Property relations and London planning

Michael Edwards 17 November 2020

Expansion of speaking notes for seminar 13 November 2020 convened by Callum Ward, following 9 months of meetings of a reading group. The reading group has worked through all the chapters (except one remaining) of the 1985 book, now reprinted, Land Rent, Housing and Planning, a European Perspective, edited by Michael Ball, Vincenzo Bentivegna, Michael Edwards and Marino Folin. This was a compilation of Marxist work on rent and private land ownership. Contents and details at http://bit.ly/2M8z11P

Review of the re-issue by Callum Ward in Radical Housing Journal.

The reading group has been convened by Elena Besussi and grew out of a ‘teach-out’ at Tolmers Square on 2 December 2019 as part of a strike by university workers. Details and my notes here on my blog.

This text is provisional and I am still working on it. Further revisions will include a lot of referencing of other people’s work when I learn how to do footnotes in WordPress. Meanwhile bits in [brackets] are standing in for future notes. Please don’t quote this version thoughtlessly while this paragraph remains.

My working year has been dominated by inconclusive activism about a new London Plan and later – during the lockdown – by proposed neo-liberal changes to the planning system of England coming from the Boris Johnson regime. The London Plan had been produced in City Hall by an almost entirely new professional team following the retirement of those who had mostly joined the GLA from its precursor, LPAC. It was presented as the policy vehicle of a new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, following elaborate, managed, consultations on a non-statutory document A City for All Londoners. The draft Plan was issued for consultation in 2017 and for us in Just Space it showed terrible failings of procedure (weak consultation, trivial treatment of equality duties) and of substance: like its predecessors, substantially a developers’ charter, immediately spotted as such by property journalist Peter Bill. More detail on this plan below. The Johnson regime launched a number of consultations on changes to the planning system of England which led me into a number of responses, written with colleagues at UCL, comrades mainly from PNUK who came together thanks to Andy Inch in Sheffield and Bob Colenutt and Sue Brownill in Oxford, producing two composite pamphlets The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions and then The Right Answers to the Right Questions. I also played an editorial role in submissions from the members of the Just Space network who chose to report their brainstorming rather than dutifully respond to the government’s 39 articles of faith.

In this short paper I want to concentrate on what seem to me to be the compelling  local (London / UK) issues on which rent à la Marx can contribute: housing strategies and urban structure. Views are my own but I’m in great debt to friends in Just Space and the other networks referred to above, and in the reading group, for stimulus, ideas, criticism and energy.

These are not issues on which I am planning to start or undertake research myself. This is an ‘exit strategy’ in which I’d like to become more and more retired. So it is an attempt to interest others in picking up and developing, or challenging, this agenda. Feel free to use this stuff as you wish and invite your students and others to do so. Just make sure to keep us/me informed.

Method

What I have brought away from nearly a year of reading and discussion on rent has been a reinforced confidence that we have to analyse the property relations surrounding and powering today’s problems, viewing them as historical processes, using Marx’s work on rent and class as insights and tools. In other words we have to zoom out and in, look at these entire relations, not dwell on trying to match modern transaction-types to forms of exactions identified in 19th century agriculture. This is not an original or a fresh position: it was the position taken, more or less explicitly, by most of the contributors to the 1985 book. [In the light of these discussions I decided to re-frame my first lecture of the year to Elena’s course on European Planning Practices. It was my first pre-recorded talk (which I hated doing) but I’ll add a link here when I can get it out of the university’s walled garden.]

Housing – the big issue

It may not be helpful to talk too much of ‘The Housing Question’ since there are multiple questions and multiple localities and that phrase implies that there is a single diagnosis to be found. But I’ll take the risk to start with.

I’ve been arguing for years that the housing question is bedevilled by rival simplifications. Housing is a complicated question because of the way it penetrates almost every aspect of contemporary life. 

There is, howevera simple truth about contemporary housing in most countries: the system fails many people completely and probably a majority of people to some degree; it amplifies and reproduces inequality and becomes a core part of a financialised rentier economy for those who are ‘profiting without producing’. With growing inequality of income and wealth and most housing now distributed by markets, inequality of housing outcomes is inevitable. The results can be murderous.

Members of this seminar will probably be more-or-less content with this statement but the challenge is to re-phrase it in ways which are comprehensible and compelling for a fragmented society and to expand/unpack it to reveal what is going on. It could be a one-page essay or just a paragraph or just a tweet. Or it could be a movie or a cartoon. I’ve been wrestling with this problem this summer in responses to the English government’s proposed changes to the planning system, and the challenge crops up daily on twitter, where I choose to spend many hours. It’s not what one is supposed to do in academic seminars but I can’t think of anywhere better. [I’ll expand on this in the text version and now return to the talk —section or annex to come on versions so far that I wrote or know of.].

Any very concise account of the housing question needs, in my view, to invite expansion / elaboration to reveal the wider dynamics behind the simple truths. In particular:

The complete circuit of production in the housebuilding industry has to be examined: land assembly, labour processes (including professions, offsite component production), realisation of the surplus through sale/rent and innovations in circulation. 

The interplay of that new-building industry with the second-hand market in dwellings (and the armies of lawyers, valuers, agents involved). The interplay of market and non-market housing sectors is equally crucial.

The interplay with the endless process of refurbishment and upgrading of the old stock, both as capital accumulation and as the direct production of use values. Works to existing buildings used to be about half of all construction output and it must be a lot still (including some cash-in-hand & DIY activity outside the statistics).

Housing as an input and pre-requisite for the reproduction of labour power, where we have seen so much revealed by Covid19: the inadequacy of much housing (and many neighbourhood settings) for working at home, for home-schooling of children, for privacy, intimacy and recreation. The class, gender and ethnic dimensions in these inequalities are being examined now. I was really glad that Joon Park was in the seminar as it was he who suggested that perhaps we make a mistake in treating dwellings as the product of the land development sector when we should be treating labour power as the product. I’d love to know whether and  how he has progressed that insight, though it didn’t come up in the seminar.

That in turn links to the role of housing in the formation of social classes and strata – which for me came initially from the work of PhD students (Oguz Isik on Ankara, Dina Vaiou, George Beldecos and others on Athens) and now from Ozlem Celik on Istanbul, reflecting back to our UK (and especially London) experience to help us see how housing ownership / non-ownership concentrates wealth & hardens & fuels class distinctions in almost every department of life.

More could be added to this list: relations with pensions and elderly care, taxation and the funding of state activity, questions of urban structure and relations with global warming and ecological breakdown. 

London

I’ll develop this by focusing on some big issues in London planning. 

Firstly supply and demand. London planning is driven by the same doctrine that powers the neo-liberal ‘reforms’ of national planning: the belief that housing affordability problems are entirely or largely due to a shortage of supply relative to demand so the imperative is to achieve a target number of dwelling completions, computed or decided —believe it or not— at national level in the proposed national reforms.

For London, everything else is subordinated to this imperative, which suits the speculative private housebuilding industry and the financial institutions behind it very well. The imperative prizes open developers’ access to industrial land, sites of former collective spaces, council housing estates and land previously in municipal or utility ownership and used for public purposes. Our challenge has been partly to defend those most directly damaged by all that (those evicted or displaced to make room for densification) and partly to draw attention to the contradictions (displacement of production and service spaces, diversion of worker spending from consumption into rent payment, recruitment and retention problems for employers). But our opposition is not winning. Could we make a more compelling story and one which spans the proliferation of financialised forms which so fragments resistance between tenures and types of landlord/lender?

[Relevant here is the Just Space response to the Mayor’s housing strategy 2017 and the various Just Space responses to the housing provisions of the London Plan. There are also links there to submissions from the London Tenants Federation, a very important and well-organised network representing council and some housing association tenants. This aside needs expansion.]

Secondly: the London growth machine is superficially powered by reference to agglomeration – the positive side of agglomeration. Here the oppositional task has been to point to the downsides of air quality, journey times, and above all rents and housing costs. It’s tricky because of the enormous forces ranged against us and because rising  housing costs are also rising wealth for nearly half the population. London’s growth can partly be seen as massive state investment in infrastructure, valorising central London commercial property and suburban housing stocks, with land value increments harvested by owners. Covid19 seems to have shaken the assumptions about agglomeration – especially the need for 5-days-weekly commuting to central offices. That is producing some panic among investors/owners and there is work for us to do about the potentialities.

Thirdly: an established set of social relations of building provision is falling to bits, notably the leasehold system. This has been subject to criticism and half-hearted reform for decades but is crumbling now after being ruthlessly exploited by housebuilding firms to extract additional profit. The last straw has stemmed from the Grenfell Tower disaster, following which tens of thousands of apartment leaseholders now find themselves unable to sell and move without certificates of fire safety (which are obtainable only with long delays, if at all) and often confronting enormous costs for remediation and other fire protection works. Leaseholds are being further discredited by the exposure of the exploitative character of part-buy part-rent, a device used to provide what appears to be an entry to home-ownership but actually is misleading and unfair to those who take it up, valuable to the cash flow of housing providers who receive the initial payments sell while offloading their maintenance costs and risks . The state is no longer guaranteeing and overseeing the operation of market exchange.

Relations of building provision are changing elsewhere too: institutional owners of commercial properties, especially shops and restaurants, are able to collect only part of the rent due from their corporate tenants because Covid19 closures have enormously amplified the decline of physical retailing and catering. The landlords are having to put up with this but, unless tenants get much better organised, there is no equivalent shift for housing rentals and, like most places in the world, we expect surges of evictions. Meanwhile a completely new (for England) form of housing provision has invented itself: Build-to-Rent (BtR), effectively a new use class negotiated between interested parties and the state (and GLA) to construct entire blocks of middle-market flats to rent, with exemption from the normal requirement to provide “affordable” dwellings as part of their schemes.

These are not issues on which I am planning to start or undertake research myself. This is all an ‘exit strategy’ in which I’d like to become more and more retired. So it is an attempt to interest others in picking up and developing, or challenging, this agenda. Feel free to use this stuff as you wish. Just make sure to keep us/me informed.