Innovation in housing

3rd March 2017

Innovation in housing supply

England is not good at dealing with its housing crisis. The government has lacked imagination when it comes to thinking about how to deal with the under-supply of houses and what stands out about the response that it has been making is an almost complete lack of imagination.

Let’s looks at some of the ideas that could help to bring a quicker solution to the problem of meeting housing needs. Firstly, using imaginative methods to create places to live in.

Manufacturing prefabricated units at considerably less cost than building with bricks on site. Companies are already making living units in factories. These are transported in a nearly-finished form, put in place and services connected and all this can be done at considerably less cost than building houses with bricks and in less than half the time. Using modern materials and up to date methods of fabrication, the production of such units has already started and is proving to be successful.

Several British companies are now offering modular homes for as little as £80,000. Units of this kind are constructed to a high standard of energy efficiency, thus reducing their running costs. Because modern techniques and materials are being used in their manufacture, they can be tailored the needs of the clients. The key factor is that they can transported to site and finished very quickly. Sales of these unites have been good and the house-buying public as shown a real appetite for these innovative units.

Many of the units currently available require land; that can be a problem for many local areas where inner urban building land is in short supply. However, some of these units, designed for urban life, are stackable, making better use of the smaller inner city areas that result from site clearances. In fact, in some cities (where space really is at a premium) units have been placed on top of existing buildings. They are lighter than conventionally built penthouses.

The units are ready to have electricity, drainage and water connected when they arrive on site. Inside one of these units the accommodation is very similar to modern apartments. If you were to walk into one of these units you would think you were in a flat in a newly built apartment block. That is enough to convince many prospective buyers that these are viable living spaces. The size of units ranges from one bedroom to four bedrooms. On the whole, stackable units tend to be low rise projects, if they are stacked on top of each other. Providing three or four tiers of units does not involve much infrastructure.

Pre-fabricated units are a real alternative to traditional buildings and offer a serious solution to the housing crisis. They are affordable in a way that conventional brick-built houses are not. Prices are considerably lower than for the equivalent amount of inside space provided by conventionally constructed houses. Being comparatively light, they can be built on piers allowing car parking space to be provided at ground level. They can thus be erected over existing ground-level car parks. Some units have been designed that employ solar panels to supply electricity. The materials used to make walls and roofs use eco-friendly materials and allow modern materials made from recycled plastics to be used.

Not just cheap

Many of the units currently available offer cheap solutions to meeting urgent housing need. They can also provide homes for other sectors of the housing market, in areas where land is more freely available. If we can provide housing stock for the higher ends of the market (I mean units from £100,000 to £300,00 or more) it would lead to purchasers freeing up existing accommodation. That would also relieve pressure on demand at the lower end of the market. Some of the prefabricated units are clearly intended for the wealthier end of the market; people who can afford the land required and can afford to put services and drainage in place. Providing more units at this end of the market will enable movement to take place that would, I would argue, reduce the pressure on the lower-priced sectors and free up opportunities. Thinking back to what I said before on the renewal of existing urban housing stock, these units could be very useful on sites where redundant properties need to be demolished. Instead of replacing properties with brick-built houses, these prefabricated units could be installed at much less cost and in a fraction of the time. In urban areas, the challenge is not to create new land but rather to use existing land more effectively.

The goal of housing policy should not be to do things on the cheap but to provide housing that is of good quality at prices that people can afford – people who are desperate to have homes but who cannot afford to climb the ladder of conventional housing. When we look at the units being offered by the prefabrication suppliers, we see a lot of architectural and engineering expertise has gone into the design. Much more intelligence has been used by designers in the prefabrication sector than we see in traditional housing building.

So why aren’t we doing it?

The housing crisis is not that difficult to solve. The bigger problem lies in our members of parliament – the people who make the decisions. They are like an old record that got stuck – endlessly repeating the same old formula about building housing with bricks. I have argued before that brick-built houses are not the most viable option for the situation we have in this country. Until our policy-makers move away from that antiquated mantra, we are unlikely to make progress.

We need people with imagination to head up future housing policy. Not just in the palace of Westminster. Local authorities could do a great deal more to provide housing in their areas but this will require both elected members and officers in housing departments to change their long-established, entrenched, attitudes about to how to do things.

The goal is simple: provide quality affordable housing cheaply and quickly. You cannot do that with bricks and mortar.

Learning from failure

The housing acts of the last twenty years are widely regarded as being failures. Successive governments have failed to respond effectively to the growing problem inadequate housing supply. Recent responses by the present government looked very much like knee-jerk reactions that had been poorly thought through.

The housing White Paper of February 2017 achieved one thing: it recognised that the housing market was broken and needs fixing. Little else of worth was contained in it. But then a white paper does what a white paper does; it opens the door to consultation. The white paper realised that there is a need to encourage diversity in the housing market. It said:

Action to help small independent builders enter the market given including through the £3 billion Home Building Fund. Currently around 60% of new homes are built by just 10 companies.

Those ten companies are brick builders and they are part of the problem – not part of the solution. If we want diversification in housing supply we have to break that monopoly. In my view that means providing incentives for non-brick fabricators to do a lot more. If the Home Building Fund is in fact to provide much-needed scope to enabling new methods of construction, then we will be well on the way to dealing with the crisis in the supply of affordable homes.

Another thing that Sajid Javid said the White Paper:

The proportion of people living in the expensive private rented sector has doubled since 2000 and that more than 2.2 million working households with below-average incomes spend a third or more of their disposable income on housing.

If there are more people in the renting sector then we need to find ways of supporting them. I very much doubt that we will see a significant decrease in the rental sector over the next ten years – what ever else happens to housing supply. What would help the rental sector is to provide a much more diverse range of options and an robust increase in the number of apartments that are available to rent. Building high rise apartment blocks in urban areas is one way of increasing supply but it is not the only one. Policy-makers need to be much more imaginative; that means letting go of traditional methods of building construction and focusing more on innovative contemporary techniques.

The government consultation on planning policy and legislation in relation to planning for housing, closes on 2nd May 2017. From the Government website we see that:

Many of the changes involve amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework. The Government intends to publish a revised Framework later this year, which will consolidate the outcome from the previous and current consultations. It will also incorporate changes to reflect changes made to national policy through Written Ministerial Statements since March 2012. These are:

Support for small scale developers, custom and self-builders (28 November 2014), etc.

The statement about support for small scale developers is one of nine topics. It might prove to be one of the most important. Interesting to see the word ‘custom’ in there.

Turning things around

The history of housing legislation – in the past twenty years or so – has been littered with outmoded, poorly thought-through measures that have failed to make an impact on housing supply and that is why we now have the crisis that we see today.

It is not just the reluctance of policy-makers to embrace new methods of construction that leads of failure. It is also their inability to devise new methods of finance. We have known for a very long time that there has been a shortage of traditional mortgage finance. Tackling this issue probably does not lie in reforming banks and building societies; some of it might be but what is more likely is that we have to devise new methods of providing finance to prospective home buyers. We might well have to replace the mortgage with a new way of financing home ownership.

Sajid Javis is an old-school thinker; he is still chanting the mantra of building new houses and his record is clearly stuck in the groove of bricks and mortar.

Two groups of people are at a severe disadvantage in the housing market: the young and old. Young people have not been working long enough to have saved up enough money for a deposit. They are dependent on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ – if they are fortunate enough to be born to relatively well off or wealthy parents. Older people can often find themselves unable to access mortgages because of their age; mortgage providers frequently view retired people as being bad risks when it comes to paying off housing loans.

These two groups stand to gain from the introduction of new methods of construction. Because these units cost a great deal less, they are more affordable and much less capital is required to buy them. If smaller loans are required, existing mortgage providers might be more willing to lend, over a shorter period of repayment. This in itself will not solve the problem. What we need is a totally new approach to financing access to housing – one that is not based on lending large sums of money over twenty five years. We should rely on only the private sector to provide home loans.

Think of it this way – people are financing cars costing between £20,000 and £50,000 without facing the up-hill struggles they experience when trying to finance a home to live in. Cars do not hold their value as much as homes over a period of years. The chance of a car being written off due to an accident is considerably higher than loosing a home due to, say, fire or natural disaster.

Housing is an issue of fundamental importance; many other aspects of our lives are pivoted on having a suitable and satisfactory home. If our country is to become a better place in which to live over the next twenty years or so, we must be able to deal with the housing crisis that we face today.

References

February 2017. YMCA response to housing white paper.

February 2017. The housing white paper.

EUReferendum

Referendum on the European Union

25th June 2016

This article digests what I made of the debate right up to polling day on 23rd June.

In the last referendum on European membership (on the 5th June 1975), I voted NO after being persuaded by Tony Benn. I am writing this article not because I am in any way an expert on this subject, clearly I am not, but because I like to practice my journalism skills.

Predictions

My predictions are

(a) the turnout for the eligible electorate will not exceed 50% [I got this wrong; I made this prediction early on in the run-up debate when a lot of people seem disinterested in the whole thing.]

(b) the result of the referendum will be a win for the remain campaign though the vote will be close. [Again I got it wrong; even right at the last moment, I still thought that remain would win, though by a narrow majority. I was surprised by the final result.]

The result of the vote

13th July

Brexit means Brexit

As Theresa May unpacks at Downing Street, I look at her election pledge to make withdrawal from the EU a reality. She said “Brexit means Brexit” but it will be up to her to define what this means. It will be up to Ms May and her Cabinet to set the timetable for withdrawal from the EU, if indeed, that it what they plan to do.

Leaving the EU could offer Britain an opportunity to negotiate fundamental changes to the way that the EU is run and the policies and procedures on which it is based.

In the last few days a large posse of lawyers went to some lengths to point out that the result of the referendum is ‘advisory’ and not mandatory. According to press reports, over one thousands barristers (high level lawyers in this country) have concluded that the vote to leave the EU provides the government only with ‘advice.’ [The Guardian, 11th July 2016]

The senior lawyers have advised the government that it should up to Parliament to decide whether Britain should leave the EU. In a letter they argue that the referendum result as only advisory because it was based on “misrepresentations of fact and promises that could not be delivered”. The letter, published in full by The Independent on 11th July, said:

‘The European Referendum Act does not make it legally binding. We believe that in order to trigger Article 50, there must first be primary legislation. It is of the utmost importance that the legislative process is informed by an objective understanding as to the benefits, costs and risks of triggering Article 50.’

They continued ‘Since the result was only narrowly in favour of Brexit, it cannot be discounted that the misrepresentations and promises were a decisive or contributory factor in the result. The parliamentary vote must not be similarly affected. The referendum did not set a threshold necessary to leave the EU, commonly adopted in polls of national importance, e.g. 60% of those voting or 40% of the electorate.’

The question asked in the referendum was simple: do you want to stay in the EU or leave it? It would be up to the government formed this week by the new prime minister Theresa May to work out how they want to handle negations with Brussels over leaving and the timescale within which that will happen.

The barristers concluded that ‘For all of these reasons, it is proposed that the Government establishes, as a matter of urgency, a Royal Commission or an equivalent independent body to receive evidence and report, within a short, fixed timescale, on the benefits, costs and risks of triggering Article 50 to the UK as a whole, and to all of its constituent populations.

The Parliamentary vote should not take place until the Commission has reported. In view of the extremely serious constitutional, economic and legal importance of the vote either way, we believe that there should be a free vote in Parliament.’ [The Independent ]

Meanwhile, Mrs May has floated the idea of a new government department to take day-to-day charge of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU – to be headed by someone who campaigned to leave in the referendum. Chris Grayling, a prominent Brexiteer who supported her leadership bid, acting as her campaign manager, has been touted as a possible candidate for this role. Liam Fox, another Leave supporter who got behind Mrs May, after his own leadership bid failed, will also have hopes of a top job, according to the BBC.

Talk of having a second referendum on the issue of the EU is interesting though largely impractical, not leave because of the cost, estimated to be in excess of £142 million. The big political test for the Government’s policies will come at the time of the next general election. Many commentators would say that an election would return a Conservative government, doubtless with an increased majority, and the political wind is blowing in that direction.

12th July

The fallout from the referendum continues: Theresa May is to replace Cameron as prime minister. Labour is embroiled in a leadership battle. People are talking about a second referendum, hoping that all those who voted LEAVE will see the error of their ways. But the new prime minister is still saying the UK will leave, even though she campaigned to remain. Everyone respects the will of the people and their vote should be upheld. The date of the next general election will be sooner than we think. The issue will come back back again at that time.

Referendum day

On polling day it seems the country was equally divided. On the morning of the vote, a trawl through websites suggested that the result will be too close to call. Towards the end of the run-up campaign, the people became increasingly passionate about the side they had chosen – although a very large proportion had not made up their minds by the eve of the vote.

So if the result was very close, what would that mean for British politics? If there was no overwhelming, landslide victory for one side would the Government be bound to follow the will of the people? I looked at this issue. Some analysts said that the legislation that set up the referendum did not make the result legally binding. Even if Brexit won the vote, Parliament would still have to legislate to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. As far as I can see, pro-Europeans have a majority in the House of Commons. If the vote resulted in a decision to leave – even by a very narrow majority – it would be political suicide for Cameron and his Conservative government to overturn the will of the people.

But then most commentators see a success for Brexit as heralding the end of Cameron’s premiership. There is an interesting scenario: what if Labour managed to force a general election and won it? In the wake of a vote to leave, a general election could be forced through and if a party wins it that is committed to remain that would be put forward as a political mandate. As to whether it is more or less of a political mandate than the referendum is difficult to see. If more people voted in a general election and the gap was wider than for the referendum result, in this scenario, then Parliament could conclude that the referendum had been superseded by the result of a general election.

Early on in the campaign, I predicted that the turnout of voters in the referendum would be less than fifty percent; I still doubt that it will be more than the turnout in a general election. The problem for politicians is, when it comes to determining the will of the people – who do they believe? The referendum vote is simple: two choices – leave or remain. In a general election all constituencies will have multiple choices and even with ‘first-past-the-post’ elections, it is possible that the will of the people will be less than decisive. Only a landslide election victory with a big turnout could overturn the referendum result.

There is however another scenario. Let’s assume that Brexit has won. Parliament votes to leave. The process begins but is set to last for two years before anything really happens. During that time political and popular opinion changes and a majority forms in favour of remaining in the EU. The next general election is set for 2020. It is not unknown for elections to be brought forward. We can imagine a picture in which the leave vote wreaked havoc on the UK economy and ignited a strong change in opinion in favour of remaining. an early general election is fought around the EU question and a remain party wins with a comfortably majority. If that party is not the Conservatives, then Parliament would be in a position to put the whole withdrawal process to the vote. So the UK position would become ‘I know we said we were leaving but actually we have changed our minds and now we want to remain.’

41 years later – has anything changed?

A major decision faces the British people on 23rd June 2016 – possibly. Britons return to the ballot box to decide whether they should in or out of the EU. I say ‘possibly’ because a few people dispute how major this decision actually is and whether it faces the British people, as a whole, depends on which part of it you live in.

Forty years ago the vote was put to the people; it might seen that a lot has changed over that time but has it? In many ways the issue we will face on 23rd June this year is much the same as it was in 1975.

In parliament, the heavyweights have got into position; Cameron said today (February 22nd) that leaving the EU would be “a leap in the dark” and PM contender Boris Johnson has joined the NO campaign, putting his weight behind those who want out. Do they, as they claim, have the nation’s best interests at heart? Or are they just watching their backs, caring more for the future of the Conservative Party and who will fill the PM’s chair at Downing Street, when it becomes vacant. Indeed, if the ‘exits’ have it, many believe that will be the end of Cameron’s premiership.

Meanwhile, the Labour party exhibits a mixed bag of views. Mr Corbyn saw the EU negotiations as a “theatrical sideshow.” He claims that Labour is “overwhelmingly for staying in.” Corbyn might disagree with Cameron on many things but they are united in their belief that the UK should continue to be a member of the EU.

The two major campaigns – ‘stay in’ and ‘leave’ – have started their work of persuading the public which way they should vote. Stronger In, for example, began to drop literature through people’s letterbox in January. Leave.eu has similarly started started to bombard us with their side of the propaganda war. Meanwhile the media has been having a field day with constant news stories about who is saying what and who has done what.

For both sides of the argument, the hymn sheets have been made ready for politicians and business leaders to sing to. Both sides are honing their cases, the positions that claim are the key ones for the voters in June.

How long to get out?

What difference will the vote on 23rd June make? Will the UK suddenly become an ‘independent’ sovereign state on 24th June? Several commentators have said that the decision could be challenged in the European court; even the terms negotiated by Cameron over the weekend will not automatically fall into place, if we believe what the analysts are saying. Even if details of the terms go unchallenged in the courts, it would take two years to finally cut the chains holding our island to the mainland of Europe, I have heard it said. Indeed, some believe that leaving the EU is simply a ploy to get more favourable terms for staying in. Commentators have been saying that Cameron’s tour of the 27 member states was a weak manoeuvre and what he left Brussels with was hardly worth having. What he got and what he asked for, were separated by a gulf wider than the English channel. But if many millions of voters give a resounding OUT that puts the UK in a much more demanding position.

Meanwhile, the scare-mongers are lining up to frighten prospective voters. From the Scots, who are threatening to devolve from the ‘united’ kingdom through to the law, order and security brigade who see 24th June as being the start of Armageddon. What some say they don’t have is the facts; even so, what politicians are not short of is facts, even though many produce figures that are contradictory and hotly contested by others. Members of the public interviewed on the TV vox pop news films seemed to be roundly confused by it all.

An independent England?

It’s not just the Byzantine complexities of the EU; the question of tariffs and barriers and boundaries with the rest of the world is a mire of murky misinformation and misunderstandings. OK so the rest of the world is actually bigger than Europe and even if we did walk away from it, Europe will still be there long after we have voted with our feet. What staggers me is that we got so little support from our European neighbours when the PM sat down to talk. Cameron’s shopping list of ‘demands’ got watered down by the time he left Brussels. What Cameron came away from Brussels with was a feeble set of compromises.

Labour, says Corbyn, will campaign to stay in and he Tweeted his reasons why. Workers rights, paid maternity leave, equal pay and more being seen as the headline benefits conferred by EU membership. ‘Stay in and make it better’ seems to be the Corbyn mantra. He would love to see an end to the kind of austerity measures that embittered Greece. Writing in The Guardian (on 22nd June) Corbyn argued ‘… being part of Europe [sic] has brought Britain investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment.’ He meant to write ‘EU’, surely? He went on to say ‘The prime minister has been negotiating for the wrong goals in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.’

For Corbyn the real issues are about the steel industry, stopping the spread of low pay and insecure jobs and the exploitation of migrant workers. Well he is after all a Labour politician. It’s all a clash of philosophies – free marketism versus social co-operation. His point is a worrying one; he referred to the ‘bonfire of rights’ that could follow a British exit. No longer bridled by Brussels, a Tory government could wipe the slate clean on worker’s rights, pay and equality.

Norway is often paraded as an example of what independence can achieve. The reality is rather different. Travelling between Sweden and Norway you will not encounter a border control or need to show a passport. Even though Norway is not a member of the EU they still have to deal with fish quotas and tariffs but they have no say in how these are set. Norway is a member of EFTA and a member of the European Economic Area (the EEA) along with Iceland and Liechtenstein. Prime minister Erna Solberg said that Norway’s own arrangement would not work for the UK. The Nordic country voted in 1972 against joining and again in 1994, though, in both cases, by a majority of just over half. Norway still contributes a significant amount of money to the EU.

If England leaves the EU, it will still have to negotiate tariff deals. Bear in mind that the economy of Europe is not at its best right now and if and when it began to improve, the position of this country would change and our position might well have to be renegotiated if we leave after the vote.

EU and whose army?

In fact there are many associations and organisations that have a bearing on European countries and their trade – The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) of which the UK has been a member since January 1973. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has had the UK in its membership since 1949. There is a bevy of associations concerned with technologies; for example, the UK joined one that regulates atomic energy.

Britain is surrounded by an army of international bodies, organisations and multilateral treaties. The EU itself operates through a clutch of institutions: the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Justice, to name but a few. That is not forgetting a basket of charters and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

Europe is not something a country can just walk away from. Even two years for a divorce would be highly optimistic. Let’s not forget that the United Kingdom is in membership of the EU; that leaves open the position of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Voting patterns could vary enormously in the countries of the UK. Geography is just one of many dimensions of how this question breaks down.

It was a British prime minister who first thought up the idea of bringing together European countries – Winston Churchill. “We cannot aim at anything less than than the union of Europe as a whole and we look forward with confidence to the day when that union will be achieved” Churchill said when he was in Amsterdam after the end of the war. It was a prophetic statement but it was just tub-thumping, pointing to the way forward without having idea of where to go with it. It was Robert Schuman who joined up the dots. He was, and is regarded as, one of the founding fathers of European Union. Even as early as the 1950s it was always the vision that there would be a federal union and if Britain would not accept that it, then it could not join. We did not join and so we did not invent it and we were not there at the origin, Tony Blair was to say. Back in 1955 the vision was limited to coal and steel until ministers came to together to discuss a wider concept that would harmonise not just economic but also social policies. The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 by six states to create the European Community. Britain had therefore played no part in the writing of the rules on which the common market was based. Harold McMillan sent Edward Heath to see how Britain’s trade could be wedged into this new order that had been put together in Brussels. It was in 1963 that De Gaulle effectively vetoed Britain’s entry to the common market, leading McMillan to feel that he had been betrayed by his old wartime ally. In 1971 both major parties were split. Labour MPs broke ranks and joined the Tories in the ‘yes’ lobby. Heath went to Brussels to sign the treaty in 1972 but it still had to be ratified by parliament.

The EU in Leicester

I take Leicester because it is in many ways a microcosm of the wider nation. Localism gets right to the heart of the debate. It’s not just about what might happen to one member state; it’s also about regions and cities, both here and on the continent.

Here in Leicester – one of the most diverse cities in England – the impact of the EU is widely present and easy to see in this city. A thriving Polish community testifies to the success of migration; their shops are everywhere and most large supermarkets now stock products that reflect Polish tastes. The city’s hospitals are staffed by European doctors and nurses and in the streets of the city centre you hear the cacophony of foreign voices amongst the shoppers. Local businesses rely on migrant workers coming in to fill the vacancies left by indigenous workers. They clean our homes and offices. They care for our children and old people. They cook our food and fill our supermarket shelves. They pay taxes but take little or no benefits from the public coffers they enrich. They do however put pressure on our schools; in this city the birth rate is high and the streets are crowded with the pushchairs and prams of migrant workers. Here health and care services are open doors; is there room enough inside for everyone who wants a place? Migration is not itself an issue for most voters; it is the impact of immigration that divides opinion. Closing the borders between England and Europe would almost certainly harm many local businesses – those that depends on the skills provided by migrant labour. Depending, of course, on what border controls remain in force or would be changed by an exit. Even if England left the EU, it is doubtful that cross-country migration would decline, all that much. Let’s not forget that around 125 million Brits go to the Europe to work and/or live.

The issue of migration

It’s very clear that England has, for a very long time, been unable to fill the vast range of vacancies created by the services sector of the economy, let alone hospitals, construction and food production. The EU came into existence, partly, to enable the free flow of workers between its member states. Just as Europeans come here to work, so 125 million of our own people went to Europe in search of jobs or housing. Over three million jobs, it is said, are linked to the UK’s trade with European countries. Over 200,000 UK businesses trade with the EU member states. Without European migrant labour many UK businesses would grind to a halt, as would many of our hospitals. Workers who come to this country pay into public coffers through their taxes; they spend their wages in our shops, they help maintain the productivity of the companies in which they work… but all this depends, in the last analysis, on how you look at it. The one thing I have noticed about the EU debate is that opposing sides are throwing statistics at each other in large numbers.

Immigration is not about numbers but the rate at which people arrive. We must, as a country, as a state and as a community, integrate new arrivals. These comments from campaigners struck a chord with me. Some come, the migration issue is not about the absolute numbers coming into the country but more about what happens to them as they arrive and to the people already here.

Many people see EU membership as taking away migration controls. I am not sure this is correct. Several Brexit campaigners said that leaving the EU would enable the country to make its own arrangements for who it will allow in. Some suggested that we should adopt a points system, similar to that used by Australia.

Why is it that so few people from this country choose to go to Europe to work? I remember it being said that over a million Brits have gone to Europe to work.

The vote should not be decided on a single issue; membership of the EU is not a single issue question. It would be wrong to base one’s vote on the issue of immigration alone.

Its not just the numbers and rate coming into the country as a whole but how they are distributed. Certain towns have been over-run by migrants and clearly are unable to cope, such Ipswich, some commentators argue. It’s not a question solely of border controls; it’s far to do with the qualifications of migrants and what they intend to do when they get here and what work they intend to look for. That varies considerably from one area of the UK to another.

Housing, schools, health… these have to be able to cope with new arrivals. UK should change the way that EU migration happens. A key issue during the campaign was whether incoming migrants should be able to claim state benefits.

Claims that the EU is undemocratic figured widely during the campaign. It probably is, many thought, but then how exactly could it be made democratic? We elect our MEPs in our own country. But we have no vote in which gets the top jobs – which all go to white males. Several commentators and campaigners challenged people to name any of the presidents of the EC. Leave campaigners were often quick to point out that all the presidential office holders were white males.

How the future of the EU could affect Britain.

What if there was a right wing take over of the EU by parties even more right wing than the Tories? What if Turkey joined and created a sudden increase in the influence of Islamic fundamentalists? There are many questions about how future tends in the politics of the EU might affect life in this country. Much was made during the campaign of the desire of some euro-politicians to move towards a federalised Europe. Nigel Lawson argued that there is a movement towards the creation of a European superstate. He clearly does not want Britain to be part of that. Federalism is already in place in various parts of the world. The USA is perhaps the prime example. There are several models of federalism; some tighter than others, some more able to function effectively than others.

Originally, when Britain joined, the European institution was a common market. Since the 1970s, there has been a drift towards ever more political integration. As Lawson said in his article: ‘…That is the creation of a federal European superstate, a United States of Europe. Despite the resonance of the phrase, not one of the conditions that contributed to making a success of the United States of America exists in the case of the EU.’ [Telegraph, 2nd May 2016]

Europeanisation begs the question ‘what is European about?’ This comes into sharp focus when we consider the accession of Turkey to the EU. As it stands today, Turkey is anything but European. The issue calls into question what defines European-ness. The extent to which all 28 member states share the same root political philosophies is open to debate. I suspect that some Americans might be exercised about what the USA American. It could be argued tat across Europe there is an even wider diversity of cultures, values and political philosophies than may be found in north America.

Will the UK be able to govern itself?

Has England ever enjoyed a period of absolute sovereignty? Over the past 500 years, even during the days of monarchical absolute power, we have been hemmed in by external influences both of our foes and our allies. Go back twice as far and you find a country being ruled by the Italians; then it was the Danes; then it was the French… the Victorian era was perhaps the golden age of the British Empire. Even then there was no absolute freedom; our territories and dependencies exerted influences over what the British could or could not do.

Having heard some of the opinions expressed in the media about sovereignty, it appears that plenty of people think we would start governing ourselves on 24th June. Boris Johnson referred to ‘independence day.’ Nothing of the sort. I doubt there ever has been a time when the UK enjoyed absolute sovereignty and leaving the EU will not give us much more power than we already have over our own affairs. After all, the EU affects only part of our governance; it does not reach into things such as taxation, the operation of the NHS, defence… and we will still be members of the commonwealth. And NATO.

Chatham House said, in a paper published from its website

In a world that is more interdependent today than it was when the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the notion of ‘absolute’ British sovereignty is illusory. It is also worthless if it limits the ability of future British governments to ensure the security and prosperity of their citizens. Judging from the UK’s experience and its future prospects, the opportunities from remaining in the EU far outweigh the risks of doing so, and the risks of leaving far outweigh the opportunities.

See more.

I liked this statement; it views nation states as being ‘ interdependent’, and sees absolute sovereignty as being an illusion. In my view, the idea that Britain can rule itself autonomously without regard to other countries is not something that is possible in the current world order. Whether or not Britain is in the EU, it will always be a signatory to a variety of international treaties. Each time a country signs a treaty it agrees to forgo some of its powers of self-determination. Trading with other countries and particularly with a regional block always requires some degree of diminution of independence. Referendum campaigners often referred to British law being made in Brussels and found figure to quote that, in their minds, represented the percentage of laws made in Westminster. In fact Brussels give us rules and regulations, not laws. It might well be the case that the EU has imposed hundreds of rules and regulations on us and the most important decisions that affect us have all been made by our own elected politicians sitting in the House of Commons.

We sacrificed some of our sovereignty when we joined the EU but voting to leave will not confer on us a new golden age of complete self-governance. The world is a much too complicated place for any country to enjoy that kind of thing.

Would the EU survive a leave vote?

What if the British decide, in June, to leave the EU? Would it survive? Several commentators suggest that Britain’s withdraw from the EU would be its downfall. Leaving the UK might lead to other countries leaving too. When we last voted on the issue, 40 years ago, Europe was dominated by Germany and France. Today, German is the single most dominant economy in Europe. Some member states worry that a British vote to leave could spark off a series of similar votes around the 28 states that would leave to collapse of the entire EU edifice. Indeed, if the British can re-write the terms its memberships, that would lead others to do the same thing, some politicians in Brussels believe. If enough building blocks are changed, the entire structure ceases to be the same thing that 27 countries thought it was or wanted it to be when they joined.

Do I look bothered?

Are the British people really that bothered about the result of the referendum? There are two sides to this story: one is the vox pop interviewing of random members of the public and the other is the polls? Many voters might be concerned about specific issues – such as border controls and immigration – but appear to be befuddled by the whole thing. What is most worrying is that many voters will mark their ballot papers based on what they believe will be the effect stemming from one or two specific issues rather than having weighed-up the whole case. Ten years ago the French and the Dutch voted NO to the constitutional and Lisbon treaties. It’s not just the voting public who fail to see the wood for the trees. Many of the leaders who have sat together in summits and other get-togethers have become so bogged down in details that they have failed to address the bigger pictures. Even British prime ministers it would seem have failed to grasp the wider issues. Many of the interviews I have seen, read or heard in the media take a single-issue approach to the question. Business leaders look at as though it was about only trading.

Are other members island states?

Cyprus is an island. Malta is an island. Ireland is partly an island. Greece is a country of islands. Denmark has lots of islands. Is there something about being an island that makes a people different to their counterparts who live on the main land? Do the British have an island mentality that makes them think differently to more mainland countries? I like to look back at the time when there was no channel and the landmass of what is now Britain was simply an archipelago on the mainland of the continent we now call Europe. Our ancestors simply walked from their homelands to this country and so, in historical terms, we are all descendants of migrants. Genetically, the British have the DNA of most Europeans and the peoples of North Africa. Being an island did not stop the Victorians from creating an empire. Many of those who are arguing in favour of leaving the EU base their case on opening up new markets in other parts of the world; drawn by the prospect of trading on a much wider footing – they can hardly have an island mentality. Being part of something bigger (Europe or the world) is an idea and whether you are an island or a mainland country, it’s about what you think being part of something bigger will give you.

My referendum diary

24th February

The BBC reported that EU reforms cannot be reversed (by judges) according to Donald Tusk, EU Council president. Tusk told MEPs that the deal negotiated by Cameron was “legally binding and irreversible.” What promoted this was Michael Gove (Justice Secretary) saying that the European Court of Justice could throw out some measures without changes to the treaty. But Downing Street and the Attorney general maintained that the reforms could not be reversed. Gove is one of five cabinet ministers for are for an exit from the EU. Only when the treaties are changed will be European Court be bound by them. If the British people vote to leave, the deal with cease to exist, Mr. Tusk said.

This is not a simple issue; states can express their consent to an agreement in a number of ways; 28 nations have agreed to the deal and intend to be bound by it. Simply agreeing to a deal does not change treaties; any of them could raise the matter with the European Court of Justice. The chances that the court would rule to overturn a measure in the deal is remote.

29th March
In a piece published on the website of the Electoral Reform Society Josiah Mortimer revealed the results of a poll taken to predict the turnout for the EU Referendum. In a poll conducted by BMG research, it reported that
We asked what people thought turnout would be in the referendum – When asked, the average response shows that the public predict turnout will be 57% on June 23rd. What is interesting is that this is broadly in line with non-poll based predictions, particularly amid valid fears about low turnout being a big issue in this referendum. And it certainly links in with the fact that most people do not feel informed about the vote. – See more.

12th April

The government’s controversial booklet about the EU referendum arrived in the post today. Controversial because of the cost of it producing it and it gives only side of the argument and several sources claim it is factually in accurate. As I read through it, here are my thoughts:

The commentary begins with some simple facts:

The UK has not joined the euro
The UK has not joined the Shengan border controls -new rules have been applied to migrants seeking welfare benefits

It reads partly like a public information leaflet put together by civil servants and party like a party manifesto. It some respects it is both. The leading argument is that staying inside the EU will given Britain a stronger economy. This gets to the nub of the whole debate: do we see the future of this country in trading with Europe or with the rest of the world. It is claimed that Europe offers us the world’s biggest single market. Is that true? Would we be better off trading mainly inside the EU or are we thereby missing out on trade with other parts of the world that could offer much more.

According to the brochure, the EU is ‘by far the UK’s biggest trading Partner.’ It goes on to assert that ‘remaining inside the EU guarantees our full access to its Single Market.’ Despite the arguments given in the brochure, business people and industry leaders are divided over the issue; some want to stay in and argue that this is good for business; others want to leave and seek better markets elsewhere. The brochure claims that ‘over 3 million UK job are linked to exports to the EU’, a claim that has been challenged by a variety of commentators and analysts.

Writing in the BBC’s Reality Check Peter Barnes looks at the question of how many UK businesses trade within the EU. He notes that there have been differing claims over how many businesses trade with EU member states. As he points out ‘There are no official figures for the total number of companies that export to and import from the EU. Both numbers are estimates. ‘

Statistics are a minefield and it depends on which sources you choose to believe.

It is little wonder that many of the people interviewed by BBC news reporters feel confused by the welter of conflicting statistics and find it hard to make up their minds given the arguments they have heard about which set of figures are correct.

In the view of the brochure’s authors, leaving in the EU could leave to years of uncertainty, as we unpick our relationship and negotiate a new deal with Europe. As Harold Wilson was once famously quoted as saying “a week is a long time in politics.” Well if a week is a long time, then 20 years is an era. That could be the length of time any exit from the EU could take. We know that David Cameron will not be prime minister for longer than a few years more. Over even ten years, the Conservatives could very well be replaced by another party and the position could change. The result of the vote on 23rd June could well have major repercussions on the outcome of the next general election in 2020. EU membership could become a major plank on which parties contest the next election. Whatever the outcome of the vote on 23rd June, that will not be the end of the story. The parties are very likely to present the next election with post-vote views on how the country should react to what ever result is given.

16th May
Today I received, by post, a copy of The 2016 EU referendum voting guide issued by the Electoral Commission. This leaflet had six sides of text. The headings included: What is the referendum about? Can I vote? Who has produced this booklet? Information from lead campaigners How do I fill in the ballot paper? How do I vote? How do I find out more?
Under the heading Information from lead campaigners the brochures explained that ‘the text two pages’ provide information about the arguments for and against leaving the EU. The content of these two pages was not written by the Electoral Commission. The website addresses of the two campaigns were given.
The brochure provided an informative guide to the process of technicalities of voting. The question was stated as being: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
Two choices were available: Remain a member of the European Union or Leave the European Union.
Voters were advised to place a X in only one of the two boxes.
The Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by the UK Parliament, its website states.

18th May
In article on the BMG research website, it was given that 45% of voters would vote to leave the EU compared with 43% who who would vote to remain with 13% being undecided (data appears to be rounded up.) The shows a fairly unchanged picture from the previous results. Based on political affiliation, the results suggest that Labour voters are more likely to vote to remain. Conservative voters are fairly split with a narrow majority voting to leave. Liberal Democrat voters are likely to vote to remain and UKIP voters overwhelmingly likely to vote to leave.

31st May
What has characterised the debate about the Referendum recently is the battle of claim and counter-claim and the barrage of statistics from either side. Coming under fire has been the £350 million figure claimed to be what the UK pays every week to the EU. This was heavily qualified by those who say it is a gross figure and in fact we get a rebate on that; and those who claim that the real figure is even higher than this. it is understandable therefore that the average prospective voter is caught in the middle of all this, not know which side to believe – if any of them.

I got the idea that the EU will have do, or should have to, work out how the UK will do business with the rest of the world and negotiate with on the tariffs that affect trade outside of the EU membership states. This applies particularly to those countries that do not have trade treaties with the EU. Comments are saying that Britain is the fifth most economically strong country in the world.

Another issue to emerge is that Britain now has one of the highest – if not the highest – levels of minimum wage in Europe. Of course vast numbers of people want to work here because our minimum wage levels are the highest and certainly far higher than in most of the countries that they come from.
The Leavers say that Britain on its own could be great again and able to trade with the rest of the world on its own terms. I simply do not believe this. That does not fit with my idea of world trade.

Another interesting point recently comes from those who say that the EU simply cannot keep up with the pace of change in technology. Its machinery of rule making is far too slow and cumbersome to keep up with the way that technologies are changing.

Someone from Tate and Lyle appeared on TV saying that the EU is imposing tariffs on importers of sugar and using the money from those tariffs to subside beat producers. Similar arguments were made around fishing. But this referendum is not about single issues and it would be completely wrong for voters to make up their minds on issues at this level of scale. It must be about the bigger picture, not about the minutiae. Many of the regulations established by Brussels ensure food safety and have been imposed to protect consumers. Would a post-Brexit government simply wipe them off the books?

Someone claimed that the UK is a relatively low regulation economy; probably one of the least regulated countries in the world. But if we leave the EU and set out sights on trading mostly with the rest of the world it is highly likely that many of those countries with require us to comply with their standards of safety on products and meet their requirements for labelling and testing.

Leaving the UK, it was claimed, would result in short-term pain as the country slides into recession but this is the price we need to pay in order to achieve our long-term gain. Three quarters of our economy is services, not manufacturing. Some are bullish about this and see the rest of Europe as being so dependent on our services, mainly based in the city of London, as being so important they would continue to use those services even if we left the EU. The short-term recession resulting from Brexit would be outweighed by the benefits we would enjoy from trading with the rest of the world, it has been claimed. It is however, a gamble; it is not something that anyone can guarantee.

So, leaving the EU would be very risky; but, some would argue, so would remaining in the EU. The Euro is about to collapse and even though we are not part of it, we would be affected by it. But to exert a tighter control over the eurozone would require countries to work even more closely together.
Both sides have completely opposite views as to the economic consequences of the vote.

The 23rd June is seen as being out ‘independence day.’ Those who take the historical view looked back on the time when the United States declared its independence from Britain. There is no evidence, the historians argue, that the supporters of that move were mainly concerned with the economic consequences of their actions. Fears about commerce and trade might have been present in 1947 when India declared independence but that did not stop them.

Tuesday 7th June
The original deadline to register to vote at the EU referendum was midnight on Tuesday 7 June. Problems with the Government’s registration website during the final hours before the deadline resulted in the UK Parliament passing legislation to extend the registration deadline in Great Britain for 48 hours to midnight on Thursday 9 June. I heard that there was a late surge in registrations.

At around this time I received a leaflet through my door from the Leave campaign. The European union and your family: the facts stated that ‘this document is to help you to make your decision in the referendum… ‘ and went to to state: ‘FACT: Britain’s official bill for EU membership is £19 billion per year or £350 million every week…’. This figure was widely criticism during the later stages of the campaign of being inaccurate and misleading. The BBC’s realitycheck web page reported that this figure was ‘not entirely true’; for one thing it fails to take account of the rebate that we get. As Theo Leggett explained ‘it’s money that never leaves the country.’

Thursday 16th June
News broke of the murder of Jo Cox, MP. Campaigning is temporarily suspended as a mark of respect. Following her death, Jo’s husband told us that she was killed for her political views. Parliament was recalled early and an emotional session was held in Westminster to honour the much respected member. Vigils held around the UK soon spread world-wide as people around the globe gathered to mark her murder and to express their desire for better politics and to voice their concern for the world’s nastiness. No one could have predicted this turn of events but it had a profound impact on the electorate in this country.

Tuesday 21st June
The BBC broadcasts ‘The Great Debate‘ live from the Wembley Arena with an audience of over six thousand. Impressive performances from the speakers especially from Ruth Davidson and Boris Johnson. I watched some of it. The audience was vocal and passionate about the issues. The programme lasted for nearly two hours.

Thursday 23rd June
A record 46,499,537 people are entitled to take part, according to provisional figures from the Electoral Commission. It is only the third nationwide referendum in UK history and comes after a four-month battle for votes between the Leave and Remain campaigns. states the BBC News website.

I voted to remain in the EU.

This was what I wrote before the vote; I will be writing more as the picture unfolds, watching how to issues unravel and how Britain is affected by the impact of the vote.

Housing Policy 3

Housing: approaches to policy

by Trevor Locke

Part 3

Housing, employment and transport: why we need joined-up policies

In the previous part of this series, I looked at bricks and other kinds of building materials, and asked if there can be viable alternatives to traditional construction materials. I considered how building design might change to take account of the rise of new materials. I move on, now,  to discuss the kind of policies that are increasingly playing a part in the supply of accommodation.
It is often said that Britain has a housing crisis. The Government hopes to supply a million new homes by 2020 [Guardian, September 2015]. But, over the past four years only 47% of the amount needed in England have been built [BBC news, September 2015]. It is the scale of the housing shortage that leads people to talk of a crisis. The National Housing Federation was quoted as saying that about 245,000 new homes were needed each year in England. Gill Payne, director of policy and external affairs, said: “In some areas, there is a drastic shortage causing prices to soar, putting homes out of the reach of many people” [BBC, September 2015] The BBC’s Inside Out programme on housing, drew attention to the shortfall in housing supply as matched against housing need between 2011 and 2014. The crash of 2008 is often blamed for this shortfall but it is not the only factor. According to the Inside Out programme ‘critics say the change has also made it easier for “inappropriate and unwanted” developments to progress.’ Politicians have criticised the National Planning Policy Framework of 2012, claiming that the said changes to the NPPF were required to ensure “the same weight is given to the environmental and social as to the economic dimension” with “due emphasis on the natural environment”. Clive Betts is quoted as saying “Councils must do more to protect their communities against the threat of undesirable development by moving quickly to get an adopted local plan in place.” Even The National Trust said the MPs’ report was another indication the NPPF had allowed “streetwise developers” to ignore the wishes of communities [BBC, 2014].
Housing is a minefield of conflicting policies and opinions. In order to navigate a path through this confusion, I set out my agenda of key policy issues: I begin by discussing the need for affordable housing before explaining why I think housing policy is the key to everything. I then look at the issue of renting before considering three interconnected policy areas – housing, employment, unemployment (economic status) and transport. I then discuss how better use can be made of existing housing stock. This agenda is about the need for joined-up policies.

The need for affordable homes

Are people ready to move away from standardisation and established traditions? If the media is to be believed, the average ‘Jess and Joe’ want to get married and start a family and as part of this, they want to own a home of their own. But does ‘Mr & Mrs Average’ want to live only in the traditional house? Through the medium of television, we have seen people who have abandoned the traditional notion of the house and built themselves a home from materials you would not find on the average housing estate – such as blocks of straw. Others have done away with the conventional idea of a slate roof and covered their structures with earth and grass.

Many recent television programmes have shown people restoring old buildings, converting them into family homes often by doing the work themselves. Flat roofs have not been popular but the development of new materials has now made them much more viable. The house-building industry is still providing large quantities of structures based on the traditional idea of two stories with individuals rooms for different purposes: lounge, kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, etc. House designers have not moved on in their concept of what constitutes the kind of houses that people want to live in; but then, neither have house-buyers.

In post-war Britain there was a trend to build ‘pre-fabs’ – prefabricated houses built in bits in factories and then assembled on site. Prefabs were cheap, cheerful and provided a quick fix to the shortage of housing after the blitz. The decades of the 1940s through to the 1960s brought us the baby boom and, as those generations grew into adulthood, demand for housing increased. Recently, the lack of access to mortgages, following the financial crash of 2008, has led to an increase in rented properties. Couples and new families, not wanting to be stuck at home with their mums and dads, are going out to find rented accommodation, often because this is the only option open to them. In the urban areas this is fairly easy but in the countryside, it is much more of a problem. House-prices in rural areas are very widely beyond the reach of workers in villages and rural areas.

Today, the baby boomers of the 60s are down-sizing. Having brought up their families, couples find themselves living in houses that are bigger than they need. Couples, aged 60 and over, are moving into smaller properties. Whilst this should be releasing houses for occupation by younger people, the problem is that house prices have increased and the mortgages needed to buy these properties are hard to come by. Recent predictions show that ‘house prices are set to increase by more than previously expected in 2015. The CEBR now expects the price of the average home in the UK to rise by 4.7% – up from its March forecast of 1.5% growth. A chronic lack of properties being put up for sale has pushed up prices in recent months and is one of the reasons behind the upward revision to the forecast’ [Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2015].

The British are wedded to the idea of the single occupancy house as the basis for family life, unlike our continental neighbours, in Europe, for whom the apartment block is the standard form of housing. Single-occupancy houses are more expensive to build and require a lot more land, than is the case for multi-level apartments. House-builders and government policy makers see no need to attempt to change the public’s demands for the typical family unit; they are comfortable with the belief that families know what they want and there is no need to change anything. Political policy is wedded to freedom of choice and not much given to trying to change such choice. Politicians have made a big thing about new-build [Hope, 2016]. To them, housing supply is all about building new houses; it is hardly ever seen as being about the better use of existing housing stock. In order to get supply anywhere near the level of demand for houses, in England today, the solutions are always stated as being about building new homes. Only the more radical politicians give credence to the idea that the supply of housing might also include a wider set of options.
Our notion of affordability, in housing is important but it is strangled by our servitude to traditional ideas – more so now than it was in the previous century. If people really do want affordable housing, I would argue, then they should change their stereotypical ideas about what constitutes a home and the materials used in house-building. In any case ‘affordability’ is a relative concept; it is not just about the price at which houses are offered for sale – it is also about how much money people have to pay for them. Can people afford to buy new houses?

Well, certainly not in London. House prices vary considerably around the UK (as do incomes) and what is affordable in one region might well be too expensive in another. People cannot easily move from a high-price area to one where houses are cheaper, any more then they can easily chase after higher paid jobs in other parts of the country.  Newly elected Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has a policy on housing and in it he begins by saying ‘A secure home is the foundation of a happy life and decent housing for all is the foundation of the good society. For too many people their housing is not a source of security, but a cause for anxiety’ [Corbyn, 2015]. I pick this out, not because I am a fan of this politician, but because he has a neat way of saying things that I too happen to believe, such as, the above quotation. I go some of the way with him but when I read ‘The housing crisis cannot just be solved by building more homes, although this is a major issue that needs to be tackled. It is more complex than that: to tackle the housing crisis we also need to address problems of inequality, regional disparities of income and wealth, taxation policy, the labour market, our social security system and planning regulations’ I begin to part company with him. As I argue in this section, there is a need for joined-up policies but it is a matter for debate just how many policies need to be joined up to make a housing position that is credible and effective. It will take many decades to make an impact on inequality and disparities in wealth and income. These issues referred to by Corbyn are large-scale issues that are important but housing is something that people need today and demands immediate actions that cannot wait for a fairer society to develop. Corbyn goes on to set out a raft of practical measures that will, in his view, solve the housing crisis to which he refers. The challenge that confronts policy makers in housing is which policies can, and should, be joined together to create an effective approach (or strategy) to housing supply. Is it some of these issues that I now go on to discuss.

Housing is the key to everything

If you do not have a home, you cannot get a job. If you do not have a suitable home, you might find it difficult to marry and start a family. Most people who are homeless are also likely to be unemployed. It’s not just a question of being homeless. Often the problem is more about inappropriate housing and unsuitable accommodation and these can be pivoted on poor employment. Energy poverty rides on the back of inappropriate housing; people who live in accommodation that is not suitable are likely to suffer from high energy costs, which will lead either to inadequate heating or people failing to feed themselves properly, in order to keep up with the demands of energy suppliers. Poorly built houses are also likely to suffer from damp, drafts and lack of insulation. This is more likely to be typical of ageing housing stock. Modern housing has to conform to higher standards of building regulations.
Policy requires us to look at housing and employment in one single package; the two things are closely inter-related and you cannot deal with one without, at the same time, addressing the other. I will argue, below, that government policy makers are failing to do this. A population that achieves optimal levels of employment requires optimal levels of housing; that is my position but I fail to see this reflected in the manifestos of political parties or in the policies being issued by the government. Joined-up policies are not characteristic of today’s breed of politicians. This goes some way to explaining why the basis for home ownership or occupation is changing so much. When David Cameron said that he wanted to sweep away planning rules requiring the construction of affordable homes, in favour of first time buyers, did he stop to think what the employment requirements would be for that? The kind of jobs that would be needed to support loans for first-time buyers was not mentioned in his speech to the 2015 Conservative conference. It is pointless planning to build thousands of starter homes for a market that does not have the employment prospects needed for sustainable access to these markets. Coming up with a credible package would need alignments between employment and wages, mortgage lending and construction incentives. Meeting housing need targets does not depend on whether it is about buying or renting or any other form of tenure; it is all about how the employment economy either enables or hinders access to the finances needed for any kind of accommodation. We can only get to grips with the housing crisis once we have locked access to housing into access to jobs and have synchronised both of them. Part of this process involves working with income sectors, seeing how lower-income or middle-income families will fare as homes and jobs are brought together.

Renting a home

It is said that we need 250,000 new homes if we are to keep up with housing demand, [de Castella, 2015]. In that context what do we mean by ‘new?’ Do we mean new build or do we mean more supply of housing stock of all kinds. Around four million people are now renting their homes [Owen, 2014]. In many continental countries, renting is the standard tenancy. Now that house-ownership is so difficult to achieve in England, renting looks like it will become the most frequent approach to securing accommodation. For policy makers, the key issue is one of renting not being as secure, for tenants, as it ought to be.

New residential tenancies had increased 2.5% in the first month of 2015; ‘The figures show the highest growth occurring in the East Midlands, Scotland and East Anglia with rents rising 6.2%, 5.7% and 5% respectively.’ Furthermore, ‘the average rent in the UK is now £889, compared to £867 at the end of 2014, and £799 in January 2014’ [Property Wire, 2015]. This is still more than the equivalent monthly mortgage repayment. Lewis Dean said that ‘rental prices of homes in England and Wales have grown more than house prices for the first time in two years. Rents across England and Wales reached a new record high at £789 in June, 1.4% higher than the £778 recorded in May and up 5.6% since June 2014. The hike means last month was the first since July 2013 where rents rose more quickly than house prices for comparable properties, with this annual rate of house price growth standing at 4.5% over the 12 months ending June 2015.’ [Dean, 2015] Which is rather startling, given that economists are predicting that house prices will rise dramatically in the years ahead.

Since the crash of 2008, availability of residential mortgages has declined; the effect of this is that young people have either continued to live with their parents or have moved into rented accommodation. Added to this, a substantial number of older people have left large family homes and transferred to the rented sector. Renting a house or flat was no longer the preserve of students and people living in an area for a short while. A shortage of new housing has also fuelled this trend. The demand for rented accommodation has grown and this has led to an increase in prices, so much so, that the price of renting has increased faster than house prices. What dogs prospective renters is the requirement to provide a deposit. The majority of rents demand that a tenant must pay a deposit to cover fixtures and fittings. On top of this deposit (which is supposed to be refundable at the end of the tenancy) monthly rents must be paid in advance. It is common for landlords to ask for one months rent in advance. The law requires deposits to be lodged with a tenancy deposit scheme that is backed by the government [Government website, 2015].

If monthly rental payments are higher than for equivalent mortgage repayments, the impact on disposable income can be seen straight away. Disposable income for a large section of the population has been decreasing as accommodation overheads have gone up, both for rents, mortgage repayments and inflated energy costs. This has an impact on the economy as a whole; spending on retail products is lower than it might be, dampening demand and strangling the purchase of goods and services.
Following the general election of 2015, lending for housing purchase increased by nearly thirty percent. That sounds like good news, but the picture is far from optimistic. After declining for a long time, applications for mortgages have picked up. According to the Valuations Office Agency, ‘the median rent recorded between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2015 in England was £600’ [Valuations Office Agency, 2015]; still more than the median mortgage repayment.

Predictions of the trends in renting suggest that it will continue to rise and to be a major method of securing accommodation for the foreseeable future. The main problem with this is that renting, in this country, is far from secure. The legal rights of tenants who rent their housing is complicated. If renting is to become the norm for a large sector of the housing market, something needs to be done about security of tenure. Linsey Hanley has argued that ‘There is nothing wrong with long-term renting per se: it’s the norm in most European countries, where the law tends to favour tenants. And so it should: a tenant’s need for secure shelter takes moral precedence over a landlord’s right to safeguard his income’ [Hanley, 2015]. This gets to the nub of the renting issue – that if the Government is to protect housing consumers then it must provide them with security of tenure and sort out the complex mess of legal rights that thwarts the ability of renters to stay in their homes.

As the Civitas report acknowledged, there are a lot of people who are denied access to other housing options, who are dependent on renting but their security of tenure is inadequate, under current law, and something needs to be done about this. The Civitas report argued that ‘A new regulatory framework should be considered that would curb future rent growth and improve security for tenants. This should include indefinite tenancies within which rents (freely negotiated at the outset between landlord and tenant) would only be allowed to rise in line with a measure of inflation’ [Civitas 2015].
The rented sector of housing is not just about private individuals renting out properties; in many large cities apartment blocks are owned by property developers and speculators, drawn into this area of investment by the strong demand for rents and the profits that can be achieved from renting. The tenants rent through local agents and have no relationship with these remote absentee landlords – most of which are anonymous companies often located far away from the properties they control. In the view of the Civitas report ‘In order to encourage investment in new housing, new-build properties would be exempt from this regulation, but landlords would be encouraged to enter voluntary longer-term arrangements with tenants where this is mutually attractive. Institutional investors might be particularly receptive to such a framework’ [Civitas 2015].

The problem facing law-makers, and those who drive political policy, is that they have to achieve a balance between security of tenure for residents and enabling investment in the rented sector for landlords. Moving the balance of rights and responsibilities too far in favour of tenants could deter landlords from bringing new properties into the market or even invite them to move their investments away from housing to other sources of profit. Security of tenure (or lack of it) can be a problem for those who cannot afford to buy houses; in many cases people have no other choice than to rent accommodation simply because they do not have the funds for a deposit on a house or cannot secure a suitable loan for the purchase. The terms and conditions of rented tenancies are often set to deal with problems, such as people who fail to pay their rent or move out without giving adequate notice. In my view, this is a mistake and the terms of rental agreements should address the basic principles of letting to responsible customers and leave it up to the law to sort out situations that go wrong. Giving tenants security is important because flats and houses are not just property – they are homes. Having a secure home is important to people’s health and wellbeing. It is part of a family’s (or individual’s) general security and getting the balance right should be the goal of both landlords and government policy and legislation.
This issue is brought into focus by the measure, announced by The Chancellor, in his summer budget (of 2015), that taxation benefits on buy to let are to be changed. The aim of the measure was to make taxation fairer for individual residential home owners. George Osborne said that his aim was to create a more level playing field between those buying a home to let and those who are buying a place to live in. Be that as it may, analysts and commentators are saying that the disadvantages of this measure will outweigh any benefits that it might confer; some maintain that the effect of the measure will be to raise rental levels and reduce the supply of accommodation. I examine the impact of the measure in my blog [ibid]. The Chancellor had added three cent to stamp duty on buy to let and second homes. This does not apply to properties of up to £40,000 in value. Landlords also face higher taxes on their rental income [This is money, 12th January 2016].

De-regulation of the housing market damages the long-term prospects for tenants and this can have a knock-on effect on the economy generally. Policy makers need to grapple with the relationship between jobs and homes and ensure that people have access to accommodation that offers them security of tenure. Lenders, such as banks and credit companies, do not look favourably on people with multiple addresses, who have moved house many times. They prefer clients who have lived at their current address for four years or more – not always easy to achieve when security of tenure is inadequate. Renters tend to be more mobile than house holders and can clock up several addresses in a relatively short period of time (staying put in one place for an average of 3.5 years.) Even if we discount students (who rent homes whilst they are studying and then move on when they get a job elsewhere) renters move more frequently than house-owners.

Government policy-makers are faced with a variety of tenures; when it comes to forging policy to do with security of tenure, they have to fit it into social housing, council housing, some other less common forms of tenure, as well as the private rented sector. Such policies are subject to moral and ethnic debates that focus on the rights of individuals to security; there is nothing wrong with that but governments are more likely to be concerned with the financial and commercial consequences of the law. Even so, individuals are worried about their security rather than the profitability of property speculation.

For economists there are several issues in all this. The percentage of income that goes into providing somewhere to live (and energy to run it) is a factor determining the outcome of disposable income. The national economy relies on strong consumer demand for products, food and domestic retail consumption. Increasing housing costs are not good for the economy as whole. The strength of the economy has always seen employment rates as being a key factor. Economists are beginning to realise that the cost of housing is a key factor in determining the strength of consumer demand. Housing costs are nearly always the biggest single expense for families and individuals and rising accommodation costs hold down consumer demand for goods and services in the domestic sector. This is true both for mortgages and rents and for energy costs. Building a strong economy involves joining up policies that affect employment, housing and transport.

Housing and employment

Most people in this country need two things: somewhere to live and a job to pay for it. There is a reciprocal relationship between housing and employment. People need a home in order to get and hold down a job; people need jobs in order to be able to fund a home and meet their energy bills. People are locked into this ‘catch22’ cycle of needing two things at once. This works well when times are good but when people lose their job or their homes are put in jeopardy, they find themselves in trouble.

If we are to have policies that work, we must be able to make housing and employment work together in a way that reinforces them both. So, how does the housing market relate to employment? What proportion of the labour market can afford housing?

What people are being paid relates directly to the type of housing they can access. Those with well-paid jobs, that have long-term prospects, will be able to attract mortgages. Mortgage providers are less keen to fund those whose jobs are short-term or occasional – such as those on zero hours contracts. It is not always the level of pay that gives access to mortgages – it is more to do with the long-term prospects for continued employment that will fund a mortgage over its term (typically 25 years.) People who are on zero hour contracts are not good prospects for mortgage providers. Precarious employment arrangements are not good for home-ownership and access to mortgages and leases.

Despite the fact that the UK has a record level of employment – the best since 1971 – home ownership is as low as it was in the 1970s. Can government policies be synchronised so that there is both full employment and a strong supply of housing? Traditional home owners (in terms of their employment status) are becoming a smaller proportion of the labour market. It would be wrong however for policy makers to assume that they need only provide good employment to sort out home ownership and accommodation. You cannot buy security of tenure in the rented sector if it does not exist. You cannot get a mortgage if your income and job prospects are inadequate.

People who have to survive on precarious jobs are finding it more and more difficult to gain access to suitable housing. The Labour Party’s pre-election headlines (of 2015) placed emphasis on increasing the supply of new build housing; but if they do not have synchronised policies for employment, too few people who will be able to buy into that housing and the policy will fail. What people need, to access new-build housing, are jobs that offer long term stability and a predictable income. New build houses are more difficult to secure than rented properties or other forms of accommodation tenure. In some respects new building housing is not the answer – it is actually just part of the problem.

Around 15% of the labour force is now self-employed. There has been a huge increase in people gaining their primary income from a small business. ‘Nowadays, although it is not impossible for someone who is self-employed to secure a mortgage, it can certainly be a difficult process because lenders are far less willing to take what they see as a risk on those with a ‘non-standard’ income’, claims one website [Thisismoney, 2015]. Lenders want to see a history of business success and to be convinced that this will continue over the life of the loan. That immediately places people into age categories. With our ageing population, more and more older people are economically inactive and securing the best (most secure) accommodation is very difficult for people who do not have a secure income. Pensioners might be able to show that their income is secure but, if they are over 55, they will still find it difficult to get mortgages. Lenders are reluctant to provide housing-related loans over short periods.

In 1971, half the population was renting and the other half owned their homes. The number of people in work is now at its highest level since 1971. What proportion of employed people can afford access to housing? We hear a lot about the difficulties that people have in securing a mortgage, especially for those aged 20 to 25. These might be people who are in work but the kind of earnings they have, does not always give them access to housing. If we now have record numbers of people in housing, why are so many not able to get a mortgage or cannot afford to rent suitable homes?

Guy Standing has written about The Precariat, a social class formed by people suffering from ‘precarity’, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security [Standing, 2011]. Many of these are people whose income is precariously based on things like zero-hours contracts. These are casual workers who lack a long-term reliable income, the kind of income which would allow them to secure permanent housing. If your job cannot be relied on to provide you with enough money over a long enough period of time, then you are likely to have difficulties in accessing the kind of housing you desire. Housing requires permanent employment, a stable income over a long period and a level of income that will convince mortgage-providers and people who lease or rent apartments that you are a reasonably safe bet. Zero-hours contracts might offer a handy fix for some people, for some of the time, but in the long term they create disadvantage in terms of housing.

With the growth in unreliable employment and more risky self employment, gaining access to secure accommodation is presenting increasing difficulties. If the retirement age is increased beyond its current levels, this will also have a knock-on effect on housing. The Government’s commitment to increasing the level of the national wage, it is said, will result in large numbers of small businesses failing, including those that are self employed and micro-enterprises [Inman, 2015] That bodes badly for the housing market; mortgage defaults will increase dramatically and the overall level of personal debt will soar. The success of wage increases will be offset by the unintended consequences of failure to meet housing costs. We all thought that the national wage was a good thing; perhaps now we can see its unintended consequences we will have to think again.

Housing and unemployment

Older people are caught in traps with their existing mortgages and their inability to secure loans to fund a settled and secure old age. Older people are in the best position if they have equity locked up in an existing property that they own. However, many wish to pass on their homes to their children, who might find it either difficult or impossible to obtain a mortgage of their own. Where someone has substantial savings, they can offer a suitable level of deposit to secure a mortgage or a lease. Those aged over 60 are in particular trouble because they cannot provide the appropriate length of time needed to pay back a loan. ‘With less time to make the repayments than someone twenty or thirty years younger, the lender will need to know that you will have a sufficient income in retirement to be able to make the repayments and cover the term of the mortgage’ [Sosmart, 2015]. There is evidence that a variety of brokers are now setting out to cater for borrowers aged 55 or over, who do not wish to re-mortgage their existing properties [Eccles 2014] ‘Around 350,000 over 65s still have a home loan according to the Office for National Statistics – and over the next decade the Financial Conduct Authority says 40,000 retired people a year will see deals come to an end so they will have to re-mortgage or repay any remaining debt. With the average mortgage in retirement worth around £30,000 and some older people determined to trade up, not down, the challenges for borrowers are intense’ explains one website [Thisismoney 2015.] Older borrowers, aged 60 or more, find it difficult to secure loans for housing but it is not impossible, however difficult it might be. The additional problem they face is that their initial repayments might be higher than would the case with younger people, because older people have less time to clear the debt. Those aged 65 might be lucky enough to borrow over a 15 or 20 year term. There are few lenders willing to deal with people who are at or have passed retirement age. If the age of retirement is to go up, there will have to be changes to the way that funds are lent for house purchases or leases. This type of borrowing will be sensitive to the government’s long-term plans for state pensions. Even those with private pensions are by no means safe, given the uncertain future of their funds. Raising the retirement age purely for employment reasons will have unintended consequences for housing and hence the need for joined-up policies. Measures such as the national wage and raising of the retirement age need to followed through to see what will be their likely consequences for housing and consumer demand. These could prove to be deflationary measures.

Developing policy concerned with the housing needs of older people is not easy. For one thing, life-expectancy and health risks change, the older the age of the person. Where older people have an existing property, which they own or on which there is an outstanding debt, the options are there, however daunting they might be. But older people with no existing property ownership are in a dire position. Unless their circumstances can be catered for we will see the return of a level of poverty and homelessness in our ageing population that has not been witnessed since Victorian times.

Employment, these days, is far more varied than it ever has been. Gone is the age of the life-time, permanent career. Getting a secure, full-time job with a good salary is increasingly difficult and the labour market is now geared to younger people; employment for people over 50 is a real challenge. Housing choices are dependent on income and if you can’t find paid work and self employment is not an option, then you might be in a precarious position. Jobs might well be available elsewhere but if you cannot afford to move to access those jobs, then you are stuck. Large numbers of people are commuting long distances in order to get jobs not available in their home localities. Older people find it difficult to move because they are tied to the localities in which their dependants live and the families on who they are dependent. Economic migration within the UK is not an easy option for those aged 60 and over.

Employment and transport

Employment is often dependent on transport. Some policy markers have added transport into the housing/employment equation. Some have gone on to put this into a regional context. We can look at England as a whole but when you regionalise the equation, there are areas of the country that need special attention. Some local authorities have developed policies that address the issue of the supply of land as being the key to dealing with meeting housing needs. Policy-making therefore has to balance two sets of supplies: jobs and homes. This approach also needs to consider travel to work areas – the ability of people with jobs to travel to work, to areas away from their homes. This is where transport comes in – if the supply of transport lags behind the supply of housing and the availability of jobs (within a travel-to-work area) then people are going find it difficult to get housing within a reasonable distance of where they want to work. The choice of where to live, for the majority of families, dictates where their work places can be. They have to take into account their relatives (particularly dependants and those on whom they depend) and access to schools and heath care, if they have specific needs in that respect.

Formulating housing policy is a non-starter if not related to employment and education and, I would argue, transport. Joined up policies are the most likely to be credible and effective because they pull together these variables that all depend on each other. If we want our housing policy to succeed we have to make sure that the labour market has a sufficient proportion of employed people who have the kind of income that is required for stable home ownership (whether via mortgages, leases or tenancies.) The more people whose jobs fall into the short-term, precarious, end of the labour market, the more difficult it is going to be to have a robust housing policy. Allowing employers to determine the market for jobs is bad for the economy; it is free-market-ism of the worst kind. Allowing more and more employers to indulge in short-term and zero-hours contracts is also harmful for the economy as a whole. Developing key policies in isolation from each other is a practice that cannot join up jobs, homes, education and transport and for that reason it does the country no good at all. Policies that join up employment, transport and housing supply and more likely to result in a strong economy, than those that are developed piecemeal.

I will now look at some of the issues that affect the supply of housing stock, how we can make better use of land and the possible options for addressing the short-fall in housing supply.

References

Contents of the entire work

Further reading

Bricks and motar as the basis of housing. Article in Arts in Leicester magazine, April 2015.

Part 1 of this series: Policy, practice and history

Part 2: Bricks and mortar

EconomicsAgeing

The economics of ageing

Over the past few months I have been following the media’s preoccupation with the “baby boomers”. Being over 60,  I am facing up to the challenges of not being in my prime any more. As current policy goes I am in fact only a few years away from retirement age [at the time of writing – see below for original date of publication].  What weighs on my mind however, is that by the time I reach 65 they will have moved the goalposts. I will have to wait till I am am 70 and who knows, by then, they will have probably dismantled the goal posts altogether.

I am most probably part of the work-till-you-drop generation. Retirement is just a passing phase, in the broader historic scheme of things. My grand fathers worked till they dropped and retirement was a luxury afforded only to post-war generations but, as an economic concept, it looks it’s being consigned to the museum of history.

What do we do?  With a labour market that is almost universally geared to people aged between 21 and 31, people in my age group are struggling to find any kind of employment. Despite the government’s blandishments about the need to employ older people, the recruitment industry just does not want to know.

This is why I am building my future around self-employment, where age does not necessarily matter. After 45 years of working life, I consider myself to have a broad range of knowledge, skills and experience. Try telling that to HR consultants. Fortunately I now include in that work profile,  over 15 years experience of running my own micro businesses.

Several things have got me thinking about the future of work.  Notice I use the word work; part of my vision of the future is that employment  is likely to follow retirement  into the graveyard of economic history – at least for a very sizeable segment of the population.

The 21st century is going to experience a sea change in how people earn a living. Large sections of the population are going to have get into self-employment and running their own  businesses, for no other reason than that is the only way they can avoid destitution and poverty. We are enter the age of the “sole trader”. [Current indications are that just under half the UK population of working age is self-employed. According to the Office of National Statistics, ‘Self-employment higher than at any point over past 40 years’, in 2014. ‘ The number of over 65s who are self-employed has more than doubled in the past 5 years to reach nearly half a million’]

We saw the rise of the Entrepreneur in the industrial revolution, the rise of the capitalist and the rise of corporate man in the twentieth century.  All that is waning and the the age of the sole trader is upon us. Company pensions are going to be a thing of the past and indeed several people have said recently that they have given up on the idea of a pension and prefer to invest in more secure containers for their wealth.  It’s an issue that government policy analysts are wrestling with. Western capital has moored itself to the rock of the pension funds, only to find that they have secured themselves to rocks that are beginning to sink to a watery grave, where they will find themselves gathering encrustations alongside the wrecks of “banks” and “building societies”.

In the meantime, my ship of private business is sailing into the new dawn of the twenty first century economy. Those who are aged 55 and over should be thinking about their futures as working men and women. Those futures are largely going to be self-determining.  We are exhorting our children to start paying into pension funds as soon as they start work, planning for a life-time of saving for their retirement.  Don’t.  It’s basing their future on the here and now.  Not a good idea.

I would rather see the nation’s parents exhorting their offspring to go on business courses, so that they have to basic skills to go it alone, if they find themselves bereft of employment  (a not-unlikely scenario, in my view.)
Tax consultants will have to start thinking outside of the box. Post-war society never had it so good because the state could easily collect its revenues from bulk employers: the corporations that could maintain an army of administrators to tax the work force and send the cheques to the treasury. Very cost-efficient. It is not where things will be in the future.

There might well be big corporations for the rest of our life-times but they are likely to be populated with sub-contractors rather than employees.  I am seriously thinking about the amount of time I spend submitting my CVs to companies. My four hours a day of laborious sifting through vacancies could be better spent raising my profile in the market place. So, if you’re the MD of a recruitment agency or a jobs web site, take my advice – plan for the future and re-engineer what you are doing. Your business is likely to find itself resting alongside the wrecks of the pension funds and banks.

The old order is waning. We just need to stand back far enough to see the bigger picture and look for enough head to see the direction in which the world is heading. Listening to a social media guru tonight, I heard her say that she stopped bothering about getting herself listed on job web sites and concentrated on making herself “be found” on the Internet.  Now, people phone her up to ask her to work for them, she claimed.  Much better.  That is where I need to be. recruiters now should be searching for people to hire. if you want a particular type of person, someone with a distinctive profile, you should be out there looking for them.

They [prospective recruiters]  no longer need to apply to you. You need to apply to them. Age is not important.  It’s a complete red-herring (just as is gender.) If you need people with the right skills for the job, go out and find them. As tonight’s speaker said:  NEVER put your real age on a profile, the speaker claimed.  I totally agree and we both understand the reasons why this principle is of prime importance. For me, it mainly to do with identity theft, where date of birth is the key to stealing identity (I know from my years of doing genealogy.)

I have decided not to put my age on my CV and I am busily deleting information that will give a clue to my age. If they are going to judge my application using age as a factor, I don’t want their job, I will just press the next button.

So, what am I going to do that will earn me a living and be consisted with my knowledge, skills and experience? I am going to work (notice the lack of the word job) for companies who can make money from people like me and share the benefits with people who want to work for them. Forget the pension, the PAYE, the office, the set hours of work, the employment contract, the annual leave package. These are legacy already.

Ah!  I can hear some of you whingeing already about the loss of annual leave. Well when you work for yourself you arrange your own holidays. You decide how much holiday you can afford, when you want it and where and how you want to take it.

Wave good bye to the concept of annual leave, conditions of service, benefits (such as the company car), the corporate credit card, health plans and all the other trappings of post-industrial corporate life. If you want something, earn the money and buy it yourself.

I did talk about sole traders  earlier didn’t I? Well, it’s interesting that many of the people who are on the long march into the new economy are working together. Yes they are still sole traders but they seeing the opportunities of working alongside other sole traders in business pods, even in project swarms. Being a sole trader can be lovely and isolating. Until you discover all the other people who are in same situation and suddenly realise that if you all work together,  you can be more than the sum of your parts.

Disheartened?  Frightened? Filled with foreboding?  I’m not. I am excited about the possibilities and the opportunities to show what I can do with my 45 years of experience.

Trevor Locke © 15th December 2010

Buy to Let

19th September 2015

Housing policy

The impact of buy-to-let on housing policy

In this article I look at the budget measure to change the tax benefits on landlords who buy to let.  This forms part of my series of articles and book on housing policy. It looks at the measure in the Chancellor’s summer budget that proposes to change the way that buy-to-let landlords are taxed.

This article is work in progress; more will come later.

What the measure is about

The Chancellor plans to restrict tax relief on landlords of buy-to-let (BTL) properties [HMRC, 2015]
In the 2015 summer budget, The Chancellor proposed to phase out for current 40% tax relief for buy-to-let landlords resident in the UK. These will be individuals rather then companies.
The restrictions will be phased in from April 2014.
This measure will restrict relief for finance costs on residential properties to the basic rate of Income Tax.  Finance costs includes mortgage interest, interest on loans to buy furnishings and fees incurred when taking out or repaying mortgages or loans. No relief is available for capital repayments of a mortgage or loan. [HMRC, 2015]
Landlords who have higher incomes will no longer receive generous tax reliefs.
At the moment, buy-to-let landlords represent 15% of residential property mortgages. The BTL sector has been booming in recent times.
Buy-to-let landlord enjoy an advantage in the market because they can claim relief on the interest they pay for mortgages against their income. People who are buying their own home, to live in, cannot do this. The more income a landlord has the higher the amount of this relief.
Tax relief on finance costs for buy-to-let landlords is to restricted to the basic rate of tax.
The current allowance is set at 40%.
Rental property is taxed more heavily than owner occupied property.

What the measure tries to achieve

The aim of measure was to make taxation fairer for individual residential home owners. George Osborne said that his aim was to create a more level playing field between those buying a home to let and those who are buying a home to live in.
The restrictions are aimed at individuals, presumably meaning sole traders. Some suggest  that this will lead to more people using companies to engage in buy-to-let. The decrease in Corporation tax might further enhance this trend.
The 2015 budget stated that the government will take forward proposals to improve the market for residential property management services in to make tangible improvements in the market to benefit both leaseholders and landlords [Treasury, 2015
The restrictions will not apply to non-resident  investors.

The impact of the measure

The Chancellor’s proposals will not increase the supply of housing.

The budget red book stated that this means that “the current tax system supports landlords over and above ordinary homeowners” and that it “puts investing in a rental property at an advantage”.  According to one analyst, this line of argument is plain wrong. Rental property is taxed more heavily than owner occupied property. [Institute of Fiscal Studies, July 2015]

According to Bill Dodwell of Deloitte this could lead to losses for investors. Rises in bank rate would exacerbate losses.

Some commentators predict that this arrangements will cause rents to rise and would therefore be inflationary. Analysts see this proposal was leading to a shortage of properties to let or an increase in the rate of rents.

The scheme is likely to affect only one in five individual landlords, those in the higher income sector. hence, it is predicted that wealthier landlords will be hardest hit by these proposals and the wealthier they are the harder they will be hit by them. Professional landlords in the higher tax bracket will suffer losses as a result. According to the National Association of Landlords, the measure will affect 204,000 landlords. They state that ‘Right now it is especially crucial as we try to convince the Treasury to amend its Finance Bill to prevent massive financial harm for landlords throughout the UK.’ [NLA, 2015]

The impact of this measure might be that some BTL landlords will sell off their properties in order to avoid the losses that would be incurred as a result of increased taxation.  However, they might find themselves hit by capital gains tax.

Commentators warn that the measure will make BTL investment less attractive, especially for those using it as an alternative way of providing or supplementing pension income. Rapidly rising house prices have attracted investors into the property market and low interest rates have made property a more attractive option for people who have funds to invest. Trends in the availability of mortgages, especially for first-time buyers, affect the number of people seeking rented accommodation. BTL landlords have top be sure that they are getting an income from their lets and this depends on their mortgage costs being relatively low. BTL landlords have to ensure that they avoid periods when a property is empty and they have to be careful about maintenance and repair costs.

Some might transfer their property holdings to companies.  Some see the measure as leading to a hike in rents. Restrictions to BTL will result in less homes being available and this will push rents.

In fact if bank rate rises happen and savings and investment in funds becomes more attractive, investors might begin to move out of the property market. Many invested in BTL because this promises a higher rate of return than putting money into schemes where interest rates were low. Commentators remain divided on the extent to which this measure will affect property as an investment.

Nearly three quarters of renters considered their rents to be good value for money, says the National Landlords Association. Increasing shortages of mortgages for young people and pensioners has led to a large increase in rented accommodation. The proportion of people in the private rented sector is now larger than for those in council housing or in housing association lets. Those renting their homes increasingly claim housing benefits. Renting in the private sector provides little security of tenure. Last of security is particularly hard for older renters whose income is fixed. If this measure does lead to an increase in rents that will lead to increased poverty and hike the amount local authorities will to pay in housing benefits.

George Osborne’s measure must have seem like a good idea at the time; in the long-term it might have a raft of unintended consequences.

References

Department for Communities and Local Government, May 2015, Policy paper: 2010 to 2015 government policy: rented housing sector. UK Government

Hanley, Lynsey, 2012, Private tenants like me need long-term security, The Guardian.

HMRC, 2015, Policy paper: Restricting finance cost relief for individual landlords.

Institute of Fiscal Studies, July 2015, Summer Post Briefing.
NLA, 2015, National Landlords Association.
Treasury, HM, 2015, Budget 2015, HC1093, March 2015.

See also:

House Bricks: the future of housing in Britain

Housing – new approaches to policy

 

Teleworking and the Growth of Community Networks

Teleworking and the Growth of Community Networks.

Paper given the second international conference on Telework held in Amsterdam from 2nd September to 5th September 1997.

Trevor Locke

Let me first of all offer some clarifications of terminology. By ‘telecentre’ I mean a building or location offering facilities which support teleworking. By ‘teleworking’ I mean economic activity that involves the use of ICTs as a core business function. By ‘community networks’ I mean ICT mediated connections among a group of users. ICT means Information and Communications Technologies.

Delegates at the conference reception in 1997
Delegates at the conference reception in 1997

1. Telecentres

If we look at what we might call a ‘classical’ model of a telecentre, we would see a building, probably in a rural area, in which we would find computers, printers, software, most likely a photocopier. IT might also have a scanner and a rack of leaflets and brochures about local business support services, what the council does, where to get advice about tax and so on. In the UK and in some parts of Europe, telecentres are sometimes called ‘telecottages’. In the UK well over half of all the units listed by the Telework and Telecottage Association as being telecentres have names that include neither the word ‘telecentre’ or the work ‘telecottage’ but which are called by some business or community name, for example Adur Resource Centre, BOON Ltd, Colne Valley Trust Business Services. All the TCA listed units have had to pass selection criteria in order to be listed in its directory and hence they can be referred to as telecentres, even if they are not called that.

Telecentres emerged in the mid 80s as a response to the demand for access to IT but at a time when PCs were not as affordable as they are today. The first telecottage to open in the UK was the Moorlands Telecottage near Buxton and it is still there today. The first telecottages in Europe started a few years earlier in Sweden but as a concept they were born in the United States where a range of projects and initiatives began to make computing facilities available to people in local communities.

Now [1997] there are about 160 telecentres in the UK in membership of the Telecottages and Teleworkers Association (the TCA). There are some chains of telecentres such as those being developed in Devon – the RATIO project – designed to put some 40 local centres into place across the county. In Norfolk there are half a dozen telecentres established by partnerships and funded by Europe and similarly Powys has a network of local centres. In general however telecentres in the UK tend to be individual units and the majority of them are supported by public funding to some extent, primarily in their first few years before they make the transition to sustainable business. Many are purely business units but most perform dual business and community roles.
The majority are one off projects created locally by people or groups. Very many of them now offer access to the Internet. They are not Cybercafes – there is also a UK network of independently run Cybercafes that offer access to the Internet. The primary function of the telecentre is to provide a physically accessible location for access to Information Technology and its supporting functions of training, consultancy and maintenance.

A map showing the location of the telecentres across the UK indicates that they range from the Islands of Scotland down to the South West peninsula with a concentration in Wales and perhaps something of a scarcity in the Midlands. Despite its population concentration and its large rural counties, the Midlands is not well served by telecentres.

2. Teleworking

Teleworking is a very varied phenomena. It is a form of economic activity that has very open and permeable boundaries. I would argue however that there are some characteristics of teleworking that are essential to its being a definable activity.

There are three defining characteristics of teleworking: the first is working with Information Technology. Teleworking is largely about knowledge or information based activities. It would be difficult to regard someone who does not use a computer as a teleworker. It is often confused with home working. Many teleworkers do work at home but not all and it is not an essential characteristic. There are many home workers who do not use computers as a prime business function; there are home workers who happen to use computers as do many self-employed people or small businesses and there are home workers who have no computers at all and would never need one. A person who receives work in the post from a remote client, processes it without the use of IT and delivers it back by post could claim to be a teleworker and would indeed fit some of the criteria. Hence my argument that the definition is open and not watertight but I don’t think this what most people would regard as teleworking.

Secondly, teleworking, in essence, involves working over distance, involving some form of telecommunications medium such as e-mail, FTP, ISDN and so on. It is possible to telework with a telephone and a fax machine but this would be a very marginal form of teleworking. The mainstream of telework is computer based and in fact ICT oriented. The ability to send files along telephone lines has always been seen to be an important aspect of teleworking and has been possible for over fifteen years now. Some teleworkers have sent their products by computer disk rather than by file transfer. Some are multi-tasking with a portfolio of clients and their output and mode of delivery might vary from one job to another.

Thirdly, it involves the delivery of work to a remote employer to customer or client. This involves a contractual or management relationship different to that normally associated with face to face work in offices. Teleworkers can be employees, self employed or members of a small business, collective or virtual team. There is no point in talking about getting a job as a teleworker: it is a mistake people make who misunderstand the terminology. I often say to them: would you look for a job as an employee? No, of course not. So no one works as a teleworker. People do teleworking as part of their job or business. Some teleworkers have just one customer (possibly an employer) and others have many customers. The key characteristic is that they are far enough away from each other that the cost of traveling to face to face encounters is more than the cost of telecommuting. Another feature is that the telework owns his own means of production and maintains his own workplace but that on its own is not a sufficient characteristic.

3. Telework and Patterns of Work.

Patterns of work are changing and this has fuelled the recent growth of and interest in teleworking together with other forms of flexible patterns of work. The job for life has disappeared and the full time, permanent job is becoming increasingly rare. Jobs as being replaced by contracts, self employment and piece work. Corporations have downsized and shed tiers of specialists and middle managers as they have adopted flatter management structures and have sub-contracted specialist functions. Increasing investment in technology has reduced the need for technical posts. This has in some areas flooded the market with people who need to replace the full time permanent job with some form of self employment.

Telecentres do support teleworkers but alongside other species of self-employed worker and micro business. They also support volunteers from local communities and provide resources for the employed teleworker. They often perform both business incubation and community support functions.
The number of teleworking employees has grown steadily as large companies have realised the economic benefits to be gained from offer teleworking is one of a number of flexible working practices. This grow has been supported by the market for ICT: costs have reduced comparatively but at the same time the productivity of the technology has increased. Teleworking still remains however a marginal mode of working even within ‘white collar’ and professional occupations. No UK government has yet adopted taxation policies designed to offer incentives to employers to developing teleworking. The increasing costs of transport (especially commuter transport) has also pushed teleworking and as urban traffic congestion increases and the cost per mile of commuting increases, so the pressure towards teleworking will grow.

4. Community Networks (C-Nets)

The 1970s and 80s saw the rise of the low cost personal computer. The last 80s and the 90s have witnesses the mass ownership of PCs. The 90s have seen the phenomenal growth of the Internet. These trends in the IT market have resulted in the development and spread of community networks – C-nets – as ICTs have become more accessible and affordable. Underlying these trends in IT have been fundamental changes in the power and sophistication of telephone networks. There has been a convergence of telephone and computer technologies.

Terrestrial telephone networks have increased in power and sophistication. Teleworking products have been developed for the small office and home office markets. ISDN is becoming less expensive, mobile phone or satellite telephone networks have grown enormously and the traditional copper wire has been replaced by fibre optic and satellite connections over many of the principle trunk routes.

In response to these trends in the technology, C-nets have arisen, driven by economic, education and social agendas. Often these came into being (in the USA) by colleges or libraries reaching out into the community to bring in people who were otherwise unable or unwilling to access the resources they had to offer. The features that distinguish C-Nets from other activities on the Internet are (a) the offer a diverse range of information, (b) they serve all sectors of the community and (c) they offer and encourage levels of interaction from email to synchronous conferencing. But above all they are people-focused and place-oriented. This definition can be found on the web site of UK Communities On-Line, the organisation that acts as the focus for C-Nets in the UK. David Miller of Sheffield University has written a paper discussing types of electronic information networks [commities.org.uk]
David focuses on geographical networks rather than those which function as a community of interest. He argues that C-Nets should be free at the point of access and owned and controlled by the communities served. A comprehensive list of local community networks in the UK can be found communities.org.uk [no longer on this website].

The significance of C-Nets for teleworking is that they perform functions that are similar to telecentres in supporting individual teleworkers. Local C-Nets can act as distributed telecentres, providing teleworkers with many of the functions previously available only at telecentres. C-Nets can support both geographical communities and communities of interest. The Telework Forum at America on Line is a community of interest, being a network mediated group of teleworkers, mainly from the UK but with some from North America and Europe, receiving support and interacting with each other via the Internet.

A street in Amsterdam, 1997
A street in Amsterdam, 1997

5. The World Wide Growth in C-Nets

Freenets came into being in the USA and Canada and then found a foothold in Europe. They have now arrived in the UK having become a world wide phenomenon. The first Freenet was established in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986 and is now said to be the “largest community network in the world”.
Freenet Finland is an Internet based network for Finnish elementary, secondary and high schools that provides free access to the Internet. It enables the whole community to gain access to learning. It is financed by the National Board for Education and its costs about 95,000 per year and has some 70,000 subscribers.

To take another example, the Seattle Community Network is a free, public computer network run by volunteers. It is committed to running equal access to information for all users. User registration is free and includes an e-mail account. Visitors can read Usenet newsgroups, participate in forums and join some face to face activities including regular general meetings of the users. Many neighbourhoods, environmental groups, arts groups, political parties, schools, health care and social advocates, outdoor clubs and others discuss their activities on this network. The SCN is a non-profit organisation [www.scn.org].

Cheap internet access in the US has in some areas resulted in about half the population being on line on a regular basis. An article in the Washington Post (May 1997) reports that more than 50% of the 37,000 residents of Blacksburg, VA, regularly use the Internet. E-mail is the most popular activity followed by personal web pages and reading on-line news. A recent survey discovered that people often spend as much as an hour a day dealing with e-mail. Some voluntary organisations have reported increased attendance at face to face meetings as a result of publishing notices about them on the Internet.
Community networks offer much more than just information or communications. They offer multiple functions: (a) Information through web pages, e-mailing lists, on-line newsletters, newsgroups (b) Communications through e-mail and chat rooms (c) Training either on line or face to face, formal courses and skills exchange programmes and (d) Access to IT and software through the provisional of kiosks, terminals and resource centres.
Where connectivity is concerned, C-nets can network through the Internet, through cable intranets or through wireless. A full community network is more than just hardware and connectivity: it involves agendas that are about community support and change. They can provide a platform for business incubation, learning, entertainment, debate, net-activism, democracy or youth work. They are infrastructures for the delivery of community development or social action and for the support and maintenance of various forms of economic activity.

C-nets have many features and functions available to them and have the capacity to become information rich. Hence one of the most important features is content. Web sites are becoming ubiquitous and information is becoming available through web browsers as a standard medium for navigation and display. Some of the information systems set up using Teletext are now converting to Internet compatible web browsers. Other information systems rely on touch screen technology which has become very sophisticated in recent years.

The characteristics of community networks therefore include (a) organised providers and users of information, (b) provision of an information rich system generating organised and navigable content, (c) open public access or registered users, (d) connectivity through telephone dialup, cable or wireless, (e) social and community agendas including civic engagement, democracy, citizen empowerment, business support, incubation and regeneration, social and cultural enrichment, a medium for community communication.

These networks grow out of pre-existing communities, providing a medium that will to be some extent replace paper with electronics. The first generation of C-nets were very text based using bulletin board techniques. HTML’s growth allowed more graphical content to develop and content to become livelier and more colourful. Improvements in the technology and software permitted interactive techniques, such as chat to enrich communications.
Local governments are beginning to see the potential for using ICTs to gather feedback from service users. There has always been and no less so now a considerable use of ICTs in the field of education. The voluntary sector is gradually taking up Internet functions but is one of the slowest sectors to move in this direction.

6. Telecenters versus community networks

Telecentres have played their part in providing access to IT but that role is now being challenged as PCs become cheaper, modems become cheaper and more and more computers are being brought on-line. This enables C-nets to provide remote access to facilities such as printers, high spec peripherals and software banks. What I envisage is that telecentres will become smaller and will cease to provide much in the way of access to PCs but will concentrate on providing high specification and high value facilities that can be accessed remotely. They might take on the role of resource and training centres for local communities of self employed people, teleworkers and those running offices at home. They will need to base their business plans not on casual users but on contract users who contribute to subscriptions and sub-contract packages on an annual basis. There will be insufficient demand for access to PCs and mass consumption software to sustain these as viable business units on that function alone.

There will still be demand for access but through existing community channels such as schools, colleges, libraries and community centres rather than through specialist units such as telecentres. Telecentres need to be compared with networks in terms of the access facilities that they provide.
The future pattern of service provision envisaged here is of small resource hubs comprising servers supporting a small amount of direct hands on utilisation but with a much large amount of remote utilisation. High value, high capacity printers will be accessed by remote users and the output couriered or posted back, depending on quality and distance. Some out put might be manually channelled into the postal services. Some units might offer call centre and paper handling services for contract clients. Training, consultancy and maintenance services as part of the service agreements will enhance business viability and sustainability.

Connectivity will be in the form of subscription intranets based on ISDN or fibre optic cabling. These intranets, offering a higher level of content and systems management than the public Internet, will incorporate an array of digital conferencing functions, including white boarding techniques, video conferencing, increasing utilisation of audio platforms and much more sophisticated e-mail. They will enable use of applications similar to Lotus Notes.

All telecentres need staffing of some kind: the majority of telecentres have paid staff to run then though I suspect many depend heavily on volunteers. This imposes costly overheads. In addition the buildings themselves are costly overheads with a range of running expenses. By comparison networks are capital rather than labour intensive. The overheads of C-nets can be spread amongst a much larger number of users; even the largest telecentres probably will not have more than 20 or 30 people using their facilities at peak times. C-Nets can support hundreds or even thousands of simultaneous users. The comparisons pose a number of problems of course. In C-nets the working capital involves the users owning their own equipment; in Telecentres, users come in and rent equipment and software. C-net users do not of course use their computers solely for the purpose of accessing the network.

Unit costs of telecentres are likely to be higher than those for C-Nets because overhead costs can be spread amongst a much higher population of users. The producers in telecentres are comparatively few: often only the staff working in them. But in C-Nets all users are potentially producers. Any users who contributes a comment, piece of information or message to the system become one of a multitude of content producers. C-Nets are more likely than are telecentres to have a multiplicity of people and groups involved in information provision, content management, training and advice provision and development functions.

7. The impact of C-Nets on Teleworking

The needs of teleworkers for training and support services will probably not change very much during the growth of C-Nets but the means for meeting these needs will. Teleworkers will access support functions on-line rather than by a visit to a local telecentre. The connectivity of both the local C-Net and the global Internet will generate more and more scope for collaborative working. Teleworkers will have increased potential for working together in teams, exchanging skills, information and knowledge, forming virtual businesses and securing contracts collectively that would be denied to them as individuals.

As markets become increasingly global, so too will producers. C-Nets are both geographical and interest-oriented. It is quite possible for there to be a C-Net for teleworkers at European level and indeed the ETO (European Telework On-Line) is just about there in the range of functions it delivers.

Local C-Nets can and do support teleworkers by meeting those informational, communications and training needs are a best provided on a local basis. C-Nets can help to develop teleworking locally and provide forums and packages for teleworkers. Companies might be more willing to allow employees to telework if they knew that there was a local C-Net which would provide support. The cost of deploying teleworkers would decrease a little if some support services were to be provided by the C-Net rather than the company. Some local governments in the UK are providing teleworking employees with support services through telecentres and neighbourhood offices but there is scope to also provide these services on-line. Both national and local governments should encourage the growth and development of C-Nets as infrastructures for business, education and community needs. There should be a synergy between local C-Nets and the Internet.

8. Conclusions

The growth of ICTs is likely to present a serious challenge to the continuation of telecentres in their present form. There is no reason to conclude that telecentres will become extinct but their role and function is likely to change considerably as C-nets become more and more common. Instead of producing access to computers, C-Nets are likely to radically curtail this service or cease it altogether. If they continue to provide access to software it will be through file transfer, allowing down loading of software files or through client-server use – allowing the user access to software packages on-line. Telecentres in C-net areas are likely to become very much smaller and to operate mainly as part of the C-Net. Their main function will be to provide access to peripherals – high specification and high cost equipment that most users could not afford to own individually and who would use such machines relatively infrequently.

Telecentres as part of C-Nets are likely to offer high specification colour printing, a variety of presentation and graphical technologies, on-line software libraries and a variety of multi-media support facilities. In a nutshell the telecentre will be an on-line facility concentrating on providing access to equipment or software which is either too expensive or too low-use for the individual user to maintain.

C-Nets will lead to much more collaborative working of people within business communities. In fact, the availability of the technology will incubate virtual businesses. This has already begun to happen, with teams and virtual companies already being a familiar aspect of cyberspace. What we are likely to see is the development of knowledge managers, such as professionals with higher degree qualifications being supported by the system, a range of technicians with skills and competencies in various niches of the emergent work market and clerical and administrative support workers covering a range of functions.

Hence what we will see is the replacement of the electronic village hall by the electronic business centre. Facilities previously concentrated in buildings will be invested in networks and distributed over a wider geographical community. Telecentres are likely to experience a transition from being free-standing, independent units to being adjuncts to other community operations. It will become less and less necessary to have dedicated employees running such centres. The new breed of C-Net telesupport hubs are likely to merge with the servers for the C-Nets . Some telecentres might well grasp the nettle and start up C-Nets themselves and replace on-site with on-line users.

The creation and development of C-Nets will have far reaching impacts on work markets (previously called labour markets or job markets). In our vision the word job will become an anachronism. Economic activity will become more varied than in the past, including a wider variety of modes of income creation.

Urban areas will no longer need to provide the main location for economic activity. In the knowledge economy, networking will allow people to live in rural and suburban areas. Transportation will become more diffuse with commuter rush hours diminishing. One area where change is required is education. We need to find ways of stemming the increasing tide of women driving children to school at set times. Schools need to become resource centres.

At present there are intentions of providing schools with internet connections as though this was something experimental with perhaps one computer having a dialup internet account. We think this piecemeal approach should be avoided in favour of a much more strategic approach to community networking.

In order to make C-nets work effectively, there needs to be a coherent and comprehensive telematics strategy at local authority or regional level. This can be achieved through joint public and private investments.

Trevor Locke at 'The Admiral Restaurant', Herengracht
Trevor Locke at ‘The Admiral Restaurant’, Herengracht

Trevor Locke was the Proprietor of Event and Project Services.

Urban transport

24th June 2015

The future of passenger transport in Leicester

It took a bunch of designers to help me find out that a tram system for Leicester will be a non-starter. The designers came up with a schematic for how a possible tramway system might look in Leicester and posted it on social media sites. There were a lot comments about the idea, both for and against. ‘The Future of The Tram in Leicester’ evoked a debate; but it was one that I had seen before. The local paper had run a story on the subject when proposals were put forward in November 2008. The news report suggested that even a basic tram system would cost in the order of £300 million (at 2008 prices.)

Public transport is an important driven for the local economy. Leicester sits within a catchment area of about two million people. Those people can go to Nottingham, Derby, Loughborough, Lincoln or they can go to Leicester. Destination choice is important for jobs, commerce, entertainment, the arts and all the other key aspects of life and economic activity. It is easy to think that the private car is the answer to everything; but, with an ageing population its importance is declining. An increasing proportion of the population will become dependent on public transport. Public transport is, I would argue, a key driver in the economy of cities but it often placed too low down on the priorities of people who plan urban areas.

The trams idea did however get me thinking about what the city might develop to replace its present public transport system – the bus. If buses need replacing. Leicester is a relatively small and compact urban area. What it needs is a way of moving large quantities of people around from the outer suburbs to the inner city. The personalised transport unit – the car – as we know it, cannot last for ever; unless they are all converted to run on electricity. Fossil fuels will not last forever.

The main objection to the tram is that it mixes cars and pedestrians. The next objection is that it just could not work given the physical layout of the buildings and the streets as they are today in Leicester. Trams might work in Nottingham, Manchester or Sheffield, though some local people have disagreed that they are all that wonderful.

What kind of transport system would work given the layout of Leicester’s inner city? A variety of options have already been tried in various cities in this country.

Could we go underground? London, Tyne and Wear, Liverpool and Glasgow has underground with their passenger transport systems. Would this work in Leicester? To answer this we have to look at the geology of what the city stands on. Even with a favourable geological sub-strata, the cost of building an underground system would be prohibitive, in today’s climate of public funding.

Could we go up? That might be a more viable solution. Put your light passenger transportation system on stilts. That presents an option which avoids mixing conventional traffic and pedestrians with a transit system.

The way to go is the Automated People Mover (APM) similar to the elevated monorail systems that run on a single track (as opposed to the twin rails of conventional trains.) Some monorail system are suspended beneath the track and others ride on top of it (straddle-beam and suspended monorails.) To make such systems work, there are a lot of requirements.

Two requirements must be met: the infrastructure costs and the running costs. To build a raised system you have to be able to place the stilts (or piers) in a way that will not interfere with the existing road system. Neither must the resulting structures interfere with light; they must not put existing buildings into their shadow. This suggests some kind of piers that place the trackways in the middle of existing roads using supports that are placed either side of the system on the pedestrian walkways – the pavements. This suggests a shape like an arc, although in wider thoroughfares single piers could be used.

The tracks, if we can call them that, must not be heavy. That means we have to rethink the kind of vehicles that will run on them. The units that run on the raised system must be light enough. That means doing away with two things: wheels and engines. These weigh too much. The wheel is an archaic device for allowing vehicles to be moved along without too much friction. Engines are heavy items; if we can remove them from the wagons, that makes the passenger units much lighter.

A motive method should be electric. There is no point in designing a transit system based on fossil fuels. So out goes anything to do with diesel (a) because that requires heavy engines and (b) because it is a fossil fuel. The future of transport is not about wheels or fossil fuels.

Linear induction does away with wheels and runs on electricity. A maglev (magnetic levitation) system propels wagons (carriages) without the need to have engines to pull them – the movement is caused by magnets on the trackway itself and the carriages float above the tracks – hence no need for wheels. The single beam track carries the electricity supply without the need for cables and is light enough to be supported on single piers. Such systems are also very quiet – no noisy engines, no rumbling wheels and no noisy suspensions. They glide quietly along. People can be moved either in carriages about the size of a conventional single-decker bus or in small units about the size of a conventional large taxi or minibus. The trackways are light enough to require only single pillar support piers.

The carriages must be light. They must be made of materials that are tough, hard-wearing and light. Systems like these require very little maintenance. Units of up to 100 seats should be sturdy enough and light enough to float above the tracks (about one centimetre) above the trackways even when fully loaded with passengers and luggage.

Another advantage of the maglev system is that only the section on which a ‘train’ is running needs to be powered. There is no need to run the carriages at high speeds. Most journeys are going to be over short distances. Between the outer suburbs and the inner city stops, the longest distances are of the order of three to four miles at most. Conventional diesel-powered buses stop every few yards. Most of the energy consumed by transport is speeding up and slowing down. The one thing buses do well is their ability to stop every few yards. This is another reason why the construction of the carriages must be made from very lightweight materials to reduce the energy needed for acceleration.

Having this kind of system is possible because we now have the computing power to run the motors. maglev requires microchip technology that runs at very high processor speeds. That is a feature of how linear induction works. There is constant real-time interplay between sensors and the control mechanisms.

There will have to be two tracks: one for each direction of travel, so that carriages can turn round and go back. It assumes that there will be twin tracks, one for each direction of travel – in bound and out bound – unless it is possible to run the whole thing on loops. This would require routes where single tracks only are needed but where there is in-bound and out-bound directions of travel. Unless each track has only one set of carriages which turn round at the terminus and then travel back.

Would such a system need signalling to avoid carriages running into each other on the same section of track? In a twin track system, carriages pass each other on separate tracks. It should be impossible for two carriages to run in opposite directions on the same track simply because the linear induction would make this impossible – the induction allows only forward motion. Hence the need for a second track to allow carriages travel back in the same direction and to pass carriages coming the other way. In high-speed systems, the tracks have to be far enough apart to prevent air pressure problems when two trains pass each other. Or, the carriages have to be designed to funnel pressurised air away from the gap between passing carriages. But, in an short-journey urban system – a relatively slow-moving system – this would not be a problem.

When we think about the dense inner city environment, we have more problems in designing the supports than we would have on the long, wide thoroughfares of arterial routes. The tracks could be supported, at least in narrow streets, from the buildings on either side. Attach the supports to the walls of buildings – this kind of low-weight engineering should make that possible.

The tracks would need to stand at least as high above street level as a double-decker bus or as high as the tallest van or lorry. Even if the tracks can be placed in the middle of the thoroughfare, would there be enough clearance either wide of the trackway to allow large, high-sided vehicles to run on conventional roads?

To visualise the system, I imagined what the system would look like on some of the existing arterial routes, like London Road, Welford Road, Saffron Lane, Melton Road, Narborough Road, etc. Many of these existing arterial routes are quite wide.

Even in Narborough Road, there is probably enough width to place the trackways in the middle and allow enough clearance either side for conventional vehicles. Some bridges might have to be removed. Pretty much all the Victorian railway tracks have been removed throughout the city; so, there are no disused railway that could be used. One criterion for this kind of system is that it should not require the demolition of buildings. It should be fitted into the existing layout of buildings.

It would be necessary to build the supports from metal (or other strong materials) rather than from concrete. The supporting piers should be constructed from new materials that can take the weight, not rust or deteriorate over time and which can be thin enough not to get in the way of pedestrians. At some points the tracks would have to span wide sections – where the route crosses road junctions for example. I think all this will be possible with good engineering design. Concrete is relatively expensive and has a shorter life-span than new materials based on carbon fibre or plastic materials. Many of the flyovers that were supported on concrete piers have had to be demolished because the materials degraded with age.

Carriages with wheels running on rails are heavy and require concrete trackways and piers to support their weight. Linear induction tracks are much lighter and hence do not need rails (there are no wheels) and would look more like the trackways of rides at funfairs and amusement parks. Wheel-less carriages floating silently on single tracks raised above the level of existing traffic and powered by electricity – this is what I see as being the future of urban passenger transport. Makes the conventional twin-rail tram look archaic.

Trevor Locke

Trevor Locke has a masters degree in Urban Policy Studies

Working with the web-o-sphere

The world of the Internet is constantly changing

I started to use the Internet shortly after it became widely available in the UK.  Since then it has changed a lot and keeps changing all the time.

Who would have thought that Facebook would have become so popular? Who would have thought that smart phones would begin to replace desk top computers as the main instrument to connect to the ‘net?

These changes keep us on our toes. We have to understand what is happening in the web-o-sphere; the growth of social media offers a wide range of opportunities. There are also several ‘threats’ posed by the changes taking place and I have already written about web sites becoming redundant.

Those who use the Internet for business purposes need to be aware of the opportunities.  Enterprise is largely about seizing opportunities.  so, if your business does not have a page on Facebook, you are missing opportunities to make contact with new customers.   If you do not use Twitter, you are missing opportunities to push your message out to people.

All of these facilities now exist on the Internet but they will work for you if and only if you use them regularly. I appreciate I am writing for myself but I guess we are all in the same boat. Running a business is a complicated activity that requires a good deal of dedication and considerable agility with personal time management.

If you have a blog, you should go on it and post at least once a month. If your blog is simply one of a number of on-line facilities that you use, then monthly updates are a must do line in your calendar.  If your blog is your main outlet, then it’s either a daily or at least weekly duty.

Tweeting is fine if you have several hundred highly relevant followers. If your  Twittersphere includes less than 50 high relevance people, then your main job should be trying to get more quality followers. It matter not how many people you follow, What matters is who is going to read your tweets.

If you have set up a business page on Facebook, you need to go on it regularly.  How regularly will depend on how many people are seeing it. There is little point in writing daily postings if no one is reading them. The world of social media is all about audience.

Without an audience you are performing to an empty room. Like a singer or band,  you have to go out there and win fans. In the business world, it is also about the quality of the fans you attract. That means finding people who are likely to buy from you.  There is something to be said for being a familiar face in the market place. When your name pops up all over the place, people become familiar with your name or brand. That increases consumer confidence.

I could write all day along these lines but I have a long ‘to do’ list to get through.  If you would like to attend a workshop on using the Internet for business, drop me a message on my Facebook page.

If I have events coming up I can tell you about them;  alternatively if you come with a few other people, I can do a workshop – just for you.

[My business – B2B Web – closed in 2016 when I retired.]

Branding for the smaller business

When we think about branding we tend to think this is something for really big corporations. I want to argue that branding is also important for new,  startup and smaller companies, including social enterprises.

Branding is about identity.  Using a name, logo and strap line anchors the identity of a company. It makes it more easily recognisable. Having an established brand is an asset.  The brand can be attached to a product and also to the business. A well-chosen brand encapsulates what the business is about. It is a statement about the company, the business, what it does, what it provides, how it operates. Its purpose is to make the business stand out.

Branding is about positioning the enterprise in the public’s awareness. A new company has to work hard to win its customer base and its brand identity will contribute to this. Growing businesses need to secure their share of the market and beat the competition. Again, brand image will assist with this. Once a business has built up a set of customers, it can use it branding to secure their loyalty.

There are various elements to a brand scheme:  colour, logo, imagery, wording.  A basic principle of branding is that it must be consistent. Once a brand identity is set it has to be applied in precisely the same way on everything: on paper, on labelling, on the Internet … where ever the business needs to be seen, the branding must be identical  across all media.

People who design branding think about the feeling it expresses. Colour is of  key importance to this. A lot of research has been done into the association between specific shades of a colour and emotions. Some colours are associated with trust, others with energy, some with passion. Choosing the right colour scheme for a brand requires work on the emotional response that is required.

Designing a branding scheme involves getting a very clear take on what the company wishes to say about itself.  When entrepreneurs register a company, they might not be thinking ahead to their branding identity and often end up with a company name that does not fit with the criteria of a clear brand identity. This need not matter because what is being sold is the concept, product or service that the company will trade in, irrespective of the name of the entity that is doing that.

A key part of branding is the logo – an image that symbolises the business or its products.  The style of the logo will convey something about the strength and quality of business. Getting it right is a formidable undertaking and a lot of entrepreneurs take too little time over getting this right.  In their rush to get started, they bash out something about their idea and hope for the best. When they later discover that it either does not work or is having the wrong effect, they then find they have to spend a lot of time and money trying to re-brand.

Changing a brand identity scheme can be very, very expensive.  So, getting it right to start with is well worth the investment. There are too many businesses out there that got their branding wrong and are stuck with it. It’s actually not an asset, it’s holding them back. It’s saying the wrong thing about the product or service; it’s conveying the wrong impression.

If your business provides a large range of products or services, then it is the brand that holds them together and the quality of any one product transfers to all the others through the association of the band name.  Service based businesses rely on their brand identity to underpin the trust and reliability that they want their customers to believe in and to value.

A well branded business has a higher value than one without a strong brand identity.  The brand is valuable in itself.  If a brand is well established, valued, liked and respected, then the company that owns it will be worth more.  The branding scheme should accurately and successfully convey what the business stands for – quality, reliability, trustworthiness, style, desirability – being some of the emotions that brands want to reflect. The brand might also express something about the customer, saying something about who they are or who they like to think they might be.  It’s a badge of status.

Understanding the importance of branding is not limited to purely profit-making enterprises.  It can also apply to public service organisations.  Local authorities, sections of the Civil Service, charities, NGOs … they all use branding to some extent to make an impact on their service users.

Some people who start businesses half-understand branding and think they can do it themselves. If you have the self-confidence to start a business and enter the market place, then it likely you will think that DIY branding is for you. It’s a trap many fall into. Thinking that branding is just about common sense is about as wrong as believing that your business does not need it.

If you want to make a success of your branding then at least try to research the subject thoroughly before you make a start. Or, find someone who has expertise in this area.  Being able to formulate a successful branding scheme is all about knowledge. Doing your own branding is as sensible as trying to take your own appendix out.

I am not an expert in branding but I do claim to understand the value, need for, and process of branding. In that respect I can project manage a branding exercise. I have a feel for how much to invest in it, because it is not difficult to squander resources on very expensive marketing companies.  I would not advocate bargain-basement deals but prudent and judicious selection of the right support is vital.

Investment in branding, if successful, confers a return that is well worth having.

Publishing for the digital age

I learnt my trade as an editor and publisher during the late 1970s and early 80s. I edited a bi-monthly magazine for the youth service that was printed on paper and sent out in envelopes through the post. The production methods were primitive by today’s standards but the skills were basically the same.

Today I publish an Arts Magazine which is read by more people. I publish it digitally. The phrase “webzine” was coined to give a name to magazines that are published on the World Wide Web.

It did not start life as a magazine. In fact, it was created as a spin-off from a web site that was about travel. Back in February 2005, when the domain name was registered, it was intended only to be a small web site that provided a bit of information about music and the arts. Now, with over 200 pages, I consciously and deliberately always refer to it as being a “magazine” and never as a “website”. To me, the product is just as much a journal as something that sits on the shelves at newsagents or which goes out in the post, as some still do. I am a journalist first and a web designer second.

My mission is to contribute to the methodology of digital publishing and to achieve the same status and recognition for a digital product that might be conferred on a paper-based product. I call it a “journal” rather than a periodical.

Artsin, as we nickname it, is not published periodically; it does not come out once a month. It’s content is renewed on a daily basis. It lacks back issues but some of the pages can be on line for a very long time and we maintain some pages intact as they were in 2010, 2009 and more rarely in 2008.

We do not, of course, revise every one of the 200 pages each day. New material is published as and when we write it or when it comes in. That is the first distinguishing characteristic of digital publishing: disengagement from a time-scale to achieve continuous on-line refreshment of content. If an important news story comes in, it can be available to the public long before the local newspaper can put it out and often well before the broadcast media.

The second characteristic is that it does not mimic a paper-based product. I have seen some versions of on-line magazines that are laid-out and typeset like paper and even those that employ huge amounts of overhead script to give the impression, on the screen, of pages turning. In fact there are companies offering to sell the software to make ‘e-Mags’ that will visually turn pages. I laugh at these ludicrous ideas as much as I do web sites that are composed entirely in Flash. I am unabashedly ‘old skool’ and Artsin was entirely handcrafted in traditional HTML.

It’s also accessible to people with visual impairments and meets most of the accessibility standards which many of the page-turning efforts do not.

I have seen products where the publisher has gone to immense trouble to publish the product in PDF format which is then e-mailed to subscribers. Well, it’s a solution and it sticks to the idea of publishing periodically. There are numerous examples of companies that send out newsletters using full HTML formatting and that are delivered by e-mail. Fair dos, it serves its purpose.

I never even thought of doing things in this way. At no time did I sit down and say to myself “I want to publish an arts magazine”. The online magazine that we see today evolved. It came from the spin-off web site of 2005 and only as I worked with it, over about five years, did I realise that I was edging gradually towards a magazine format.

So, what is the difference between a magazine and a web site? This is largely a matter of approach to the content. I wear two hats: I have my web designer’s baseball cap.

When I am working on Artsin I am a journalist and editor and my work is based on those years of laboriously preparing paper based periodicals.

I like to think that Artsin works as much as a magazine as it does as a web site. The methods and principles that are used to put those 200 pages on the web share a lot in common with what paper-based editors do, as much as they share some things in common with what web designers do.

Artsin borrows some conventions from paper publishing but I have never wanted to mimic print layout or make pages appear to turn; when I have been on sites that have done things in this way, I have had a really good laugh.

It is true that there are some things we have done on Artsin that the paper editor might have done: The mast head, the use of by-lines, the occasional use of a two-column layout, the disciplined use of headlines, subheads and intros … but there are aspects of paper layout that I have deemed to be inappropriate to digital production.

The layout and styling of Artsin is driven by web principles; it has to work as a web site because that is how people are going to use it. People do sometimes ask me where they can buy a copy of the magazine. During the day time I simply respond by saying its an online product and you don’t have to pay to read it. At night, in the pub, after a few jars, I tell them they can print it out from their computer. I then go on to warn them that they will need more than two reams of paper and a large collection of cartridges because on paper it would be bigger than the average telephone directory. I know the equivalent number of A4 pages because we systematically archive pages using a PDF printer which reports the number of pages of A4 size that have been printed to the hard disk.

Why have I never published a paper version? I have never had enough money to do this. Artsin has cost little to set up and run; its overhead cost is the renewal of its domain names, an annual hosting fee for the web server and, of course, the economic value of my time as editor. If I had wanted to produce a paper version of it, I would have to have had access to tens of thousands of pounds in set up, typography and distribution costs.

At the heart of digital publishing there is a big commercial issue. Sales of newspapers have been plunging down; more and more newspapers now have their digital equivalents on the web. A few pioneers have opted for a digital only approach – The Huffington Post – and a few national newspapers are now charging a subscription to access their online content – The Economist, The Times.

I doubt that Artsin will ever charge people to read its pages although we have seriously considered this for another of our publishing outlets. What prevents us from giving serious consideration to this option is that the publishing industry is an a transitional state.

Since the emergence of the web as a mass market, publishing is going through a revolution, every bit as dramatic as that which occurred when Caxton invented his printing press. In the West, at least, people have been used to accessing online textual content free of charge. They might have got used to paying for music and films, but they sure have not got used to the idea of paying for news and feature articles.

It will come. The commercial realities of digital publishing will inexorably move both publishers and readers back into a priced relationship. Consumers will get used to paying for content, just as they were used to paying for their newspapers and magazines at the newsagents. I know that if I slapped a subscription charge on Artsin, tomorrow, only a fraction of the current readership would pay it, however small the charge might be.

Web surfers have not got used to the idea to paying the full economic value of what they see on their screens. They think it all appears there by magic and costs nothing to make it come up, so why should they have to pay anything to read it.

My rough estimate of the cost of producing Artsin is that we are talking of between £25,000 to £35,000 a year, in full economic cost terms. Roughly speaking, the page you read free of charge is worth between £125 and £135. That’s what I pay to put it there but you get to read it for nothing.

If you want to read your local newspaper or national arts magazine, you are reading a page that would have cost its publisher much more than that, to put on your screen and considerably more to put a copy on your coffee table. Ok, I have simplified the economics of digital publishing to make a point. Consumers are happy to pay £2.20 for a 65 page copy of Kerrang; they can take it home and read it and then throw it away or, like me, carefully file it away for future reference.

Newspapers are purchased and then invariably discarded or used for wrapping chips or as makeshift cat litter. When we look at books however, something rather different emerges. Paper books are still prized and valued by the literati. I recently read somewhere that, on the Amazon web site, the turnover from sales of e-books has outstripped that of paper products. This is due to the popularity of digital book readers, such as Kindle. The manufacturers and designers of electronic gadgets have achieved a remarkable success in revolutionising the world of book publishing. They have also revolutionised the publication of news.

Millions of people now access news through their mobile phones. In the age of Twitter, news has ceased to be the prerogative of newspapers. What the statistics tell us, is that reading paper news is now a tiny fraction of all such reading and that the majority of people now get their news from media that is broadcast rather than printed.

Should I see if Artsin can be produced in this way? Possibly. I have to bear in mind that Artsin has a deliberately limited audience. It is concerned almost exclusively with the Arts and Entertainment of Leicester and Leicestershire. That alone takes it out of the ball park for other e-media.

Today, there are local newsagents on every street corner. In most large supermarkets there are shelves laden with paper periodicals. I wonder how long this will last. In an economy that is systematically weighted against small businesses, more so in retailing than in most other sectors, how long can the corner shops survive? It would be a shame if the purchase of paper magazines becomes limited only to those who can gain access to the large chains of supermarkets that are invariably positioned in locations that require car ownership to access them.

If I want to purchase a copy of Kerrang I can walk to my local shop in the city centre and pick one up. If I wanted to I could pay a subscription by direct debit and have it dropped into my post box. If I happened to live in some remote Scottish Island, it still would not be an option for me to pay for it online and have it downloaded to my hard disk but, I guess that option might well be round the corner. Probably, more so than the local newspapers.

I want to say one more thing about Artsin as a digital product. If you go to our front page (notice I didn’t say home page), you will see a list of social networking sites where Artsin has a presence. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, ReverbNation and quite a few more networking portals play a prominent part in the online presence of Artsin.

Unlike a paper product, we can show videos on our pages, we can link to music downloads, we can offer ticket sales directly and, in the near future, we want to get into pod-casting, allowing visitors to listen to interviews rather than just reading them.

Our accounts on these third party portals allow us to do two things: spread news at national level and drive traffic to our main site. It works like this: if we go to see a band and like what we hear, we are not just going to write about them in the pages of Artsin. We are going to shout about them through our social networking outlets; we are going to Tweet about them to our national followers and we are going to write reviews about them on sites like ReverbNation.

I have closed down a number of my nationally-oriented web sites mainly because their role and purpose is now redundant in the age of social networking. The bands themselves could abandon the idea of getting signed to a record label or hooked up with a publishing house and do it all themselves. Many bands have made it this way. In music publishing, there is also a sea change underway, as there is in the world of text publishing. Sales of digital tracks now out-strips those of plastic products. We no longer go to the record shop to buy a plastic disk and we no longer go to the book shop to buy a novel. At any rate, not the numbers that used to be the case.

A small local band can make itself into a record label. A small local web designer can create an Arts magazine. They can do this with relatively little cash investment. For a fraction of the cost that would have been the case ten years ago, anyone can now become a publisher – of news, music or reviews. You don’t need a sack-load of money to get started in the publishing business.

To be successful in publishing you still need the same age-old skills, knowledge and commitment that our forebears had but if you have got it, you can do it.

References

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2009/oct/29/sales-fall-newspaper-readership

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/dec/14/national-newspapers-sales-decade

http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=46548&c=1

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12391899