If the Tories want to fix the housing crisis, they need to think regionally

Theresa May addresses the National Housing Summit in September 2018. Image: Getty.

This month marks seven months since the re-launch of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Back in March, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed an audience of town planners, urban designers, and developers promising to reform the system to promote more equal access to housing.

Since that speech, a new housing minister has been appointed, the government have announced a prospectus for new Garden Towns, the NPPF has undergone a further revision, and just last month May herself announced an extra £2bn in funding for social housing. Yet, despite all this, nothing seems to have really changed.

Although the £2bn for social housing gained May a rare standing ovation, her critics point out the funding won’t be available until 2022 and might eventually only deliver around 5,000 new homes. The call for new sustainable towns sounds equally ambitious, but a closer examination of the detail suggests the programme simply seeks to rebrand existing proposals. Although these announcements sound radical, neither is backed by the funding or decision-making powers necessary increase supply in the short to medium terms.

There have been no announcements on further commitments to infrastructure which would make poorly connected areas viable locations for development. Likewise, until extremely recently, there has been no mention of additional powers for Local Authorities to raise funds to build more council homes. Perhaps most disappointingly, the promotion of Garden Towns has not been accompanied by a discussion around shifting the dynamic of taxation from properties to land.

In the absence of any tangible increase in funding, May has previously sought to target disingenuous developers who hoard land to artificially inflate house prices. Given the Conservative’s predisposition to private delivery, the big stick mooted by the PM has been largely rhetorical.


Whilst reform in this area is undoubtedly welcome, forcing developers to accelerate build out rates won’t stop them overbidding for sites in the first place – nor will it address the local aversion to change that slows delivery. Most importantly perhaps, oversimplifying the roles of local communities and developers as heroes and villains respectively belies the multifaceted nature of pressures on housing. 

In September, Sky News published the results of detailed analysis that sought to dispel the myth of a monolithic national housing crises. Through an in-depth mapping exercise, its research argued the UK is simultaneously undergoing five separate crises related to a lack of both supply and demand, under-occupation, quality and credit. The analysis rebuffs the binary debate of supply and demand, rejecting the idea that building 300,000 homes a year is the answer to many of the challenges the UK faces.

The findings also demonstrate how the health of any given housing market is inexplicitly linked to strength of the local economy. It should come as no shock that the areas blighted by a lack of demand and quality are also characterised by high levels of deprivation and unemployment.

May’s government has rightly attracted some praise for discussing housing in more nuanced terms. It wasn’t too long ago that national discourse was reduced to an oversimplified, and often artificial choice of brownfield verses green belt development. Whilst the evolution beyond this is welcome, last month’s findings suggest housing policy requires far greater regional specificity if it is to address issues around social justice and equality.

Policy dreamt up in Westminster has a distinctly southern focus and is ill-equipped to deal with such a complex array of challenges. Solutions for the housing crisis must also be thought of in more holistic terms, taking in economic regeneration, infrastructure and the environment. Crucially, policy needs to be backed by adequate funds, power and long-term planning.

Until the government thinks in these terms, kind words on housing will continue to undermine social mobility rather than promote it.

Jas Bhalla is an architect and town planner.

 
 
 
 

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”.