To make devolution work, what Yorkshire needs is a common enemy

Communities secretary Sajid Javid. Image: Getty.

About 30 years ago the comedian Nick Reville had a comedy routine about Yorkshire people. It went something like this.

The locals were enjoying a pint down their pub in Castleford last Friday night. Everything is fine until a group of lads from the pub across the road walked in. The regulars didn’t like this, and after a few words a fight started.

It was getting serious until the door opened. Everyone froze: another group had arrived. These blokes were from a pub on the next street. Perceiving a new threat, they suddenly realised that they were from the same street, joined forces and took the fight to the outsiders.

Ten minutes later with the scrap in full swing the doors open again. A group from Pontefract walk in. The “they aren’t from round here” mentality kicks in, unifies the crowd and they set on the Ponte lads. 

As things are getting out of hand another group walks in.

“Where are you t**ts from?”

“Leeds, what it’s to you?”

The Cass and Ponte thugs join forces against the big city t**ts.


And so on, through Manchester, London, France, USA until finally some Aliens arrive and the Friday night drinkers of the earth unite in a pub in Castleford for a bar fight with the outsiders.

It was a very funny routine, it’ll be online somewhere.

A couple of weeks back, this came back to mind as the Yorkshire Devo deals hotted up.

I’ve not followed the ins and out of the Yorkshire devolution close enough give a detailed description. There are many different options moving on and off the table. Leeds City Region (LCR), Sheffield City Region (SCR), Greater Yorkshire and One Yorkshire.  Greater Yorkshire appears to be North, East and West Yorkshire lumping together without South Yorkshire. SCR will be its own devo deal. One Yorkshire is everybody in together.

According to James Read of the Yorkshire Post, two councils support SCR (Sheffield and Rotherham), 16 support One Yorkshire, one wants Greater Yorkshire (Harrogate) and Wakefield is undeclared.

The usual Yorkshire in fighting, you could say – or as David Cameron infamously said. The reason why the old comedy routine came to mind is because it offers a solution.

In the pub, it was always the outsider that created the threat that achieved the improbable unity. What Yorkshire needs is an outsider to walk through the door and cause the Yorkshire councils to fight a common enemy.

Helpfully, Sajid Javid did just that. The communities secretary recently wrote a letter to Yorkshire MPs letting them know how he wanted things to pan out.

Yorkshires response should be:

“Where are you from? Westminster? What do you think you’re doing round here? Come on lads, get him!”

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. 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 were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

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