On housing, Theresa May promised a revolution, then delivered a damp squib. Again

Theresa May handed a P45 by terrible comedian Simon Brodkin. Image: Getty.

As I write these words, Prime Minister Theresa May is still giving her speech to the Tory conference. The section on housing just finished – I’ve yet to even see the text written down. If journalism is the first draft of history, these are the scribbled notes on scraps of paper that may or may not make it into that draft. 

Nonetheless, some first thoughts.

1) They massively over-stated how radical this would be

Last night the Sun reported that May would be “the first PM in decades to unveil a major programme to build council houses” – a statement based, one assumes, on briefings by May’s team.

The rhetoric leading up to the meaty policy part of the speech seemed to back up the suggestion that something radical was on the way. “I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem,” May told us.

What we actually got was an extra £2bn for affordable housing. At first glance, that looks like a significant bump – it takes the total budget to £9bn, so amounts to an increase of more than 28 per cent. Wow!

Except, in 2010, George Osborne cut the annual capital funding for housing associations from £3bn to £450m. This new money isn’t even enough to make up for that cut.

It’s also not clear if this £2bn is an annual contribution, or a one-off – which obviously makes quite a big difference.

At any rate: they’ve oversold this. By a lot.

2) Affordable housing still isn’t the real priority

Something else about that £2bn figure: it’s a lot less than the extra £10bn May promised for Help to Buy. This, she claimed, would help another 130,000 families gather the deposits they need to buy their own homes.

But it’s unclear, to say the least, that this sort of government support has actually increased building rates. As the housing charity Shelter has put it

“although the scheme genuinely helped some people on middling incomes buy bigger new builds in nicer areas sooner, over half of those using the scheme didn’t really need it. This implies that a large chunk of Help to Buy Equity sales could at best be a waste of public money and at worst, an inflationary boost to house prices.”

That’s a big enough screw-up it’s worth restating it: it’s possible that throwing more money at the housing market through Help To Buy actually inflated prices, making it harder to buy.

And Theresa May has just promised it another £10bn – five times as much as her much-trailed pledge to get councils building again.

We should probably hold the champagne for the moment.

3) Councils are still constrained

There was another change promised in the speech, of course: “We will encourage council as well as housing associations to bid for this money.” That will make it easier for councils to build, so should be viewed as significant.

What would have been much more significant, though, is letting councils borrow to invest. That would likely have had much bigger impact on housing supply than allowing them to beg for a sliver of Treasury largesse.

Once again, Theresa May has promised revolution, but all she’s delivered has been small, technical changes.

4) Seriously, these numbers are tiny

Oh, and while I’ve been writing, the FT’s Jim Pickard tweeted this:

Experts believe we need to be building about 250,000 extra homes a year to keep up with demand. We’ve not made it within 100,000 of that in a decade.

If Pickard’s figures are right, this “revolution” will deal with less than 5 per cent of the problem.

Honestly, this is nothing. Why on earth did they decide to brief this would be a revolution?

4) There is some good news

For one thing, May promised that some of the money would go to “social rent” homes in areas of higher need. That’s a shift from the last few years where such funding has focused on “affordable rent” – which, since it can be 80 per cent of market rent, has often been anything but affordable.

And some of the noises coming from the housing sector are positive, too. Here’s Shelter’s head of policy, Kate Webb:

While David Orr, of the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations, says:

“The additional £2bn will make a real difference to those let down by a broken housing market.”

So yes. These are steps in the right direction.

5) Seriously though – Is that it?

All over the Tory conference this week, I heard Tories worrying that the housing market would destroy their standing with the under 40s. They are all too aware of the problem.

And yet this is their solution: another 5,000 homes a year, and shouting a bit at developers in the hope they’ll change their ways. That’s all they’ve got.

There will be a lot of snarky commentary about the problems with Theresa May’s speech: the P45 handed to her by a comedian as a stunt, the lengthy coughing fits, the fact the sign behind her literally started disintegrating as she spoke.

But none of those are the reason that she’s doomed. The real problem is the mismatch between rhetoric and policy. Once again, she’s promised a revolution and then bottled it.

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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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.