Friday, 29 August 2014

More on the Big Society

Just like Lothian 22 buses – you wait for one academic paper on the Big Society to come along and then two arrive at the same time. This time it’s Homo Economicus in the Big Society, not Bourdieu with it: ‘Homo Economicus in a Big Society: Understanding Middle-class Activism and NIMBYism towards New Housing Developments’ in Housing Theory and Society. It’s for a special issue of the journal that came out of the first of a set of ESRC-funded seminars on the Big Society, Localism and Housing. I presented my work on middle-class activism at the first seminar in Sheffield and this became this paper. The final paper ended up being co-authored with Prof. Glen Bramley and Prof. Annette Hastings.

The paper is actually two bits of empirical work brought (smashed?) together. The argument is:
  • British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) data demonstrates alarming opposition to new housing
  • This opposition tends to be in suburban, or non-remote rural locations, the sorts of places stuffed full of middle-class community activists
  • The only thing that would really overcome this argument is if the development offered more local employment, which housing developments very rarely do
  • The logic implicit in neighbourhood planning and the associated financial incentives is that this opposition is driven by peoples’ opposition to costs that affect them individually
  • Actually, we argue that the opposition is driven by the threat to peoples’ identity as it is expressed through their housing choices and sense of home.

The two bits of work were actually done separately. Prof. Bramley had done the analysis of the BSAS data, including modelling at a local level. I’d started to think about the other theoretical analysis. We realised we could bring the two bits of empirical analysis together for this paper.

The trouble is, the paper is based on 2010 BSAS data. Since then, the 2013 BSAS data on attitudes to new housing have been published (pdf) and it shows a bit of a different story. The extremely good news is opposition has dropped from 46% to 31% and support grown from 28 to 47%. Now, if I were Eric Pickles I’d be thinking “woo, neighbourhood planning has worked! Everyone wants new housing!”.

However, I’d suggest that, as I argued a couple of years ago, the problems of never-ending house price rises and the growth of the incredibly poor quality private rented sector, means housing is becoming a middle-class issue and rising up the political agenda as little Sebastian or Tabatha struggle to get a decent home on a professional salary. And we all know that these housing problems are a combination of: a lack of regional planning, meaning the market focuses growth in London and the Southeast; low interest rates and thus the low cost of mortgages and increase in effective demand for housing; as Danny Dorling has argued, the lack of housing supply due to under-occupancy in the owner-occupied sector by older people (my mum in her four-bedroomed house); and a lack of new building.

A couple of the findings of the latest BSAS data do continue to support our thesis. Opposition among homeowners to new housing is still far higher than for renters in either private or social sectors. These are the people we suggest would have most to lose if their sense of elective/selective belonging – their identity – was threatened by 200 Barratt/Bellway boxes turning up on their doorstep. Also, although overall opposition in the highest income decile fell from 49% to 33%, supporting my housing-as-a-middle-class-problem thesis, it remained high, at around a third, in the places we’d expect – suburbs and non-remote towns.

Rather interestingly, this time around BSAS asked questions directly about the so-called “Boles bung”; or to be precise they were asked if they would support new housing if extra money was provided for local public services. Again, I’d argue, the results support our thesis: 47% said it would make them support; 50% said it wouldn’t. If homeowners were homo economicus, making rational decisions based on the immediate costs we’d expect to see much greater support if local public services were improved. These results suggest a much more pyscho-social homo democratus is at work here, positioning themselves in society with their residential choices and having and internal and external debate about anything that would affect this. 

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