Don’t dump density – alarm

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Jan 2018: This now includes an email exchange with Prof Ian Gordon at LSE. Later material is BELOW the original post.

Dec 2017: The draft plan is  now out and comments are being gathered by Just Space at

Oct 2017: Rumours now abound (October 2017) that the draft London Plan, due out for consultation on 29 November, will have dropped the density matrix. It was being widely ignored and circumvented and some elements in City Hall wanted to scrap it, while others wanted to improve it and enforce it. If the rumours are correct the scrappers have won. That would be disastrous in my judgement, fuelling further rounds of land price escalation. This is the story and the criticism. Please comment and correct errors.

Since the GLA was created in 2000, London Plans have used an innovative approach to controlling housing density for new building across the city: density should be proportional to public transport accessibility. In this way most new residents are conveniently placed to use public transport and that, in turn, supports better and more frequent services. By contrast, in the areas which are a long walk from public transport or where services are infrequent, only very little new housing should be allowed. Developments in such places are more likely to generate car trips, so the fewer of them we have, the better. The combined effect of this density policy with lots of other policies and investments, has been that London has managed the miracle of increasing the proportion of trips made by public transport, cycling and walking in this century.

This very simple idea was embodied in an advisory matrix (a table) in which Public Transport Accessibility Level (PTAL) allows you to read off the range of permitted housing densities. Further refinements were added and the matrix was re-named “sustainable residential quality matrix”.

With the high and rising prices and rents of open-market housing in London, the speculative construction of housing has been extremely profitable for developers, whose quest for development sites has often been very competitive. This competition among land buyers tends to drive up the prices paid for land which is disastrous for councils and non-profit housing associations seeking to buy land cheaply to provide social housing, but also makes it harder to require private developers to provide a high proportion of social housing or other social benefits within their schemes (agreements under Section 106).  Securing social housing and other social benefits in private developments has become much harder since the financial crisis of 2007/8 when a downturn in disposal prices (brief, as it turned out) enabled developers to claim that they could no longer afford to make such provisions on the same scale, or at all. They became adept at using confidential ‘viability’ studies to minimise such commitments and the Coalition government of 2010 strengthened their position in new guidance and regulations. The use of ‘viability’ studies has been fully explored by journalists (TBIJ)  and by academic researchers (Colenutt and others 2015; Sayce and others 2016).

In calculating how much they can afford to bid for land, developers work backwards from what they can expect to realise from final sale of the finished homes, deducting their estimated construction and other costs (plus a mark-up called ‘developer’s profit’) to arrive at a ‘residual valuation’ —the maximum it’s worth them paying. If maximum permitted density is specified in the city plan, then developers have clear limits on what they can build and that is therefore a main determinant of land prices. This is one of the key ways in which state action constitutes land markets —by defining precise development rights which can then be traded.

The London Plan density matrix has been very widely breached. That has been clear for years and in 2016 the GLA commissioned a study by an LSE team (Ian Gordon, Alan Mace and Christine Whitehead) which concluded that the matrix probably had very little effect: the densities of actual building projects could mostly —and better— be explained statistically by direct accessibility measures, neighbourhood density and other attributes.  [see their report and Chart 3.2 below] The researchers were interested in how to improve forecasts of future built densities and proposed that the matrix be discontinued. They considered that the London Plan should specify minimum permitted densities but that any setting and negotiation of maximum levels should be a matter for the 33 London boroughs whose professional officers and elected politicians would best be able to know what would be accepted in each place.

LSE 2016 density chart

Until we see the draft London Plan at the end of November, and its supporting documents*, we shall not know exactly what the GLA has decided to do, and on what grounds.  They may simply have followed the LSE team’s advice or they may have considered other factors.

The LSE study is notable, however, for having paid no attention to the effects of density regulation on land prices so the consequences for the land market of their proposed re-regulation are not considered.

If you have a planning policy which is only advisory and is being widely disregarded or over-ridden in actual decisions, there are two ways to go. You could scrap the policy in favour of an explicit devolution of the issue to local policymakers and negotiators. Or you could improve and tighten-up the policy, making it mandatory. My view is that the GLA is wrong if it has scrapped the matrix because it will further encourage speculative land buyers to over-bid for sites, pushing prices up, confident that they can negotiate high enough densities with the boroughs to get their money back.

Case-by-case negotiation between developers and boroughs has already been responsible for squeezing down the level of social housing provided under Section 106. If the regulation of maximum density becomes even more relaxed than it already is, then I’m expecting land prices to be further pushed upwards.

What the GLA should be doing is trying to get much more certainty into the land market by tightening up and enforcing (i) upper density limits (ii) minimum percentages of homes to be let at social rents.

Can I prove I’m right?  No. It’s based on my understanding of how markets work and is consistent with what practitioners (including many of my ex-students) tell me. It also fits with standard thinking in those countries which have zoning systems where it is a basic rule or axiom that any flexibility or relaxations in density must be strictly codified and only given at a high price —for example the incentive zoning debates in New York.

Later – 1 November – Toby Lloyd at Shelter tweets a link to his February blog post  calling for similar changes – not on density but on affordable housing proportions, space standards, viability tests, with nice graphics.

Later – 12 December. The London Plan, now that we have it, does see the dangers of land prices being inflated by ‘hope value’, but only in the specific case of Opportunity Areas: “§4.6.13  In Opportunity Areas, boroughs may want to consider applying a localised affordable housing threshold for the Fast Track Route or fixed affordable housing requirements. This approach could help provide certainty to developers and land owners and help prevent land price rises based on hope value.”

Colenutt, B, A Cochrane and M Field (2015) “The rise and rise of viability assessment” Town and Country Planning 64(10): 453-458

Gordon, I, A Mace and C Whitehead (2016) Defining, Measuring and Implementing Density Standards in London London Plan Density Research Project 1 London, LSE

Sayce, S, N Crosby, A Parsa, R Harris and P Garside (2016) Viability and the planning system: the relationship between economic viability testing, land values and affordable housing in London, University of Reading

* The main relevant supporting documents, due out with the draft London Plan, will probably be the Strategic Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA) which uses density forecasts to estimate the housing capacity of the sites it considers will be available and the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) which predicts the housing needs of Londoners of various income levels. Both these controversial studies are termed ‘technical’ documents, not ‘policy’ documents so they are not subject to much public scrutiny. Just Space has good commentaries/critiques of them, however.  The London Plan itself will appear on the GLA web site with all its associated papers. 

Email exchange with Ian Gordon (LSE):

On 30 Oct 2017, at 15:55, Gordon,IR … wrote:

Dear Michael,

Thanks for the email and the link to your blog.

I’d heard just one echo of this rumour, and would naturally be pleased if the reviewed Plan does, in this respect, turn out to do what we proposed (a very rare occurrence in my experience).

You’re clearly right that we did not actually assess the difference that specifying upper limits to local densities might have made in moderating land value inflation in London since 2004.

And, though I understand little of land/housing economics I too would assume that expectations that higher densities were likely to be permitted on particular types of site would increase expectations of its value.

But, I take it that our inability to find evidence that the formally stated density maxima in successive versions of the Plan made a significant difference to achieved densities (or, it seems, to the effective policy of GLA, in terms of schemes it supported – though we did not look explicitly at this, or how the maxima actually became the norm in practice) means that we would not have found evidence of any significant restraining effect on land valuation from having these formal maxima .

Hence I don’t see reason to believe that removing the maxima would actually remove a real restraint on land price escalation.

(ME) I agree that your analysis and findings haven’t identified any restraining effect from the density maxima in the matrix. Since they were so widely disregarded that’s not surprising.  My point is that the alternative of actually enforcing such limits (which has not been tried yet) would be valuable and would have a restraining effect. ONLY an enforced upper limit could be expected to have an effect.
As I see it, the force of the argument for removing this component of the (iconic) density matrix lies in two propositions:

  1. that it is simply wrong to make explicit statements of policy (and targets for conformity with these) that the relevant policy authorities have no clear expectation of pursuing in practice, with appropriate corrective action being taken when targets are clearly not being met (which has not been the case during the life of the GLA);

(ME) Agreed. GLA Decisions Unit clearly disregarded the policy, as did boroughs.  That’s a “put up or shut up” kind of argument and could favour enforcement (with me) or scrapping (with you).

  1. that there is no good reason why the GLA, rather than boroughs, should determine maximum acceptable densities for specific  categories of sites across London.  Judgements about (socially) appropriate densities/development form should take account of two kinds of failure from an unguided interaction between market forces and local planners:
  2.   One of these involves omission from consideration of important spatial externalities (across the city/city-region as a whole) particularly in relation to meeting housing needs and to reducing emissions from transport – there is a clear and legitimate role here for the GLA /Mayor here in seeking to raise density norms, particularly in areas with good public transport potential .  Specification of minima for different types of situation is an appropriate way of pursuing this;


  1. The other involves  issues of the impacts on the quality of life of particular types of scheme, notably negative effects of over-intensive/tall development,  with externality effects that are mostly concentrated within boroughs, and indeed sub-borough areas.  As such, it is boroughs (and their electorates) who are the appropriate, legitimate and potentially responsible custodians of those interests – though the density matrix (as transferred into borough plans actually seems to pass that responsibility up to the Mayor).  Density measures are a pretty crude indicator of problem potential here, and standards/guidelines for what is not permissible seem best formulated at a local level (maybe worked out among like-minded boroughs), but imposing common statistical standards from City Hall for maximum acceptable densities – even if these were likely to be enforced – is not a good way of securing a better and more politically acceptable mix of schemes.

(ME) That’s not my point.  Local people, planners and politicians will certainly be the ones fighting out the local issues of development intensity, over-shadowing, car parking and all the other stuff.

My point is a separate one: that discouraging land price escalation should be a high priority for GLA policy. One way to discourage such escalation is to set a binding (= non-negotiable) upper limit for each part of the city, within which boroughs could make their own micro-local design policies.  The plan should do the same for affordable housing percentages. I am not disagreeing with the research you did. I’m simply emphasising an isssue which, as you say, your research did not address.

This would be enforced through the Mayor’s call-in powers over schemes and the Mayor’s oversight of borough plans.

Does that make sense ?    Ian

LATER: Ian replies to my red comments (20 December)

I’m perfectly content for you to post this with your (red) responses – and see no point in slugging back on what would be the same lines as in the piece you have (just with added bluntness).

For the record, I do think that intensification is a sensible element in a portfolio of actions to up housing output inside London (as in the OLC and some of the specific elements I believe to be in the Plan), but don’t think super-densification (or some versions of densification) are a good thing.  Or crucially that densification has done anything in the short run to boost housing output.

So, in relation to the matrix, the basic points (as you recognise) are that:

  • we doubt it’s made any real difference to outcomes reflecting market forces (within an overconstrained regional environment) and the practical ways in which ‘planners’/politicians/Mayors have accommodated/fine tuned these;
  • repeating the same prescription, with added moral rearmament will make no difference, in the absence of any influential group seeking to hold the Mayor to account (as the Assembly has conspicuously avoided trying to do);
  • it’s a bad/corrupt idea to include policy statements that we know won’t actually guide action;
  • that the GLA are an unlikely/inappropriate and clumsy body to be policing the negative quality impacts of bad intensification schemes – and boroughs should be left in a position where their electors hold them responsible for so doing.

Or something like that.  In this, as in other ways, I think it’s time for the GLA to stop playing symbolic politics with the Plan.

I shall be arguing this – but it’s not worth repeating it here.  So, please do publish my note with your annotations.

All best for a Christmas holiday to charge up your batteries for the rest of the consultation period.


Later (16 January)

My main concern in this field remains the need for more inflexibility in the key planning variables affecting valuation and land price, notably (in London anyway): maximum density and social housing %.

Interestingly at an LSE seminar yesterday James Clark (GLA housing policy) was forthright in asserting that certainty about “affordable” % was important as a way of damping-down land prices and he said that anecdotal evidence already suggested that it was working.  But he absolutely refused to apply the same logic to maximum density controls. He said (i) that higher densities are in general always welcome and (ii) there’s not much scope for applying such limits in reality because UK planning allows everything to be traded off against everything else. Well, if this second point is valid for density, why isn’t it also valid for % “affordable”. To me that’s illogical.

Later (26 January) Property Week…

Journalist Peter Bill is spot on with a short article Khan’s heartless London Plan is good news for developers

“‘Densification’ is the Big Idea. A prescription that will promptly jack up values on the right land.”




Brexit, xenophobia and left strategy now

Guest post by Jamie Gough

originally written in July 2016
later appearing as Gough, J (2017) Brexit, xenophobia and left strategy now, Capital and Class 41 (2) 366-372

[added 2019: Jamie Gough now has his own blog at  and here in March 2020 is a post of his on why Labour lost ]

The economic consequences of Brexit are dire. But for the left a far more serious problem thrown up by the referendum and the vote to Leave is what it shows about longstanding working class consciousness regarding ‘immigrants’, and how the Leave campaign has shifted working class opinion further to the right.  For left strategy this should be the crucial concern. This aspect of Brexit is therefore what I focus on in this note.

In England and Wales the majority of the working class (in the everyday rather than Marxist sense) voted for Brexit. Many Remain voters, of both right and left, have seen this as a sign of a deep, inherent xenophobia and racism amongst British-born working class people, or as evidence of their inability to understand economic questions.  I wish to argue, to the contrary, that the white working class Brexit vote was a logical coping strategy in the circumstances, that is, given the political economy of Britain over the last forty years and its present configuration.  Correspondingly, the vote was not based in xenophobia and racism as such, though these gave it expression, but rather an opposition to further net immigration because of its perceived impacts on access to jobs, public services and housing.  This view, however, blames another section of the world working class and thus removes culpability from capital and capitalism.  The left can change this economic view and challenge xenophobia only by leading a struggle based on a different economic strategy, one which opposes capitalist austerity, proposes measures which benefit the majority of the population materially, and which breaks through in practice the mystifications of capitalist value relations.

Explaining popular consciousness requires going beyond a description of dominant ideologies; analysis of discourses in themselves cannot explain their hold on people’s imagination.  Rather, we need to see them as part of praxis, the unity of material practice and consciousness.  Widespread ideas – ideologies – do not arise simply from discursive interventions; they develop over long periods through lived experience.  Thus my focus is on everyday life and its structuring by political economy and class relations.

I use a pragmatist approach to how people choose their behaviour, including its moral aspects: that these are not a simple and direct result of their intrinsic personal interests, but are rather framed within materially-feasible strategies whether personal or collective.

The view that immigration is the problem rather than neoliberal capitalism is, in Marxist terms, based on appearance rather than essence.  However, in the Marxist approach, ‘appearance’ is not mere illusion or mystification, but is rather rooted in materially-based social relations.  This is a further reason for my emphasis on working class coping strategies.

The vote to leave and its motivations

The majority of the working class in the everyday sense, standard classes C2, D and E, in England and Wales, voted for Brexit.  The majority of classes C1, B and A voted to remain. (I will use the term Working Class (capitalised) in the Marxist sense, meaning all those directly or indirectly dependent on wages over their lifetime.  This includes the majority of standard classes E to B and some of A.)  Classes C2, D and E appear to have voted to leave mainly on three bases.

(i) that ‘immigrants’ are to blame for lack of jobs, poor wages and conditions, inadequate public services and lack of good affordable housing;

(ii) that the state –here represented by the EU– is incapable of ameliorating these conditions and in fact makes them worse;

(iii) a generalised nostalgia for better times.

Below I examine these three motivations in turn.  For each I discuss some differentiations and nuances of the motivations, and then analyse their construction.  I argue that these views have been produced by forty years of neoliberalism and the failure of social democracy and socialists effectively to challenge it.  These working class views, in turn, now support and reinforce neoliberalism.  A key question for the left is therefore how to challenge and change these views, the subject of my final section.

(i) Blaming the ‘immigrants’

Opinion polls during the referendum campaign, and vox pop reports such as John Harris’s pieces in The Guardian, strongly suggest that the main reason that working class people voted for Leave was that they believed that this would reduce immigration to Britain and thereby reduce competition for jobs, public services and housing.  Three complexities need immediate consideration.

First, the term ‘immigrant’ in this context is a vague and elastic term, a ‘chaotic conception’.  Exiting the EU could indeed reduce the number of EU citizens coming to Britain.  However, the hostility to these (overwhelmingly white) EU citizens seems, for many, to have spilled over into hostility to black Britons (the vast majority of whom are of course not immigrants from anywhere) and to refugees from the Middle East (as featured in UKIP’s notorious poster, and the Mail and Express’s naming of refugees as ‘European’ migrants).  This is evident from the attacks that have taken place since the referendum result, which have been not only on Poles and Rumanians but also on black people and people perceived as ‘Muslims’.  The Leave campaign and the vote were articulated not only by xenophobia but also racism.

A second complication is that the vote for Brexit was as strong in localities and regions of Britain with very few EU migrants and black people as it was in those with many.  British-born people in the former areas were not faced with local competition from ‘immigrants’.  Their votes to Leave, however, can be simply explained if one assumes that they have a national rather than local interpretation of the economy: jobs, public services and housing are short at a national scale because of the millions of immigrants in Briton as a whole.  This national view is hardly surprising in an economy which has been highly integrated since the 16th century.  We should not lose sight, however, of the hostility to immigrants in areas where there are many EU citizens, such as those working in agriculture and food processing in East Anglia.  The slave conditions under which East Europeans are employed there appear to British-born working class people, who have decreasing number of these jobs, as caused by the immigrants.  A similar point could be made about the huge Brexit vote in outer east London where there are many recent migrants both white and non-white, as well as many black Britons.

A third complication is that some black working class people voted for Brexit, apparently using the same argument as whites: immigrants are competition.  This suggests that the real racism which articulates the view of many whites is underlain by economic competition common to the whole working class irrespective of ‘race’ or nationality.  However, the very poorest areas in England and Wales mostly voted Remain, in part because of the vote of BME people.

British working class hostility to immigrants is, of course nothing new.  In the 19C many English workers were hostile to Irish immigrants, in the late 19C east London trade unionists were hostile to east European Jewish migrants, and in the 1950s and 1960s immigrants from the Caribbean and south Asia were met with hostility and exclusion.  In the last few decades, surveys of British working opinion have consistently shown high levels of hostility to immigration.  In the last ten years, this feeling has been ably articulated and exploited by UKIP (Ford and Goodwin, 2014).  While UKIP won only one seat in the 2015 general election, it is now the second party in the majority of Labour-held constituencies.  It has many local councillors, concentrated in the poorest areas.  In these areas UKIP’s rise has been aided by street actions and attacks on Muslims by fascist groups such as the EDL and BNP (Rotherham, close to where I live, is a case in point).  The hostility to immigrants underlying the working class Leave vote therefore has a strong historical basis.  The referendum campaign and result, however, have reinforced and articulated this sentiment and projected it into national politics with a virulence, which is perhaps unprecedented in British history.

A theoretical starting point for me is a pragmatist view of justice and social practice (Gough, 2010).  Most political discourse, including on the left, proceeds on the basis that social actors have ‘interests’, determined more or less by their existing lives, on which their political views and values are based.  The task of political parties is then to promise to meet some of those interests – a ‘consumer sovereignty’ view of politics.  But ‘interests’ have no meaning outside of a feasible means of achieving them (thus everyone in England might want to live in a pretty cottage in the Lake District, but this is a meaningless interest).  So in examining social values and views, we need to look at what feasible strategies are available for people to achieve them.  The feasibility of the strategy depends on the social-political situation and the resources and power that different social groups have within it.

Working Class strategies

What are the underpinnings of the competition between workers articulated by nationality and visible difference?  Here, we need to step back and consider the most basic relations of capitalist society as such (in all times and places), the position within this society of the Working Class (Lebowitz, 2003), and the consequent strategies available to workers to improve their lot.  There are three basic strategies to maintain or improve employment and consumption positions available to Working Class people in fully-capitalist societies (Gough, 2010):-

(a) The liberal and neoliberal strategy

This is to compete with other workers for given jobs, public services and housing.  The supply of these things in liberal ideology is determined by market forces which are not susceptible to political influence.  This competition is therefore a zero sum game.

Workers’ competitiveness can be developed in two modes, respectively individual and collective:

(1) First, cultivating the competitiveness of the individual worker or their household against all others.  This is done by making one’s labour power better for potential or actual employers, through for example working hard, ingratiating oneself with the boss, or through undertaking training.  It can be done through an individual’s cash within housing markets or even in accessing better public services.  This is the ‘aspirational’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ individual beloved of neoliberal ideology.

(2) A second mode of competition is to compete as a group: to unite with others constructed materially and ideologically as ‘the same’ against groups constructed as the Other; the Other is to be excluded, through essentially political means, from jobs, public services and housing.  This divide can be based on gender or age.  It can also be based on ethnicity, nationality or ‘race’.  The history of capitalism internationally is depressingly replete with examples; indeed, one can say that this type of competition between workers has been and is the rule rather than the exception.  This mode of competition is, however, in contradiction to the fundamental wish of capital to have free access to the entire world working class, to render all labour power abstract – abstracted, that is, from social distinctions like gender, age, nationality, ‘race’, ethnicity or religion.  The dominant group of workers thus has to use political means, acting against a ‘free’ labour market, to carve out or maintain their privilege: sometimes trade unions controlled by the dominant group (men, whites, etc) imposing discriminatory agreements and practices on employers, sometimes the state (for example immigration controls, or white citizens’ influence over local authority housing or housing markets).  In this sense, this strategy is against liberalism and neoliberalism by restricting the ‘free’ labour markets desired by capital.  But it also reinforces liberalism and neoliberalism by weakening the solidarity of the Working Class as a whole and consequently its ability to resist capital.

(b) The social democratic strategy

Workers actively collaborate with capital, partly mediated by the state, to construct a more productive economy, better quality public services and a better housing stock.  This is pursued partly within workplaces, firms and industries, with workers receiving respect and decent wages and conditions from the employers in return for active commitment to the labour process.  The influence of workers here is often, though not always, through trade union representation.  It is pursued partly through the state: substantial levels of taxation of capital, and good quality public services which benefit both capital and citizens.  The housing market, and property and land markets more generally, are strongly regulated by the state, and forms of cooperative and social housing play a major role.  Social democratic parties, whose electoral base is the working class, play an important role in the state. This strategy, in sharp contrast to the liberal ones, involves collective organisations of the Working Class.  But these collective organisations do not aim to fight capital, but on the contrary to collaborate with it for shared aims.  ‘Efficiency’ and ‘fairness’ go hand in hand.

(c) The socialist strategy

This proceeds through struggle by collectives of workers against capital, and against the state to the extent that it expresses the logic of capital.  Better jobs, public services and housing are to be obtained either at the expense of capital, through greater controls over capital, or through public provision. These collectives include trade unions, social movements, residents’ groups, one-issue campaigns and socialist parties.  These collectives initially emerge from local associations and local concerns.  The latter may adopt sectionalist and exclusionary politics (a2 above).  But they may also develop towards increasing inclusion through socially –and spatially– wider practices of cooperation; and if they do, they become more powerful and effective.  This class strategy is based on the premise that competition between workers, (a), is a zero sum game.  It also notes that social democratic strategy leads to highly uneven benefits to workers (socially, spatially) which are, moreover, vulnerable to capitalist crises whether at the workplace, local, national or global scale.

It might be added, parenthetically, that in the history of capitalism there are two other strategies used by workers to secure their livelihood: migration from Europe to the colonial settler countries; and a strategy of ‘self sufficiency’ of the household or a small community, an anarchist utopia, either on cheap rural land or in cheap housing in the city.  But these two strategies obviously offer nothing to the contemporary British working class.

Working Class strategies in Britain since the 1970s

How does this analysis help us to understand the referendum campaign and result, in particular the appeal to so many people of opposing ‘immigration’?  Here one needs to consider the period since the 1970s during which neoliberalism has become dominant.

Socialist practice was strong in Britain from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s: trade union and workplace actions, social movements, collective struggles over public services and housing.  But since the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985, these struggles have been much weaker, with the partial exception of ecological struggles.  Crucial in this evolution has been the deepening rule of value in the Marxist sense.  Workers have accepted wage cuts and job losses because the firm is not making sufficient profits.  Public spending cuts have been accepted because the fiscal deficit ‘has to be reduced’ and the public debt ‘has to be paid off’. The invisible nature of surplus value has enabled corporations and the rich to hide their rapidly-increasing wealth, extracted from the working class, and to remove it from states’ taxation.  Thus the idea of opposing capital has appeared increasingly unrealistic.  In consequence, the ideals of solidarity across the working class have been weakened, and new generations have hardly encountered them.

Mild social democratic government interventions have appeared in partial opposition to neoliberalism, responding to Working Class dissatisfaction and also to contradictions of neoliberalism for capital.  Since the 1970s, there have been innumerable local economic interventions of a mild social democratic character.  When Major replaced Thatcher after the poll tax revolt and Tory tensions over the EU, he steered slightly to the left during his 1990-7 tenure (Council Tax, ‘community-led and holistic’ urban programmes).  The New Labour government of 1997-2010 introduced a large number of social-democratic measures: the minimum wage, Sure Start, area-based poverty programmes, devolution to Scotland and Wales, the English Regional Development Agencies, Regional Spatial Strategies, Local Strategic Partnerships, and neighbourhood empowerment.  But these were hobbled by their feeble funding and by their neoliberal integument.  Urban programmes were applied in a spatially selective way, so that most poor neighbourhoods got little or nothing.  Where neighbourhoods benefitting from urban funding had large BME populations, white people in the same locality sometimes perceived this as favouritism towards BME people, exacerbating racist sentiment (Bradford was a notable example).  Devolution to neighbourhoods tended to exacerbate competition within the working class.  At any rate, many of these programmes were abolished by the coalition government in 2010.  Blair’s promise of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ appeared to offer something to workers, but proved a chimera.  The Working Class in recent decades has therefore had little encouragement to rally behind a social democratic strategy.

The decreasing credibility of socialist and social-democratic strategies among the Working Class has left only liberalism.  Most people are pragmatic rather than ideological in their approach to economic questions, and liberal strategies have increasingly appeared as the only feasible ones, by elimination of the others.  The individualistic approach, a1 above, has appeared feasible for the middle class and some of the upper working class, the ABC1s.  But it has held no promise for the rest of the working class.  Training, self-advancement and self-promotion are useless in an economy of deskilled, low paid casualised jobs.  Public service cuts cannot be got round by going private.  House purchase is impossible.  Thus the anti-immigrant strategy, a2, becomes the only apparently feasible one for the C2DEs (Worth, 2013).  This suggests a reason for the pattern noted earlier, that ABC1s mainly voted Remain while C2DEs mostly voted Leave.  Both groups are seeking to compete with other workers for jobs, services and housing; but whereas the ABC1s can aim to compete as individuals, many C2DEs can see no option but to compete by nationality and ‘race’.

To be sure, the economic-political strategies available to Working Class people are not the only cause of working class xenophobia and racism.  The media, not only the notoriously rightwing press but also the main TV channels, has for the last 40 years kept up a continuous stream of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and blatantly racist ‘stories’.  In the Sun, Mail and Express these completely dominate coverage of politics (column inches, front pages), with the direct implication that ‘immigrants’ are the dominant cause of people’s problems.  This line of propaganda was reprised by the stars of the Leave campaign, with the chorus of the Sun, Mail and Express fortissimo.  The impact of this propaganda is not, however, an independent ‘factor’ in creating anti-immigrant sentiment.  Messages from the media and politicians are not indifferently and passively absorbed by people; a message is powerful to the extent that it chimes with people’s views based on their own personal and collective strategies.  In this case, anti-immigrant propaganda from above had resonance with the strategy of excluding immigrants developed by working class people themselves from their perceptions of the alternatives.

(ii) Working class anti-statism

Opinion polls suggest that the Leave vote was partly based on disillusionment with the state (in which I include all spatial scales of the state), with government, with the politicians and with their acolytes and ‘experts’.  The Leave campaign’s slogan, ‘Take back control’, and its attacks on ‘the establishment’ and ‘experts’, can be understood as appealing to this anti-state sentiment.  This disillusionment had two notable effects within the referendum debate.  First, the EU itself, qua a level of the state, was regarded as either useless or malignant.  Secondly, mainstream politicians and functionaries, both British and international (Lagarde, Obama, EU prime ministers et al.) who argued for Remain were simply not believed.

This disillusionment was, like the hostility to immigration, a product of 40 years of neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism has had two distinct effects here.  First, neoliberal ideologues have consistently preached that the state is an obstacle to prosperity.  The state should be reduced not only quantitatively (taxation and spending) but also qualitatively, in regulating, coordinating and guiding.  The Leave campaign drew strongly on this ideology, in pointing to the supposed financial costs to Britain of EU membership, the EU’s supposed profligacy, and the EU’s ‘bureaucracy’ (read laws and regulations) which allegedly strangles business with red tape.  The Remain campaign was too much itself enmeshed in this anti-state ideology to point out that many EU regulations are beneficial to workers and the environment, or to the benefits of EU regional funds to poor regions in Britain.  It presented the benefits of EU membership solely as the single market in goods and services, that is, absence of state regulation of trade.

Secondly, and more importantly, forty years of neoliberalism in Britain have seen both national and local government (and in a minor way, the EU) unable to protect jobs, public services and affordable housing.  After decades of such failure, despite endless promises to do the opposite, a reasonable conclusion is that the state is useless for Working Class people (Gough and Eisenschitz, 2006: Ch.5).  The chronic broken promises and outright lies of politicians which are required by neoliberal government have added further fuel to this fire.  The result is a generalised contempt for the state and its representatives.  The EU referendum gave working class people an opportunity to express this contempt.

Interestingly, several recent referenda in Britain concerning local and regional government have demonstrated the same anti-state attitude.  The New Labour government held a referendum in the North East of England to set up an elected regional government, something never previously existing in England.  Despite the North East being chosen for seeming to have the strongest regional identity and anti-Westminster feeling, the proposal was heavily defeated.  Surveys of opinion showed that a major reason was that people didn’t want yet another level of the state, with its attendant expense and bureaucratic meddling.  Similarly, most of the referenda in the North and Midlands to set up mayors in cities have been defeated, in contrast to the positive vote in middle-class dominated Bristol.

In short, if the state fails over forty years to protect their living standards then working class people, given the opportunity, will minimise the levels of the state ruling over them.  This is a crisis, among other things, of the legitimacy of the state.

(iii) Nostalgia – but for what?

Voting in the referendum was strongly differentiated by age: across the classes, young adults voted to Remain while middle aged and older people voted to Leave.  This suggests that  motivations were based not only on the current political and economic situation but also on life time experiences.  The reaction to the result from many Leavers, ‘we’ve got our country back’, suggests nostalgia for an idealised good society in the past.  On the part of older white working class people, this nostalgia seems to focus strongly on a real or fantasised mono-ethnic society and culture.  Some white people in localities with a now large BME population express this as ‘no longer feeling I belong here’, feeling excluded by visible expressions of BME cultures (Ford and Goodwin, 2014). This has obviously fed into ‘anti-immigrant’ sentiment.

This nostalgia for a white past needs some analysis, however.  The implied historical time period – better times in the postwar boom, deterioration since the 1970s – suggests that the positive feelings about the earlier period may been grounded in its greater prosperity, better public services and far better housing supply: the (imagined) period of mono-culturalism correlates with better economic and social conditions for working class people.  The sense of loss of ethnic-cultural homogeneity may then stand in for anger about deterioration of material life, particularly as the former is easily visible whereas the latter is molecular and obscure.  Similarly, the nostalgia for a white Britain has a strong element of loss of neighbourhood community.  But the latter is largely a product of long term tendencies in social life in capitalism, deepened by neoliberalism with its individualisation of the Working Class, longer hours of waged work for those that have it, and deterioration of public services (for a more nuanced argument, see Gough and Eisenschitz, 2006: Ch 6, sections 1-3).  These considerations direct us back to political-economic strategies.

Implications for the left now

The Labour Party, at least since Blair, has had a de facto strategy of substantial immigration to Britain, both of skilled workers (to meet endemic and chronic skills shortages) and of semi-skilled and unskilled labour (to fuel the expanding low wage sector and further reduce wages and conditions in it).  The party leadership, aware of working class opposition to immigration, has never spelt out this strategy, and has orchestrated pieces of political theatre to demonstrate that it is keeping out immigrants, especially refugees.  Many backbench Labour Party politicians have been more forthright, calling for more barriers to be erected to immigration, at least of non-skilled workers.  Even before the referendum result was known, leading Labour politicians were joining in this refrain, and since the referendum this idea has spread on the left.

Many on the left argue that stronger restriction of immigration would have little, or negative, impact on the jobs, services and housing available to working class people.  As a short to medium term prediction, I am rather dubious about this; it may be true in some localities and regions, but it is probably not true in others.

Others on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn and the far left groups, argue that freedom of movement of the world’s workers is a right, all the more so at a time when capital (money, productive, commodity) has unprecedented freedom to move between countries.  I agree with this argument.  Anti-racist campaigns, led by BME people but involving whites wherever possible, are vital: to welcome refugees and migrants, against restrictive immigration laws and procedures, against police racism and deaths in custody, against racial or ethnic discrimination in employment and housing, and against media racism.  But my analysis above shows that, unless they are convinced of a socialist economic strategy, many working class people will reject the Open Borders argument.  I have argued that the hostility of most working class people to immigration is not primarily based on ideology or discourse, even longstanding imperialist racism or the poisonous propaganda of the Tory press.  It has been adopted as a survival strategy by many working class people because socialist militancy, social democratic reforms, and individual aspiration and enterprise have failed to deliver the goods, whereas on the surface of things restriction of immigration promises to deliver.  There is no chance now that they will be shifted from this view, and from the clutches of UKIP and the fascists, unless they become convinced that a different political economic strategy is feasible.

An essential task of the left in fighting xenophobia is therefore to develop struggles against austerity and for decent jobs, public services and housing (Worth, 2013).  To the extent that even limited victories are won, more people can be convinced that this is a viable strategy for dealing with their problems.  In other words, to make a socialist approach of solidarity and collective good hegemonic in the working class, a long period of struggle around concrete material issues will be needed.  These struggles can gradually demystify the rule of value: the ‘need’ to reduce the fiscal deficit; the ‘impossibility’ of taxing corporations and the rich; the ‘greater efficiency’ of private firms than the public sector; the imperative of the profit rate and payment of dividends by industrial and commercial firms; and ‘competitiveness’ through absolute surplus value.

As to the anti-state sentiment in the working class, socialist strategy argues for a greater role for the present state: higher taxation of corporations and the rich, expanded public services and social housing, greater regulation of business, public ownership of (at least) utilities, and public investment in green infrastructures and housing.  Since all of these are demonstrably beneficial for the Working Class, it is feasible to overcome the anti-statism which neoliberalism has bequeathed.

My argument that anti-immigration and anti-state sentiment is based on working class people’s real experience, and that these reactionary viewpoints can be overcome through class struggle, corresponds to Marx’s view of bourgeois ideology and its critique (Critique of Political Economy; Capital, Vol 1, Ch 1; Geras, 1972; Ollman, 1993).  Workers’ view that they need to compete with others to improve their lot, is both illusory and real.  Illusory because it cannot substantially and in the long term improve material conditions; real because there are real social processes involved —labour and housing markets, the capitalist labour process, government budgets— which encourage competitive behaviour.  Marx’s critique set out to show the deep social relations— exploitation, indefinite capital accumulation, uneven development— underlying these appearances.  But he also argued that this critique is academic unless realised in concrete, material class struggles, which can begin to challenge and put in question the fundamental social relations of capitalism (Colletti, 1972).


Colletti, L (1972) Marxism: science or revolution?, in Blackburn, R (ed) Ideology in Social Science, London: Fontana/Collins: 369-377

Ford, R and Goodwin, M (2014) Revolt on the Right: explaining support for the radical right in Britain, London: Routledge

Geras, N (1972) Marx and the critique of political economy, in Blackburn, R (ed) Ideology in Social Science, London: Fontana/Collins: 284-305

Gough, J (2010) Workers’ strategies to secure jobs, their uses of scale, and competing economic moralities: rethinking the ‘geography of justice’, Political Geography 29 (3) 130-9

Gough, J and Eisenschitz, A with McCulloch, A (2006) Spaces of Social Exclusion, Abingdon: Routledge

Lebowitz, M (2003) Beyond Capital: Marx’s political economy of the working class, 2nd edn, Gordonsville: Palgrave Macmillan

Ollman, B (1993) Dialectical Investigations, New York: Routledge

Worth, O (2013) Resistance in the Age of Austerity: nationalism, the failure of the left and the return of God, London: Zed Book

I would like to thank the many friends who have sent me comments on an earlier version of this piece.  I would particularly like to thank Rory Rowan, Paul Usherwood and Maureen Roshier for ideas which I have tried to integrate into my argument.  JG

This was originally written as a ‘blog post’ but without a blog on which to be posted. It then appeared on a Verso blog with the introduction: In the latest in our series of blog posts which aim to critically analyse the Brexit vote and it’s implications, James Gough, Senior Lecturer in Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield, examines what the racism and xenophobia of parts of the British working class means for contemporary left strategy. [link: Jamie Gough ] A shorter version will be published in the next issue of  Capital and Class, in a special symposium on Brexit. Do comment below and/or contact Jamie direct on jamie.gough [at]  I am grateful to him for agreeing to this further dissemination. ME

Planners Network UK – People’s Plans

[This document was formerly on the wikispaces site which has now lapsed. Fortunately Robin Brown of Just Space had saved a copy, so here it is. August 2015 ] With later additions up to July 2021..

Compilation from various authors.

Planning is usually seen as the domain of governments, private consultancies and even developers. It tends to wrap itself up in claims about expertise, technical competence and professionalism. Yet planning is a potentially far more democratic, radically democratic, activity than this. And that’s because it offers all of us, as citizens of our neighbourhoods, the opportunity to think and act creatively about the future of the places we live in, to creative alternative visions.

Episodes / people’s plans

There are many examples of community-led plans and campaigns which have succeeded in stopping public and private sector development proposals and/ or  realising alternative community-inspired visions in their place. They are small in scale, but have significantly shaped the function and form of London and other British cities, and even the approach of planning itself. Movements such as the Homes Before Roads campaign in the early 1970s contributed to the eventual revolution of transport planning, particularly as it was being practiced in London. More contemporary campaigns such as Homes Under Threat are bringing people together to fight demolitions in housing market renewal areas in the north, and Estate Watch is doing so in London. And recent efforts by local campaigners on the London Plan are also helping identify alternative visions, including a complete alternative community plan.

The Planners Network UK (PNUK) put this collection together a few years ago and wrote “This section of our website is about just those kinds of planning activities – by ordinary people creating alternatives to those being foisted on them by governments and developers. So we’ve called it ‘People’s Plans’.”

There are also many locally-based, sometimes small but always significant projects, campaigns, plans and activities going on all around the UK. Where we know a bit about the story, we’ve provided that here, where we don’t we can just provide some contact details and links for you to find out more.

Calthorpe Community Garden – a small plot of land on London’s Grays Inn Road near King’s Cross which originated through sustained agitation by local residents of this very dense dstrict, who finally in 1983 persuaded the local authority owners to let it be used as a community centre for chidren and young people, gardening and other services. It’s now a self-governing charity.

Covent Garden Community Association – without the local community-based action since the 1970s that this group has been doing, Covent Garden would today be just another anonymous urban motorway surrounded by drab office blocks and segregated functions, probably ripe for redevelopment! Find out more about how their strange coalition overturned a GLC plan, doubled the population and was the making of a much-loved London district and Judy Hillman’s 1986 book for the GLC, now a PDF:

Coin Street – perhaps the most-cited contemporary example of community building in London. Located on London’s South Bank, Coin Street redevelopment began from the local people, who mounted a campaign to purchase some land and regenerate their local neighbourhood. See here for more information  Added 2019: a long and carefully-referenced critical history by Will Jennings appeared in Medium at

In Liverpool, the Eldonians successfully battled against demolition of their homes, leading not only to the retention and refurbishment of Eldon Street tenements and surrounding area but through the grant of over £1 million to their Association by Mrs Thatcher (to spite Derek Hatton et al), and the eventual redevelopmet of the old Tate and Lyle factory site. Since then, Eldonians Community Based Housing Association are still going strong and they have developed hundreds of affordable homes, health sports and other social  and cultural infrastructure. For more information visit their website here:  They have also published a book on their experiences called ‘The Rebirth of Liverpool -The Eldonian Way’ – see some images & details in their 2007 annual report at this link.

Stonebridge Estate in Brent –In the 1980s, communities used Planning for Real (assisted by CLAWS and PAL) and the Stonebrige Tenants Advancement Committee to establish a Housing Action Trust and the redevelopment of the estate into mainly high density medium rise terraced housing.

King’s Cross Railway Lands Group was an umbrella group-of-groups, gathering a very diverse network of formal and informal organisations demanding to inflence the development on and around the railway lands at King’s Cross and St Pancras from the late 1980s until about 2010. It came into existence in response to plans from British Rail for a London station for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL, now called HS1). The state railway was under government pressure to make money from its land and air rights and teamed up with developers to try and do so. The Railway Lands Group campaigned to influence the local authorities, produced its own community plans with PAL support and did delay planning permission for a massive office-led development scheme long enough for the property crash of the early 90s to drive the developers into administration. The Group was later instrumental in the campaigns at the House of Lords which led to a completely different route for the railway and remained active in trying to pressure Camden and Islington councils to demand social housing and community benefits in a subsequent scheme which eventually got built as King’s Cross Central. KXRLG disbanded itself in 2013 and its web site is archived at the British Library.

Greater Carpenters Neighbourhood Forum  Just Space (with support from London Tenants Federation) has continued to assist the GCNF including in the prepartion and submission of a Neighbourhood Plan.  A very good result was achieved with the examination of the London Legacy Developemnt Corporation (LLDC) Local Plan: the Inspector fully backing the residents’ wishes to retain their community and avoid demolition and dense development.  However, alongside this the examination of the neighbourhood plan recommended the deletion of essential policies opposing demolition and identifying housing sites that would provide sensitive infill. Most of the land in this estate is owned by Newham Council although the planning authority is the LLDC. Newham has a long history of targetting this estate for demolition and this community has had a long struggle to survive.

Isledon Road in Finsbury Park  – Also in the 1980s, the Finsbury Park Action Group, assisted by CLAWS and PAL, successfully opposed a developer-led initiative for a ‘fashion centre’ in a sea of car parking on redundant land north of the Harvist Estate and east of Isledon Road. Eventually, they produced a Community Plan comprising in the main affordable housing, a Garden  Centre, a re-sited and refurbished park, health centre, some shops and some local employment space. The Community Plan was then taken up by Hunt Thompson and initially a Community Development Trust and eventually by a number of Housing Associations.

New Wortly Residents Action Group in Leeds – Some years ago, Leeds City Council was proposing, without much consultation, to demolish a lot of homes, mainly Council housing but a few owner-occupiers were affected, in the New Wortley estate. Together, the residents organised and  took on the local planning process.  Eventually, with help from Planning Aid Yorkshire, they  produced a community plan for how they wanted any demolitions to be done, managed to get to the proposed Local Statutory Plan thrown out and agreed a new one with the Council. From nothing, the proposal to demolish inspired huge community organisation and bottom-up control, and they are now looking at taking more control and powers to run their estate.

People’s Plan for the Royal Docks was produced in 1983/4 as an alternative to what is now London City Airport. Done with support of GLC (so a little question mark over whether it was purely a ‘people’s’ plan). There is an article about it by Sue Brownhill in the journal Planning Practice and Research in 1988 (Vol 2 no 4) but it’s paywalled. An interview with her is at

Oxford, Cowley Road Matters was a local response to a redisign of a local high street, again lots of compromises along the way but there’s material at on

Wards Corner Coalition – this is a grassroots organisation working to stop the demolition of the homes, businesses and indoor market above Seven Sisters tube station in London and fighting the attempts of Grainger PLC to force out the local community. They have had lots of successes along the way but still face opposition from Haringey Council, TfL and the GLA. See their FB

Portland Works, Sheffield – this industrial building in Sheffield, now housing a range of small arts and craft-based industries, was mooted for conversion into flats, but tenants and local people have mounted a campaign to hold onto this important space for small enterprises. The community-led action group has set up a social enterprise (you can buy a share in it). See their website for more details at:

Yiewsley Community Involvement Group –  an organisation of local retailers who finance a fortnightly news-sheet and have successfully challenged plans for inappropriate development in Yiewsley.  The group regularly holds street surgeries where people can sign up to petitions for or against development plans, including getting six inappropriate local applications turned down in two years and against a huge out of town superstore (Tesco) appeal (which was later granted, allegedly illegally).  The group has asked local opinion on the planned town enhancement and put forward their views.   At present they are fighting the closure of a local pool.

Portland Oregon Green Street/MainStreet plan – from outside the UK this excellent example of using very localised planning to regenerate and rezone a local corridor using sustainable methods. This was a joint venture between the planning authority and local groups, but was community-led. See their website at

Urban “regeneration” schemes, often demolishing council estates and decimating the remaining stock of social housing, have become a key issue  in London politics in the new century. Someone should try to come up with some good examples of how it should be done (comment added May 2018). When asked, people in Just Space often refer to the Walterton and Elgin Coop  Now, with the London Tenants Federation and Prof Loretta Lees, Just Space has set up Estate Watch to support tenants facing these threats and to monitor events.

Joe Penny adds this link to a Paris scheme for refurbishing a tower block without displacement. It looks good but the participatory aspects are not mentioned in the article. Does anyone know more?  October 2018

June 2019: thoughtful retrospect on the Packington Street estate regeneration in Islington, widely regarded as a model scheme – by Peter Apps of Inside Housing 

Need to add a para on the defeat of the GLDP, to include link to 

Resources, Tools and Links

Community Development Trusts :

Community Planning website:

This Land is Ours have a planning section called ‘Chapter 7’ which has a useful planning handbook and runs all sorts of campaign for a fairer planning system. See their website here:

Crowd-sourced bibliography on neighbourhood planning, mainly UK, and with a lot on public participation

Green Bans where trade unions of construction workers bannedwork on contested sites in Sydney.

Seminar in autumn 2020 “at” Zürich on urban social movements of 1980s, with reminiscences and images from Zürich, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London, Forence – organised by INURA as a partial substitute for a normal conference. Lasts a few hours.

My report on housing, land and rent out now

[updated 7 July] A year ago I was commissioned to contribute a report on housing to the Government Office for Science’s Foresight programme on the future of cities in the UK.  I did it, referees commented, I revised it, then it was (along with other papers in the series) held over until after the UK parliamentary election. Now the GOScience has released it and you can download it and read more on

UK – German housing exchanges

9 December 2013:  This message has come in today from Grischa in Berlin:

Dear international friends,

on November 21st we had an event in Berlin with Eileen Short from Defend Council Housing / Anti bedroom tax campaign and Paul Watt from Birkbeck University, both situated in London.

They told us about the housing crisis in England and the biggest anti-cut protests since many years against the bedroom tax. We have documented the event in both English and German, find the links below: Continue reading “UK – German housing exchanges”

At last: a manifesto for progressive planning

***London launch 5 February 1330 for 1400 at TCPA. Second launch soon in Sheffield. Details at***
After a lot of drafting and re-drafting we now have a usable draft of this great document, aimed at people working in and around planning in the UK (especially England, so far as the detail goes) from PNUK Planners Network UK. We hope it will rally dispirited souls who have been sucked or seduced into market-led orthodoxy or just feeling lonely in their scattered resistance. The team has been Bob Colenutt, Tim Marshall, Andy Inch and me + some others at earlier stages and with a feed-in on housing from Duncan Bowie. All white males so far. Please read, comment, discuss. Some meetings in various parts of the country coming up. The draft is here as a PDF: