Letting councils borrow is a start. But what else needs to happen to tackle the housing crisis?

Houses on the New Era estate in Hackney, just east of Islington. Image: Getty.

A Labour councillor from the London Borough of Islington on the government’s new housing policy.

I never miss an opportunity to tell anyone who’ll listen that, to get council homes built in sufficient numbers, the government needs to immediately scrap the borrowing cap. Here in Islington we like to call it “The New Home Blocker”.

So I’ll start with the bad news: I’m taking Theresa May’s announcement on the borrowing cap with a kilo of salt. If it materialises, it could be a massive opportunity for councils to ramp-up efforts to build council homes in the numbers that the country actually needs to help tackle the housing crisis. But I’m going to need more than one sentence from Mrs May to convince me. 

Why wasn’t it mentioned in the government’s Social Housing Green Paper published in August? When will it be enacted? This year? Next year? In 2022? Will the cap be removed without caveat immediately? Will it be removed incrementally over many years? I’m afraid the current radio silence from the communities department doesn’t fill me with confidence. 

But let’s assume for a moment that we can take the announcement at face value, and as Lord Porter has said, that the only restriction that councils will face is the prudential borrowing rules. What then?

It’s often suggested that the ultimate aim behind Margaret Thatcher’s flagship Right to Buy policy was for social housing as a concept to eventually wither away. If that was the case, it didn’t exactly go according to plan. In Islington this year, we are building more new council homes than at any time in the last 30 years. Lots of councils around the country are desperate to make this happen on their patch as well, but in many areas the infrastructure around council home building has indeed withered away.

So what else needs to be done to help councils tackle the housing crisis? 

1. Start taking it seriously

So I’m not exactly an old hand in this business: I started as Islington’s housing and planning lead councillor in June 2016. In the time that I’ve held the brief, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than five people.

More worryingly, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP. None of this was given to councils to deliver council homes.

May did recently announce £2bn for long-term partnerships with housing associations, starting in 2022 and spread over six years. Sounds like a lot doesn’t it? However, in 2010 George Osborne cut annual capital funding for housing associations by £25bn over a decade.

If this government is actually serious about tackling the housing crisis, it can start by getting spending back to pre-2010 levels – and it can stop changing housing minister, too.

2. Councils need expertise – where have all the architects gone?

Building council homes was a serious business in post-war Britain. In 1952 the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees.

These days a mere 6% of all architects work in the public sector, and more than half of them work actually work in central government rather than local government. If we’re going to start building council homes in great numbers, local authorities need to be able to draw on this expertise once again.

3. But expertise doesn’t end at building

Of course, the real heroes are the teams of staff who manage council housing and help shape them into homes and communities. It is vital that these staff are equipped with the necessary skills.

Dr Alan Winter from London South Bank University notes that

…at least eight English universities have closed some or all of their housing courses, and all of the CIH-accredited courses have seen student numbers drop dramatically… The move away from local authorities to housing associations has for a number of years contributed to lower student numbers, as the CIH Professional Qualification was mostly supported by local authorities.

Most concerning of all, Dr Winter also notes that

It became very noticeable around ten years ago that students were increasingly self-funded and having to take annual leave in order to attend classes.

A push for council home building cannot be accompanied by a sharp and worrying decline in professional education opportunities in the housing sector. This issue is clearly not on the government’s radar – but it does need tackling.

4. Help councils to use the planning system to stand up to developers

There’s more than one way to get social housing built. As well as councils building themselves, we need to use the planning system to ensure that private developers also build their fair share of social homes. Islington has some of the toughest planning policies in the country, designed to deliver as many homes for social rent as possible.

The recent High Court judgment in Parkhurst Road Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government and London Borough of Islington makes clear that developers cannot overpay for land, and then argue that they are not able to meet genuinely affordable housing requirements because they have overpaid for the land.

postscript to the judgement also makes clear that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) should update their guidance so that in the future this kind of dispute can be resolved before it gets anywhere near a courtroom. In particular, future guidance should ensure that developers shouldn’t seek to mitigate high purchase prices by reducing affordable housing numbers. If Theresa May’s apparent newly found passion for solving the housing crisis is genuine, she needs to make clear to the development industry that this kind of practice is no longer acceptable.

5. Finally, if you’re going to scrap the borrowing cap, scrap the rest of the red tape as well

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the other thing that I will never miss an opportunity to tell anyone who’ll listen is that the borrowing cap is not the only piece of arcane bureaucracy that councils have to contend with. Building council homes is tied up in much more red tape than that.

Under the current rules, local authorities only receive 75 per cent of the proceeds of any property that is sold under Right to Buy. The rest goes to the government.

And government red-tape means that even this receipt is only allowed to be used to pay for one third of the build costs of a new council home: we still need to find the other two thirds. Right to Buy proceeds are also not allowed to be combined with any other grant funding, so many councils are struggling to spend them in the time allowed by government.

All this red tape around right to buy receipts and grant funding would need to be scrapped as well if we’re going to maximise council home building and tackle the housing crisis.

So Mrs May, I’m afraid I really am going to need more than one sentence to be persuaded that you’re serious about tackling the housing crisis. Let’s face it – we need actions not words. We’re waiting.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.


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.