“The Social Housing Green Paper is another delaying tactic to put off fixing the broken housing market”

Hackney Town Hall. Image: RedLentil/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s time to let councils build, says the Labour mayor of Hackney.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I was reminded of those words last week when Sajid Javid told the National Housing Federation’s annual conference that he would start a “nationwide conversation on social housing” by bringing forward a green paper that would be “wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review” of the issues facing the sector.

Presumably this is different to the “proper conversation” that the communities secretary said his damp squib of a Housing White Paper would kick-start just a few months ago.

Javid also said his green paper would be “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”. Clearly the minister has forgotten about his own government’s Housing & Planning Act – the hugely damaging piece of legislation his predecessor drove through Parliament just a year ago, against the wishes of local councils, housing associations and tenants.

The Tories are now carrying out the third review of why this country’s housing system is fundamentally broken in little over 12 months. And every time they ask people up and down the country what the problem is, they get the same answer – the government’s obsession with leaving the market to deliver the hundreds of thousands of new homes we need simply isn’t working.

The NHF’s own research, published as the minister made his announcement, shows funding for new social homes is at an all-time low – at just 0.2 per cent of GDP.

In 2010, the government decided that there would be longer be any public money to build homes for social rent – and construction of these homes ground to a halt almost overnight. In 2010-11, just under 36,000 social rented homes were started. The next year, work started on just over 3,000.

This is bad for everyone. Bad for the 120,000 children in living in temporary hostels and B&Bs because there’s not a council home for them. Bad for private renters, like those in my borough of Hackney who pay nearly £2,000 per month for a two-bed flat while facing the impossible task of saving for their first home as prices hit record highs. And bad for the government, whose housing benefit bill has spiralled to £25.1bn – costing every man, woman and child in the UK £400 every year – with more and more of that money paid to private landlords, who are propping up a broken market by housing those who can’t find social housing.


Councils like Hackney, the borough I lead, have repeatedly said that they stand ready to fill this void. Despite getting zero funding to build social housing, we’re already building 4,000 homes in the next few years – with more than half for social rent and shared ownership, paid for by some for outright sale. If only ministers would abandon the sell-off of social housing and cut the unnecessary red tape that means we can’t access the finance we need to build, we could do so much more.

It seems to be an answer that Mr Javid doesn’t like. What other reason is there for this latest “conversation”?

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there is of course a need to make sure that tenants are properly heard. Clearly, that has gone badly wrong in Kensington and Chelsea. But the failings of one Conservative council should not be an excuse to try to further erode the role of local authorities in providing safe, secure and high-quality housing for their residents.

Instead of pointlessly fiddling around in Whitehall, ministers should abandon their market-led dogma and give councils and housing associations the funding and borrowing freedoms they need to get building in big numbers.

The government’s tired old ideas have been failing to fix this housing crisis for seven years, with every previous intervention making the situation worse. Perhaps instead of lecturing from Whitehall, it’s time ministers listened and let those who are managing their fiasco on the frontline take the lead in solving it.

Cllr Philip Glanville is the Labour mayor of Hackney.

 
 
 
 

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.