Monday, 30 March 2009

My family and urban extensions

“You greens are all a bunch of middle-class NIMBYs who don’t give a damn about working-class people stuck on the housing list, or the homeless!”
Anonymous quote that, with slight variations, often appears to crop up when the RSS plans are discussed.

An easy accusation and is it true? Or is it that some of us know from bitter experience that building new houses on green field sites merely produces homes out of the reach of the vast majority of those stuck on the housing list or without a home at all. For your perusal, here is my family’s personal history of urban extensions in the Bristol area.

My maternal grandfather was called Joseph, he was the fourth Joseph in a line stretching back to the early 19th century. The family had moved, like many other families, as economic refugees from the surrounding countryside - they had originally worked on local farms but as farming became less labour intensive and work difficult to find, they joined the vast migration to the industrial urban areas like Bristol. Having settled in the Old Market area of Bristol, in 1890 my great-grandfather was born. An only child, this Joseph (let’s refer to him as Joseph III) was the son of a pot seller and a rag and bone dealer, who like many of my relatives both before and since found the only way to escape poverty was to join the army. Having contracted diseases on behalf of Queen and Country around the world, he left the army in early 1914, having by that time got married – but, unfortunately for him, a “proper” war broke out in Europe and he was immediately called up, leaving his wife (pregnant with my grandfather) to stay with her parents in overcrowded St Judes.

Joseph III served throughout WWI, was twice wounded but managed to survive the conflict. In 1918, he returned home and the family began to grow. The area they lived in was a slum but, not to worry, the Prime Minister of the time, Lloyd George was promising “homes fit for heroes” to be built for the generation that had sacrificed so much on the killing fields of Flanders. Let’s meet urban extension number one.

As part of this "homes fit for heroes" plan, three million homes would be built in the twenty year period between the wars – the same figure as is estimated today as being required for the next twenty years. In the Bristol area, the figure was in the region of 38,000 homes built on green fields to the south, east and north of the city – this can be compared to the 37,000 or so planned today, also with extensions to the south, east and north. The housing shortage in Bristol in 1919 was estimated at 8,000 – today there are 10,000 on the housing list. It all sounds very familiar doesn’t it?

So my great-grandfather with his exemplary war record on behalf of his country and with his growing family (now reduced by the loss of two children to the Spanish Influenza pandemic) but eventually reaching eight, living in “slum” housing with his in-laws – could, of course, expect to be one of the first to be rehoused. Yeah, right, and pigs might fly.

Of the 38,000 new homes built in the inter-war period in Bristol, some 60% were constructed for the private open market, with the other 40% being what we like nowadays to call social housing (at that time, council housing). My great-grandfather could only dream of being able to afford to buy a house, and as for the council housing; the construction of the council housing was financed by a three-way scheme – a subsidy from central government, a subsidy from local government raised by increasing the rates, and a large increase in the rents. The rent charges required were well beyond the means of the vast majority of those living in the poorest areas of the city. Just like the later “right to buy” introduced during the Thatcher era, the new housing were available only to the better-off working classes, whilst those on the bottom rung were effectively marginalised.

In the end, in 1930, 12 years after the promise of “homes fit for heroes”, a new housing act targetted those living in the slums, including those of Bristol; however it was not until 1937 that Joseph III’s family was finally moved out to new houses at Filwood Park. Unfortunately Joseph III had died in 1935 without ever seeing his promised home fit for a hero. It was his widow who moved with her eight children to their new home, where they quickly learnt to hide when the rentman came calling for the rents they couldn’t afford to pay – they were not alone, about a third of council house occupiers were in arrears with their rent at any one time.

In 1938, my grandfather (Joseph IV) married a girl whose family had also been moved following slum clearance in The Dings, and they too put their names on the housing list. They settled in for a long wait, as once again war broke out, and my grandfather was called up into the army – he landed at Normandy but survived unlike his brother who was killed outside Caen. When peace came in 1945, my grandfather, like many others, voted for change and Labour and the welfare state was voted in. Once more, promises were made about a new England, where everybody would enjoy the right to a decent home without being overcrowded.

In Bristol, more green fields were built upon as part of yet another 20 year plan – it was decided that people shouldn’t live in the city centre at all and so the city expanded again and once again homes were built on the south, the east and the north of the city, including 10,000 homes built on the slopes of Dundry, at Hartcliffe and Withywood. My grandfather, now with a family that would eventually number ten, had become a bricklayer and helped build many of the houses in Hartcliffe. But once again he had to wait his turn until eventually, after nearly twenty years since going on the council waiting list in 1938, they were moved to the new estate - only to find that, unless they got a job at the new tobacco processing plant, they were now totally dependant upon public transport (consisting of an unreliable bus service) for the journey to areas of employment in Bedminster, Brislington and St Philip’s Marsh.

So here we are again, 10,000 new homes to be built at Ashton Vale and many of my relatives find themselves once more on the council housing list and almost certainly will be unable to afford to buy the vast majority of the homes that will be constructed on the new development. With probably only about 1,000 of the new homes likely to be “affordable” homes and 10,000 plus on the waiting list, they have less than a 1 in 10 chance of getting “lucky” and being offered an affordable home.

But, even if they were offered one of the new homes, they don’t want to live in Ashton Vale – they want to live in Hartcliffe, it’s where they were brought up and where the vast majority of our family live. Strange as some outsiders might think, they actually like Hartcliffe because it is actually a great place to live – my own recollections are probably rose-tinted and helped by the fact that by the time I grew up local amenities (but not decent public transport) had finally been added to the estate. Sure, there were always a small minority of individuals who caused disruption – but my memories are of a happy childhood despite the lack of money. At least, unlike many of those living in inner city areas, we had easy access to the open countryside and the streets weren’t chock-full of commuters in their cars and the resulting fumes.

Talking to other members of my family, instead of seeing money spent on homes in Ashton Vale they can’t afford, they would like to see money spent on homes in Hartcliffe, Inn’s Court, Hengrove Park, etc that they have a better chance of being able to afford, and if they cannot afford to buy they would like to have a choice of options to rent (whether that be from the council, housing associations, or reputable private landlords like Unite). They don’t want to be forced to rely on private cars or public transport to travel across the city to Avonmouth or Stoke Gifford for work – they want to be able to travel to work in South Bristol. They don’t want dual carriageways built through their streets so that people can speed through – they want transportation designed for them to use – that is, the local community.

I have no doubt that if the new development goes ahead in Ashton Vale, very few people on the housing list will find themselves moving much further up that list. I hold some slight hope that, having been failed consistently by the system for the last 90 years, my family will not have the 20 year wait that Joseph IV and Joseph III had before getting a decent home they can enjoy. Unfortunately, I fear that this hope is very slight and that the only people who will benefit will be shareholders in those companies investing in property development and a few lucky souls who can afford to buy themselves up the ladder.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Not voting?, then why bother protesting?

Last Friday, the Green Party held its official launch for the South West European Elections. Following speeches by lead candidate Ricky Knight and the other five MEP candidates, Jonathon Porritt took the opportunity to highlight the fact that 65% of the policies presented by the Greens (then known as the Ecology Party) have now been adopted by the three grey parties.

“We were right all along” he said before warning that the grey parties still hadn’t got it right; “Every single one of the issues that the Green Party has been campaigning on for the last 35 years is getting worse and worse, which means that people should no longer put off the day when they accept that the future is either Green or not at all”

In Bristol, we appear to be learning this lesson (albeit slowly); since 1998 the overall vote for the grey parties has barely changed - meanwhile the Green vote is now 560% of what is was in 1998. One of the effects of this (apart from the election of a Green councillor) can be seen in the way the grey parties have adopted many Green policies as their own. One Lib Dem councillor even went so far as to say “It is the Lib Dems who are the green party in the City” whilst at the same time ridiculing David Cameron for copying the Lib-Dems on green issues….pot, kettle, black?

The Lib-Dems in particular are concerned about the growing power of the Green Party, recently leafleting Easton ward with the message that a Green vote would result in a Lab/Tory council, whilst in Ashley ward Lib-Dem Cllr Jon Rogers has been working hard blogging and twittering to ensure that voters are aware of his pro-green, pro-cycling credentials. Labour and the Tories are also fond of littering their leaflets with words like “sustainability”, “open government”, “human rights”, “energy efficiency” and so on.

But, just as elsewhere, the grey parties are not getting it right – Labour, along with the Conservatives of South Gloucestershire and North Somerset was intent on feeding the beast that was the incinerator. The Rapid Transit threat to the Railway Path was begun under the Lib-Dems and continued by Labour, and only after community and Green party campaigning did all the parties finally decide that BUS-rapid-transit should not be allowed to threaten the Railway Path.

My concern is that the real commitment of any of the grey parties to “green” issues only runs as deep as the amount of votes they believe it will attract at election time. In the end, there is only one vote that will let the grey parties realise the strength of opinion regarding “green” issues – a vote for the Green Party.

We have been right all along, and in the last round of local elections 14% of voters, that’s over 10,000 Bristolians, voted Green. But the biggest barrier to the Greens is not the cynicism of the grey parties and their sudden re-invention of themselves “now with added greenwash”, it is the large number of green activists who have opted out of the political system. In the last few months, I have lost count of the number of activists who have come into the Green Party office to ask for our help in publicising or supporting their cause who admit that they do not vote because “it won’t make any difference, Labour/Tories/Lib-Dems (delete as appropriate) will get in anyway”.

In 2007, only 70,000 people voted out of an eligible electorate of 200,000 – that left 130,000 people who didn’t vote, either because they think the grey parties are doing a great job and therefore see no need to change anything (the way the grey parties like to see it) or because they think voting makes no difference (which suits the grey parties just fine). If you are one of those who didn’t vote, and then wonder why the grey parties are building a Rapid Transit route down the railway path, selling off bits of green space to developers, or allowing the development of yet more houses on green belt land whilst 7,000 homes are empty – here is the answer, you voted for it by not voting!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Ashton Park – the mother of all land grabs?

There seems to be a depressing familiarity about the arguments for building on nearly 500 hectares of green belt land of which the most common is along the lines of “it’s OK for the NIMBYs in their nice houses complaining about building new homes but what about all those people on the waiting list?”

When it is pointed out that there is a large amount of brown-field space inside the Bristol urban area to build houses if they really are required, they respond that the developers are only interested in building flats and that the need is for family homes. The implication usually linked in with that last comment being that somehow this can only be done on green field sites like Ashton Vale. A view reinforced by the statement in the Evening Post today (10 March 09) by Jonathan Chastney of LandTrust Developments who says that brownfield developments would be “lots of flats rather than family homes”.

Chastney knows full well that the only reason that developers have built flats rather than family homes on brownfield sites is because that is what they have chosen to build. His attempt to portray flats as inevitable is dishonest and an attempt to use moral blackmail on the local community. There is no reason except the greed of developers that brownfield sites need to be developed as flats. This has been proven time and time again by more imaginative developers elsewhere who are not simply locked into a mindset devoted to the mass production of land hungry, low density, community destroying, and energy wasting “machines for living in”.

The truth of the matter is that developers are interested in building properties for sale at the maximum possible profit. They have done their calculations and what their sums tell them is that building on green fields is less costly (to them) than building on brown fields. That, in urban areas, where higher densities are usually required, the easy recourse is to build flats. By building flats not houses in urban areas, it also increases the pressure on local authorities to release the green field sites that provide the greatest opportunity for profit. Pressure that is increased by quangos like the SWRDA, and the interventions of government ministers who, as demonstrated recently by Ben Bradshaw’s comments on the incineration proposal, know little about the local situation.

A property developer has no interest in providing the type of affordable housing that might become available for those who are currently homeless or are on the housing list, but if the council want to subsidise a tiny percentage of the houses built to make them affordable to those on the housing list than they will magnanimously allow them to do so (as long as the percentage is not too high).

However, as in most other commercial situations, the property developers overarching responsibility is to their shareholders not to the local community andthus they are simply doing the job they are paid for. The interests of the local community should be the responsibility of the local authority, and of their local MPs.

Unfortunately, too many local authorities and too many local MPs appear more than willing to put the profits of developers at an higher level than the needs of their residents and allowed developers to build unaffordable flats inside urban areas when affordable houses were needed, and then belatedly protest when developers and regional quangos start to carve out large segments of green field land to build their low density housing.

As a result, the protests of those who have a clearer vision of what this constant encroachment on our open fields entails, and who know from bitter experience that a vast housing development in North Somerset will have little effect on the housing list in Bristol City, in the same way that a large housing development at Bradley Stoke in South Glos also had little effect, will have to fight the battle to stop this development handicapped by the lack of reasonable foresight of their own elected representatives.

Roll on the next election - local and general!