7 film and TV series set in the exciting world of municipal government

Something deep and dark. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. Image: HBO

One of the big TV hits of 2014 has been True Detective, a beautifully shot HBO series which saw Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey investigate a string of murders over a period of 17 years. In between all the police procedural stuff, the series explores themes such as family, faith, and the nature of the universe.

The reason we bring this up is that, as it turns out, season 2 is going to be about municipal transport policy:

“According to a breakdown obtained by TheWrap, the second season of “True Detective” will follow the death of a corrupt city manager of a fictional California city who's found brutally murdered amid a potentially groundbreaking transportation deal that would forever change freeway gridlock in the state.”

Thrills! Terror! Traffic management!

Actually, the new series, which looks set to star Vince Vaughn, has a very good chance of being awesome. As unlikely as it might sound, TV and film about local government has a surprisingly good track record. Here are seven more examples.

Spin City (ABC, 1996-2002)

Sitcom set in New York City Hall. Started off as a rather good vehicle for Michael J Fox, as the smart young deputy mayor; later became a substantially less good vehicle for Charlie Sheen as his replacement, and promptly got itself cancelled. Includes such exciting municipal plot lines as a subway train breaking down, pollution in the city’s rivers, and garbage collectors going on strike.

Our Friends in the North (BBC Two, 1996)

Possibly the best television drama ever to be largely about British social housing policy, Our Friends stars an amazing cast led by Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig (pictured), and takes in everything from police corruption to the Zimbabwean boycott to the rise of New Labour. It also features some amazing haircuts.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988 movie)

Gritty political thriller about a corruption scandal in which car companies buy up Los Angeles' streetcar network, purely so they can rip it up, thus forcing the public to buy more cars. Also features a cartoon rabbit.

The Wire (HBO, 2002-08)

Without wanting to sound like one of those people, The Wire is one of the few things in life that's as good as everyone says it is. Over five seasons it explores many aspects of the decline of the American city (policing, education, labour relations, the media). From season three onwards a major character is politician Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen, pictured), who successfully runs for mayor, only to learn that the job is actually amounts to "eating shit all day long, day after day, year after year". This show basically offers a comprehensive explanation of why nothing works.

Chinatown (1974 movie)

Classic noir starring Jack Nicholson, which begins with the murder of Los Angeles' chief water engineer. One of the few films of the genre which is fundamentally about water desalination.

Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-present)

Mockumentary about municipal officials working in a pseudonymous department in the fictional Indiana town of Pawnee. Contains a plot about turning a big hole into a nice new park. The series made a star of Chris Pratt (pictured), who's since sold out and lost a load of weight, mostly so he could appear in movies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN, 1996-2003)

Okay, it's mostly not about municipal government at all, it's about vampires and teenagers. But the villain in season three is the mayor of Sunnydale (Harry Groener), who's secretly plotting his "ascension" – that is, his transformation into a giant snake-like demon who feeds on people. Remember that, next time Boris Johnson or Bill de Blasio appear on your TV screen.

Images credits: Our Friends in the North: BBC; The Wire: HBO; Parks and Recreation: NBC.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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