To solve the housing crisis, we need to rethink transport and regeneration, too

London's Olympic Village: one of the few housing schemes where someone thought about the infrastructure, too. Image: Getty.

The government’s long awaited Housing White Paper was finally published last week. Its central premise was that there is no single solution to the UK’s notorious housing problem: increasing the delivery of private rented stock, coercing local authorities to build more, and greater support for SME builders are all strategies outlined by Sajid Javid.  

The government’s willingness to pursue many different solutions should be praised. Javid is right when he says we need to build more of “the right homes in the right places”.  To have any chance of success, however, these specific initiatives need to relate to a wider collective focus.

The UK needs an ambitious vision of how we will grow our towns and cities; not only to meet the target of delivering a million homes by 2020, but also in face of the wider challenges of rebuilding our country following Brexit. Against these criteria, the white paper is anything but “radical”.

In order to drastically improve long term access to housing, we must change the terms in which we discuss the provision of new homes. By using a simple binary of supply and demand, policy solutions fail to account for the great chasm of geographic disparities in the quality, quantity and value of UK housing stock. 

In November 2016 the UK House Price Index stated the average London property costs a staggering £482,000. In the North East this figure is £127,000. Recent data from Nationwide suggests house prices are 11 times average earnings in Oxford, but only 3.4 times average earnings in the north. 

While London and the south suffer from a lack of supply, low wages and a stagnating economy in other parts of the UK mean many homes lie vacant. 

A study by the charity Empty Homes found areas in the North tended to have a larger proportion of unused residential properties. The adage that the UK no longer has enough homes is only half the picture; many of the houses we do have are now located in areas in which jobs have long since vanished. 

The housing in many towns and cities is a remnant of the UK’s formally industrial economy. Since the accelerated decline of manufacturing, with a few notable exceptions, growth has largely been focused in London and the South East. Now that jobs have moved elsewhere, urban areas across the country are characterised by vacant and derelict buildings – empty vestiges of a once prosperous economy.

Building new homes in areas of high demand is only one solution to part of a more complex problem. Whilst there is a strong case for building on the Green Belt around Oxford and Cambridge, can we really justify a new “Garden Village” outside Liverpool when so much inner city stock sits vacant? 

Focusing investment in declining urban areas would go a long way to alleviating other socio-economic ills. In order to address long term structural changes to the UK’s towns and cities, housing provision must be formally integrated with infrastructure spending and regeneration projects. 

In areas of industrial decline, for instance, the government should seek to invest in rail connectivity alongside reviving depilated housing. Imagine the regenerative benefit of improving train services between the South Wales Valleys and central Cardiff. This would give neglected communities much needed access to jobs, as well as bring investment to long suffering ex-industrial towns. 

Both the National Housing Federation and the CBI have recently called for housing supply to be incorporated into the National Infrastructure Assessment. In November’s autumn statement the chancellor announced the launch of the new “Housing Infrastructure Fund”: £2.3bn intended to unlock new areas of housing by paying for new roads, drainage, and broadband. This represents a move in the right direction, however such integrated policy tools need to be much bolder and go much further.

For too long housing provision in the UK has been piecemeal, focusing on leftover slithers of land. As the late Sir Peter Hall said “we don’t build enough, and what we do build is often ugly and alienating”. 

Using infrastructure to inform where and how we build would not only deliver homes that resonate with our industrial heritage. It would also go along way to making housing a lot more affordable for a lot more people.

Jas Bhalla is an architect and urban designer. 


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.