different ways to issues about housing, homelessness and social mobility. It has come about as a result of a number of things that have influenced me over the last few weeks. Some of those influences have been comments made in talks and discussions, whilst others have been the result of me opening my eyes and seeing what is around me. All too frequently we walk around the places we are familiar with without seeing what is right in front of us, without thinking about why something is the way it is.
In the last couple of months I have been to a whole load of talks about housing, mental health, health and wellbeing, social mobility and inequalities. I’ll write elsewhere about some of the consistent policy strands that came through many of these talks, but my focus here is on homelessness and social ‘immobility’.
There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorlling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.
Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.
George Osborne’s recent “emergency” budget proposed many changes to state support to lower income households in a bid to fulfil the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to cut £12bn from welfare spending.
One unexpected aspect of this package was the proposal to cut housing association rents by 1% each year for the next four years.
This proposal was justified with reference to social housing rent rises over the last few years. These have pushed up the already substantial housing benefit bill. Households have needed greater state assistance in order to afford the rents being set. Bearing down on rents over the next few years will, it is claimed, both reduce the housing benefit bill and force social landlords to deliver efficiency gains.
One thing the parties agree on is that we need more houses. The quality of this housing has rarely been mentioned in the election debates and housing consumption – driven by social trends including increased divorce, an aging population and second home ownership – is positively taboo. Housing supply, however, and how to increase it, is central.
Each party has a housebuilding target. The Lib Dems suggest 300,000 a year; Labour pledged 200,000 homes a year by 2020 and have recently upped this target, to say that they will start building 1 million houses by 2020; the Conservatives don’t have a global number but have pledged 275,000 affordable homes by 2020, 200,000 starter homes and funding for housing zones, which will create 95,000 new homes; UKIP propose 1 million homes by 2025 on brownfield sites; while the Green Party would build 500,000 social rented homes by 2020.
What is conspicuously absent in each of these pledges is concrete machinery to reach these numbers. The Liberal Democrats are explicit about this. Their 300,000 figure is a target. They don’t have a plan yet, but have pledged to publish a long-term plan that sets out how the goal will be achieved in “the first year of the next Parliament”.
There is a broad consensus among politicians, analysts and commentators that Britain needs to build more housing. You can encounter dissent from that view, but it tends to be on the fringes – in deep UKIP anti-migrant territory or parts of the rural lobby.
The debate opens up when we start to examine why Britain is plagued with a relatively unresponsive housing supply system. On the political right and among many economists the problem is seen to lie with the planning system. Full stop. Economists with a more subtle understanding of the issues will argue it is the mismatch between the underlying spatial dynamics of economic growth and the planning system. For the more institutionally inclined, the analysis has to be broadened to encompass not just the planning system but also industrial structure of housebuilding and the concentrated nature of the market for land. Weakening the planning system without attending to the other components of the housing supply system won’t get you very far. It is very likely to lead to anger in local communities as their areas are trampled over by insensitive volume housebuilders throwing up unsympathetic developments which place additional strain on under-resourced local infrastructure.
It was the best of times. The UK economy was booming and mortgages could be taken out with a loan-to-value ratio (LTV) of 125%. It was the worst of times. The house price bubble had burst and inaugurated the worst financial crisis since 1929.
Fast forward five years and astonishingly the best of times seem to be coming back. Asset price inflation in the housing market is once again hitting the headlines. It’s no surprise that people want to get on the housing ladder after seeing how well their parents have done. The expectation that house prices will rise faster than other assets has been vindicated by decades of experience.
Many people hoped that the experience of the financial crisis might change these expectations, but recent events suggest this is wrong. Asset price bubbles present policy makers with politically difficult choices – particularly in the conduct of monetary policy.