Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Future Crayon

This is not the first time I’ve used a song title by the group Broadcast for a post and it probably won’t be the last (I’m still waiting for a chance to use ‘City in Progress’) but this title of a compilation album of Broadcast outtakes, B-sides and remixes popped into my head last night on the train back from London. I’d been to a quasi-Governmental/private sector organised ‘policy briefing’ called ‘Putting a Roof over Britain: The Future of Housing in the UK’, and I was thinking about the notion of a ‘future’, both in relation to what I’d heard from the various invited speakers at this event and, indeed, to what I imagined would be a future of new, plentiful, good, and affordable rented public housing.

When we think of crayons, we almost automatically think of children, and the relatively spontaneous workings of a young, unfettered mind. When children are drawing they are almost certainly in that very present moment of doing, but there is also a forward impetus to their activity because they are expressing themselves with an eye (and hand and mind) to their continuing development which is (unconsciously) predicated towards the future.  

Some might think that the drawing on the cover of the July 1965 RIBA Journal above is ‘childlike’ but it was undoubtedly of the moment, and undoubtedly intended to visualise the future now. It is a sketch of Lambeth Towers, made by the building’s architect, George Finch. Whatever Broadcast might have had in mind when they conjured up that title for their album, Finch’s drawings seem to me to be representative of the ‘Future Crayon’ at work (alongside Gordon Cullen’s similarly lively and stylistically quirky drawings for Homes For Today and Tomorrow in 1961). You can see more of Finch’s drawings on the Utopia London website, and they are well worth looking at. They are such fun – animated and art-brutish in style - but utterly representative of that optimistic but dignified, self-fulfilling but social/sociable world that Finch wanted to create: “I was very happy” he once said “that we were providing good quality housing available at reasonable rents for people who wished to live and work in London.”

Sadly, George Finch died in February this year but I would have loved to hear what his socialist/municipally-minded self would have made of the event I attended yesterday. What would the speakers from that event produce with their future crayon – or any crayon for that matter? On the face of it, a title like ‘Putting a Roof over Britain: The Future of Housing in the UK’ seems very much like something from c.1965, something positive and practical – ‘go-ahead’. Predictably however, what came out of this event had little to do with Finch’s simple aim – for London, or for anywhere else in the country. 

We were told first of all that the government’s 2011 Housing Strategy plans for a vastly increased supply of housing – across all types of tenure apparently, but while the term “affordable housing” was bandied about quite a bit yesterday, the emphasis throughout was sadly on ‘affordable’ ownership and ‘affordable’ new-builds to buy. In spite of this, out of the four categories of housing/resident types given, the second biggest was that of “lifetime renters” (19% of all households in the UK, or 4.1m homes). I imagine that a good proportion of these lifetime renters are in former (now ‘social housing’) or still extant council housing stock, but this wasn’t especially made clear. There was in any case, according to the Head of Affordable Housing and Investment at the Department of Communities and Local Government, a “concern over quality” with the homes within this category, and with how these tenants had a “lack of control over their home.”  The rhetoric here once again seemed predicated towards the ideal of home ownership where it was presumably thought that ‘quality’ and having a sense of ‘control’ over one’s home could only be assured by owning, and by having a mortgage. 

Government investment in the rented sector – the “£1bn ‘Build to Rent’ scheme which aims to produce 200,000 homes turned out to be centred purely on “PRS schemes” (Private Rented Sector schemes to you and me). “Incentive and Community” schemes included “Community Right to Build” which sounded like a good bit of Double Deckers-like “hey let’s create a youth club right here!” astroturfing to me, with its lame big society abstractions about giving “communities” the “freedom” to build new homes, shops or facilities “where they want them, without going through the normal planning application process.”  But no build-to-rent money will be going to local authorities that will otherwise only be given the scope to support private house building schemes, rather than building homes themselves for their communities. 

In contrast with all this faffing about, it is a national scandal that there are 5m people in the UK on social housing waiting lists. It was left to the Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, Brian Berry, to point this out rather than the person from the DCLG. He got excited about “retro-fitting” – the notion of bringing existing houses up to current standards, with a particular emphasis on energy efficiency, but also – nicely – with an eye to working with the wide range of vernacular and designed styles in the UK. I asked him whether there was much in this for his members in terms of them being contracted by housing associations or social housing groups to carry out the maintenance of council estates but he said not – perhaps when councils first began to transfer their housing stock over to housing associations and so on back in the early 1990s, but not now as these contracts tended to be given to larger contractors. In any case it was later suggested that housing associations especially had become “corporate” and “bland”, and are ceasing to do what they originally set up to do by ‘diversifying’ into new-build ownership developments for themselves.

Other contributions to the event were formed out of things like a charity that campaigned for the retention and redevelopment of empty houses, and a self-help ‘industrial and provident society’ that encourages young, disadvantaged people to actively reverse the ongoing crisis of youth homelessness in Teesside. Sadly, despite these good works, the development worker for this particular organisation went on to more or less disparage those parts of the housing sector who hold themselves to be ‘not for profit.’ In contrast, he was certainly not ashamed to make a profit.  I’m also pretty certain that I heard him say that the public sector was dead but then he was a self-confessed “pragmatist” which, to me at least, always seems to hide all manner of potentially unappealing inconveniences these days. 

All of this served to reinforce the happy fact that I’m still a determinedly Statist Leftie. To some of those present at yesterday’s event, I might have been viewed at worst – and in the parlance of the current government – as an ‘enemy of promise’ or, at best, an outdated defeatist. One thing this event did make clear to me was that we could and should build our way out of recession, and that plenty of new publically-funded and publically controlled rented housing should be a necessary part of that. Despite its title however, no one mentioned “The Future” at all. Clearly, there is an acute housing crisis in this country that is socially and culturally corrosive. It is a crisis that needs to be fundamentally and comprehensively addressed by the State this minute, but the practice of centralised planning no longer seemed to signify with the majority of those involved in this event. There were lots of undoubtedly well meant initiatives but no real consensus, and no sense of a future, just an atomised present – a free-floating, marketised crayon scribble of never ending ‘partnerships’ and ‘initiatives’. 


  1. Hmmm. Though-provoking. Where once there was the objective of making lives better, now the watchwords are "margins" "cost-centres" and "profits".
    "The Public Sector is dead". How sad. The unstoppable march of the free market - unstoppable, that is, until it eats itself. I believe the Bolsheviks in early 20th Century Russia used to say "When we hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope with which to do it". I'm no sort of a revolutionary, but I'm probably with you in being a "Statist Leftie".
    Utopianism is gone: welcome to the harsh realities of the unsmiling private sector.

  2. Sadly, that's about the sum of it, Allen. You don't have to be a statist leftie to have a notion of civic planning and duty though - but those notions have almost disappeared. The saddest thing really was that the majority of people there no longer had any concept really of this. It was either not within their mindset at all, or they seemed to accept that that sort of thing just didn't happen anymore. Grim.