“Rigid, inflexible, dogma doesn’t get houses built”: what does the Tory manifesto tell us about housing policy?

Well, I'm convinced. Image: Getty.

As the lobby journalists left Halifax to return to their desks, on a very rickety northern rail train, we were left wondering: what did the launch of the Conservative manifesto tell us about where housing is on Theresa May’s agenda?

Well, quite a lot really. The first thing that you notice is the tone. In the lead up to the publication of the manifesto there had been a range of pieces trying to pin down what “May-ism” is. None of them successfully did this – indeed, today Theresa May denied there even was such a thing – but there are certain themes that since May took over as PM have been a touchstone for her Premiership.

They are all here in the manifesto. You can tick them off one by one: references to governing for everybody, a belief in the role of government to intervene and, critically, lots of references to the interests of “ordinary working families”. There is also a rejection of “rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous”.

From a housing perspective this is welcome. Rigid, inflexible, dogma definitely does not get houses built. Trusting responsible people and organisations to work flexibly does.

For too long housing policy has had a strong whiff of dogma about it – particularly around tenure. The view that all paths led to home ownership didn’t reflect the different circumstances in which people live, or the economics of modern society. It was something that we have consistently challenged and the outgoing government, to their credit, started to listen – with a significant shift in the last Autumn Statement.

In addition to this increased pragmatism, there is much else about the tone of the Conservative manifesto that gives us cause for optimism. Firstly, and most importantly, there is a real show of faith in the housing association sector, which is framed not as a problem to be solved, but as a key part of the solution to the housing crisis that the country faces.

We have worked hard as a sector to strengthen our relationships with all parties, and all parts of government. But, more importantly, our solid relationships have been built on a strong, growing and demonstrable track record in driving supply.

Our own figures show this. In 2015-16 housing associations made over 40,000 starts, and we are expecting to see an increase when the figures for 2016-17 are shortly available. This could put us on track to deliver our aspiration of building 250,000 homes over the next five years.


Parties have woken up to the fact that housing associations are a growing player in supply terms – providing a range of homes for different groups, for rent and sale, as well as supported housing for thousands older and vulnerable people.

The other welcome signal is an acknowledgement that a sensible housing policy needs to take a broad view which recognises that there is life outside of London and the South East. The manifesto talks about rebalancing housing development across the country, and rightly sees housing in the context of a modern industrial strategy.

The drivers behind this may be political – with a desire to have an offer that reaches far into areas that are not traditional Conservative strongholds. But the impact is welcome – and would be felt in places like Greater Manchester, West Midlands and the North East.

There are of course areas where more detail is needed. For instance, whilst we are really pleased to see a commitment to work with housing associations to build more specialist housing, we know this cannot happen without sustainable long-term funding for supported housing. We will be working with whoever forms the next government to make sure this is understood and addressed.

However, on the whole there is much in here that housing associations will welcome. We share the supply ambitions that the manifesto sets out, we welcome the tone of collaboration and partnership, and we echo the view that a national housing policy needs to reflect the challenges that are faced in very different markets.

As a sector, housing associations deliver a lot - but we are ambitious to do even more.  Whoever enters Number 10 on 9 June, we are ready to work in partnership to do just that.

Rob Warm is head of member engagement at the National Housing Federation.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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