The Covert Agenda

Incredulity fused with a Panglossian sense of optimism.

Category: Political

‘Built quickly, cheaply and with little forethought’

Cross-posted on Harry’s Place, 28th March 2017.

As further objections are raised to tiny office-to-resi units, what can housebuilding during the Industrial Revolution teach us today?

As the relaxing of planning regulations results in another story of inadequately sized ‘rabbit hutch’ homes appearing in the papers, it is worth considering the roots of modern planning laws.  It’s hard to argue with the government’s position that deregulating and allowing office-to-resi conversions below the national minimum space standard of 37 sq metres for a single person will help meet housebuilding targets.  At the same time, though, it could be compared with sharing a small cake amongst a large group of children and telling them they should be satisfied.  It may deliver a temporary gratification, but it won’t sate their hunger and it certainly won’t sustain them for long or allow them to grow.

What can history teach us?  During the Industrial Revolution, rapid urban expansion resulted in accommodation being built quickly, cheaply and with little forethought.  Our modern planning system has its roots in steps taken to address these issues and improve the lives of the working classes.  Aside from issues of sanitation and the spread of diseases which issues of overcrowding brought, today under infinitely better control, there was also an awareness of the need of humans for space and open spaces.  This led to the creation of public parks to reduce social stress.

Our modern times may differ in many ways, not least in terms of the quality of life now enjoyed by ordinary people.  We now have what must then have been inconceivably large global and domestic populations, along with the resulting competition for space and higher land values.  But the basic human need for space, psychologically and physically, has not changed.  The government’s “permitted development” system means that developers who convert offices into homes are under no obligation to meet minimum floor area standards.

‘Shoebox’ housing may suit some younger people who are starting out in life, but confined living can cause mental health issues and increase stress, especially as people get older.  It is also a natural progression for singles to become couples, couples to become families. There are already thousands of ‘second-stepper’ homeowners, people who now have families and have outgrown their first home but are unable to move up the ladder.  This also causes a bottleneck for first-time buyers, meaning more starter homes are required and issues around progressing up the property ladder are exacerbated.

There is much research by charities such as Shelter that demonstrates the detrimental effects that cramped living conditions and a lack of privacy can have on children, such as delayed cognitive development. An academic paper from the US investigated the effects of housing crowding on children’s academic achievement, behaviour, and health.  Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, several dimensions of children’s wellbeing suffered when exposed to crowded living conditions; and the negative effects on children raised in crowded homes can persist throughout life, affecting their future socioeconomic status and adult wellbeing.

Perhaps we need to be realistic about the rapidly changing world we live in today and accept that space, especially urban space, comes at an increasing premium.  Yet, at what point do we start damaging citizens’ health and wellbeing, and the prospects of this country, by squeezing ever smaller units out of or into spaces.  There is also the risk that developers will become accustomed to the higher returns gained from converting offices into more and smaller spaces and widen the trend further into new-build territory.  Reduced ceiling heights and room sizes are already complained about in new houses and flats, as is the quality of the workmanship and the materials used.  None of these new dwellings comes with a cheap price tag either.

The nation’s housing requirements need to be addressed in a sustainable, long-term manner.  Office-to-resi has a valuable part to play in relieving the housing crisis, but it does not have to entail eking out as many tiny dwellings as possible from each building.  Additionally, unless it is simply because new-builds take longer to plan and complete than conversions, the fact that converted offices delivered almost three-quarters of the growth in the supply of housing last year does not feel terribly sustainable.

The Victorians considered that improving the health of workers would enable them to work harder whilst reducing the cost of supporting an unhealthy population. Today, good health, mental health and wellbeing are recognised as factors which improve productivity and reduce the strain on the NHS.  A raft of legislation was sparked following the publication in 1842 of Sir Edwin Chadwick’s report ‘The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population’ which aimed at improving living conditions.

By 1875, acts of parliament had been passed to tackle the issue of overcrowded housing.  Today, such restrictions are being loosened and we’ll have to wait to see the results.  It is, however, worth remembering why such limitations were established in the first place.

Be selfish: Help young people build your pyramid

Anonymous 17th Century French Woodcut
Cross-posted on Harry’s place 30th March 2016

The recent Guardian investigation into the economic plight of younger generations in today’s Western world makes for stark reading.  Supported by the Joseph Rowntree foundation, it looks in great detail at the lack of prospects and level of inequality between those under 35 and their forebears.  Individuals outside of this age bracket seriously need to sit up and take notice of this, for their own sakes, if not those of young people.

The way our economy operates, older generations rely on an increasing number of young people, and their taxes, to provide the services they need and to help maintain economic growth.  If younger generations are not sufficiently educated and trained in order to be enabled and employable the foundations of that pyramid for the generations above will atrophy and crumble.  Everyone loses.

It’s not as if the signs weren’t there.  The 2015 Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, Is Britain Fairer?, showed that during the recession and up to 2013, young people (defined as those under 34) suffered the biggest slide in income and employment and now face higher barriers to achieving economic independence and success than five years ago.

If members of older generations aren’t motivated to speak up for young people out of a sense of responsibility and compassion, then they should do it for selfish reasons.  For it is in everyone’s interests that members of the next generations can support themselves – and those who preceded them.   The pyramid’s base needs to be solid.

This is why those long out of school should pay attention to the ‘looming crisis’ in Further Education (FE), most recently highlighted by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report at the end of 2015.  The least we can do is provide young people with a solid, if not excellent, education, and training, so they have a fighting chance of doing well for themselves as they ride the perfect storm of combined debt, joblessness, globalisaton, demographics and rising house prices their generation faces.

The PAC report examined the declining financial health of many FE colleges. College principals told the committee that they had experienced a real-terms funding cut of 27% in the last 5 years, combined with some significant cost increases.  Declining funds can force them to make decisions that affect the life chances of learners and limit skills in the local economy.

This has meant courses have been dropped, class sizes expanded, staff not recruited and investment plans put on hold.  It’s as if the pyramid of support for the increasingly aged population of the not-too-distant future is being built on sand with no foundations.

To illustrate how serious the situation has become, the chairs of the governing bodies of 130 FE colleges called for no further funding cuts to FE in a letter to prime minister, David Cameron, last November. The chairs highlighted the parlous financial state of the sector, caused by the impact of an accumulation of funding changes.

Skills Minister Nick Boles said that the government had protected funding for further education and, “…will be increasing real-term spending by more than a third in the next five years.  Furthermore, funding for apprenticeships will have doubled since 2010.”  However, protecting a sector when it is already on its knees is not the same as stimulating and investing in it.

As a particularly topical example, the economic panel at last year’s Construction News Summit warned of the urgent need to invest in skills.  Infrastructure UK chief executive, Geoffrey Spence, said that the construction industry should target skills shortages otherwise “we won’t be able to build the infrastructure we need”.  Here we see the pyramid isn’t going to be built at all.

Aside from economics and infrastructure, the ideals and sense of compassion that we instill in the youth of today will also have a direct effect on us all in the future.  The treatment of some of our elderly people is already unacceptable and a distinct lack of political will can be sensed in preparing to look after the tsunami of senior citizens currently approaching their twilight years, with their accompanying care needs and costs.  The pyramid starts to look more like a rectangle here, or even inverted.

It feels safe to say that most people would like to receive support and compassionate treatment when they are elderly.  If we don’t adequately assist the young of today and provide them with real prospects for the future, the reality is it could haunt us when it’s our turn to be vulnerable and in need of support: financially, as the pyramid has either collapsed or never got built, and socially, as the lack of consideration and support shown to the younger generation when they needed it is volleyed back to those who withheld it from them.

Whether we have children of our own and contribute to future generations or not, it is the youth of today who will be powering and running the society we live in once elderly.  Creating a more supportive and nurturing atmosphere now might also contribute toward discouraging qualified people from emigrating and decimating the pyramid yet further.

By properly investing in young people, by providing adequate education, mentoring, vocational training and high-quality apprenticeships – and demonstrating compassionate behaviour – not only can we help ensure that young people are equipped and there is enough in the kitty to provide for the needs of all sections of society in the future.  We can also help foster a more cohesive and empathetic society in a world with more people and fewer resources.  If not, the spectre of past actions could return to bite us on the bedpan.

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