“Beware of politicians bearing housing stats”: unpicking new build numbers

Some houses. Image: Getty.

Well, it’s very exciting that the government has decided we need to build more houses, because before yesterday I don’t think anyone had suggested that as a solution to the housing crisis. One consequence is that we’re almost certainly going to see more politicians arguing about how many houses have actually been built.

It’s an argument that’s been raging in London for years, as various mayors and mayoral candidates try to puff up/slap down the figures. Even without the national conversation it’s definitely something that will happen at the next metro mayoral elections, too. (Something to look forward to, Tees Valley!)

So here’s a quick, and absolutely not boring, guide to unpicking housing statistics. Yay!

Purely because it’s handy and we already have a lot of figures to hand, I’m going to use a current attack line from the London Conservatives. (Be aware that housebuilding stats-twisting comes in all party shapes and colours.) Presenting Assembly Member Gareth Bacon talking about how much affordable homebuilding Boris Johnson had overseen while mayor:

“Boris Johnson averaged 10,436 affordable starts per year in his 8 years in office. As of yesterday Sadiq Khan had started 8,935 in 2016/17 and 2,221 in 2017/18.”

There’s an immediate problem here, with Bacon comparing Johnson’s average over eight years with Khan’s early years total. Housebuilding, particularly housebuilding subsidised by the state, goes in cycles that are dictated by funding. At the start of the cycle you don’t get much happening because the money is only just starting to come in. At the end of the cycle you tend to get a load of new homes.

To show just how wildly year-on-year construction can swing, in 2011-12 there were 4,511 affordable homes started in London using funding from City Hall. That’s less than the 4,654 homes started in 2017-18 that the Tories are now saying isn’t good enough. But you can’t cherry pick figures like that because it’s an unfair reflection of a particular stage of the cycle.

Aren’t we at the end of a cycle now, though? Yes, but the cycles have got a bit out of sync lately. Here’s what the funding from central government for affordable homebuilding in all of England has been over the last decade:

  • 2008-2011: £8.4bn National Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2011-2015: £4.5bn Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2015-18: £1.7bn Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2016-2021: £4.7bn Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme

(The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the amounts went down after 2011. This is how we ended up with the ludicrous policy that homes can be rented out at up to 80 per cent of market rate and still be called ‘affordable’: to make up the funding shortfall, housing associations and other builders had to charge more rent.)

London now has its own £3.15bn fund to spend, through the Homes for Londoners fund. That covers 2016-21, although the money didn’t come in until 2016 was well underway.

This could look like there’s lots of different funds sloshing money into housebuilding; but if you look at the figures, 12,473 homes were started in London between 2015-17 under the 2015-18 funding cycle, and then the money seems to dry up, because just 448 were started (so far) under that same funding scheme in 2017-18.

Funding for homes in 2017-18 has switched to the Homes for Londoners coffers. But the thing is, you don’t get new funding on day one and break ground on 50,000 new homes the following week. It takes time – for developers to apply for funding under different rules, those applications to be assessed, plans to be drawn up, permissions to be sought, blah blah blah.


Funding is complicated, is what I’m saying here.

And if you want to know just how crackers housebuilding stats get, City Hall tells me they expect to report 12,500 affordable home starts by the end of this financial year. Which would mean another 8,000 starts in the next month.

In short, look very carefully at anyone comparing figures on housebuilding because it is almost always more complicated that it seems. You can’t compare an entire term in office to a partial term because there are cyclical swings that take years to pan out. And you definitely can’t compare years that were flush with funding to years of austerity. Things to bear in mind when the opposition comes for Andy Street in 2021, or when Labour trumpets its London achievements in 2020.

But the main point to remember when talking about housebuilding numbers is: it’s a distraction. The really important thing is not pure numbers. It’s what kind of homes are being built. In the same way that loads of luxury flats in hip urban centres are no good to your average family, churning out a load of one bedroom flats for rent at 80 per cent of the market rate is different to funding fewer large family homes at social rent.

In London (again, because we have the stats), between 2008 and 2011, there were 29,401 homes started at social rent. With new rules in 2011 introducing the ‘affordable rent’ of up to 80 per cent of market rent, that drops right off and just 5,977 homes at social rent levels have been built in the years since. Some 27,207 ‘affordable rent’ homes were begun since 2011 – but the people living in them will have a markedly different experience.

Sadiq Khan is introducing three new types of tenure aimed at making housing more affordable. When an election comes round, that’s the kind of measure we should be looking at, whether we’re talking London, Manchester, Cambridge or nationally. As with Greeks and gifts, beware of politicians bearing housing stats.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.