Category Archives: Public policy

The Plan? Wealth, Housing Need and Austerity

I have never been quite sure where it is from but I have a copy of a cartoon in my office called ‘The Plan’. In six frames it shows the ebb and flow, back and forth, of affluent and poor-black households in US cities, first changing places in the inner city and then in the suburbs. Yet research on gentrification suggests otherwise – with tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of urban households displaced via the attention of higher-income households and investors to areas in which poorer households congregated (these are major currents of the urban politics of cities like San Francisco with debate moving from a concern with yuppies to Silicon Valley employees and rocketing house prices, or London with its influx of super-rich and international investment capital in the new-buiold apartment market). The lack of investment in such neighbourhoods, by landlords and owners, meant that properties in these locations offered a bonus dividend – invest here and prices might align themselves with higher prices elsewhere. The search for ‘gentrifiable’ properties and ‘up-and-coming’ neighbourhoods has been a key strand in the story of property wealth in the US and UK over the past twenty years. To understand gentrification is to provide a window on the otherwise closed workings of the economy and the politics of homeownership that permeates our culture today, in short – who are the winning and losing groups in society today?

the plan cartoon

The image of the affluent upping sticks and landing wherever suits them best in my cartoon may seem an unproblematic story, indeed one that is emblematic of what we have become as a flexible, location-maximising constituency of worker-homeowners. But who is this ‘we’? Some years ago I attended a policymaker forum in Melbourne convened at the onset of the global financial crisis. Here Australian Federal bank officials rationalised the story of low interest rates, arguing that they had benefited the macro-economy and the needs of ‘us’ homeowners. Well, even in Australia homeownership (like the US and UK) remains at just over two-thirds of households so it is not the embracing form of ‘we’ that we might want to refer to (data analysis on our project on London’s supe-rich shows that owner occupation has declined from 56% of households to 50%, the big gains going to owner-investor landlords benefitting from a rise in private renting from 17 to 26%). In all of this the self-identified role of many politicians and public bankers has been legitimated through reference to keeping things rolling nicely for ‘us’. Indeed those who would like to join ‘us’, aspirational owners seeking to get on that ladder of wealth creation and relative personal security, are also critical to understanding a large part of the banking/housing crisis – asset values rose because the architectures of the state and private finance were fundamentally aligned to fulfil the desire of existing and prospective homeowners, even as this project generated the basis for the current catastrophe as low income owners and their debt poisoned the new products built upon them.

WP_20150111_16_39_46_Pro

‘Cherish Public Housing’ – Poster on HK train.

As David Harvey (1) has eloquently argued, the crisis was underpinned by the ‘fix’ needed by capitalism to expand after ‘local’ supplies of labour and opportunity diminished. As labour and commodities came to be supplied more cheaply by countries like China and India a further stage of expansion could only be effectively generated by allowing consumers, many of them not at all well-off, to become indebted over increasing timeframes and using new products in ‘sub-prime’ deals, offered to millions of low-income households in the US. With the house of cards that this situation created now very much collapsed the costs, we were told, should not be borne by these financial institutions and, under an increasingly transparent ideological project, continue to be tackled through cutting the cost of public services. Critically, one of the many manifest outcomes of these cuts will be the way that the state provision and particular geography of public and private rental housing in major cities like London. Three key issues can be identified that need to be understood to make sense of what now appears to be happening to public housing and, by extension, to poorer households in our cities:

  1. The sense that public housing is a tarnished state project that is so stigmatised in the public eye and its households so economically marginal that reducing its costs is deemed politically desirable (by making conditions so bad that others are not inclined to want to use such services) and fiscally commonsense;
  2. Public housing, in its ‘estate’ form, represents an opportunity to contain the mad, bad and sad in spaces that can be policed and monitored by a punitive welfare regime that sees benefit uptake as a kind of deviance (literally not that which ‘normal’ or included society does) – demolition and the thinning-out of such pockets is seen as desirable and will make way for new rounds of capital investment and opportunities for international capital and high income households, and;
  3. The concentration of economic losers and social stress in public housing generates risks to included society (such as through criminality and anti-social behaviour) that higher-income groups seek to avoid by using housing and schooling systems as a means of insulating themselves from the risk of contact with poorer households (the ‘dinner party test’ is useful in establishing such practises – good schools are identified not through academic merit so much as by the ‘kind’ of children that go there, academic performance can then be used as a proxy measure for the social composition of schools).

This social, political and economic context has helped soften-up public housing for the onslaught of the current political regime. Housing benefit in the private rental sector has been capped and rents in public housing have moved closer to (up to 80%) of market rents where possible. These plans bring us back to the low status of public housing assistance in the UK. However, these new interventions should not only be attacked because they will not work and will displace poorer households, rather they should also be understood as the products of ideas and values shaped by affluent interests and lifestyles. These values are generated by the sheltered personal biographies and daily spatial pathways of policymakers who have little experience of such conditions or the impact of their proposals. Indeed our political elite are active in a process of insulating themselves; both from the risks generated by the social exclusion derived from the cuts themselves, and from paying for the current predicament. The callousness of political priorities is generated by the social pathways and deeper class interests of the wider spectrum of political elites who, for them and the constituencies they represent, refuse to allow the prospect that recent decades of massive wealth generation should be clawed-back, taxed or otherwise captured to tackle the crisis and re-build municipal and civic facilities.

WP_20140702_001

A front page from The Observer (2) brings fifty years of research on gentrification and its impact on the urban poor to the forefront of debates about the changes that will result from government commitments to erode the security of public and private tenants. Many will be displaced from high-cost neighbourhoods and, as Saskia Sassen (3) has recently argued, provide golden opportunities for accumulation by a locked-out aspirational class of prospective homeowners who so want homes at affordable prices in places that will be seen as the investment and gentrification hotspots of the future. While some commentators were aggrieved at earlier government ‘plans’ to engender local social mix as a form of gentrification in fact this plan appears to be something much more emphatically ambitious – deploying a crisis of capitalism as an opportunity to displace the poorer and middle classes and benefit investors (in much the same way that Naomi Klein (4) has described as endemic feature of our economic system). What is even more remarkable about the socially constructed parameters of current debate is that many of us have ingested the logic of cuts and requirements of corporate capital and attacking each other as the illegitimate beneficiaries of bloated state expenditure. This discursive race to the bottom of social insecurities and labour-market flexibilities will simultaneously provision a spatial switch as low-paid workers and benefit recipients make way for higher income tenants (in public and private rental accommodation) and owners (taking advantage of sales of repossessed housing). Cities like London will be for the rich, its hinterlands for a subsistence poor desperate to take work on almost any conditions in lieu of the assurances of the state (the argument that the private sector will not be capable of substituting for public employment is logical, yet we can see how highly indebted and insecure households may yet make abundant, cheap and flexible labourers for it).

There is something almost awe-inspiring in the scale of subterfuge on offer. Unashamed by their inability to predict or counter the excesses and collapse of the system many economists continue to debate and determine the direction of cuts, rather than their need. Instead of building common assurances and securities through a state that is seen as the product of a leviathan built of ‘us’ there remains massive cultural investment in a discourse of self-interest and wealth accumulation as the vehicle to personal welfare and insecurity from economic risks. This bind between property wealth and politics perhaps helps to explain the more muted response to cuts so far in the UK when compared with other countries, yet it is unlikely that so extensive a roadmap will not radicalise a much broader range of social groups and interests.

WP_20131115_007

Those spaces likely to be more resilient to a possible second economic downturn are inhabited by the lifeblood of political authority and planning today. For these groups their daily spatial circuits and friendships rarely cross with those who will see the social catastrophe and toxicity that will be sewn into many such localities for years to come (often on already lengthy histories of economic marginality and community decline). Political life has, whether it is of the left or right, largely failed to prevent the excesses of corporate-political agendas seeking the bottoming-out of wages and social benefits – for many people it is not at all clear how to respond or articulate an effective response that might challenge such alienating projects. It has also palpably failed to reduce inequalities in ways that might bring fairness and safety from the harms generated by economic secondaryness. The horrorshow of child neglect, para-criminal ambition as substitutes for legitimate careers, anti-social behaviour, incivility and the death of personal fulfilment via secure modes of work and community life will be the inter-generational gift of the ongoing plans of our political establishment.

This is an extended and updated version of a piece that first appeared as ‘Cities for the Rich’ in Le Monde Diplomatique.

Sources

  1. Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile Books.
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/24/exodus-poor-families-from-london
  3. Sassen, S. (2010) A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation, Globalizations, 7, ½, pp. 23-50.
  4. Klein, N. (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, London: Penguin.
Advertisements

A statement of academic practice

In line with some of my recent posts around academic practice, ideas of the pro-social and notions of collective I am posting a statement that I drafted some time ago. In the light of recent instrumental assessments of academic work, the privatisation of the funding to universities and the backdrop of a neoliberal consensus in politics I thought this might be of interest to some readers. It seems to me that who ‘we’ are as academics in a context in which our students present and have been molded as (highly indebted) consumers presents challenges for our identity and the relationship between universities, public, corporate and political life. All of this is in a kind of deep flux but perhaps that sense of change and uncertainty is precisely the time we should be active in helping to form and retain important aspects of academic practice that, if anything, are needed now as ever they were.

A statement of academic practice

  1. Academics seek to work in an environment that offers space for new ideas, thinking and discoveries that address problems outside the space of the university itself.
  1. We understand that the academic environment exists to help us to create, discover, share and apply knowledge through both our teaching and research.
  1. As academics and colleagues we seek to measure our qualities and value by reference to our provision of research and ideas to communities outside the university and through teaching which generates graduates who will also take their ideas, skills and knowledge to those communities.
  1. This statement acknowledges the origins of universities as publicly funded, regulated and accountable institutions, some of which were also created by local subscription.
  1. We recognise the potential for higher education to transform people’s lives and welcome a diverse range of students and staff to the University’s own community.
  1. Academics remain keen and able to communicate the excitement and value of their research to people in their city, the region and the wider world.
  1. Academic work is underpinned by a number of core values that are essential to scholarly pursuit and the communication of knowledge. These include collegiality, curiosity, independence of mind, innovation, internationalism of outlook and connection, openness, reflectiveness and understanding.
  1. As academics we believe in a higher education culture built on a positive interaction between learning, teaching and research, for their students and for communities more widely. We take collective responsibility, with colleagues who have professional, teaching and research expertise, for ensuring that this culture fosters the distinctive development of graduates that are knowledgeable and skilled, and who are responsible, independent, critical and creative thinkers with a similar commitment to the social good.*

 

* Adapted from the Sheffield Academic statement

Public policy and public anger in a 24/7 world

For those that try to keep with international and current affairs the emerging picture of the world around us is surely a bleak one. Yet there is little that is new about this, if the advent of a new century has seen little done to address the wars on want, inequality and political instability, the century before it was little better. As Eric Hobsbawm’s masterful summary of the 20th century showed (Age of Extremes, Viking Press, 1995) the era before this was marked by genocide, political and national extremism, total war and devastating human loss. Yet, for all the advances in science and commerce, we continue to live in a world of overwhelming human suffering and unsettling changes, as the release of information about the use of torture by the US secret services surely shows.

The kind of political world we live in, by intent or its systemic forces, continues not only to tolerate the kinds of inequality and suffering around us, indeed, in many cases, social problems are ignored or condemned in their own right with fervour by mainstream politicians and lapped-up by an anxious and angry class of precarious workers and welfare recipients. It is surely curious that public conversations can be carefully shaped in such a way that the interests of the poor are made to appear as though they are united. The focus of my recent work has been the way that politicians, the media and social life tend to focus on the excluded, the marginal and the deprived and actively seek out their removal – to far away places, prisons and to segregated areas of our cities.

Anger and politics

The world of politics has long been laden with emotions. The charisma and force of political argument is often associated with motivating and convincing speeches and actions connected to big ideas about how the world worked and should be remade. Many commentators have argued for some time that the world we live in today is less driven by these big political ideas, that ideology and blind subservience to lofty goals has given way to a more practical kind of political life and policymaking.

On one level we might welcome such a change and yet the rapidity of transformations in modern social life and global economic circumstances has delivered incredible insecurity and fear. Many people now seek to throw up boundaries (national, gated communities or secured homes) and look to sanctuary within imagined local and ethnic communities. As examples we might look as much to the EU, the US or to Australia as to Rwanda, the Balkan states or to the middle East to see examples of the growing significance of these social forces.

This unpredictable and more connected world has helped to make us angrier and more emotional about the problems of the world – anger at injustice, at environmental change, at taxes, at crime and so on. Regardless of our own political affiliations there are issues that frustrate us and which often lead us to look for leadership on these issues. This bubbling social rage can generate gains for those political parties and media outlets that capitalise on these fears by providing leadership and coverage of these problems. These broad feelings of personal and communal insecurity have, in fact, generated support for those politicians who are able to project this anger onto the groups and issues that trouble us and the list of such groups is now quite long.

In this environment the media have become a key player, and if we look at the kinds of crime dramas and soaps on TV, the news headlines in our newspapers and on websites we can see how editorial decisions often tend to focus on the worst, random and most violent events. For the people who inhabit this media-saturated world, and that is a great deal of us, the world not only seems to be full of problems, but we also begin to have a rather distorted view of how often these problems take place. The kind of frustration provoked by witnessing real-life and fictional victimisation and various injustices is a deep source of the kind of pent-up frustration and fury that we see around us.

A war on the poor and helpless

We regularly hear from politicians about how they will challenge problems and particular groups (immigration, welfare ‘scroungers’ and so on) but in some cities around the world these proposals are really quite extreme. Let me give a few examples. In New York the police were directed by the then mayor, Giuliani, to clear homeless people from the parks and streets to help improve the image of downtown Manhattan. In the UK Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (the infamous ASBO) were used against traveller communities, prostitutes and the mentally ill. In many of the cities where the Olympics have been held the games have been prefaced by the removal of the street homeless. In Beijing thousands of families have seen their homes destroyed to make way for various stadia and athletes villages.

How can we make sense of the viciousness of these examples and the ways in which the most helpless are attacked, even destroyed? For some the explanation for these attacks is a sign of a backlash by high-income groups who have come to feel anxious and embittered about their loss of privileges and their growing fears about ‘unwanted’ social groups in public spaces as welfare systems neglect these groups ever further. I want to suggest that another reason for the aggressive turns in political life, in media reportage, policing, welfare, attacks on the homeless and so on are a sign of a deeper need within society to find a release from the frustration of being unable to solve or tackle these social problems through traditional routes.

In many places around the world long gone (indeed, if they were ever there) is the ambition to promote redistribution, opportunity or some reasonable level of equality (look at the UK, US, or Russia). In its place comes a kind of catharsis, or release, by attacking those groups, who are not only the most vulnerable, who are also generated by the workings of these societies – by regimes of low pay, flexible labour markets, housing tenure insecurity and so on. The tendency increasingly appears to be for us to show disgust towards those who are inevitably produced by our economies, housing systems and inequalities in wealth distribution. It is almost as if we are in denial of the fact that we would prefer to shift these problems, and problem people, out of sight and out of mind (a point that Sampson makes in his book Great American City on the destruction of public housing in the city core and subsequent gentrification).

A new dawn, for hate or hope?

Another concern raises itself at this point. If ideology no longer matters as much, then is there something about the way that our societies, political and media systems operate that will tend to produce more vicious reactions against the poor and vulnerable as they come together? In other words, is it about something more than just politics and anger? There seems to be something worth considering in such an explanation – that a 24/7 news culture produces quicker reactions (with disasterous results in the vengeful attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq) and that politicians seeking majority support will, by necessity, focus on the lowest common denominators of public opinion. Principled debate has given way to a more emotional and unstable way of delivering policies, with the risk that those we should be helping are those we turn away or deny support.

This is an abbreviated version of a journal article I have recently submitted.

The random neighbourhood: Bringing concentrated wealth into the concentrated poverty debate

rich and poor 2

The unfair distribution of wealth and income today are increasingly at the forefront of social debate. These arguments appear to be rising in intensity, largely because new media systems have made allowed data and insights to circulate more quickly and clearly. It is likely that you have heard that roughly 80 people own half of the entire globe’s wealth, and similar figures that highlight these massive disparities. But it is also important to think spatially in relation to these questions. London has become a kind of gilded ghetto, a series of positive area effects in which wealth brings more wealth and the agglomeration of unparalleled cultural and financial infrastructures drives further investment. Being wealthy in London allows access to these services and shows how space matters and its attributes drive the residential decisions of the wealthy. This is, of course, in some contrast to the conditions of many neighbourhoods and more deprived households whose position has been further distressed, not only by austerity but the almost wholesale exit of public strategies to address market failure, social and regional disparities. Where the neighbourhood was central to policy interventions it is now side-lined amidst a race to further concentrate capital investment in London and among other existing winners.

There is a palpable anger about inequality that is being channelled and given weight by the cumulative evidence of meticulous analyses. Piketty’s book on Capital in the 21st Century and Dorling’s Inequality and the 1% are good source books with which to face-down dominant ideas that circulate in political and media circuits used to justify why government debt cannot be allowed to escalate, why more equitable taxation as a means to address deficits cannot be used to resolve current conditions and how large the yawning gulf is between the majority of the population and its well-paid and wealthy elites really is. This has made these issues new-found targets that are fair game for debate and criticism.

Let’s go back to the question of how to understand these issues in spatial terms. How do places pull us back or help us to move forward? These are long-standing concerns that underpin urban policies designed to iron-out the worst wrinkles in the uneven social patchwork of market failure and social distress – tackling uneven economic opportunities and social outcomes. In all of this the idea of the neighbourhood effect, of the compounding disadvantages that people face when living side-by-side with many other people with few or no resources, was a powerful theory. Of course in such conditions it isn’t the neighbourhood itself that magically acts to hold people back, but a range of social and economic effects generated by, for example large numbers of unruly kids in a classroom, the lack of role models in the neighbourhood, the increased risk of victimisation from acquisitive criminals and so on. These ideas are not without their controversies, many have left ideas of an underclass and of concentrated poverty because of their relation to paternalistic policies and indeed regressive explanations of those problems.

Areas of concentrated deprivation are produced by at least two key factors – first, a population of households and individuals generated by the economic system we inhabit (so obvious yet so very important!) and second by the nature of public and private housing systems that sort people into estates and neighbourhoods with bundles of more or less desirable qualities and proximity to essential services, amenities and employment opportunities. One way of thinking about the impact of this social mosaic is to consider a thought experiment. Imagine twins who, at birth and incredibly cruelly, were separated and moved to the most affluent and deprived neighbourhoods in the country. What experiences, challenges and advantages do you think they would each face as a result of developing in these different contexts? Such an experiment goes some way to forcing us to think about how we might plan to tackle general levels of deprivation, but also think through how to encourage more socially diverse areas.

One possible way to imagine a template for neighbourhood planning would be to randomly allocate people to all local areas in the country. This interesting thought experiment forms the basis of an article by Danny Dorling and Phil Rees. Yet it isn’t a million miles away from the ambitions of planners to create socially diverse localities by engineering variables like housing tenure, building size and type and so on. The idea of a random neighbourhood that thereby draws in a good cross-section of people with varying incomes, class, gender, sexuality, occupations and ages can be used to think through the benefits of social mix and diversity – how they might be optimised to generate greater inclusion, lower reliance on services and a broader social base of daily contact. This image stands in contrast to the kinds of areas of concentrated deprivation and exclusion that we see in many towns and cities. This isn’t just about the lumpy areas of concentrated exclusion but also necessarily about the nature of concentrated wealth and its obliviousness to social distress.

Visions of what an optimal neighbourhood might be have arguably been stunted by the absence of interest in neighbourhoods by the current government, and no doubt the continued de-funding of policies that have been shown to make a difference at this level in the pursuit of deficit reductions. We don’t have neighbourhood policies, local programmes, forms of social investment and catalysts to mitigate against the way that capitalism will always tend to produce big winners and losers. Without recognition of the need to make concessions the kind of anger expressed at housing shortages (among many other areas of social need) are likely to become much more concerted, aggressive and generate wider appeal. Perhaps more importantly we need to look to and understand how the places and virtues of concentrated affluence and economic growth in the south-east shape the policy ambitions of our political elite. Their disconnection (from the lived reality of poor living environments, denuded public services) takes away any urgency to providing vehicles for mass employment in the post-Fordist heartlands. For those arguing that to improve our chances we should somehow get on our bikes and join the glittering economic heartlands of the south-east we need to recognise not only the segregation and distress of the capital itself but also how very broken and over-stressed that system is already. We need more imagination around local and regional planning as well taxes on wealth and income to even begin to start to redress these unacceptable gaps between rich and poor.