So why was the housing white paper such a damp squib?

Oh, Sajid, how could you fail us so? Communities secretary Sajid Javid. Image: Getty.

The housing white paper, communities secretary Sajid Javid said in his speech to the Commons, is a “bold, radical vision” which will “meet our obligation to build many more houses, of the type people want to live in, and [in] the places they want to live”. That sounds great – so you’d imagine it’d be getting a fair number of plaudits from the wonkosphere, right?

“Government must go further to tackle the housing crisis,” was the IPPR’s response from the left. “A missed opportunity,” replied the Adam Smith Institute from the right.

And those were just think tanks. The specialist housing campaigners were even less appreciative. “White Paper leaves most renters without long term homes”, said Generation Rent. “What we need now is quick and bold action that helps people in need of a decent home tomorrow not in ten years,” concluded Shelter. PricedOut put it more simply: “The government has bottled it.”

Even Grant Shapps – the same Grant Shapps who, as Tory housing minister, who used to get booed at housing conferences – was scathing. “Housing ministers over the years have come out with documents or bills, and the truth is none of them are going to make much difference,” he said. “And I don’t suppose this will make that much difference either.”

So, that’s all good.

Where did it all go wrong? The housing white paper, after all, measures that are, if not the bold, radical vision Javid promised us, certainly steps in the right direction. It contains rather a lot of them, in fact: Letting Agent Today (yes) published a story under the headline, “Here are all 29 key points in the Housing White Paper”, which gives you some sense of quite how difficult this thing is to summarise. Here are some of the bigger ones.

Firstly, there’s the “build, build, build” stuff. The white paper acknowledges that successive governments have failed to get Britain building enough (duh), and attempts to correct this. That means forcing councils to produce more realistic housing plans for their areas, which is new, and promising to release public land for new housing, which isn’t.

It also wants to put more pressure on housebuilders to get on with the job. It’ll use a £3bn fund to encourage smaller firms back into the market, in an effort to increase competition. It’ll also slash the maximum time developers can sit on a site with planning permission without building anything, from three years to two, in an attempt to prevent land-banking. Those are the sticks: the carrot is a streamlined planning process, which will, among other things, make it easier to add extra storeys to increase density in urban areas.

Lastly, there are a few crumbs for renters. It’ll encourage the development of new private rental housing with longer, more secure tenancies, backed by institutional investors. (Unlike individual buy-to-let landlords, pension funds are unlikely to refuse to replace a broken boiler, say, on the grounds that they can’t afford it.) It’ll also ban letting agent fees. And it’ll introduce banning orders, to force the worst landlords and agents out of the market.

Al these things are, if not revolutionary, at least good. They will help, a bit. The same cannot be said of many of the Cameron-era interventions, notably Help to Buy.

So why the widespread gnashing of teeth? The explanations seem to lie in the things that aren’t in the white paper.

Take the stuff about councils. Getting them to plan for more houses is all very well – many, especially in leafy Tory areas like Bromley, have behaved in a way that suggests they think the housing crisis was something that just happened to other people. But it’s not clear that, seven years into austerity, councils have the sort of resources or expertise in their planning department to do this.

It’s also weirdly mis-targeted. Councils don’t build housing: housebuilders do. Councils can plan all they want, but they can’t force private firms to build. And there is nothing in the white paper to help either councils or housing associations start building at scale – which is a shame, because they’d like to and are less motivated than private firms to keep house prices high at all costs.

The tenants’ rights stuff is a damp squib, too. The longer contracts will only apply to new, “build to rent” homes, and the investors who own them will likely want long-term tenants anyway simply because they’re a better investment: the government intervention may be unnecessary.

What’s more, those homes won’t appear for years, and will probably favour richer tenants when they eventually do. So the vast, vast majority of Britain’s renters, stuck in existing homes with smaller-scale landlords, still have no access to a secure home on the horizon. As Graeme Brown, the interim chief executive of Shelter, said in a statement: “What we need now is quick and bold action that helps people in need of a decent home tomorrow not in ten years.”


But the biggest gap in the white paper, the thing that’ll render all the good stuff in there almost meaningless, is – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – land. The reason we aren’t building enough homes is because – in the cities where demand is highest – restrictions like the green belt mean we don’t have enough places to put them. We either need to build out (so rethink the green belt); or we need to build up (which means knocking a bunch of stuff down and starting again). Physically, these things are easy to do; politically they aren’t.

And this white paper makes no attempt. It promises to protect the green belt, despite the fact that chunks of it aren’t green and are nestled right up against transport links. It bangs on, as government housing policies always have, about making use of brownfield and densification.

Well, those are the things we do now. They haven’t worked. Brownfield-first strategies are more complex, so take longer. They also cost more, since they often mean clearing occupied, contaminated or otherwise difficult sites. All this is possible – but it will take a concerted government effort and probably quite a lot of money. There is a reason that, of the two big east London regeneration sites, Stratford, which hosted the Olympics, has happened and Barking Riverside didn’t and hasn’t.

All these things can be fixed. A government that really wanted to take a radical approach to housing could say to landlords that tenant security was more important so, sorry, they were going to lose a few rights. It could be honest about the fact that this crisis wasn’t going to be solved through platitudes about brownfield, that the green belt needed review, and that a few golf courses and bits of framland was a small price to pay to build the homes we needed. The government didn’t have the guts to do any of those things.

It’s tempting to blame Javid for this failure, but I suspect the real culprit lies further up the chain of command. Theresa May, whatever her other qualities, understands the middle England electorate in constituencies like her own Maidenhead. They are precisely the people who want to protect green belt at all costs, who use buy-to-let property to supplement their incomes, and who definitely don’t want their house prices to fall. This white paper does absolutely nothing to threaten their privileges.

It won’t solve the housing crisis. It won’t even come close. But it’s likely that it’s done its job nonetheless.

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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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

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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