Friday, October 29, 2010


Earlier this month, in his address to the Conservative Party Conference, Iain Duncan Smith suggested that the Coalition's welfare reforms would incentivise people to find work:

"Our implementation of the Credit alongside the comprehensive work programme will make sure that everyone out of work will be given the greatest support to find work and every financial incentive to stay in work, because work will pay.This is the biggest reform of the welfare system in a generation ... No longer will they be able to say it isn't worth their while going to work. No longer will they be trapped in a complex system which means they have to ask an advisor if they will better off in work than on benefits. We will change this broken system to help those at the bottom end make a new start and change their lives through work."

A week later, George Osborne announced that funding for social housing would be cut by 60%. To pay the costs of building and renovating its housing stock, Councils and Housing Associations will now have to massively increase rents to tenants, who will now have to pay 80% of market rates. But given that many social housing tenants receive Housing Benefit to support them with the costs of housing, this will inevitably mean a huge pressure on the welfare budget - in effect, the Government has passed housing costs from one Department to another.

The Guardian reports that "in areas where rents are already high, such as the London boroughs of Camden, Hackney and Haringey, many tenants moving into new social homes would face bills of £340 per week for a three-bedroom property. Even if people could get a job, their earnings would disappear in high rent repayments." The National Housing Federation, the umbrella group which represents housing associations, has argued that the cuts will act as a powerful disincentive for unemployed people to find work. People living in high-rent areas, "would have to earn at least £54,000 before they could get off housing benefit and be in a position where they could keep the bulk of their additional salary and find themselves better off in work".

Eileen Short, a Council tenant in Tower Hamlets and Chair of Defend Council Housing, has called on other tenants, politicians, Unions and anybody else with a vaguely progressive bone in their body to oppose the cuts:

"Attacks on secure tenancies, cuts in housing benefit and forcing up rents will create more debt, evictions and homelessness. Tenants have fought hard for our secure tenancies and lower rents, and we will expect trade unions, Councillors and MPs to join with us in this fight to defend them.

"Tenants did not cause the housing crisis - we need investment in more and better council housing to provide homes for all those priced out of the market, to make council housing once again a mixed and sustainable tenure of choice."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


What, if anything, will bring down the Coalition Government? What will be its Poll Tax moment?

I've been reading about the Kubler-Ross model of how people deal with tragedy or grief. In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book called On death and dying, in which she described the five stages by which people react to bereavement or the diagnosis of a terminal illness. First, people try to deny that the tragedy occurred. Second, upon accepting that it has occurred, a person may be angry, raging against a world that has allowed it to happen. Third, a person will try to make the best of it, hoping they can prolong life, or that they can reverse their terminal illness in exchange for living a better, more worthy life. Fourth, they become resigned, fatalistic, depressed and nihilistic - this is how things are, they might say, so what's the point in doing anything? And finally, the person comes to terms with the situation, fully accepting that the end is nigh.

This model fits the tragedies which Kubler-Ross was describing, because they are truly irreversible. But can it fit a political tragedy? At what stage are the millions of people who work in or rely on public services, whether they realise it or not? The denial stage has passed - partly because their worst fears of what the CSR might bring have been realised, and partly because public services have been subject to various efficiency drives for many years. Denial is no longer an option, and the Government no doubt hopes that the public will skip the second stage.

Maybe they are right. But if they are, what are the possible outcomes? That people who have been made redundant will exchange the wasteful years of public servitude for private entrepreneurialism? The news that Britain's economic growth remains extremely shaky suggests otherwise. Will people who can no longer afford the rent on their Council flat move to less desirable areas without a fight? Perhaps, but then how will Councils outside London and the South East cope? Will people who are out of work, pushed even further from the labour market by a thoroughly confused and botched set of welfare reforms, turn to nihilism rather than radicalism? Again, maybe - but this would spell the political death of the Coalation.

But I don't think they are right. The budget cuts are so comprehensive, and so kamikaze, that I think many people from many walks of life will become very angry, and for very different reasons. Among this plethora of resentments, which will be the one that kills off the Government? It is too early to tell, and there is an embarrassment of options to choose from.

But Tom Clark suggests one cut that has largely escaped the notice of journalists and, I suspect, the public. The Government has handed responsibility for Council Tax rebates to Local Authorities, and has deliberately given them less money than the Government believes is necessary:

"The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that one way councils could respond to the funding shortfall would be to withdraw council tax benefit much more rapidly as families begin to earn. On the basis of their modelling, I calculate that the effective tax rate that some poor workers face as their benefits are withdrawn would rise to 98%. Some local authorities will respond in other ways creating new perversities, and with different perversities in different parts of the country, IDS's £2bn overhaul of the benefit system to create nationwide rationalisation that makes it pay to work becomes outright impossible.

A final flaw in the half-baked plan is that it will reward councils who drive the poor out of their town. Just as new housing policies purging them from well-to-do districts are coming on stream, councils could find they are quids in if they can persuade people entitled to a rebate to get out of the borough. Shirley Porter, the council leader who pushed the poor from Westminster in the 1980s, would approve wholeheartedly."

Saturday, October 16, 2010


September 22nd was the 50th anniversary of the climax of the St Pancras rent strikes, which I’ve written about here before. During the 1950s, the Tory government wanted to limit the creation of social housing by increasing rents, so that people would be forced to look to the private sector for more affordable tenancies. In 1959, when the Tories won St Pancras Borough Council from Labour, they squeezed Council tenants even further by introducing the “differential rent scheme,” which increased rents for the majority of tenants.

The Council tenants of the day, who only 15 years earlier had fought a war for democracy and a welfare state, saw their achievements being eroded. They acted as one and went on strike. But as 1959 became 1960, more and more tenants gave up the strike, until only two – Don Cook and Arthur Rowe – were left. “We had a ship’s bell on Ellen’s balcony that we’d ring if we saw the bailiffs,” recalls Don’s wife Edie today. “People came streaming out of their flats as Ellen rang the bell. The support was unbelievable – there were thousands of people there. Leighton Road was chock-a-block.”

On September 22nd, the police and bailiffs arrived at Kennistoun House in Kentish Town, where the Cooks had barricaded themselves in. After a struggle, they gained entry, emptied the flats of the Cooks’ possessions, and evicted them. “We had just started getting a decent home together, a nice little respectable home,” Edie recalls. “Seeing all of our possessions being thrown over the top of the balconies and smashing down on the ground below... well, I was heartbroken. I lost so much personal stuff – photographs, things you couldn’t replace.”

In a case of history repeating, on Wednesday a Tory Chancellor will announce the biggest series of cuts the British public sector has ever seen. Councils up and down the country are planning for a number of scenarios – in the worst case, they will be forced to reduce budgets by 40%; if they only have to cut by 20%, they will have got away lightly. This will clearly impact upon social housing, and Councils are likely to move as many people as possible into the private sector.

Except that this won’t work either. The National Housing Federation has predicted that cuts to Housing Benefit will leave a million people at risk of being driven into debt, falling into arrears or losing their home. The government itself predicts that almost a million of the poorest people in Britain will lose an average of £12 per week next year, and more than 40,000 households will lose more than £1,000 per year. More importantly, the capping of Local Housing Allowance could make 750,000 private-rented sector tenants in London and the South East homeless (Newham is the only London Borough whose rents fall at or below the new LHA rate caps). This will increase the pressure on Councils (whose budgets may have been slashed by 40%) to provide housing at affordable rates.

There are two facts which are blindingly obvious, but which have been blacked out by the media and the government, so bear repeating. The first is that the deficit was caused by the government’s intervention to save the financial sector in 2008/09, and the reduction in tax revenue arising from the recession. It has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with public-sector spending. Even when New Labour spending was at its highest in the mid-2000s, the public debt was lower than it had been for 30 years.

The second point is that there is no rush to pay off this deficit. The majority of the loans do not need to be paid back for years, or even decades. For the party of business to start paying back debts that don’t mature for so long, when it doesn’t have the money to do so, and when this risks Britain falling into a double-dip recession, is extraordinary – but it also makes a kind of sense. As John Gray has recently written, the Lib Dems, no less than the Tories, have a deep ideological aversion to the public sector. Their brand of liberalism is entirely in hock to the market, even if the market makes people less free.

But there are rumblings. I have spoken to colleagues – lapsed lefties, people who don’t consider themselves to be political animals, even people who voted Lib Dem and now regret it – who are planning to strike for the first time in decades, or even for the first time in their lives. What Gray says about Greece applies to Britain too: “no democracy will accept steeply declining living standards in return for nebulous promises of growth in a hypothetical future.” The resistance begins on Wednesday with a rally outside Downing Street. For the first time in my life, I expect to see a hell of a lot of new faces.

Saturday, October 09, 2010


Watch this:

The tower blocks which we see from above as half-deserted slums, and from below as they spill to the ground, make up the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis, Missouri. It was built in the early 1950s and demolished at 3pm on 16 March 1972. Charles Jencks, in what sounds suspiciously like a meta-narrative statement, later that 16 March 1972 was “the day Modernism died.” Many go further, citing the Modernist style of Pruitt-Igoe as the direct cause of its failure.

There is no doubt that Pruitt-Igoe was a failure. Post-war St Louis was experiencing white flight on a massive-scale, and its deserted and dilapidated houses were filled with poor black families. Yet, Pruitt-Igoe replaced one kind of segregated slum with another. From its conception it was cursed by political and economic constraints – the emergence of the Right, the need to divert funds to the Korean war effort, endemic racism and segregation of neighbourhoods, and a growing opposition (somewhat coloured by McCarthyism) to welfare. The final development – 33 11-storey blocks, nearly 3,000 units of housing – was under- occupied, cheaply built and suffered from poor elevation and non-existent ventilation. By the end of the 60s, Pruitt-Igoe was ridden with crime and decay (though, through the efforts and protests of some residents, pockets of well-maintained domesticity remained).

But can it really be wise to blame Modernist ideals and methods for its ills? In The Language of Post-Modern Architecture Charles Jencks, cheerleader of the postmodern movement, wrote that,

Pruitt-Igoe was constructed according to the most progressive ideas of CIAM ... and it won an award from the American Institute of Architects when it was designed in 1951. It consisted of elegant slab blocks fourteen storeys high, with rational “streets in the air” (which were safe from cars but, as it turned out, not safe from crime); “sun, space and greenery”, which Le Corbusier called the “three essential joys of urbanism” (instead of conventional streets, gardens and semi-private space, which he banished). It had a separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the provision of play space, and local amenities such as laundries, crèches and gossip centres – all rational substitutes for traditional patterns.

This is something of a straw man argument, suggesting that Pruitt-Igoe was an archetype of Modernism, and that its failures could be applied to CIAM-influenced projects as a whole. In fact, Pruitt-Igoe never won an award; it was always compromised by economics and politics (which Jencks fails to mention); and it seems rather convenient to pick out the very worst example of Modernism in practice to denigrate the whole movement. Katharine Bristol notes that a Pruitt-Igoe myth has flourished, in which a writer like Tom Wolfe can invent a public meeting where the residents elected to dynamite the buildings – a complete fabrication.

According to this myth, people like Jencks can put forward the notion that if its architecture had been more vernacular, more sympathetic to “traditional patterns” of behaviour or local history, Pruitt-Igoe would have been a success. As an argument, it is astoundingly insular, and utterly blind to outside forces. In its own way, it is even more dogmatic, even more wedded to the principle that society can be engineered by design alone, that Modernism as its Highest. It is understandable that the architectural profession would put forward such an argument – it legitimates them as the be-all and end-all of the urban environment. But as Bristol notes, “what this obscures is the architects’ passivity in the face of a much larger agenda that has its roots not in radical social reform, but in the political economy of post-World War II St Louis and in practices of racial segregation.”

This over-emphasis on architecture lets other actors, policy-makers and politicians whose actions were far more damaging to Pruitt-Igoe, off the hook. St Louis’s Public Housing Administration, under pressure from a Congress more interested in bombing Korea back to the previous century than building housing for its own citizens, insisted that the site accommodate a higher density of people than in the old slums. The poorest sections of the black community were placed there and, unable to fill it, the Housing Authority lost income and struggled to maintain the scheme. The elevators stopped only at every third floor (a consequence of housing policy rather than design), and the galleries which were originally designed to instil a sense of community were viewed by residents as “gauntlets,” where they could be bullied or attacked by gangs. The myth that faulty architecture was wholly to blame had a racist tinge to it, with some (including the architects themselves) claiming that middle-class, white architects had designed a building without taking into account the “behaviours” of its intended residents.

There are a number of anomalies which cast a shadow on the “Pruitt-Igoe myth”. Firstly, a nearby development called Carr Village – built according to the same principles, housing a similar demographic, but subject to less damaging external factors – was a success. Secondly, Pruitt-Igoe;s architect also designed a building – put to an entirely different use – which has become a symbol of economic and political patriotism: the World Trade Center in New York. Thirdly, what the right wing of the postmodern movement fail to mention is that many of the most notorious Modernist public housing scheme were commissioned by right-wing (Conservative and Republican) governments who built them cheaply and treated them as slum clearance. And fourthly – and perhaps we might be permitted a little schadenfreude here – it turns out that Poundbury, that monarchist-pomo wet-dream, is a crime-infested hellhole too!

Thursday, October 07, 2010


The only book I managed to finish on honeymoon was Huysmans' A Rebours, in which the "anaemic and highly strung" Duc Jean des Esseintes flees the vulgar commerce of the bourgeoisie by designing his own hermetic world in the country: a house where the air is suffused with assiduously chosen perfumes and bouquets, whose walls are filled with paintings by Moreau, and whose shelves are lines with Catholic theology and classical literature.

Chapter III provides an acid - and occasionally ardent - overview of Latin works. I realised, upon reading it, that everything I had been taught at school was wrong...

the gentle Virgil, he whom the schoolmastering fraternity call the Swan of Mantua, presumably because that was not his native city, impressed him as being one of the most appalling pedants and one of the most deadly bores that Antiquity ever produced; his well-washed, beribboned shepherds taking it in turns to empty over each other's heads jugs of icy-cold sententious verse, his Orpheus whom he compares to a weeping nightingale, his Aristaeus who blubbers about bees, and his Aeneas, that irresolute, garrulous individual who strides up and down like a puppet in a shadow-theatre, making wooden gestures behind the ill-fitting, badly oiled screen of the poem...

...It is only fair to add that, if his admiration for Virgil was anything but excessive and his enthusiasm for Ovid's limpid effusions exceptionally discreet, the disgust he felt for the elephantine Horace's vulgar twaddle, for the stupid patter he keeps up as he simpers at his audience like a painted old clown, was absolutely limitless...

The only Latin author Des Esseintes has any time whatever for - and who, indeed, he loves - is Petronius...

In villas full of insolent luxury where wealth and ostentation run riot, as also in the mean inns described throughout the book, with their unmade trestle beds swarming with fleas, the society of the day has its fling - despraced ruffians like Ascyltus and Eumolpus, out for what they can get; unnatural old men with their gowns tucked up and their cheeks plastered with white lead and acacia rouge; catamites of sixteen, plump and curly-headed; women having hysterics; legacy-hunters offering their boys and girls to gratify the lusts of rich testators, all these and more scurry across the pages of the Satyricon, squabbling in the streets, fingering one another in the baths, beating one another up like characters in a pantomime.

It is such fine literary criticism that I notice Wikipedia's entry on Petronius quotes verbatim from Robert Baldick's translation of A Rebours. Meanwhile, I'm going to skip over Virgil and Horace and find myself a copy of the Satyricon.

Monday, October 04, 2010


That silent tumbleweed sound you've been hearing round here lately? That's the sound of a boy planning to get married, getting married and going on honeymoon. And it was the best six weeks of my life, I might add. Still, we're back at work, it's now dark when I get up and when I get home, and blogs don't write themselves. Forward - march!