Two false hopes that won’t solve London’s housing crisis

Darren Johnson has issued a report arguing that building new homes can’t solve London’s housing crisis alone. He suggests the Mayor should consider other solutions including smart regulations for the private rented sector, taxing land values and setting up land auctions.

But there are two policies you won’t see in his list. Two policies that Greens often bring up in discussions about housing. I wanted to take some time this evening to explain why I think we should talk about them a little less, and in a very different light.

Before I launch in, I would heartily recommend this blog entry by Liz Emerson as an overview of the sources of our housing crisis, to give an idea of why we need to act. The Green Party’s policy platform is chock-full of good ideas to rectify this, but when it comes to building new homes I think Greens sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the argument, and sometimes put forward two ideas that frankly aren’t good enough.

I have to make clear – while I worked with Darren on his report I am writing this blog entry in a personal capacity, and this should in no way be taken as reflecting Darren’s views, those of my employer the GLA or of the Green Party.

I also have to make clear that this blog is about London. The national picture is bound to be quite different, but I think many of the basic points still hold.

We should use empty homes before building new ones

The claim runs as follows: there are lots of empty homes in London, we should be making better use of them before building new homes.

Thr problem: It’s true that there are lots of empty homes in London, and that it would be good if we could make use of them. But there aren’t nearly enough to make new housebuilding unnecessary. Not even close.

The latest figures from Empty Homes show that there were 74,811 empty homes in November 2011. But of those, only 29,540 were empty for more than six months. A home empty for a shorter period of time could well be in the middle of renovation or waiting for tenants. So fewer than 1% of homes in London are empty for long periods of time – not very many, is it?

Empty homes are also often quite hard to bring into use. They can be in a bad way, on housing estates awaiting demolition, or owned by some grumpy absentee landlord. Councils, the Mayor and the Government all try to solve these problems, and they could definitely try harder. Our 2012 manifesto pledged to:

Set up a clearing house to offer all publicly owned derelict land to Community Land Trusts and to make all suitable publicly-owned empty homes available to self-help co-operatives to bring them back into short-life or permanent use.

But it would be a tall order to bring every last empty home into use, and to stop any more becoming empty for more than six months.

What’s more, the experts who advised the Government and the Mayor on housing need recommended that we need between 33,100 and 44,700 homes every year for twenty years just to deal with overcrowding and stabilise house prices. So those 29,540 long-term empty homes would deliver at most one year’s supply, leaving at least another 630,000 homes to build over the following nineteen years.

We should re-balance the UK away from London

The policy claim: there are another 250,000 long-term empty homes elsewhere in the UK, and if prices in London are so overcooked because it’s where all the jobs are, then we should give other regions a big economic boost to re-balance the nation.  This way lots of people would move away to Plymouth, Preston and Perth, the market would settle down in London and the south east and we could make better use of the housing stock elsewhere.

The first problem with this argument is that there is already quite a large net flow of people out of London. This diagram from the GLA’s strategic housing market assessment neatly illustrates the point:

The need for housing isn’t coming from job-hungry Yorkshiremen, but from Londoners having lots of babies at a faster rate than people are dying, and from a large net migration from outside the UK. This has changed slightly during the recession for various interesting reasons, but the basic direction of movement remains. A lot of those people leaving are retired, or moving out to commuter towns to raise families. So in fact we would need to persuade even more people to leave London to seek work elsewhere, persuade Londoners not to have so many children, and persuade far more international migrants to settle elsewhere.

The second problem is that these very big changes are far beyond the wit of the Mayor of London and local councils. We can certainly talk about these big trends and our ideas for the national Government. But when the Conservative or Labour government continues to fail to grapple with these trends, we have to be ready to say what we would do if elected in Camden, Lewisham and Bromley. It’s not good enough to throw up our hands and complain about the Government’s economic strategy.

Sticking to the facts

We can definitely say we should do more to bring empty homes back into use, and to re-balance the UK’s economy to boost the north, west, Wales and Scotland. I don’t agree with those who tend to write these ideas off because they are so fixed on new housing supply being the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet, Darren’s work shows that in no uncertain terms. We need every good idea we can get.

But we cannot pretend that they would be sufficient to meet London’s chronic housing need and that they are therefore a reason not to build new homes. Doing so makes us as guilty as those who pretend we can solve climate change and carry on flying more and more if we just build some nuclear power stations and insulate our lofts. We know that the facts don’t support the waffly half-hearted policies of other parties on climate change, so we should be sure that the facts support our policies on housing.

There are often issues with new housing developments. They can be on unsuitable land that should be protected for farming (or they can be on useless pony fields for little princesses); they can be low density car-dependent suburbs (or smart extensions with good transport links); they can feature too little affordable housing (or at least get some built in areas that desperately need it). But we must build housing in parts of the country where the need for housing is greater than the stock available. The social and economic costs are so severe that it should be one of our highest priorities to ensure this happens.

We needn’t be slaves to the market – we can advocate building council and co-operative housing for example – but we also cannot be the party of wealthy elderly councillors blocking housing needed by younger constituents as the Integenerational Foundation has warned.

Sitting around the data campfire

Similar to Gail Ramster, I went along to the Friday afternoon part of UK GovCamp 2012 without really knowing why. I suspect most people would say the same thing. You go because… well, you never know which useful people you might bump into, and what interesting things you might hear about. Plus a colleague Janet Hughes was going, and I’d cleared my desk of essential work for the week.

Here are a few takeaway thoughts from my afternoon.

1. I barely knew anyone

It’s years since I was a fish in a geeky pool, active in the free culture movement, the KDE community, software patent activism and other odds and sods.

For the past five years or so I’ve moved onto land, or perhaps a coral reef, to be more involved with issues around the environment, housing and pay inequality. The past two or so have been working as a local government employee at the GLA, supporting Green Party Members of the London Assembly. They have pushed for open data, but it’s not exactly a hot topic in our weekly meetings. My only remaining connection has been OpenStreetMap, my one geeky obsession.

Still, it didn’t matter, go along even if you know no-one at all.

2. It was nice to reconnect with optimistic techies

The event reminded me of one of the things I most like about these crowds: they’re all optimistic about the future and enthusiastic about the common interest.

I’m glad I managed to quickly chat to a few people I did know, sort of… Gail via Twitter, and Giles Gibson from the Herne Hill Forum, but sadly I only said as much as “hello” to people like Emer Coleman and Chris Osborne. That’s what you get for arriving late and leaving early.

3. It’s more meaty than you’d think

That’s “meatspace” as in “the real physical world”, compared to “cyberspace” online. Compared to events a few years ago on open data and technology, most of the discussion I heard was about councils and companies working on staff structures and consultation processes, and then thinking about how technology and data could help.

I used to get frustrated with discussions that started with the assumption that open data and technology was going to revolutionise the world. That seemed upside down to me. So I was pleasantly surprised at this.

4. There’s a lot of “we”

Somebody pointed this out in one session – it’s very easy to apply “we” to the wider population when you really mean “we sort of people in this room”.

Often “we” are innovators or early adopters of ideas that become more mainstream, like using a smart phone to access services. Sometimes “we” are set to be a significant minority, like journalists, bloggers and politicians who use data to enhance their investigatory work. Just as often “we” are a world unto our own.

It’s fine, innocent mostly, typical of any event with like-minded people. It just grated on me when people talked about reconfiguring public services or management around their preferences, as though the rest of the world will thank them.

I might make a badge for myself if I go again, with the slogan “we’re not normal” or similar!

5. Theres a lot going on out there

Cocooned in City Hall, working on affordable housing or the pay gap, it’s hard to keep even a toe dipped in this pool. It was great hearing from so many people in so many walks of work and life doing so many useful things.

Sometimes when I map an area for OpenStreetMap, walking down a street noting house numbers, I feel a bit bewildered by all these people living here! London feels impossibly enormous. I left UKGovCamp feeling similarly bewildered by the enormity of work going on in this field, relative that is to my own small bits and pieces in my job and my free time.

Open scrutiny in the age of open data

This is the first of perhaps two or three short essays inspired by Emer Coleman‘s masters dissertation on open data, written in a personal capacity and not as part of my job. In this post I want to look at what her proposed model of “iterative and adaptive open government” would mean for scrutiny of the Mayor of London. Her dissertation considers the difference between the New Public Management approach, characterised by public managers setting the goals and other public managers auditing their performance, and an emerging “Open Governance” approach using open data.

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Selecting a good politician

It’s selection time for the Green Party. In London we are voting not only on our list for the House of Lords (in case we get offered another seat there), but also for the London Assembly and Mayor. Since I work at the Assembly and I’ll be writing the manifesto for whichever people are chosen, I don’t want to endorse anyone here. But I do want to share a a few thoughts on what I’m looking for in a politician.

The most important thing for Greens to consider is that we will most likely only get one, two or three London Assembly members out of 25. There’s no room for colourful characters with narrow interests, bad tempers or a tendency for self indulgence. They need to be good communicators, both practical and radical, collegiate and disciplined.

We need to pick people who can get complicated and often innovative messages across to the mainstream media, to other politicians, to the public. It’s no use being Mr or Mrs Brains if you baffle people when you talk to them, or bore journalists with predictable soundbites. Politicians have staff to help with policy research and messaging, but nobody between them and their audience.

We rely on our Members to put across a good, rounded image of our party. Whatever your particular politics, will your choices show that the Green Party is both practical and radical, that we are able to achieve significant changes to Mayoral policy at the same time as advocating a radically different vision of London? Radical idealists might spend four wasted years making good speeches; practical realists might forget the reason they’re Green while working for minor concessions.

Our two/three members have, in the past, won a great many gains for London by working with other political parties and at times with the Mayor. The comparatively collegiate culture of the Assembly is one of the joys of working there. People who enjoy tribal politics, who thrive on factions and who find it difficult to work with others – especially if they’re those hated Lib Dems or “sell out” New Labourites, won’t get very far in the Assembly.

To focus on these basic political skills takes the final quality: discipline. Watching Caroline Lucas over the past few years, it’s been remarkable to see how hard she works to find realistic radical ideas, get them across to the public and the media in a compelling way, and work with NGOs, politicians across the political spectrum and anyone else willing to help her achieve our goals. To compare her to someone like George Galloway, who is an excellent speaker and fires a lot of people up, is to compare an effective small party politician to a character that can only be tolerated in a large party.

Of course this portrait of an effective small party politician reflects my politics; you may think we’re in this game for an entirely different reason. If you think there’s no progress without revolution or the Mayoralty, these reasons may not sway you.

It’s well worth actually watching the webcasts of a few Assembly meetings, perusing some committee reports and reading some press releases to get an idea of the work they do.

If you like the look of that work and can see its value, you might ask yourself: would this candidate be able to work cross-party on affordable housing funding and river deculverting, gain media coverage on these issues, and win some real gains for London?

The cut and thrust: how Green Party policy really works

At recent party conferences and meetings of the London Federation of Green Parties, it has struck me that many members lack any experience or understanding of how our elected politicians work with party policy. I was in the same boat until I started to work closely with our London Assembly members, Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, so I thought I’d share my experiences from the other side of the valley.

The main misconception I want to address is that all policy advocated by elected politicians can, or should, be found in our written party policy. Another way of stating this myth is to say that the policies we debate and pass at conference provide the bulk of the detailed policy used by elected politicians.

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Matchmaking open data geeks and local mappers

Two parallel worlds are starting to rub up against each other – open data enthusiasts and local activist groups. As Sam Smith has pointed out, embedding the power of open data in other worlds such as local activism has barely begun.

Maps are one medium where I’ve been trying to bring these worlds together.

Stepping into the ring

In the left corner we have people like Rob Hopkins, who has just written a great summary of Transition Town groups mapping wild food, local groups and visions of the future. This wonderful work makes use of relatively open tools like Google Maps, but (so far as I can see) they make absolutely no use of open data, and keep all of their data in their own separate mapping systems.

In the right corner we have open data crowds like OpenStreetMap, and after some prodding from me the Greater London Authority and the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Together we have stacks of open data on renewable energy generators, allotments, recycling bins and more. But so far we haven’t made it easy for activists who aren’t super-geeks to do interesting things with this data, nor to use platforms like OpenStreetMap to store data they gather.

This is a great shame because both camps believe in the value and power of co-operation and collaboration.

Here in Southwark (south east London) I have found several local groups, the council and the Greater London Authority all trying to map local food growing, or at least interested in getting the results. Why not all work together on one open dataset that everyone can then use?

With OpenStreetMap it is possible for everybody and their dog to gather data of interest to them, and put it all in one place. That way you don’t duplicate effort, and you benefit from other people’s work.

It should also be possible to share the tools so local groups don’t need a resident geek to reinvent the wheel. Google Maps enabled people to make maps of local fruit and nut trees with ease; sadly OpenStreetMap has required too many geeky power skills to do this.

Touching knuckles

Which is why I have been working on the grandly-titled Sustainable London Map (ta-dah!) with much-appreciated help from another Sam Smith, Shaun McDonald and Andy Allan. This offers two tools for local groups:

First, easy access to the data we hold. My tool generates KML files with nice pointy clicky icons for all sorts of data related to low carbon power, waste, transport, food and culture. It pulls fresh data out of OpenStreetMap every hour. You can use these KML files on your own map or desktop programme, and you can embed the map itself if you don’t already have one.

Second, a customised editor (using Potlatch 2) that focuses only on the features that the map shows and that makes the presentation of all the OpenStreetMap data a little less overwhelming.

If every community group, charity and government body in London used OpenStreetMap then we would all be contributing to one definitive map instead of all doing our own thing ignorant of each other.

I have extended a hand to friends and contacts in my local Southwark who want to map food growing and renewable energy generators. Through various emails and pub meetups I hope they will begin to use the maps on their web sites (as Peckham Power have done) and to use the customised editor to enter new data.

I have also started discussions with staff at the GLA (who lead on Londonwide food strategy and projects like Capital Growth) and Southwark Council. To my slight surprise, they have been very enthusiastic about the potential of this work. If our tentative first steps in Southwark bear fruit, there is interest in rolling this approach out across London.

Pulling my punches

Given that this is a hobby, competing with a life and my Green Party responsibilities, I’m taking it all quite slowly. I know there are good reasons whymany groups will want to stick with the tools they already have, perhaps because they don’t have the time to make the switch, or because we don’t yet offer something they need.

But if you’re involved with any mapping exercises for local community groups and would like to find out how you could make better use of open data, or if you’re an open map data geek interested in helping bridge the divide with local groups, get in touch by leaving a comment below.

Low carbon power in Open Street Map

Low carbon power in OpenStreetMapMy latest experimentation in environmental maps has been launched on the Peckham Power web site. It grabs the set of energy generators in London (updated every hour from OpenStreetMap) and plots low/zero carbon generators on the map with icons and information to tell you what sort of technology each one uses. The idea is to, eventually, impress people who didn’t realise just how much of this exists in London already.

In developing the code that creates the clickable points, I realised that the OpenStreetMap tagging schema doesn’t cope with the many different types of technologies very well. So I am currently taking a detailed proposal through the wiki process to rationalise and expand the “power=generator” feature – comments welcome! It will go to a vote in a couple of weeks.

As Oliver Kühn has pointed out, data contributors aren’t always aware of the needs of data consumers. The very sparse coverage of energy generators in OpenStreetMap is a case in point; the cluster pictured in this post was a result of a little stroll I took with a friend and Peckham Power founder Anna Plodowski. But across London there are only a few generators visible, out of hundreds or thousands that must exist. I hope this map might spur others to contribute more data.

I am also talking with contacts in the Greater London Authority and Southwark Council about getting data they hold into the public domain, to be imported into OpenStreetMap. Public bodies, and organisations like housing associations, must hold lots of data on their own kit without complex data protection issues that would stop installation companies contributing their data.

In time, it might become an interesting point of collaboration with government and third sector groups, as currently nobody holds any data indicating the extent of low and zero carbon energy generators in London!

Turning green shoots into political roots

Rupert Read has posted some useful thoughts on how the Green Party in England & Wales can build on the historic election of our first MP, and on the rapid growth in membership in recent years. There’s much to agree with, particularly on making the internal systems and finances work. If anything, I think he has understated the importance of finances… even to stay still and retain our two London Assembly Members in 2012, our two MEPS in 2013, our MP in 2015 and over a hundred councillors in between.

Here in London, a lot of thought has gone into our electoral strategy following the near-wipeout in May. I won’t digress into the London strategy here, but Rupert echoes comments from many party members I have spoken to in emphasising the need to blend realism and ambition.

Rupert is also right to ask how we can tighten up our policies, which needn’t amount to a removal of anything radical as Jane Watkinson has suggested. My first concern is that we need to go beyond the dry policy documents to think about how we engage those high-profile elected politicians with changes, so we don’t get (justifiably) bad press like this after so much effort improving policy.

I have provided some advice to Caroline Lucas MP and the office on intellectual property issues, but I can’t be as quick in helping Caroline as I can be in my full-time job supporting our London Assembly members. How can the party provide the politicians with swift responses and germane guidance whilst relying so heavily on volunteers? When researchers employed for the politicians are often restricted in their dealings with other branches of the political party (as civil servants), how can we ensure consistency between offices? More money for researchers in the party office would be a big help.

Though I think Jane’s worries are unwarranted, she is right to ask how we resolve radicalism with realism. My second concern in building on recent success is that our politicians are actually effective, and that we are able to tell the stories of their successes. This is an age-old dilemma for a small party in a big-media world (new/social media are still a bit player when it comes to getting the message out beyond activists).

Trying to be a party of radical politics in Westminster, and one that bucks the “green = environmentalism” label without shrugging off environmental issues altogether, is a tough job. Trying to pick radical policies to advice where there is a realistic prospect of a political gain – i.e. actually changing something – or a prospect of good media coverage to inform the public debate – only makes it harder.

Our Policies for a Sustainable Society run to thousands of words over hundreds of topics. Our 2010 general election manifesto has detailed proposals across most areas of government. Caroline will only be able to notch up limited political gains and big media hits on a handful of national topics; she is only one MP.

Take the Green New Deal, for example, which Caroline is rolling together with an opposition to public service cuts. The current government is going to appear very green to most voters. That is partly because the previous government had such a terrible record; and partly because it is inheriting some fairly radical proposals such as these on energy efficiency. Will Caroline just look like the impossible-to-please nutcase on the fringe, or will she be able to establish a credible line of scrutiny, attack or productive lobbying?

So I am looking forward to hearing at the Autumn conference what she is going to focus on in Parliament, how that will connect with the work done by canvassers and councillors up and down the country, and how the party can continue to forge a distinctive and very focused image for the next tranche of Green voters.

Map geeks in the bowels of City Hall

Following past discussions with staff at Southwark Council and the Greater London Authority, I helped organise a technical  workshop in City Hall this weekend. We brought some key OpenStreetMap geeks together with some keen potential early adopters from the GLA, Southwark and Brent to talk open maps and hack on data & tools.

Harry Wood will post a useful rundown of some of the stuff people hacked on over the two days.

The only practical thing I did was to work with Rob Scott (OSM) and Scott Day (Southwark Council) to try and extract buildings from the open Ordnance Survey maps so we could merge them into OpenStreetMap without having to manually trace every single one (yawn). For the nerds, I’ve written up our initial results on the wiki.

Talking with Scott, it was clear that Southwark probably have a lot of data we could benefit from, and that they would really like to use OpenStreetMap in lots of places where they don’t need the pinpoint accuracy for road shapes, gardens, etc. that they get with commercial products like UK Map and Ordnance Survey’s Mastermap.

Alisdair Maclean from Brent brought the whole road network on a USB stick. Robert did a quick visual analysis of differences with OSM data using his “musical chairs” app, and Grant overlayed the two sets of data to spot roads he had missed over the years. Again, I hope Alisdair really benefited from the opportunity to chat.

The trick is really just to keep experimenting and helping government people to try things out. Expecting local authorities to just come and use OSM without any decent documentation or personal contact is… well, it won’t happen. Without those relationships, open data initiatives like the London Datastore could just end up dumping data on the public without benefiting from our capacity to correct and improve upon that data.

Are the new new Right in this together?

February feels a distant memory. Back then, the Conservative Party released a report called Labour’s Two Nations, attacking Labour’s 13 year record on inequality. Britain had become (they suggested) a society of low taxation on the rich and high marginal rates on the poor; under Labour, risky personal lending inflating a housing fantasy replaced prudent saving and improving housing affordability.

So do the Conservatives now care deeply about inequality? Darren Johnson put the London Assembly Conservatives to the test this week, proposing that the Mayor of London implement Cameron’s policy of a maximum 20:1 pay ratio in the Greater London Authority group.

Here’s the response of the Conservatives:

In case you’re fooled into thinking that Darren and the Greens are ignoring the low paid, read Darren’s arguments in The Guardian. If we’re all in this together, shouldn’t government bodies ensure that the lowest paid receive a living wage whilst preventing spiralling pay at the top of the scale?