Sunday, September 24, 2006

I can't believe we just passed that...

There's a line in the Lib Dem PPC approval form that reads:

Which elements of Liberal Democrat policy would you like to see changed and why?

The Lib Dem policy on smacking was always my hot favourite answer to that question. Not because I'm in favour of clobbering small people or anything, the annoying little... [SNIP] but because I'm deeply uncomfortable about a debate which includes components of:

"Won't this criminalise otherwise law-abiding parents who are in favour of smacking?"

"No, because although the law says that it's really just a deterrent to say that smacking is unacceptable. We'd never actually prosecute decent, loving law-abiding parents who just happen to believe smacking is an appropriate way of disciplining children. Really we're just against child abuse and the beating of children."

"Doesn't existing legislation cover that?"


The times I've heard the 'I know this legislation *could* be used for... but we'd NEVER do that.' Just because Labour's done it, doesn't mean the Lib Dems should join in.

But I've now got a new contender for "I can't believe we just passed that" and this is part of the Housing Policy paper ("Affordable Homes in Safer, Greener Communities") discussed at Autumn party conference. Here are some of the offending quotes:

Many would-be first time buyers simply cannot buy in the area where they were brought up [page 9]

A restricted market is created with conditions on who can purchase the house: key workers or people already living in the area for example.... but also could help address problems faced by key workers in London. [page 9]

In South Shropshire, market pressures from tourists and retirement have pushed up local property prices, causing a shortage of affordable housing. The district council therefore created the concept of “golden shares” in affordable housing, to help local families to find homes in the area. Such a property can only be sold on to people with local needs... Such a person needs to fulfil three of the following criteria: born locally; schooled locally; lives or works locally; parents/children living locally or have the support of the town/parish council. [page 10]

Sounds good? So why does it make me grit my teeth. Well, I live in an area where:

affordable housing is not the problem. There are communities where housing is extremely cheap, or even worthless, because the housing market has collapsed or is on the brink of doing so. [page 13]

This is because there are few professional jobs. The only decent jobs are solicitors, doctors and working for the public sector. People writing the free council news sheet are paid almost as much as a doctor; this is because council workers don't have regional weighting in salaries. This explains why 'key public sector workers' have so many housing problems in London - the lack of regional weighting means that they are paid too little to live in London yet are being paid professional salaries for the same job in sink areas ooop north.

The lack of professional employment means that there's a net outflux of educated people who go and seek opportunities elsewhere. There isn't a demand for housing and the housing is cheap. It also means that an educated person can't live near their parents or in their place of birth and schooling without sacrificing their career. And this can't be solved by housing policy alone - a solution would need to tackle grinding poverty, urban decay, a lack of services and infrastructure, transport connections to the rest of England, a culture of low aspirations... it goes on and on.

So why are we assuming that people in high housing demand should have an automatic right to live near their family/place of birth when this choice doesn't exist elsewhere in UK for less immediately obvious reasons? Further, why should 'being local' preference you over someone choosing to move into an area for work or retirement? Surely, if you're going to erect 'Sorry, we're full' signs then 'need' should be more important than 'localness'. If you were going to limit numbers of tourists visiting the Galapagos islands, you wouldn't put people from Ecuador first in the queue because they lived closer. You'd limit numbers by making people pre-book their holiday a long time in advance... or maybe only let scientists in. The focus on 'localness' as being a automatic ticket to the front of the queue is just... silly.

There's a second reason why South Shropshire isn't like the Galapagos islands. It doesn't have a unique ecosystem and you can build there. So if the problem is a lack of housing... then surely the solution is... to build more houses. Simple, isn't it? Encourage high density housing on brownfield sites. The glut of housing should bring down costs and everyone, local or otherwise, should be able to find somewhere to live.


  • At 10:27 am , Blogger Bishop Hill said...

    I would have thought you'd have to search quite hard to find many brownfield sites in South Shropshire. What there is though is lots of space - you could build whole new villages in land that is just sucking up agricultural subsidies now.

    The thrust of your piece is right though.

  • At 11:16 am , Blogger Liberal Neil said...

    Well I agree with you that the problem can't be solved by housing policy alone.

    Regional weighting for public sector pay is certainly worth looking at, although there is a danger that it in turn could make the affordable housing problem even worse.

    In my view the real underlying issue is the massive difference in the economy between London and the South East and the Regions. The Government seems intent of feeding the overheated and increasingly overcrowded south east while homes are being demolished in the north.

  • At 11:47 am , Blogger Peter Black said...

    You are right that you cannot solve this problem by the provision of locals-only housing alone. There also needs to be a strategy to create local jobs and there needs to be a supply of affordable housing to rent. We should not be wedded to the idea that home ownership is the be all and end all. Still this is an English policy, we can set our own standards in Wales.

  • At 2:06 pm , Anonymous Paul Griffiths said...

    Ms de Resistance, normally I agree with everything you say, but in this case I think you are way off.

    First, this paper was adopted at Harrogate back in 2005.

    Second, the South Shropshire Golden Share scheme does take account of need, but further refines it to local need. You seem to be suggesting either that the council facilitate no affordable housing at all, or provide it on a first-come, first-served basis. Why should Shropshire be expected to solve all of England’s affordable housing problems, rather than concentrating on Shropshire’s?

    Third, the view that if you build a “glut” of houses they’ll be cheap as chips is one that seems more reasonable in an economics lecture than in the real world. Given that every house needs attendant infrastructure too, just how much land do you think it would take before Sir Stelios decides there’s a viable market for easyHouse?

  • At 2:23 pm , Blogger LibertyCat said...

    I for one think that Sir Stelios would be building EasyHomes in a heartbeat if the planning system didn't make it illegal.

  • At 2:52 pm , Anonymous Paul Griffiths said...

    LC, unless you’re suggesting that easyJet aircraft don’t meet aviation regulations, I don’t understand the point you’re attempting to make.

    There is undoubtedly a demand for low cost, no frills homes in certain areas. Why is Sir Stelios and his ilk not attempting to meet it? If the answer is that land with planning permission is too expensive because it is too scarce, how much less scarce would it have to be before the enterprising Greek steps in? My suspicion is very, very much less scarce.

  • At 3:57 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    About the date of the linked paper. Yes, you're right. That particular housing paper was 2005 [embarrassment]. LibertyCat tells me there was apparently a housing fringe or policy (probably a fringe) at Brighton this time along the same lines and I *thought* that was it. It does keep popping up, and was something I was keen to blog about. I went to a fringe last year about the same thing.

    Ultimately, the post was prompted by LibertyCat discussing both that fringe and the policy on rural communities ( including the fuel duty/pollution issue in rural areas.

  • At 11:37 pm , Blogger heather kidd said...

    Lots I would like to say here.
    Brown field sites very difficult to find.
    66%of South Shropshire is AONB. Building numbers severly restricted by Region. Even if we tripled the build we have no evidence that the average £219k for 3 bed house would reduce to affordable £84k.
    The CPRE and the wealthy incomers would also take us to cleaners.

    We cannot stop those from London and South East from moving here _ their choice- but we can try to give some choice back to local people.Key workers for us include carers who are poorly paid and not employed in the public sector( nearly 30% of people are post 60) and farm workers...
    So do we force these poorly paid people to travel 25 miles plus??? Petrol prices?? Very green..
    By the way -the 'golden share' was ammended at conference to 'equity mortgage' which is more reliable.

    This is the tip of the iceberg in what I could say.

    Heather Kidd, Leader south shropshire DC -

  • At 7:08 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    Even if we tripled the build we have no evidence that the average £219k for 3 bed house would reduce to affordable £84k.

    Why wouldn't private developers build appropriate housing? Wealthy incomers and local carers, farmers, etc. want different types of accommodation. Is this about maintaining the character of an area? On a theoretical level (I understand the political realities are different) then wealthy incomers shouldn't expect a living, working area to become a museum when real housing needs may be very different.

    So do we force these poorly paid people to travel 25 miles plus??? Petrol prices?? Very green..

    Ah, I see. My experience from my area is that the jobs are primarily in a nearby town/city and that people are living in villages either because they've always lived there or because they've moved for the scenery. In this case, I have no sympathy for local people who complain they can't live near their families and then commute 17 + miles to work every morning when they could live and revitalise an, albeit slightly decayed, urban area.

    It's for this reason that I objected to the 'localness' clause. I think people should have first preference being in an area because they work there, not because they come from the area. I think it denies rural areas as living places rather than preservation areas - no one would suggest someone should have a right of residency in, say, Belgravia because their family did.

    I also was concerned about this when linked to our policy about rural fuel exemptions. Ultimately, although there are a small number of workers who work in rural areas, a majority of the people living in my local area (which is rural) work elsewhere and are living in rural areas for 'lifestyle' reasons. And second home owners are also obviously people who should pay the full whack for their 50 mile drive to the shops.

    In general, rural lifestyles are environmentally unsustainable because of the transport and servicing costs and although there are about 9.5 million people living in rural areas, if the party is going to be directive about what sort of UK we want to see at all then we really should be encouraging urban concentration.

  • At 9:20 pm , Blogger LibertyCat said...

    Paul Griffiths,

    The point I was making about EasyHomes is that it is significantly easier to get planning permission for executive detatched homes with a few "affordable" homes given away to a housing association under a s106 agreement than it is to get planning permission for affordable homes to be sold to owner occupiers.

    As you say, every house needs attendant infrastructure. Higher density needs more infrastructure than executive detatched homes, so local authorities which can't afford the infrastructure don't like them. Also, locals tend not to like them because of the danger of attracting the wrong sort to the area, a risk that does not exist with executive mansions.

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