Five thoughts about Theresa May’s promise to get councils building houses again

The silliest picture of Theresa May giving her speech we could find. Image: Getty.

1. This is big.

Housing is a policy area infested with numbers that sound big but actually aren’t. “An extra 50,000 homes!” is a lot of homes – except we need to be building 200,000-300,000 a year, so it actually isn’t. By the same token, the government’s recent promise of an extra £2bn for affordable housing sounds huge – except it’s spread over 10 years, and is a tiny fraction of the amount the previous chancellor George Osborne cut from the relevant budgets.

In fairness, though, one should acknowledge when things that sounds small are actually big – and the housing policy Theresa May announced in her speech to Tory conference in Birmingham earlier today appears to be one of them. Here’s the key quote:

“The last time Britain was building enough homes – half a century ago – local councils made a big contribution. We’ve opened-up the £9bn Affordable Housing Programme to councils, to get them building again. And at last year’s conference I announced an additional £2bn for affordable housing.

“But something is still holding many of them back. There is a government cap on how much they can borrow against their Housing Revenue Account assets to fund new developments.

“Solving the housing crisis is the biggest domestic policy challenge of our generation. It doesn’t make sense to stop councils from playing their part in solving it.

“So today I can announce that we are scrapping that cap.”

If we take this at face value – a fairly big if – it potentially means that ambitious councils could borrow money against future rents and use it to start building again, at significant scale. And that will give them more rents, which means they can borrow more money.

And that, unlike the £2bn, really is quite a big deal.

2. It’ll allow counter-cyclical building, and so make the market more resilient.

One of problems with the way Britain’s housing market is currently constituted is that it’s so painfully cyclical. Construction firms outbid each other for promising plots of land, pushing the price up in the process – but that locks them into particular sales price targets for the homes they build on that land. If house prices fall, firms will stop building, until they start to rise again. We’re stuck.

Empowering councils will help to break that cycle, by ensuring that there are bodies with an interest in building new homes, even in down years. And so, if the government is serious about increasing the number of new homes this country builds, this is a good way to do it.

3. It’s actually not that big a surprise.

One of the things that caught me off guard at Tory conference last year was when an elderly man who had held senior roles in several ultra-Thatcherite think tanks told me he thought the state should build homes again. This wasn’t the only time I heard this from a Tory, but he was one of the most surprising Tories to hear it from.

So in some ways, this isn’t actually that radical a shift from May, merely a reflection of where Tory thinking had got to.


4. It amounts to devolving the debt.

While chancellor, George Osborne famously “devolved the axe” – slashing council budgets in an attempt to ensure his cuts were viewed as a local, not national, government phenomenon. It worked, in so far as councils are struggling on with about half the money they used to have, and are only now starting to fall over.

But fall over they will: only Northamptonshire has gone so far, but no one in local government thinks it’ll be the last. A few weeks back, the thought occurred to me that, when taxes are raised to stem the ensuing crisis, a canny chancellor might devolve that, too: granting a measure of fiscal autonomy to councils not because they believed in devolution, but because they didn’t want the blame for the inevitable tax rises.

We are some way off that, still, but this is a policy of the same flavour. Fixing the housing crisis will require the state to borrow, in direct contravention of the logic that has dominated Tory economic policy for last decade. But it doesn’t have to be the nation state doing that borrowing: why not let councils do it instead?

5. I have questions about capacity.

The devil in these things always in the detail. It’s easy to make a speech (although 2017 Theresa May might disagree); actually turning it into policy a different thing. Perhaps the Treasury will reassert itself: perhaps councils won’t simply be able to borrow as much as they want against rental income, but will be constrained in some way. We’ll see.

There’s another question: back in the days when councils used to be biggest builders in Britain, every local authority had an enormous store of in-house expertise to draw on: not just planners but architects, surveyors, and everyone else involved in creating new housing. Most councils don’t have that any more: construction expertise is now concentrated overwhelmingly in the private sector. That may yet limit the amount of homes that councils can bring forward in the short term.

All that said, if you care about solving the housing crisis, this looks suspiciously like good news. So, yay, say I.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.