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Time for a municipal housing shake-up

The current policy void at a national level that Brexit has created offers the opportunity to seize an initiative already endorsed by all parties, argues John Mason

31 May, 2019 — By John Mason

Architect Neave Brown’s ziggurat-style homes built in the 1970s

ALL political parties claim to support resuming public house building. But little thought seems to have been given to the process by which this will be achieved.

Local authorities no longer have the skills to build. So before a single brick is laid a new framework needs to be developed, centred on three components essential to a new role rather than the restoration of an old one.

These are estimating needs, assembling resources and placing these within an appropriate framework of organisation and planning.

A first requirement is for each local authority to forecast housing needs within its area, the principal components of which are total population and households.

This establishes the rate of new household formation (as children leave their parents or marry, or couples separate).

The extent of overcrowding can be taken as a measure of the backlog caused by falling building rates.

To this is added net migration (in or out).

These figures are used to calculate shortfalls in stock, establishing the range of bedroom sizes, hence size and type of properties required.

These social needs find themselves within the economic workings of the market, which disregards those without the means to enter it.

Faced with increasing inequalities of income, wealth and access to credit, we need to know who can afford to buy and how much they are able or willing to pay.

In the case of inner London boroughs’ demand, partly due to international capital flows, is almost insatiable.

John Mason

To protect those unable to keep up with the rapid inflation of property prices requires this information to set the boundary between ownership and rent and what is consequently required of itself.

Planning and intelligence are crucial in re-establishing control over policy making which local authorities have lacked since 1980.

This time round an attempt has to be made to measure the skills required against the size of a likely programme.

The easiest way into the necessary network of skills and information is apprenticeships.

In the immediate future of new housing programmes, the key role of local government will be training and enablement, making policy but, depending on the extent to which the local authority is willing or able to employ labour directly, relying on contractors to implement it. The value of a direct labour organisation (DLO) is to give the authority a benchmark against which to measure quality and cost.

Local authorities are currently paralysed by the loss of almost all central government support.

Even without this Camden, dominated at every level by its officers, is not the best candi­date for planning, adaptability or speed of decisions.

In contrast Islington has, since 2010, done its best to reduce the effects of cuts, starting with Michael Marmot’s study of inequality within the borough, laying out a 20-year strategy focused on health.

Unsuccessful attempts at collaboration include the appointment of a single chief executive and board for both councils (2010), and a joint information and communica­tions technology strategy with Haringey, scrapped in 2018.

Despite these failures, housing is a promising area for municipal co-operation.

Islington already has a small programme of its own council building, promising economies of scale and platform to expand its own capacity and skills. Camden promises an even smaller programme.

The test for both is whether they offer a basis for a wider programme as central funding becomes available or borrow­ing constraints are lifted.

Local authorities have been subjected to brutal cuts, not just since 2010 but for the previous 30 years.

They have lost their autonomy and been slandered by governments of all parties.

The policy void at a national level that Brexit has created offers the opportunity to seize a policy initiative already endorsed by all parties.

A municipal housing programme, be it individual or joint, could, with a willingness to work with local neighbour­hoods, help them escape decades of darkness towards reviving local democracy.

Accountability has been undermined to the point where councillors and officers are indistinguishable.

Time to lift the siege mentality.

John Mason is a Camden-based housing activist and commentator.


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