Channel Four Misses the Mark

I watched the two programmes on the Great British Property Scandal last night.

Jon Snow was gunning again for the Landlords from Hell – and rightly so. I hope he comes back to how unbelievably weak the government’s housing strategy is on the private rented sector.

 The Government is committed to supporting growth and innovation by avoiding unnecessary regulatory burdens on landlords. But we are also looking at measures to deal with rogue landlords and encouraging local authorities to make full use of the robust powers they already have to tackle dangerous and poorly maintained homes.

 Shapps as usual shifted 100% of the blame onto councils.

 

The second programme I found more problematic. George Clarke explored the scandal of empty homes with passion and anger. More empty homes should be brought into use if they can be – I agree.

But the empty homes debate obscures the real one – the need for more new homes. This is a fox that Shelter has tried to shoot before by showing that bringing empty homes back into use can only be a very small part of solving the crisis we have.

In his written piece in the Telegraph, he’s highly equivocal about the need for new homes. “I’m not against new development at all” he says and even “ I don’t have a problem with building on certain areas of green belt”, but as long as “there is a massive demand and the local area are quite happy for them to be built.”

What constitutes massive demand? How many more people living in the conditions Jon Snow highlighted before we build more homes? And even then, people who are well housed get a veto over whether they are built or not.

He argues for the densification of our cities, transforming their character to that of Hong Kong or New York – but will the people of British cities support that anymore than those in rural or suburban areas whose veto on new development he wants to strengthen? He’d also have to bulldoze a hell of a lot of those terrace houses he values so much to turn London, Birmingham and Manchester into Hong Kong.

This to me sounds like architects’ folly. Many of Britain’s current tower blocks and failed estates were the result of architectural ideology* being imposed on people regardless of their preferences.

We need to take seriously where people want to live. That may not be in Hong Kong-style skyscapers nor in small Victorian terraces in parts of Britain where there are few jobs or opportunities. Then we need to build more of those homes.

We don’t need another property programme, even one shot through with moral outrage, that obscures rather than highlights the key problem.

 

* Une maison est une machine-à-habiter. (A house is a machine for living in)

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5 Responses to Channel Four Misses the Mark

  1. Pingback: A reminder of the key problem | Red Brick

  2. andy crowe says:

    totally agree with the comments. On empty homes : have you ever wondered why so many housing managers in the south have Scouse accents? It’s probably because the number of jobs in Liverpool has halved in the last 40 years. The same goes for Hull, Sheffield, Middlesbrough and many other northern cities built on the industrial revolution.

    As a result the housing market has collapsed in these places. In Hull for example you could buy a terraced house with a single cash machine withdrawal a few years ago. And if you look out of the second floor of Middlesbrough’s Council Offices you can see row upon row of the same abandoned, rat infested dilapidated ‘two up – two downs’ all the way to the horizon.

    Local people were themselves asked whether the homes should be improved or demolished and for some, where gangs and drug dens held sway and where inter-generational unemployment was the norm, they chose demolition. These incidentally were often the 1960s Radburn estates, where defensible space was absent and burglaries and anti-social behaviour was rife, such as in Newtown, Birmingham. Places where your home address would exclude you from a job interview.

    At the same time a host of additional investment was taking place. It really was joined up. New schools to create a better educated, more ambitious new generation in Hull. The refurbishment and redevelopment of redundant industrial sites such as the Crocodile Works in Sandwell. New health centres everywhere. And impressive, low energy homes in Sheffield and Middlesbrough.

    So the next time a millionaire, publicity hungry, Home Counties MP makes some cheap, insensitive and ill-informed comments about demolitions, you might want to question the motivation for this. The pathfinder programme has been cut by 90% and it would be better to just be honest and apologise for failing to honour the promises made by the previous government. And if by some miracle the jobs are created the demolitions have cleared the way (literally) for the sorts of homes and environment to attract skilled higher income earners back. Employment, employment, employment has to be the mantra for the pathfinder areas now.

    On the subject of landlords from hell I felt the programme was being rather selective about Mr Wells’ properties. While some of his homes area a disgrace he has actually developed some brand new homes that can hardly be described as slums. It’s not clear whether the slums form a small fraction or a truer picture. But the real scandal is that so much public money is being pumped into the sector via housing benefit instead of being invested in developing social rented homes. And the ‘don’t blame me’ response from the Minister was just so predictable. Devolving responsibility and then taking away the power to take action is unbelieveably cynical. How does he sleep?

  3. Thanks for your comment.

    On density – I agree that higher densities can be liveable and on a human scale. It feels like we’ve never got that right in the UK. It was Clarke’s Telegraph piece that seemed to make that equation for me:

    We can start building at high density in cities – when you think about high density across the world you think about Hong Kong or New York, but British cities aren’t dense at all.”

  4. Bernard Crofton says:

    Just a prelim rant on empty homes: was that the same Grant Shapps who said councils were abusing their powers to deal with empty homes and resricted them as almost his first act as minister?

  5. You’re right that the Dispatches programme made its case more effectively. I think the Empty Homes programme made some very good points, mixed in with not really getting to grips with why we’re in the situation we’re in.

    The focus on pathfinders wasn’t ideal. Nor was the lack of a link between the housing market and local economy/migration. The programme didn’t really get to grips with the issue of obsolescence. Nor did it really address whether low demand is a function of the built form or the social fabric/environment. It hinted at the vfm constraints under which social landlords operate – the sort of remodelling he (rightly) thought was necessary to increased demand would reduce the rental income to the point where you’d probably never get the numbers of stack up using current financial parameters. But, saying that, it demonstrated that we’ve got ourselves into an oddly dysfunctional situation and that relatively small scale interventions could improve that.

    But I don’t think that it is fair to equate the proposal that densification is desirable with the conclusion that cities are going to end up looking like New York or Hong Kong. More sustainable low-rise neighbourhoods that are more liveable/walkable can be higher density. Even as a rhetorical device I’m not sure the “high rise hell” image is very helpful.

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