“We need politicians to be really honest with people”: on the gaps in the housing white paper

Yeah, good luck with that. Image: Getty.

This was not a housing white paper that would see the chancellor in a hard hat being gleefully greeted by a happy major house builder.

The narrative is markedly different to that of previous governments, and lays responsibility for the housing crisis in a multitude of directions – rather than at the feet of the planning system. House builders, as well as both central and local government, are expected to take responsibility for a crisis where we need to build a quarter of a million homes a year to try to catch up.

There is a lot to be pleasantly surprised with in this approach, and much of it sets a bold direction. The support for SME builders is very much welcome – the sector has been dominated by a small group of national builders who often prioritise very large scale developments for too long – as is the two year time limit on builders to develop land for which they have planning permission.

Giving councils the power to reclaim land that isn’t built on may actually be the kick the housing sector needs to start delivering at scale.

However – and there has to be a however, because if solving the housing crisis was as simple as fixing a couple of incentives and a few bits of legislation, this would have either been fixed yonks ago – clearly, there’s a much bigger problem to be solved.

It seems to be this – there’s a distinct lack of real leadership from both central and local government. The fact that neither party will even open a discussion regarding the greenbelt shows the level of reluctance. According to Lord Matthew Taylor and Policy Exchange, only 12.2 per cent of land outside of London is developed – even taking into account farmland and a desire to protect a huge proportion of greenbelt, there is an awful lot of land there up for debate. 

Allowing everyone to have a decent quality home will lower demand, and therefore house prices. We know this, it’s basic economics – and yet barely anyone in either local or central government will openly say it.

We need politicians to be really honest with people who are lucky enough to own their own home, and to tell people that they may well have to take a financial hit to allow struggling families and young people to live in a decent home. It’s not going to be popular, but it’s a level of realism that we are going to have to live with.

We also need to be better at acknowledging that building more homes is not just a case of quickly building some blocks of flats – there’s a whole host of infrastructure and quality related issues to deal with. Building more homes near transport hubs sounds perfectly logical, but as anyone who travels on the Northern Line on the London Underground will tell you, infrastructure has to keep up. This is going to involve huge investment from central government, as well as long term planning across multiple councils.

Which brings us to the next issue – how are local authority planners are going to have the capacity to deal with these extra powers over house building? Planning departments have been decimated in recent years. The problem with building housing is that it’s pretty permanent – you can’t decide you don’t like it in five years and start again.

So we need to create places with proper infrastructure, green spaces, decent space standards, good design, access to transport and culture – the things that make life worth living. This takes time, and highly skilled planners.

Not only would this create the homes that we need, it would also go a long way to tackling the opposition and fear of development that is causing the shortage in the first place.

There is obviously a natural conflict for local politicians between those who oppose development and those who need it, and often those who shout the loudest get listened to the most. But we can’t go on ignoring the millions of people who are currently shut of the housing market.

It is time for politicians to step up, take the flack, and build the homes that we need.

Claire Porter is head of external affairs, and Adam Lent director, of the New Local Government Network.


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.