Sunday, 13 July 2008

Flint has the ghost of an idea

I live on a street with a Council house on it. Shock. Horror. Actually, you'd never know; it's no different to the rest of our Edwardian terrace, mellow red and yellow stock bricks, slate roof, classical Coadstone mullions to the window bays and entablature to the front door. In a street of fifty dwellings, forty-nine are privately owned and one is publicly owned. And it works. It was bought by the Council, I think, at some time in the 80s during the ideological battles being fought between the rainbow coalition in the town hall and Thatcher's government.

We have socialised the current tenants. When they first moved in, we had a night of loud music that ended abruptly when a dozen different calls to the Council's noise nuisance hotline brought the stereo squad screaming round. Unlike neighbours on a Council estate, we middle class homeowners are not backward in commanding regulatory resources to action. Then there was the time when their 12 year-old acquired a motorised scooter. After two passes down the street the lad was stopped six times by homeowners at their front gates warning gently that such behaviour was forbidden. And with the sticks came carrots; the smiles and nods of recognition to assure the tenants that it was nothing personal, just the way we want things. And now their windows are polished, their garden neat and tidy and they join the rest of the street in the mini orgy of Saturday morning car cleaning on the wide double-parked Edwardian tarmac.

So when housing minister Caroline Flint suggested that Councils could buy homes from struggling homeowners and rent them back to keep a roof over their heads I didn't recoil in horror. Even if the original homeowners move on and are replaced by 'normal' Council tenants, as long as the mix is suitably weighted it could work well.

What do I mean by suitably weighted? The mix between Council and private. I think 5% is about right, and 10% at the absolute limit of what can work. The current social housing targets of 35% or God help us 50% in new mixed developments are way, way too high and are already producing instant slums with bedsheets tacked up to the window frames in place of curtains and other signals that make the private flats unresaleable. If the middle classes are to socialise the underclass in this way we need to swamp them with our morals and values, and apply a social pressure too great to be resisted. So 5% then.

And this would be only the first phase. If we're using our taxes to buy these homes, we want a decent return from our assets and want to ensure they're maintained in good condition. The Council is too expensive, too remote and too anonymous to achieve this. On the other hand, the existing homeowners of the 300 - 400 dwellings that make up our little neighbourhood (and any local estate agent can tell you precisely the boundaries of all of these mini-wards) are ideally placed to do so. The local estate agent in the parade of shops could manage the lettings and collect the rents (thus helping hard-pressed estate agents to stay in business), and the rest of us could buy shares preferentially in the property assets, at a suitably attractive discount from current market value, shares that also be sold or traded in an open market. A sort of mini-Sid, for those of you that recall the British Gas privatisation. A little neighbourhood portfolio of 15 to 20 houses, originally funded with a mix of tax money and equity released from our own homes, but becoming self-sustaining and able to repay the 0% interest investment from the taxpayer, releasing further investment funds in a virtuous cycle of public investment.

Of course Flint wouldn't go nearly so far as this; her aim stops at the State owning these housing assets. It would take Cameron's team to give Flint's ghost of an idea its full effectiveness.


Nick Drew said...

When I was Chairman of Housing in God's Borough (pop 350,000) we adopted this policy during the slump that followed the Lawson boom, opportunistically buying the odd house or two, here and there, in private streets (for a time they were cheaper to buy than to build).

In the Victorian era, one of the socialising influences in big cities was that in most areas, everyone lived cheek-by-jowl. The ultra-detailed (house-by-house) demographic maps show this very clearly; wealthiest in big houses on the main roads; middle-income in side-streets off these same roads; servants etc in mews at the back; underclass in mean alleys, also round the back.

As you say, enough of those with standards (and resources, and the confidence which goes with that) are unafraid to call down sanctions on those without, who soon learn the game.

Critical mass is everything or, to state it the other way; tipping-point is everything. I believe studies have shown that the tipping-point is somewhere south of 15% at most, before the neighbourhood falls apart. In some places a single rogue household is enough (tremble for new developments of flats that will remain unfinished and under-occupied in the gathering slump: have you looked at this blog ?)

But 5% sounds about right.

To conclude on a pessemistic note, however:

- there may be more than 3 million of those in need of socialising

- the violence sometimes offered to those intervening against ASB these days may make the above calculations look rather naive. And they do indeed know where you live!

Raedwald said...

Thanks, Nick - and I'd second Rentergirl's blog as offering a deeply worrying insight into all the new-build 'dovecots'.

We're all going to have to learn to be a bit less scared of all the violent scotes. Coming back today from a bit of painting and tidying on the boat, the train pulled into an intermediate station to reveal a tussle between a 6' mixed race lad of about 16 and a younger and much shorter lad of Celtic mein; the younger was trying to escape onto the train, the older was pulling him down into a bundle on the platform. The thing was complicated with a tattooed and tough-looking man in his 30s, who looked no stranger to the criminal justice system, who seemed to stand in support of the MR bully.

I'm glad to say several of us immediately made our way to the doors intent on rescuing the boy - sensitive that a knife may appear, or the older thug intervene. But all ready for physical violence. In the end the commands of the platform worker prevailed; the MR thug realised the strength of the potential force against him, his supporter stepped backwards, the pale Celt escaped onto the train and was shielded by us. The driver rapidly closed the doors and we were off.

Now, I've always counted myself amongst the dishonourable ranks of physical cowards. I've run (or strode at double time) from patent attempts from the drunk, drugged and crim scum on the streets to provoke a confrontation. But not today. Today I felt righteous; I'd had enough. I was ready to arrest the MR lad and his thug mate too. I was ready to tie their thumbs with their trainer laces and drag them before a magistrate. Knives or not.

Something of that feeling communicated itself to the bully lad. A tiny and minor episode, but one that fills me with a hope that this tide may be on the turn; that the place is full of those who will no longer turn away, or turn a blind eye, and will stand as one with the weak and the solitary. I hope, for me, it lasts.

Blue Eyes said...

Mr R, I think you are right (on the housing thing and on the bullying thing) - I don't think it will take much "coercion" to get back to a better-mannered society. At the moment everything is amok, but people are getting fed up and experiences like yours on the train will soon persuade a few people to stop acting like arseholes (pardon my French).

"Scrotes" push as far as they think they can get away with. In the old days they knew they would get a shoeing from their parents if caught. If they thought they would get a shoeing from "society" they would soon desist.

Anonymous said...

Has raewald been arrested yet for 'assaulting' the the villain?