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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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”.