The Big Society, Localism & Housing Policy

ESRC funded Seminar Series, 2013-14

Communities of place: some dated and dangerous arguments

By admin
Mar 18, 2014 Uncategorized / Comments Off

This post is authored by Professor Paul Spicker (Grampian Chair of Public Policy at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen). Paul reflects on some of the arguments in favour of localism. This was originally posted on Paul’s personal blog.


Communities of place: some dated and dangerous arguments


I’ve been attending an ESRC seminar on localism and social housing.  Some of the arguments I’ve been hearing about localism, particularly from England, are troubling.

Part of the problem is that the arguments for community are dated.  There was a time when people’s lives were centred on the neighbourhood; people would have their families, social contact, work and leisure activities all in the same place.   Times have changed; this kind of lifestyle is increasingly rare.  The communities where most of these things still all happen together are unusual; there are exceptions, but they are likely to be isolated or excluded to some degree.   The most deprived areas are marked by transient populations, empty property and poor facilities.  It does not make good sense, then, to build policy on the assumption that there must be a geographic community in place.

There are three good arguments for focusing on communities and neighbourhoods – they’re also the reasons why I’m still engaged with community development.  The first is that areas matter.  Some areas have serious problems – security, ill health, environmental problems, lack of facilities.  They can be difficult and damaging for the people who live there – not just for poorer people, but everyone.

The second is that wherever people are disadvantaged, they need the kinds of support, facilities and opportunities that will help to make their lives better.  A great deal can be done at the local level – providing amenities, activities, opportunities, creating jobs, increasing income and helping to care.

The third is that people need a voice.  Voice is not the only thing that’s needed for democratic governance – others include rights, accountability and empowerment – but the less people are heard, the more important it is that they should be.

The localism agenda has taken arguments that were intended to help in disadvantaged areas and extended them to a wide range of others – among them, rural villages, commuter suburbs and gated communities.  In the process, the arguments for community development have been twisted out of shape.  Reinforcing the power and influence of relatively privileged communities may improve their circumstances, but it’s often at the expense of others – localism can become a mechanism for exclusion.  Listening to other people is basic to democracy; but allowing particular groups to dominate the discourse, to shut out  outsiders or to veto measures to help others, can be undemocratic.   The assumption of community in such cases is not just dated, it’s potentially dangerous.


Scaling up or going viral? How should community-led housing be supported?

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Mar 06, 2014 Uncategorized / Comments Off

This post, authored by Tom Moore and David Mullins, discusses how community-led housing sectors are developing their role. This piece was first published in Evidence, a newsletter that promotes housing research to practitioners. It summarises the authors’ recent paper of the same title published in Voluntary Sector Review, and is linked to presentations given by David in Seminar 1of the series and by Tom in Seminar 3.

Scaling up or going viral? How should community-led housing be supported?

Community-led and self-help housing has a long history in England. But it has become more prominent in recent years in response to entrenched housing problems such as homelessness, undersupply of affordable housing, and neighbourhood decline. Community-led housing organisations innovate by prioritising local needs and emphasising community leadership and engagement. This has led to a groundswell of support for community land trusts (CLTs) and self-help housing organisations, providing some substance to policies promoting localism and community empowerment.

Yet to take root these organisations require more than just pledges of support. They need practical and ideological strengthening in order to secure flows of resources, legitimacy, and to ensure local objectives are not overwhelmed by government priorities or partnering organisations. Both are also heavily reliant on the contribution made by volunteers who form, run and manage the organisations. Our new research paper explored the recent growth of CLTs and self-help housing to see which forms of support and partnership have been effective in helping them flourish.

CLTs are set up by local people to increase the supply of affordable housing in communities affected by issues such as gentrification and undersupply of homes, while self-help housing organisations are created to bring empty homes back into use, as well as to tackle neighbourhood dereliction. There are now around 160 CLTs and 110 self-help housing organisations in operation across England, with a total of around 300 CLT homes constructed or in planning. The self-help housing sector aims to bring an additional 1,600 empty homes back into use by 2015. There are, however, key differences in the way each sector has expanded.

The CLT sector has developed a formalised network of umbrella bodies operating at national and regional scales. These professional umbrella bodies can reduce burdens on local projects by providing technical expertise, training and support for housing development, identifying resources, and assisting with organisational management. This institutional support has been critical to the expansion of CLTs and there are now six umbrella bodies in different regions, supported by a National CLT Network – a membership body that lobbies for CLTs nationally.

While such expansion is sometimes referred to as ‘scaling up’, this term has an unfortunate nuance that implies a shift from the community-based local focus that many participants see as the key advantage of these organisations. For instance, some of the professional CLT umbrellas adopt a property development role in their own right, which meets local housing need but alters our understanding of community ownership and control within the CLT sector. CLTs may also form partnerships with technical experts such as housing associations in order to overcome practical problems, gain access to grant funding, and mitigate risk, but the nature of these partnerships may shift decision-making and the economic benefits of schemes away from local communities.

Self-help housing has expanded differently, following an approach known as ‘going viral’. There is a loose network of support, led by a single national intermediary – Self-Help-Housing.Org – that aims to reproduce local projects in different places by brokering partnerships and facilitating local networking and shared practice between projects. This peer mentoring approach aims to preserve local leadership rather than creating larger scale support structures, but also risks overburdening local projects and diverting them from their own work. The framework for bringing empty homes back into use has also begun to incorporate a range of roles and local partners such as local authority empty homes officers, housing associations and other third sector partners, suggesting that self-help housing may begin to follow the pattern of expansion set by the earlier growth of CLTs. This involves the development of new institutional structures and partnerships to provide intermediary support regionally and locally.

State support for self-help places significant faith in the capacity of volunteers, yet support and resources are required to construct an environment in which community-led housing can thrive. This has largely been achieved by CLTs using an active network of intermediaries, housing associations and local authorities involved in their development. Led by their national intermediary, self-help housing groups have largely developed through a blend of peer mentoring and professional support. However, the shift to partnership approaches raises concerns that the interests of local community groups may be incompatible with, or overwhelmed by, those of larger partners such as asset-focused housing associations.

This is not inevitable and the role of partners and intermediaries has clearly been important; however, a key challenge in scaling up community-led initiatives is that professionalisation may threaten the very objectives and values that small-scale local providers were created to preserve. At a national level both sectors place a strong emphasis on their members being community-led and maintain a commitment to peer mentoring. It will be interesting to observe, as these two sectors evolve, whether similar or different solutions emerge to the common dilemma of harnessing external resources and support, while maintaining the local scale and accountability that provides the unique added value of the community-led housing sector.



When Two Worlds Collide: The ‘Discretion’ in Discretionary Housing Payments

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Feb 27, 2014 Uncategorized / Comments Off

‘This post, authored by Jed Meers of the University of York, looks at the treatment of Discretionary Housing Payments by both the Courts and Local Authorities in response to the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax.’ Jed is a PhD student at York Law School focusing on how housing law protects the home of social tenants, with a focus on the ‘bedroom tax.

When Two Worlds Collide: The ‘Discretion’ in Discretionary Housing Payments

The thorny partnerships between ‘localism’, ‘conditionality’ and ‘responsibilisation’ was a key thread which ran through the second seminar at the picturesque Queen’s University Belfast, particularly in the presentations by Professors David Robinson and John Flint. As suggested by Dr Jenny Muir in a previous blog post, there is a complicated relationship between these concepts and ongoing welfare reform. If this is bewildering for academia, spare a thought for the Courts and Local Authorities attempting to grapple with the changes. A good example of such confusion and muddled discourses is the use of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs), where the treatment of the policy framework by the Courts and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) finds itself at odds with the practice of Local Authorities on the ground.

In light of the themes in the second seminar, this short blog post seeks to draw attention to DHPs as an area requiring more attention from academics and policy-makers by suggesting that there is far more going on than just ‘plugging the gaps’ left by the welfare reform programme. The treatment of these payments is explored alongside some (very early stage) analysis using DHP spend data released by the DWP.

The Second-Coming of DHPs and the ‘Bedroom Tax’

The Coalition Government’s ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’ – known by almost everyone else as the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – has truly begun to bite. The Commons Library briefing from 10th February 2014 paints a picture of current research findings: an estimated one in ten disabled people affected are turning to food banks, 51% of tenants are unable to pay all of their rent, and country-wide there are few opportunities to move to smaller properties to escape the penalty, due to an undersupply of one-bedroom properties.

But fear not. The previously small DHP scheme is the solution put forward by the Department for Work and Pensions, functioning as a giant sticking plaster for those who fall outside of exemptions to the policy.  The Government has pumped in excess of £155 million into a ‘discretionary pot for [local authorities] to tailor to their local and individual needs,’ where those affected by the ‘Bedroom Tax’ (and other reforms including the ‘benefit cap’ and changes to LHA) can apply to their Local Council for assistance in paying their rent.

This pot weighs in favour of the continued legality of the policy, with the Courts currently satisfied in appeals against the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and ‘Benefit Cap’ that ‘the provision made and to be made by way of access to DHPs, constitutes a proportionate approach to the difficulties suffered by [vulnerable tenants] in consequence of the…policy,’ and that ‘immediate hardships are in many cases alleviated by the DHPs.’

In the most recent judgment by the Court of Appeal on the continued legality of the ‘bedroom tax’, DHPs were a central factor in justifying the policy:

‘Central to [the Secretary of State’s] thinking is the idea that there are certain groups of persons whose needs for assistance with payment of their rent are better dealt with by DHPs than [housing benefit]…I consider that they amount to an objective and reasonable justification of the scheme.’

As suggested by Government Ministers, ‘the key is in the title.’ These payments are discretionary, and the Local Authorities charged with making these decisions can do so how they see fit and with reference to their own criteria in addition to official guidance by the DWP. In Government rhetoric, these local authority administered payments are presented as the best way to incorporate ‘local issues’ on a ‘case by case basis.’  We are told repeatedly that local authorities are ‘best placed’ to make these decisions ‘according to their assessment of local needs and in order to best reflect their particular circumstances’; a perspective which echoes the social housing hallmark of the ‘need of local authorities to husband their resources’ by allocating resources to those they deem most appropriate.

However, even after a cursory glance at a DHP application form, you would be forgiven for thinking that such ‘local issues’ are far from the minds of those council officers charged with making awards. Detailed income and outgoings, areas for cutting spending, questions about lifestyle habits (Do you smoke? Gamble? Have Satellite TV?) and requests to provide evidence of some ‘exceptional hardship’ form the basis of the applications.

This information is then filtered through Local Authority policies which guide the imposition of conditionality – it is difficult to find a DHP policy which does not mandate the attachment of behavioural conditions in certain cases. As an example, Oxford Council helpfully outlines how their officers pick through the form provided to look out for ‘discretionary expenditure such as television contracts, alcohol and tobacco, [and] higher than average utility bills,’ and mandate that ‘when making an award, one or more conditions will be applied… [related] to finding work, affordable accommodation and/or reducing expenditure.’ Manchester Council’s DHP policy explicitly references the ‘incentive and disincentive potential of [DHPs], in particular with regard to recognising and encouraging responsible housing choices. The well-publicised case of North Lincolnshire Council denying DHPs to those who smoke or have satellite TV is indicative of the problem at hand.

This is two separate ‘assumptive worlds’ being forced to coalesce. The Government and the Courts frame DHPs as a means to plug the gaps left by the policy, whilst Local Authorities are interpreting their discretion far more widely and with striking political undertones which play to discourses of conditionality and responsibilisation.

With new data on Discretionary Housing Payments having become available, one question to ask is whether this differential treatment is manifesting itself in DHP expenditure. Does,for instance, the politics of the Local Authority appear to influence the amount and generosity of DHP awards, or does an area’s resources and severity of welfare reform impact dominate?

Some Initial Analysis

Focusing on ‘Spend-per-Case’

Much of the media coverage on DHPs has focused on overall percentage spend of the allocation – namely, how much of the money given to Local Authorities has actually been used to mitigate the impact of the reforms. However, in an attempt to show the near-impossible task presented to the civil servants at the DWP in charge of allocating the DHP pot out to Local Authorities, I have mapped some key indicators of the severity of under-occupation used in this analysis. The darker shades of red are indicative of higher values (these are interactive maps plotted using Google Fusion, so if you click the image you can explore the data a little better).

Figure One: Level of reduction

figure one


Figure Two: Severity of Under-occupation

figure two

Figure Three: Total number of BT Cases

figure three

It is clear from the above that the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ is far from even across authorities – indeed, recent analysis by Beatty and Fothergill makes clear that the impact of welfare reform is an inherently regional affair, with the worst-hit local authority areas losing around four times as much per head than the least affected. This stark divide between areas within the UK presents clear problems in the calculation of DHP allocation. The formula used by the DWP is effectively a sophisticated stab-in-the-dark, using baseline DHP spend from the 2010/11 financial year alongside ‘anticipated losses’ from the flagship welfare reform programs.

The clouded nature of this allocation renders an interpretation of total percentage spend problematic, as the starting point is a loaded dice. Instead, this analysis uses the average DHP spend per ‘bedroom tax’ case – namely, dividing the money spent by the number of bedroom tax cases in the area. This does not remove the problems caused by the confusing nature of DHP allocation, but a focus on the payments made rather than on the total percentage spent should avoid the worst offending mistakes.

The Role of Politics

In order to explore general trends in DHP spend, a multiple regression was run using DWP data on levels of DHP expenditure for the period April to September 2013 broken down to Local Authority level. These were supplemented with further information on the level of severity of the ‘bedroom tax’ deduction, and the political make-up of the authorities involved.

Using the variables below, the model statistically significantly predicted spend per case values F= 61.893, p < .0005, adj.R= .55. All of the variables contributed statistically significantly to the prediction. A total of 318 councils were involved in the analysis (Con – 178, Lab – 85, No Overall Control – 55, other councils were left out of the regression due to low frequency).




Unstandardised Regression Coefficient

Standardised Coefficient

Average Bedroom Tax Deduction (£)



Total number of Bedroom Tax Cases



LHAReforms (£ Expenditure)



Benefit Cap (£ Expenditure)



No Overall Political Control  vs Labour



Conservative vs Labour



Note: *p < 0.05.

The take home message from this, is that it appears that the political control of a Local Authority explains some variance in the amount awarded per case by DHPs, even when expected predictor variables (the average level of deduction and the total number of cases) and other welfare reforms (the spend on LHA reforms and the benefit cap) are controlled for. Conservative Councils are associated with spending less per ‘Bedroom Tax’ when compared to Labour Councils, and in turn, Labour Councils are associated with spending less per case than Councils with no overall control.

Some Tentative Conclusions

DHPs appear to be an instance where rhetoric emanating from the DWP is set against a heavily localised imposition of conditionality and the responsibilisation agenda. Although the above data are far from conclusive, the implication that the political make-up of a Local Authority is associated with varying levels of payments, coupled with cases such as North Lincolnshire Council and the widespread practice of attaching conditionality to awards, suggests that in appealing to a form of localised knowledge the Government have also appealed to some extent to a localised morality and politics. This messy picture on the use and function of these payments negates the granular position put forward by the Courts on the functioning of DHP payments.

As the Government continues to pump money into the DHP pot and the Courts continue to assess their role in the continuing legality of the welfare reform programme, these payments will come under increased scrutiny – and rightly so. It is hoped that as more evidence comes to light about the inaccuracies of the narrative put forward by the DWP and the treatment of these payments by the Courts, the problems associated with using DHPs to ‘plug the gaps’ will become ever more apparent.


Reflections on Localism, welfare reform and tenure restructuring in the UK

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Jan 13, 2014 Uncategorized / Comments Off

This post, authored by Dr Jenny Muir of Queen’s University Belfast, reflects on the second seminar of the series – ‘Localism, welfare reform and tenure restructuring in the UK’ –  held in Belfast in October 2013.


Reflections on Localism, welfare reform and tenure restructuring in the UK


The second seminar in the series was held at Queen’s University Belfast on 24th and 25th October 2013. The seminar sought to explore, both conceptually and practically, how localism and welfare reform are understood and enacted and the implications of this in terms of access, provision and tenure of housing across the different regions of the UK. These concepts and attendant issues are not limited to the UK and the contribution of David Hulchanski, University of Toronto, provided a wider perspective, complementing and contextualising the issues raised by the diverse range of practitioners, policymakers and academics in attendance. Presentations also covered different parts of the UK.

Key themes included: the implications for welfare provision and understandings of citizenship and entitlement engendered by the nebulous and flexible concepts of Localism, the ‘Big Society’ and the ‘Broken Society’; the impacts of welfare and planning reforms on the supply, access and tenure of housing and, in particular, the repercussions for lower income groups; and regional differences in their interpretation and implementation.

The presentations indicate that welfare reform and the Big Society/ localism are interconnected but separate hegemonic projects, involving ideological change and restructuring, including:

  • Role of the state: smaller, more regulatory, less direct provision
  • Role of civil society: service provision and informal support redirected to ‘communities’
  • Role of the individual: the rise of responsibilisation.

However, there are differences across the UK and these may grow given the powers of the devolved administrations and the potential for Scottish independence.

The consequences of this ideological shift for the housing system include:

  • Housing associations/ RSLs taking over from councils as the main social housing providers (state to civil society transfer);
  • Despite increased use of the private rented sector, the lack of access to social housing still creates pressure to become an owner occupier, including ‘affordable’ home ownership for lower income households (state to individual);
  • Less secure social housing tenancies as part of the conditionality discourse (state to individual);
  • State support for home ownership continues through Help to Buy whereas rental support is less secure and adequate (state to individual);
  • New third sector spaces e.g. Community Land Trusts, co-housing and other forms of co-operatives (state to civil society).

Both spatial planning and community planning matter a great deal to these changes in the housing system and are at the forefront of the contradictions of the Big Society/ localism: promoting community involvement but with a powerful elite agenda which leaves civil society with little room to manoeuvre. There is no sign of a meaningful counter-hegemonic project despite small scale initiatives. Academics, policy-makers and practitioners all have the ability to challenge this agenda through providing evidence of its actual or potential consequences.

A longer seminar report and presentations are available on the seminar web site and papers will be uploaded as we receive them. Follow the seminar series on Twitter via @housingseminars feed and the hashtag #housingseminars.

Dr Jenny Muir, Queen’s University Belfast



Seminar 2: Localism, welfare reform and tenure restructuring in the UK

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Oct 16, 2013 Uncategorized / Comments Off

Seminar 2: Localism, welfare reform and tenure restructuring in the UK

Dr Jenny Muir, Queen’s University Belfast


The second seminar in the series will held at Queen’s University Belfast next week, on 24th and 25th October. The seminar is fully booked, with a good mix of academics, policy-makers and practitioners. Given that devolution is one of our concerns, it’s also good to see a combination of locals and those who have discovered Belfast isn’t really that far away. For those who are visiting, coincidentally the seminar takes place at the same time as the first few days of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, so there will be plenty to do if you want to stay a little longer.


The seminar series is taking place over eighteen months in which the Coalition government is attempting to operationalise its new policy agenda on welfare reform. The impact is now beginning to be felt, particularly the bedroom tax in England, Scotland and Wales. Other measures that have not yet been introduced are causing considerable anxiety. This seminar considers the impact of welfare reform on individuals and also on less well off communities. Is there an inherent contradiction between welfare reform and localism? How can social capital be built in poorer areas if population turnover increases due to welfare issues? Can the social economy really save the day?


It’s also a good time to review the political concepts of the Big Society and ‘Broken Britain’. Was Britain ever really ‘broken’? And does the ‘Big Society’ still have any meaning? Politically it is now very low profile, and the idea never really took hold in the devolved nations. Where are we going theoretically with these ideas and how do they fit into the bigger picture of a UK in which neoliberalised austerity continues to dominate? Our international speaker for this seminar is from Canada, where they have experienced a similar approach and we shall hear about its impact on housing policy.


The seminar examines the implications of these issues for access to housing and asks whether we are starting to see quite fundamental changes to the housing system, for example tenure restructuring such as an increase in the size of the private rented sector at the expense of both social housing and owner occupation. Where does this leave the ideology of home ownership which has been the cornerstone of UK housing policy for so long? Help to Buy has provoked debate on the undersupply of housing, again highlighting a contradiction between local interests and national priorities, as well as the role of planning policy. And in the case of social housing, how are housing providers coping with the double pressure of poorer tenants and less subsidy for new build? We shall also reflect on differences in the implementation and impact of housing reforms and policies across the UK.


Presentations and papers will be available on the seminar web site in early November and you can follow the event on Twitter using the hashtag #housingseminars and by following our dedicated @housingseminars feed.


Going, going, gone! Empty Homes for £1, but at what cost to community?

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Mar 19, 2013 Uncategorized / Comments Off

This post, authored by Matthew Thompson of the University of Manchester, considers the effects of Housing Market Renewal and community land trust campaigns to bring empty homes back into use in Liverpool, in light of some of the issues raised in the first seminar of the series held in Sheffield earlier this month. Matthew is a PhD student whose working title is ”Community asset ownership and the politics of locality in Liverpool”. His research broadly looks into the history of community asset ownership as a political alternative to state or market-led forms of urban regeneration and affordable housing provision.


Venmore St, Anfield (source: Share the City blog)

Venmore St, Anfield (source: Share the City blog)

Voelas Street, Welsh Streets, Toxteth (source: Share the City blog)

Voelas Street, Welsh Streets, Toxteth (source: Share the City blog)


What to do with street upon street of beautiful period properties dating from the Victorian and Edwardian eras – the architectural heyday of the city in which they once proudly stood, but which now stand empty, derelict, and apparently unwanted? Well it all depends which city you are in of course. In London, these empty terraces would be snapped up in the blink of an eye – in the speculative feeding frenzy driving the epicentre of the FIRE (Finance-Insurance-Real-Estate nexus).

But this city is obviously not London. It’s Liverpool, where such demand is simply non-existent. Or at least that’s the story we’re told by those behind the Merseyside Pathfinder programme, one of nine Pathfinders rolled out across Northern UK cities in New Labour’s massive £2.3 billion Housing Market Renewal (HMR) scheme initiated in 2003, which condemned some 400,000 homes nationally. In Merseyside alone, around 18,000 houses were targeted for clearance and redevelopment; a huge physical restructuring not seen since 1960s urban renewal.

In this blog post I question the rationale for HMR and unpack some of its contradictory effects in Liverpool, in opening up the space, so to speak, for experimentation in community-led self-help housing.

The policy narrative goes something like this. The so-called ‘wicked’ problems of long-term economic decline, emptying out of the inner-city, and increasingly concentrated deprivation – a downward spiral of demand, falling prices, rising vacancies, dereliction, and abandonment – requires a drastic solution: whole-scale restructuring of ‘failing’ housing markets and replacement of ‘obsolete’ terraces with a ‘sustainable’ mix of tenures for 21st century urban living.

Yet this is a city apparently going through a cultural renaissance: European Capital of Culture in 2008; its urban core transformed through culture-led regeneration and speculative development. In fact, despite a glut of empty apartments left over from the noughties building boom, Liverpool has successfully attracted new residents back into the city for the first time since the 1930s, after decades of decline.

History repeats itself. First as tragedy, then as farce. HMR made the same tragic mistakes of post-war modernist planning, but without the earnest paternalism of social democratic aspirations and welfarist goals. It came at the height of renewed state ambitions for socio-spatial engineering – albeit New Labour’s zombie-like resuscitation of the long-dead-and-buried political taste for comprehensive public planning, with the added ingredient of ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism. And it was of course overseen by a public-private partnership which in true QUANGO style was given the farcically slick name of ‘NewHeartlands’, clumsily flailing at rebranding a new place identity.

Through its focus on solving ‘market failure’ – by reconnecting local to regional markets plugged into global circuits of capital – it is not difficult to see HMR as a classic case of that powerful process of neoliberal capitalist urbanisation made infamous by David Harvey as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. And dispossessed they were. Compulsory purchase orders have displaced many residents of Pathfinder clearance zones to assemble large land banks. The eviction of an 88 year old Bootle woman who had lived in her terraced home all her life is just one of the more controversial examples sensationalised by the media.

Regeneration on this massive scale might be seen as the new extractive industry for our post-industrial age: mining speculative value from urban land through the successive recycling of our built environment. The new-build suburban houses with which Pathfinder replaced some of the Victorian terraces represent a downgrading of both urban density and build quality, with built-in obsolescence part of their very raison d’être.

It may seem all too easy to denounce HMR along these lines. At best a shambles, at worst a scandal. Its fiercest critics accuse it of state-led gentrification tantamount to class cleansing; a direct transfer of wealth from public funds into private hands. Yet even Grant Shapps, in a statement to Parliament, alluded to an intentional strategy of ‘managed decline’ for the financial benefit of developers and the state. Demolition plans teleologically set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy of blight.

But there’s a reason why policymakers and researchers call the socio-economic problems targeted by HMR ‘wicked’. There is a long and complicated history of complex structural forces, policy interventions and cultural conditions interacting and compounding in often unpredictable ways to produce the multifarious effects of decline with which HMR was designed to tackle. Had the programme been seen through to its 25 year conclusion in 2019 it may well have produced beneficial socio-economic transformation. But we will never know.

The Coalition government’s cancellation of HMR in 2011 – coinciding with the worst economic downturn and property slump in almost a century – has left the programme only part-finished. Owing principally perhaps to these capricious political and economic conditions, HMR has undeniably generated more blight. Dense urban neighbourhoods have been flattened or reduced to something resembling a warzone; swathes of wasteland aggressively fenced off from surrounding streets stubbornly still bustling with activity; hundreds of crumbling empty houses boarded up, left to rot. And all without the funds for either rebuild or refurbishment for reuse.

Unsurprisingly, various community and campaign groups – led by the likes of Empty Homes and SAVE Britain’s Heritage – have been vigorously campaigning for bringing these tinned-up terraces back into community use. Channel 4’s ‘Restoration Man’, George Clarke, helped kickstart a national debate in visiting several ex-HMR Liverpool neighbourhoods in his popular TV documentary – and is now championing community-led refurbishment projects as newly appointed head of the government’s Empty Homes Review. The Coalition government have introduced a £100million Empty Homes Fund and a £50m Clusters of Empty Homes Fund alongside a £75million Transitional Fund, specifically intended for refurbishing previously-condemned ex-HMR properties.

However, SAVE have highlighted in a judicial review how the Transitional Fund is being illegally misspent to demolish a further 5,000 houses. This follows the controversial decision to save Beatles drummer Ringo Starr’s birthplace amidst the clearance of hundreds of surrounding houses in the Welsh Streets area of Granby; sparking angry accusations of being a tokenistic smokescreen for civic vandalism.

And so it was into this fray that Liverpool City Council recently announced its ‘homesteading’ plan to sell off 20 ex-HMR houses for just £1. The plan follows a pioneering project in Stoke-on-Trent, in which 70 empties are being sold to local people for £1 with a low-interest £30,000 loan made available for DIY renovation, but with the crucial condition that buyers commit to living in them for a minimum of 5 years without subletting.

The demand has been so high – over 2,000 people or 100 per house registering interest – the council has extended the deadline and is considering making more empties available. This raises serious questions that need to be answered over the fundamental logic of HMR in writing off otherwise desirable housing as ‘obsolete’. It also signals more promising prospects for campaigns across Liverpool’s ex-HMR neighbourhoods to establish Community Land Trusts (CLTs) and housing cooperatives for community acquisition and reuse of empty homes.

In one of the three homesteading neighbourhoods, Granby residents have come together to form one of the UK’s first urban CLTs, Granby 4 Streets; a charitable organisation capable of bidding on publicly-owned assets for community ownership. One of these four streets, Beaconsfield Street, witnessed the start of the Toxteth riots in 1981, and has been condemned by council demolition plans ever since; wilful neglect which some residents feel is punishment for ‘the uprising’. But in the last few years, community activism in the form of ‘guerrilla gardening’ has transformed the tree-lined streets from desolation into a verdant display of ownership and pride of place. Communal street gardens, colourfully-decorated frontages, and wildflower meadows are enjoyed by residents and visitors alike in the popular monthly Cairns Street Market.

Granby 4 Streets mirrors similar campaigns across Liverpool to establish CLTs for the community ownership of ex-HMR housing; together representing a radical new model of urban regeneration through grassroots community asset acquisition. Their successful development might contain the blueprint for a small-scale bottom-up alternative to fill the gap left by the retreating state in our emerging era of ‘Big Society’ austerity urbanism.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the £1 houses in the homesteading plan will end up under local stewardship, owned and managed by CLTs, which are, in principle at least, democratically controlled by member residents for the mutual benefit of affordable housing in perpetuity. Or instead flogged off individually to more socially-mobile residents looking for a bargain with little stake in community life.

But the picture is more complex than this simple dichotomy. The conditions of the homesteading plan require that individual buyers live in their new homes for at least 5 years without subletting out to tenants, which may well protect against landlordism and ensure local people affected by HMR become the principal beneficiaries. However, there is no reason why homeowners, after this short period, would not simply sell up and move on, cashing in on their sweat equity to pocket the difference. This not only amounts to a considerable transfer of public assets into private hands, but may also stoke gentrification processes, further displacing original residents.

The positive potential of CLTs and other forms of mutual ownership lies in their unique ability to protect these assets under a trust structure to ensure that housing remains affordable and accessible to successive local residents for generations to come. Covenants and constitutional conditions are built into the CLT governance model to limit the resale value of houses and ensure a minimum equity stake is retained under CLT ownership. This ensures that homes remain tied to the locality and controlled by members through accountable governance processes.

Local authorities are nonetheless apprehensive to simply hand over entire terraced streets to CLTs for a number of reasons. First, individual ownership is perceived as a tried-and-tested model reflecting deep-seated ideological biases for homeownership and owner-occupation. Individuals appear more reliable in renovating one house at a time at a more manageable scale. CLTs must therefore do more to demonstrate their long-term financial and organisational viability as well as their expertise in housing management.

Second, CLTs produce a different set of tensions and contradictions within their own practices as well as in their relationship with the state, the market, and the surrounding local community. They must similarly demonstrate their capacity for inclusive democratic governance and fair representation of all local residents. Inward-looking or tightly-bounded groups may make CLT membership exclusive to certain people: emancipatory for some, but divisive for others. Owning assets in trust for the entire community, both present and future, is ultimately a matter of trust. CLTs must also first gain the trust and support of public and other external partners in order to access their most fundamental resource of all: land.

Finally, the biggest barrier appears to be politics. The transfer of public assets into CLT hands represents a considerable shift of power from local government to local communities. It is unrealistic to assume that councils would jump at the chance to divest their power to potential competitors for dwindling public resources at the local level. This is all too evident in the refusal of Sefton Council to support the otherwise successful £5.2million funding application to DCLG that would have enabled Little Klondyke CLT in Bootle, north Liverpool, to acquire and refurbish 120 homes for community reuse. As it stands, the CLT cannot access government funding without approval from the local authority. And so Little Klondyke remains derelict.

But the tensions do not end there. Even if Merseyside CLTs were to receive public funding to become institutionalised as housing providers there still remains the grave danger of co-optation into housing association structures. Large commercially-driven yet publicly-funded RSLs with profit-making development arms have been heavily involved in Pathfinder redevelopment schemes – and yet ironically formed out of the charitable housing cooperatives that emerged from 1960s grassroots community resistance to municipal urban renewal. Now contending for the £1 houses, these huge housing companies not only present stiff competition for CLT campaigns in the acquisition of empty homes, but also pose the threat of incorporation into increasingly professionalised and commodified social housing markets. Whether contemporary CLTs will be swallowed up into marketised forms of housing provision like their historical non-market antecedents – including many of Liverpool’s 1970s cooperatives – will be the greatest test for community-led self-help housing. Tragic the first time, farcical the next; it begs the question: will history repeat itself?

The relationship between large-scale regeneration programmes like HMR and community-led self-help housing initiatives is complex and ambiguous, and therefore one requiring deeper research. Ironically, it took the threat of dissolution posed by top-down spatial engineering to crystallise deprived yet diverse neighbourhoods into more cohesive place-based communities. Embedded in the ashes of HMR are the seeds of exciting institutional innovations in local asset ownership. The successful development of CLTs may herald a shift toward more mutual social relations and cooperative forms of citizenship that do far more to regenerate deprived localities than expensive top-down tinkering with markets. The real test for Localism – or dare I say it, the Big Society – is whether these embryonic seeds will be tended to politically; and given sufficient institutional nutrition to grow into financially-sustainable forms of inclusive local governance.


The Big Society and housing development: empowering middle class NIMBYs?

By admin
Mar 01, 2013 Uncategorized / Comments Off

This post, authored by Dr Peter Matthews of Heriot-Watt University, previews the presentation and paper he will give at our first seminar at the University of Sheffield next month. Peter is a Lecturer in the School of Built Environment at Heriot-Watt and blogs on issues related to spatial planning and urban management at Urbanity … History.



This spring has seen town planning hit our TV screens in the fly-on-the-wall documentary The Planners. And very popular it is proving too, with 1.58 million people tuning in and the Guardian describing it as “interesting”. Every episode begins with a portentous voiceover describing how “the government” want to see a lot more development on greenfield sites. And on every episode there is at least one housing development where the local community get very irate and organise a campaign to try and halt it, with varying amounts of success.

The UK Government’s planning reforms – part of their Big Society agenda implemented through the Localism Act – were meant to unleash enterprise within communities and replace “top-down” housing targets with incentives for local communities with housing need to deliver higher levels of development. Yet, as Shelter highlight, new home completions are continuing to fall, reaching a record low and the government is now back-tracking on early commitments to empowerment.

In this blog post we describe why this outcome should have been expected because of inherent inequalities in the way citizens interact with public services – in this case the planning system.

The middle classes and the delivery of housing

In our research we carried out the first ever review of literature on middle-class community activism (Matthews and Hastings, 2013). This review of 69 studies across public services in the UK, USA and Scandinavian nations, found strong evidence that the middle-classes, or more socio-economically affluent groups, are favoured in the provision of public services. The review used a realist synthesis methodology ordinarily applied to policy analysis and evaluation. This aims to produce a mid-range causal theory that explains what works, in what contexts and how (for more detail on this methodology see Pawson et al. 2005).

Two of these causal theories that are particularly pertinent to planning for housing are:

The middle classes and interest groups

The middle classes are more likely to join groups, form groups, and these groups are more important in policy-making (e.g. School Governing Boards)

The middle classes as individual consumers/activists with public services

The middle classes are more likely to complain about public services. When they do so they are more likely to get a positive response and produce a virtuous circle.

We argue that these causal theories largely predict the sort of NIMBY (not in my back yard) behaviour that is portrayed as a key barrier to housing delivery in the UK planning system.  The UK coalition government’s planning reforms contained in the Localism Act specifically sought to break the mechanism by incentivising NIMBYs who would have ordinarily resisted housing developments with financial benefits. If communities accepted new housing then they would receive greater investment through a reformed Community Infrastructure Levy (Roof Tax on new housing developments) and a New Homes Bonus where the increased tax base would be matched by an extra contribution from central government for five years. Unpacking the logic of this from the open source planning documents the outcome of low housing delivery is seen as a product of a mechanism of community resistance, but the logic lying behind this is that the new housing puts a strain on local services that is unwelcome. If this can be turned into an economic incentive, delivering benefits to local communities, then the outcome would be more housing – a causal mechanism of basic economic incentives.  However, the evidence from the review of middle class service provision suggests they have misunderstood the way that resistance to new develop comes about and why, and ultimately predicts that the Localism Act is unlikely to be successful in overcoming NIMBY pressures against new housing.

Public engagement in the planning system has been a concern since the late 1960s and the publication of the Skeffington report (Hague, 1971). Importantly, under land-use planning legislation in the England the lowest level of local government – parish councils – are a statutory consultee that local planning authorities must engage with when drafting a development plan or deciding on a planning application. Parish councils, particularly in rural villages, are dominated by middle class, older men, often with professional backgrounds. From the earliest reforms to increase public participation in land-use planning that this may empower those most able and vocal, such as middle class civic amenity groups, has been recognised.

Linking this to the second causal theory above, the highly technical system land-use planning also supports the accumulation and use of cultural capital. To engage successfully with the planning system requires knowledge of technical planning language, complex technical terms such as what constitutes a “material consideration”, and knowledge of the system itself and when it is most effective to engage. The studies of rural affordable housing provision demonstrate that middle class parish council members are much more likely to have this knowledge and be able to apply it. The technical nature of planning processes enables the accumulation of this cultural capital as well. The evidence around this NIMBYist attitude was made even stronger by findings that many developers of controversial developments – such as wind energy – presumed that the public were vocal, lobbying and would resist all development.

In our review the evidence that the pre-2010 planning system in England favoured the middle classes was strong. To turn now and look at how planning is being reformed under the localism reforms, our causal theories suggest that the middle classes will continue to be favoured. As part of the Localism Act neighbourhood planning proposals have empowered local groups to produce their own plan which will be accepted as the key planning document for a locality so long as it is in line with national planning guidance, the local plan produced by the local planning authority and agreed at a local referendum. Although the UK Government has attempted to incentivise new development, the weight of evidence from our review of the planning system suggests that the neighbourhood planning proposals are a policy mechanism that is particularly susceptible to causal theories of middle class activism.

The reforms introduced by the Localism Act could have reversed the previous inequality in the land use planning system if they placed less affluent communities on an equal footing and provided them with the means to resist bad neighbour developments such as incinerators and heavy industry and create the types of development they wanted to see. The proposals set out in Open Source Planning that are being implemented as set out in the Localism Act suggest this will not happen. Most of the initial 17 neighbourhood planning pilots were in rural villages, and of those in urban centres arguably only Balsall Heath in Birmingham, Bermondsey in London, and North Shields Fish Quay in North Tyneside could be described as diverse or not affluent.

The implementation of the reforms has actually produced barriers that are likely to support, rather than challenge, the existing bias towards the middle class in the planning system. For example, although any group can come forward to develop a neighbourhood plan, they need to secure a majority vote in a referendum for any plan. This has raised fears that the proposals will allow developers to lead a neighbourhood planning process and impose development on less affluent communities as the latter would not have the resources, either in terms of time and money or cultural capital and knowledge of the planning system to come forward with their own proposals. The plans must also be in line with local, national and European policy and statute, for example requiring a strategic environmental assessment. Local authorities are meant to support local communities in developing the plans, however as they lose staff it is likely this will not be forthcoming. The neighbourhood planning proposals therefore benefit those communities that can organise most successfully and those that can draw on their own expertise and cultural capital.

The public debates about the planning reforms, and particularly surrounding the new single National Planning Policy Framework and its presumption in favour of sustainable development, led many to see neighbourhood planning as a NIMBYs charter. Campaign groups such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England arguing for protection of the green belt around major conurbations, were pitted against a coalition of business and housing and homelessness organisations fighting for strategic land release for development. These debates reflect on a national scale the same causal theories that our review identified as operating at a local level.

Our evidence suggests that the previous “top-down” housing targets of regional spatial strategies in England disrupted, momentarily, two of the key ways in which middle class, affluent groups could manage the planning system to their benefit. Without this, the fact that the reformed planning system has not unleashed a wave of development does not come as that great a surprise. The economic incentives of the new homes bonus are insufficient to overcome these causal mechanisms by which middle class residents can resist development.


Launching the Big Society, Localism and Housing Policy blog

By admin
Feb 19, 2013 Uncategorized / Comments Off

Welcome to the blog for the ESRC seminar series The Big Society, Localism and Housing Policy.

The buzzwords of ‘big society’ and ‘localism’ have become ubiquitous in housing policy and practice in England since the formation of the coalition government in 2010. Similarly, many of the principles underpinning the ideas of big society and localism can be found in the language and policy developments of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, albeit with subtle differences in design and implementation. The new powers, freedoms and flexibilities that localism provides for different administrations, local authorities and communities may lead to greater divergence in housing policy than we have seen under devolution in previous years, particularly when understood in the context of ongoing welfare reform, tenure restructuring and cuts to public spending.

The purpose of the seminar series is to critically engage with these issues, to explore their implications for housing policy, practice and research, and to understand their varied geographical impact across the UK. Three two-day seminars will be held, beginning in Sheffield on 7-8 March, in Belfast in October, and finally in St Andrews in March 2014.

But we do not want to restrict the debate and reflection to the confines of six seminar days spread over the next 12 months across the UK. In addition to the seminar materials made available through the website, we hope this blog will act as a forum for continued critical debate and discussion over the course of the seminar series. In the coming weeks and months we will be publishing blog pieces related to the themes of the seminars (see below) and would like to invite short contributions from academics, early career researchers and colleagues in policy and practice. We aim to publish comment pieces or reflections on new research, new publications, policy developments or the seminars themselves.

If you would like to contribute to the blog or to discuss an idea for a post, please contact myself at We particularly encourage submissions that cover the broad topics of each seminar as detailed in each link below:


Seminar 1: Localism & the Big Society: what do they mean for housing studies? (University of Sheffield, 7-8 March 2013)


Seminar 2: Localism, Welfare Reform and Tenure Restructuring in the UK (Queen’s University Belfast, 24-25 October 2013)


Seminar 3: The Big Society, Localism and the Future of Social Housing (University of St Andrews, 13-14 March 2014)


Tom Moore, University of St Andrews