Thursday, 18 April 2013

The land question?

I had a bit of a daft day yesterday. Appalling diary management meant I spent most of the time in taxis in the west of Edinburgh between campus and the city centre. I'd been invited in the evening to a "Pride and Belonging" booze and nosh event at the Principal's house. Being a socialist cynic I came into this with the aim to drink the University dry and came out having rather enjoyed myself and being rather proud of the University. Which was nice.

Anyway, that's by the by. In the afternoon I was speaking at the Scottish Cities Knowledge Centre event at the University of Edinburgh's Teviot House. The SCKC is a joint initiative between Saint Andrews Uni and Glasgow Uni. I was speaking on my middle classes and diversity working, applying some of the ideas there to community planning and the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill proposals. You can download a copy of my slides here.

Mine was a flying visit as I had to be in campus for supervision at lunch and back out for the evening do. I walked into a debate about urban design and poor housing quality in Scotland. I tweeted swiftly that I was already pondering land reform. Why was I pondering land reform?

One of the great things about the planning courses at Heriot-Watt is we make you study real estate development - indeed our undergraduate Urban Planning and Property Development BSc is joint accredited by RICS and RTPI and we also have a jointly accredited MSc Real Estate and Planning (did I mention we're the best planning school in the NSS?) I was similarly subjected to the horror of learning about the bottom line of property development when I was a planning student. And most planning students do find it very difficult - they choose the degree to save the World from evil developers. However and I'm very glad I was taught this; keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

What this taught me is two basic facts about the UK property market that most people do not understand. Firstly land values are derived from the activity that takes place on that land. To put it very simply, if you own an acre of land in the greenbelt (i.e. restricted to agriculture use) it has a negligible value - it's value will be derived from the local agricultural land market and the output and profitability of local agriculture. If you manage to get planning permission for two four-bedroomed houses which sell for £250,000 each, your land value suddenly leaps to the selling price less the development costs (when I was crunching these sorts of numbers for coursework in the heady days of 2006, this was about 25% of the selling price of homes on the land). Once you understand this, why our new build houses are crap starts to make sense. Two actors in the property marking produce said crapness: landowners want maximum uplift in the value of their land; and developers want to make maximum profits. Therefore a landowner will hold off selling their land to a developer until someone promises to build thousands of two-bedroom flats selling for £100k each. The developer will then build the worst properties they can to maximise profits. They'll be thousands of the "Victorialey" faux-mansion flat blocks that they've put all over the country because they can just run the plans off the printer. 

That is a purposefully exaggerated description of how it all works - but if you look at new developments in places like West Lothian and Fife, you'll see it's not that different from the truth. This can lead to good development of planners consider themselves as market actors, shaping markets, as argued by Steve Tiesdell and David Adams in Shaping Places (my review for Housing Theory and Society available here)

And this is why land reform matters and why it does annoy me that planners don't really get into debates about land and land ownership very much. Basically, for all of Maggie's much-vaunted pluralisation of home ownership the majority of land in Scotland and the UK is owned by very few people - a case Andy Wightman makes brilliantly in The Poor Had No Lawyers. Unlike much of continental Europe we did not have a widespread peasant-led revolution leading to distributed land-ownership, except in bizarre cases like the emergence of copyhold as a tenure. So essentially we have an oligopoly land supply facing an oligoponist housing development industry, which in turn is an oligopoly supplier of new housing. Back when I did A Level economics, non-price competition was the key way to identify oligopolistic markets - Green Shield Stamps, Esso wine glasses etc. Frankly, I'm surprised you don't get Tesco Clubcard points with a Barratt Home. 

So, with this situation in the land markets, it's never a surprise to me that we always struggle to deliver good housing and well designed places. And it's why land reform matters. For example, the new towns could compulsorily purchase land in their area at agricultural value, put in place an effective masterplan (basically telling developers what to do) and make a profit from the uplift in value to support the ongoing development of the town. This is the sort of thing we need to do more of if we're going to deliver good places. Similarly, it's why I am utterly convinced of the need for a land value tax to ensure the most economically efficient use of land.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Social class in Britain

So after two days the Great British Class Survey is still the most visited page on the BBC News website. And to think, we’re a society not interested in class. When I first did the test I misread the income question and put my pre-tax household income in and came out as Elite. Now I’ve adjusted this I’m now Established Middle Class. And you all know how much I like the middle classes.

It would be rude of me not to comment on this given our work on the middle classes. I’ve also recently finished reading Mike Savage’s book Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940 so I have a good idea where the analysis of the GBCS is coming from. So, in this post I just want to briefly comment on the GBCS and link it to our own work on the middle classes and then do a mini review of Identities and Social Change.

The response to the GBCS on twitter was bemusement followed by many questions that sociologists of social class ponder about a lot: does one’s social class change over time? What does social class mean? Is it linked to occupation? Or is it all about social status. And then there were the Marxists pointing out there are two classes – the exploited and the exploiters. If you haven’t, I’d recommend reading the article in Sociology that supports the news coverage – it’s a good run-through of the theoretical presumptions behind the study and answers most of these questions.

As a tangential point – I think this is a really excellent example of open-access done well and sensibly. There will be thousands of people who want to read this article because of its news coverage; it’s written in a very accessible way; and no one will have to pay $30.

One of the very telling things in the article is how vastly skewed the self-selected sample in the first, BBC run, Great British Class Survey compared to the population of the UK. People who read the BBC news are wealthier and in higher-status occupations than the general population. This is self-selection seems to be repeating itself in the people who are now seeing if they’re “Established Middle Class” or not and then moaning about it. Given the emphasis in the research on cultural capital, the irony cannot be lost.

So, how does this align with our own work on class. One of the questions we always get asked is “what do you mean by the middle class”. At the stage our research is at (a review of existing evidence) we can get away with saying “it’s what the studies defined it as” but it is something that troubles us. The Bourdieuan perspective of Savage’s work really helps us though in thinking through what our definition of middle class might be. In particular, our evidence shows that is the cultural capital of the middle classes, but even more importantly the alignment of cultural capital between service users and service deliverers that means the middle classes benefit disproportionately from the state’s services. In Savage’s new framework, this is the established middle class talking to the established middle class.

A lot of the comments on Twitter around the GBCS on Wednesday morning focused the methodology. And this brings me onto Identities and Social Change and my mini-review. I’ll start with a nice anecdote. I studied A’ Level sociology and I’m very glad I did – I have a working knowledge of the various main theories and methods of sociology that have stood me in very good stead indeed. In the bit of the course on stratification we studied Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s famous Luton study of the Affluent Worker. When I came to study history at university I did a course (I initially was going to refer to this as a “paper” to reveal my elite education) on modern British socio-economic history and studied the Affluent Worker as a historical text. This amused me quite a lot and I Yahoo’d (those were the days) John Goldthorpe and discovered his email address at Nuffield College Oxford and dropped him an email explaining all this. Amazingly in about two hours I got a very nice reply, which I included as an appendix to my essay. He commented that this was a sad indictment of the state of British sociology and made some cutting remarks about Fiona Devine’s study of Luton.

Anyhow, when I launched into Identities and Social Class I immediately fell in love with it as it’s not a book on sociological methods, it’s a history of sociological methods and a historiography of sociological methods. As a historian I was quite shocked to be faced with my presumption that the sociological method had been “always there”. The novelty of the large social survey was something I’d never really considered before. And the story of how the qualitative interview came to dominate sociology in Britain was compelling and made me understand all the more why my dissertation students are ready to run out and do a handful of interviews, of dubious merit and quality, at the drop of a hat.

So, if you really want to understand the GBCS I really would recommend reading Identities and Social Change. However, it does end on an interesting note, that even three years later is beginning to be dated. Savage points out that in the World of Big Data companies like Tesco and Experian have more data on our society than a sociologist can ever hope to capture. With the rise of Google even the Tesco Clubcard database is surely paling into insignificance. And that’s what I wonder about the GBCS – Sian Campbell, in a somewhat light-hearted discussion on twitter, commented:
And I think that’s quite a telling critique. In inductive class surveys you can use whatever data you want and chop it up using advanced statistical methods to divide society into classes. I actually think the methodology of GBCS was more nuanced than the likes of MOSAIC particularly because it brings in social capital. For me, this is where the Marxist and deductive class theorists are possibly right as what matters for me isn’t so much what class distinctions there are, but recognising that there are class distinctions and this has a major impact on people’s lives around things like the delivery of public services.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

More thoughts on the Bedroom Tax

Georgie Porgie’s disgusting comments on the horrendous case of the Philpott’s has caused this blogpost to emerge late at night from my addled brain. I’m not going to talk much about the case itself, but from listening to the fantastic PM on radio 4 earlier, I really would recommend reading Justice Thirlwall’s comments in sentencing. 

The reason the case, and the horrendous Daily Hate Mail front cover, have caused me to blog is for me is represents the utter debasement of the political discourse around benefits in the UK at the moment. And with the bedroom tax, this really scares.

As I’ve blogged before, I the bedroom tax will be a policy disaster. It’s really good to see commitments by the likes of Edinburgh Council to no-eviction policies, but realistically this cannot be sustained. It is meant to reduce the housing benefit bill. What will actually, probably happen, is, many under-occupying people will get into arrears. Where it is possible, they will be evicted and the costs of their homelessness will fall back onto the state. Where their tenancies can be sustained it will be, firstly, grossly unfair on those tenants who are not in arrears who will have to pay higher rent for the books to balance. The worst case scenario I can foresee is a large number of heavily indebted social housing landlords going bust in spectacular style – regulators are already aware of the stresses on RSL balance sheets that the reforms will cause.

Ages ago, following a conversation with Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Dave O’Brien on Twitter, I read this fantastic book: Failure in British Government. It tells the fantastic story of the Poll Tax where all the failures in the policy that emerged from the moment it was implemented in Scotland were predicted, but the ideological push for the tax meant it got implemented anyway. This is exactly what I see happening with the bedroom tax. It will be a policy failure. RSLs are already seeing record levels of rent arrears.

And this is where the Philpotts, unfortunately, come in. Everybody was affected by the unfairness of the Poll Tax, apart from the mythical asset-rich cash poor, Tory-voting grannies being hammered by Domestic Rates. Very few people, relatively, will be affected by the bedroom tax and the discourse around the Phillpots makes me think no one will care. I thought, and hope, that the failure of major RSLs will make the Government change tack. 

But I had a horrible thought last night about the cynicism of this government. Maybe they want it to be a failure? If it pans out the way it probably will (and Lord Freud supposedly admitted it will) the housing benefit bill will soar as people are forced into the private rented sector. Even major RSLs going bust will just give the hideous capitalists who fund the chumps in charge of this country some nice rich assets with a reasonably stable income stream to invest in, drive down service to tenants, and shove up rents, a la post-Communist Eastern Europe. This will send the housing benefit bill soaring even higher. Which will give the government an even better reason to end housing benefit altogether.

Or am I being too cynical?