New Critical Urbanist’s Blog

October 31, 2014 housing policy / No Comments

New Horizons

For the time being I’ve shifted my blogging attention to ‘Critical Urbanists’ – a new collaborative writing blog involving critical urban scholars blogging about urban stuff!  I am one of three managing editors (the others being Tom Moore and Joe Crawford).  But we also have a wider editorial collective drawn from across a number of UK institutions: St Andrews (Leahy, Reid); Sheffield (Flint, Inch); Stirling (Matthews, Robertson, Theakstone); Bristol (Manley); Westminster (Manzi); and York (Meers).


What’s it for?

Critical Urbanists has three core objectives:

  • To promote online debate and discussion about urban social theory, policy and practice
  • To provide an open and inclusive platform for these debates, offering a more instant medium than traditional academic publishing
  • To encourage contributions from scholars at all career stages, and from those outside academia, who are concerned with our broad thematic focus. We especially welcome contributions from early career academic researchers


How can I get involved?

We welcome contributions that respond to critical academic debates and contemporary policy issues, or that reflect on ongoing or completed research. Contributions will typically be 750-1000 words in length.

We have a core editorial group and a wider group of theme editors. The first stage would be to contact the theme editor most appropriate to the focus of your contribution, or a member of the core editorial group if you are unsure who to contact.



Why I’m Voting Yes on September 18th

August 19, 2014 referendum, scotland, welfare / No Comments

You may have guessed by my Twibbon that I will be voting yes on September the 18th. Inspired by last week’s #bbcindyref debate  I thought it was time for me articulate why I will be doing so. The answer to this one is simple. It’s because I want to live in a fairer, more socially just Scotland, and I believe independence is the best way to achieve it.

For me it’s not a question of nationalism, nor party politics, or even about the oil. Rather it reflects my belief that Scotland will be a better place to live if we are no longer part of the Union. Whilst devolution, and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, has been one of the best things to happen to the country in my lifetime, I don’t think it goes far enough. To address the deep-rooted and persistent inequalities facing our society we need control over the tax and social security system. We don’t have that at the moment. Because of that we’re now witnessing a fundamental dismantling of the British welfare state by the Coalition government. The impact of which has been felt only too keenly by low-income households and communities across the length and breadth of the country. Yet we’re powerless to stop it. This for me is not democracy, nor a union of equals.

In turn, this takes me to the joke about the pandas: a well-rehearsed one in Scottish politics, but pertinent nonetheless. From a Scottish perspective we’re ruled by a Conservative-led coalition government that we didn’t vote for and don’t want. The direction of travel of politics and policy in England truly frightens me. It does not reflect my beliefs, my values or my view of how the United Kingdom needs to move forward. The possible scenario of a government including Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage beggars belief. Yet under the current constitutional set-up that is potentially what we have to look forward too.

The independence referendum however, offers us an opportunity to do things differently; more so than we’ve ever done before. But to achieve this we need to have faith in ourselves as a nation to stand and fall by our own decisions. And we need to also accept the independence is not a one off event; like devolution, it will be a continually evolving process. Much haggling and negotiation would need to be done in the years immediately following a yes vote.

But as Ken Stott quite rightly pointed out on the #bbcindyref panel last week, plenty of other countries have successfully gained independence from the British government. So it can be done if we have patience, faith in ourselves as a people and a nation, and we keep the end goal in sight. That’s not to say it won’t be a bumpy ride.

One final thought. The media and politicians have largely framed the #indyref debate in terms of the economy. But looking only at the economic issues means we may miss the transformative social and political potential of independence. For me that’s where the real prize is. Plus, at any rate we’ll be keeping the pound, currency union or not. It belongs to Scots as much as any other nation of the UK. Given the EU referendum in 2016, I’d say we’ve also more chance of being in Europe as an independent nation than as part of the UK.  The real plan B then isn’t about an alternative economic vision, rather it’s about what will Scotland do if we don’t secure independence, and we face another Conservative-led government in Westminster?

Worth pondering folks.

And time to come off the fence I’d say.


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Rekindling My Blogging Mojo!

August 10, 2014 housing policy / No Comments

Being interviewed last week for a University of St Andrew’s blog on open access, made me feel slightly guilty at how I’ve neglected my own blog since going on, and returning from maternity leave.

Adjusting to working life with a west to east commute and a clingy toddler is not easy.  But being back 6 months now, I feel we’re starting to slide into something resembling a routine.  Kind of.

Lots of exciting stuff has happened work-wise this year.  I was delighted to become Chair of the Housing Studies Association (a UK Learned Society) in April, and more recently I’ve become co-Director of the Centre for Housing Research with my colleague (and fellow blogger and Tweeter), Louise Reid.  I am also visiting the University of California, Berkeley at the end of the year to take part in a conference organised by Prof. Mark Bevir and the Centre for British Studies: Governmentality after Neoliberalism.  And closer to home I’ll be running a workshop at the Employer’s in Voluntary Housing conference in Crieff Hydro in October.  It’s all go.

My other goal for the year is to rekindle my passion for blogging.  I think open-access and social media are the future of academic research.  So, along with like-minded colleagues I’ll be launching a new Critical Urbanist’s blog in the autumn.  This is a collaborative writing project that will provide an online space for critical commentary on contemporary urban issues.  Watch this space for details of our launch!


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Consultation on the Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill – a missed opportunity?

Finally got a chance to sit down and read the Scottish Government’s consultation on the proposed Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill. Underwhelmed is the adjective that first springs to mind. Whilst many of the sentiments are in principal fair enough, there is not really any new thinking or innovation on display here (the Community RTB, enforcing sale of empty buildings, community budgeting, asset transfers – have all been talked about, or are already being taken forward elsewhere in the UK). Given Scotland has historically been a leader in thinking about community asset ownership in the UK context (e.g. CLTs, CBHAs), the lack of new thinking is dispiriting.

Worst still, there is a surprising lack of connection being made between community empowerment and other government policy areas. The obvious one being the Scottish Government’s recent Regeneration strategy with its focus on community anchor organisations as key regeneration vehicles, supported by the new People & Communities Fund. Why is there no discussion of community anchors in the consultation document? It’s a very useful concept for talking about community controlled and owned organisations that are committed to transforming their local area for the benefit of the people who live there [see my previous post on this]. And there are already lots of great examples of this across Scotland in a multitude of different sectors that could be drawn on.

But the major problem with this document for me, is that it takes as its starting point Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) which are ultimately local authority vehicles operating at the municipal scale. I would argue if you are genuinely interested in devolving ownership and control to local people then you need to think at a much more local (i.e. neighbourhood) scale, and also give more of a leading role to the voluntary and community sector. Neither of which are common occurrences in CPPs. That’s not to say CPPs don’t have their utility, but promoting grass-roots community engagement doesn’t strike me as one of them.

Another important issue that isn’t picked up in the document is the negative side of the localism agenda. Devolving power downwards may actually exacerbate existing social-spatial inequalities within and between Scotland’s communities. There are several reasons for this, not least the fact that some communities may be more able than others to articulate their needs and command resources (issues such as skills, education, capacity, experience are all relevant here).

Moreover, we should not assume that communities necessarily want to take control – if you look at research in the housing field in many instances local people supported community ownership of social housing as a mean to an end (i.e. to secure investment and improvement in their houses and communities). Where local people are already receiving a good service from public sector providers there may not be any demand for asset transfer -and we should avoid foisting it upon them simply so that assets can be removed from public sector budgets (and thus reduce costs to the public purse).

On a final (slightly left-field) note, I have to say I’m really put off responding to these Scottish Government consultations because of the nature of the respondent form/consultation questions – these are too pre-determined (and often quite technical in focus) and shut off a lot of avenues for debate and discussion…. rather ironic for a consultation on community engagement and empowerment. There is a real need for more open-ended questions that allow some flexibility in how to respond, for responders may wish to respond to different questions to those raised in the document for example.

If you’ve not yet responded to this consultation you still have time to do so. Closes 29th August. (now extended to 26 Sep).

For an alternative analysis of the consultation document see @BaseDrones blog: and that of @urbaneprofessor:


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Housing Associations and the Big Society: lessons from Scotland

Last week I launched the findings from my Carnegie funded research on housing associations and the big society, which focused on the role of community anchor housing associations in Scotland.  My motivation for the project was two-fold:

1)      It strikes me the policy rhetoric on the Big Society is very English focused, and I was interested in the extent to which these ideas had any relevance north of the border within Scotland’s rich and diverse voluntary and community sector.

2)      The concept of community ‘anchor’ organisations, which first originated in a Home Office report in 2004 has now filtered through to social policy in Scotland through the Scottish Government’s focus on community regeneration and their proposed Community Empowerment Bill.  The recent Christie Commission into the reform of public services in Scotland also called for services to be rebuilt around communities.

Against this policy backdrop, I decided to focus on the community-controlled housing association (CCHA) sector in Scotland, which is one of the strongest examples of community ownership in the UK today.  CCHAs are place-based organisations governed by a committee of local residents.  They are key agencies in Scotland’s low-income neighbourhoods, undertaking an important social role by acting as catalysts for community regeneration and development.  Many are already anchor organisations.

Five key findings emerged from this qualitative study with senior housing association staff and national membership organisations:

  •  Although sceptical of the relevance of the Big Society, interviewees were positive about the potential of housing associations to act as community anchor organisations; with many expressing that they already fulfilled this role.  This suggests there is much the Big Society agenda in England can learn from the Scottish experience, as illustrated by the seven case study profiles featured in the report.
  • Key strengths of CCHAs, which made them ideal anchor organisations, were identified as: community governance structures and being embedded in the local community; housing assets and independent revenue streams; ability to mobilise cross-sector partnerships; strength of relationship with tenants and their credibility in the local community.
  • A number of challenges and barriers to developing associations’ potential as anchor organisations were however also articulated: funding constraints; lack of institutional support from within government (at both the local and national level); and the regulation of social housing.
  • The reality of doing housing in ‘hard times’ meant associations were being forced to think about their future role.  Embracing the community anchor role was identified by some as one avenue of ‘diversification’ that would allow CCHAs to remain true to their core values and ethos.
  • There remained scepticism about why associations needed to adopt a new label for what they did, and also concerns about the level of expectation placed on them by government.  This was linked to an awareness of the limits of area-based approaches to addressing entrenched and persistent structural inequalities.

These findings are important not only in the Scottish context, given their relevance to the proposed Community Empowerment bill and the Scottish Government’s focus on community regeneration.  They also offer important lessons for policy across the UK, given the policy rhetoric around Localism and the Big Society, both of which emphasise devolving decision-making downwards from the state to local people.

Crucially, the project highlighted real concerns about an increasing blurring of the boundaries between the public and voluntary sector, and also the challenges of delivering community projects in hard times (for HAs are also facing cuts to their budgets).  Returning more specifically to the issues for Scotland, whilst the ‘community anchor’ idea clearly has much merit, more definitional clarity is needed if it is to play a significant role in policy terms and a means of accessing public funding.



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New Regulatory Framework for Social Housing in Scotland: a mixed bag for HAs?

A few months back I blogged about the consultation on reforming the regulatory framework for social landlords in Scotland (see also the piece in Inside Housing). As I highlighted at the time, two issues in particular caused a ‘stooshie’:

  • Proposals to introduce a mandatory fixed term for housing association committee members (over 90% of associations who responded to the consultation opposed this).
  • Proposals that housing association committee members could be paid for their role (which historically has been voluntary)

The Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) has now launched it’s new Framework for Regulation, and I’m pleased to see at least some of the concerns expressed during the consultation period have been heeded. The SHR is no longer proposing mandatory time limits on how long committee members can serve. Rather, it will require members with more than 9 years service to demonstrate their continued effectiveness. The emphasis on refreshing skills and thinking about succession strategies, is overall, much more positive than the very negative tone of the consultation. But it does underline the point that the SHR needs to engage with the sector earlier and (arguably) in a more constructive fashion.

Other positive shifts in thinking include:

  • Annual reporting requirements around achieving the Social Housing Charter have been reduced and made less onerous. Nonetheless the focus of regulation continues to be underpinned by a consumerist agenda, and doesn’t really consider the wider context in which RSLs work, nor their contribution to community development and regeneration (something that I’ll be blogging on in the future re: my community anchor work).
  • The SHR no longer intends to develop model constitutional clauses, crucial given RSLs are independent organisations with their own democratic processes. However, the insistence that a large number of specific constitutional clauses be included is disappointing

Other elements of the Framework are also frustratingly disappointing:

  • SHR has remained ‘neutral’ on the issue of payment for committee members, thus allowing associations to pay committee members if they wish. This is a significant change, and really undermines the voluntary ethos and traditions of this sector, which is underpinned by place-based social capital and community ownership. As the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations, the membership body for community-controlled HAs in Scotland has stated: “changing the voluntary character of housing associations is one of the most fundamental changes in our sector’s history” (2012: 4). Moreover, given many associations are also charities it is also impractical (see, SFHA 2012 briefing note).
  • There is also no indication of how the SHR will vary its approach for different size and type of RSLs, for the sector in Scotland is very diverse, with a lot of small landlords in particular. This is in contrast to the approach that had been previously adopted in England, where smaller landlords were exempt from many regulatory requirements

So it seems the new Framework is a mixed bag. But as I’ll be writing about in a few weeks, there are also somewhat conflicting messages emerging from the SHR and the Scottish Government about what the role of social landlords should be …. something I’ll post about when I launch my report from my community anchor research.


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The End of ‘Social’ Housing in Scotland? Consultation on Allocations Reform

I finally sat down to read the Scottish Government’s consultation on ‘Affordable Housing in Scotland’.  And was very surprised, shocked and angered at some of the proposals being suggested.  Not only do they seem to be informed by quite negative perceptions of social housing, but they also threaten the entire notion of a ‘secure’ social housing tenancy and the future cohesiveness and stability of low-income neighbourhoods.  The entire consultation seems to cherry-pick the worst elements of recent social housing reforms in England, as reflected in the shift in language from ‘social’ to ‘affordable’ housing.  The sub-heading for this consultation is:  “creating flexibility for landlords and better outcomes for communities”.  But my feeling is these proposals would actually do the opposite, and are potentially extremley damaging for low-income neighbourhoods.  The main points I have an issue with include:

1) Whilst I can understand the desire to prioritise those on the lowest-income when demand outstrips supply, introducing an income assessment contradicts other government policies around mixed-communities, and is likely to exacerbate geographical concentrations of poverty.   As research shows there is already a strong correlation betweeen social housing and poverty in Scotland. Not having an income test is a strength not a weakness of our sector.  Instead of creating a new tenure (intermediate rent) we could widen access to ‘social housing’ to include middle income groups.  Everyone should have a right to housing regardless of income.

2)  Introducing a short Scottish Secure Tenancy for all new social housing tenants undermines security of tenure, which is a defining feature of the sector.  Justifying it on the grounds of possible ASB is extremley stigmatising and stereotypical (ASB is not unique to social housing tenants, nor are all social housing tenants anti-social).  Moreover, ASB is not just a housing issue.  More recognition of this and the role of non-housing agencies in tackling  it would be welcome.  It also seems an impractical measure if it is not to apply to existing tenants.


3) Allowing intermediate housing to be let using SSTs would seem to be replicating the practices of the private rented sector.  One of the major disadvantages of this tenure from the renters’ perspective is the lack of security of tenure.  How can people make a house their home if they don’t know how long they will be there?  If public money is to be used to fund this then security of tenure should be a cornerstone, especially if these properties are owned and managed by social landlords.

 4) Limiting succession rights where the home would be under-occupied ignores the fact this is the persons’ home, which they may have lived in for years.  A social rented house is more than a housing asset; it is also a home. This measure would also create inequities between social housing tenants.

If like me you are unimpressed by the proposals contained in this consultation, I would encourage you to return a response to the Scottish Government’s consultation, which ends on 30th April.  To my mind the key problem with this paper is that it seems to be underpinned by a very negative view of social (or affordable) housing.  It’s only ever conceived of as a welfare safety-net, for those who lack the material resources to undertake normalised acts of housing consumption (i.e. homeownership).   I would argue we need to recognise social (and affordable) renting as a positive choice; it should not be as the consultation claims, only a sector for “people who cannot afford to rent or buy on the open market” (p8).  If we have learned anything from the credit crunch and resulting global economic downturn it should be that as a nation we need to get over our obsession with homeownership.

One of the strengths of devolution is surely being able to do things differently from the rest of the UK, but these proposals demonstrate a real lack of original thinking on social housing policy.  Yet the social rented sector in Scotland is, and always has been, fundamentally distinct.  It’s a bigger tenure for a start, and historically was much more socially mixed.  This is it’s strength and we should resist attempts to dilute this by making it a ‘tenure of last resort’ for only the most poorest, vulnerable members of society.  Given, as the consultation claims, that 128,000 households are on the social housing waiting list, isn’t the answer to build more social housing, so people have access to the secure, affordable, good quality housing that they clearly want?  I happened to watch Ken Loach’s classic film ‘Cathy Come Home’ last weeked and it underlined to me the importance of having good quality, affordable rental housing, and that social landlords are best placed to provide this.



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Young People, Tenure Choices and Inequality

I’ve spent today writing a presentation for a conference on Friday about Housing in Scotland.  I’m tasked with covering the issues facing young people in the housing market.  Yet my gut reaction is that we can’t understand the complexity of issues at play if we only look at ‘the market’.  I suppose this reflects my dissatisfaction with the way in which economists think about ‘choice’ in terms of how people negotiate the housing market.  For me, choice is a fallacy because societal structures ultimately shape and construct the ‘decisions’ individuals and households make – focusing on the rational decison making process fails to get to grips with this.  To fully grasp the issues at play we need to get beyond the immediate housing issues and think about the interplay between housing and other social and economic policies, and also demographic issues.   Housing has been central to individual and national wealth in the post-war period,  It has also assumed a pivotal role in more recent societal shifts from collective to asset-based welfare provisions.  This involves individuals assuming more responsibility for their own future well-being, thus reducing the burden upon the state.

It strikes me that housing has been and will continue to be fundamental to patterns of social inequality both within and across generations.  It is now extremely difficult for young people to purchase a home in the UK without drawing on financial support from their family.  Where however does this leave those young people who are the children of renters? Is homeownership now further reinforcing existing patterns of wealth and inheritance?   Given our ageing population and shift towards ‘asset-based welfare’ it also remains to be seen whether house-rich older generation are able to (and want to) leave an inheritance to their children and grand-children. The growing expectation from government that we should use our housing assets to secure our own future welfare (i.e. to fund social care in old age, or to top-up our meager state pensions) means they may need their housing assets in their own old age.  Again this raises questions about how the current cohort of young people are supposed to secure their own future welfare if they are being denied access (or are having a delayed entry) to the housing ladder.

These dilemmas highlight the crucial importance of this public policy issue, and it is one which I am lucky enough to be able to investigate and unpack over the next few years.  The Leverhulme Foundation have funded my colleagues and I to conduct a three year, inter-disciplinary project to investigate the role of housing wealth in creating inter-generational inequalities.  The project involves St Andrews, Birmingham and Durham Universities and is led by Dr Beverley Searle at St Andrews.  The workstream which I am leading focuses on the issues mentioned above in terms of young people, tenure choice and future welfare.  I look forward to being able to report some empirical results in the years ahead.


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Housing Association as Community ‘Anchors’

Taking advantage of the inter-semester break I’ve been out and about doing fieldwork for my current Carnegie funded project on the contribution of housing associations to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.  One idea that has really taken my interest is that of housing association’s as ‘community anchors‘.  As regulated, financially stable, social businesses with effective local partnerships and a commitment to transforming their communities for the benefit of local people, this ‘anchor’ concept seems a useful one for describing the work of the sector.  It showcases what can be achieved through community asset ownership and community governance, and underlines the importance of connecting housing to other social policy agendas around health, education and so forth.

The idea that housing associations are more than just landlords is not a new one.  Many have long been active in community development and community regeneration projects to tackle the social and economic challenges within their neighbourhoods as well as the physical ones.  But as social housing budgets shrink whilst at the same time the relative poverty experienced by Scotland’s most fragile communities grows, the need for associations to connect the dots between housing and regeneration becomes even more critical.

In our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods housing associations are quite often the only agency with a physical on the ground presence.  The relationship they have with their tenants mean they are often the first port of call when problems arise. Whilst many directly provide support services to local people, they are also enablers working in partnership with other agencies to deliver services such as money and debt advice, childcare, education, employment training, welfare rights etc.

Whilst I have been really impressed at the depth and range of community projects offered by the case study organisations I have been visiting in recent weeks, I was also struck by the sheer scale of the issues they have to deal with on a daily basis.  Whilst they can use their skills and experience to attract funding and work with partners to alleviate some of the worst effects of poverty, on their own they cannot address the root cause of the issue.  And for me, this is where Cameron’s Big Society falls down.  I’m all for ‘local’ solutions and decentred decision making, but it is not cost free and it needs resourcing if it is to deliver real change.  The long-standing, entrenched inequalities experienced in many of Scotland’s communities (which are still experiencing the fall-out from de-industrialisation) cannot be effectively tackled by volunteering or philanthropy alone; what is needed is a serious commitment to tackling the growing inequality in this country: and the ever widening gap between rich and poor.  Given the changes afoot in the UK Welfare Reform bill it seems hard to imagine this will be achieved during the lifetime of the current coalition government.



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Achieving a Sustainable Future? the Scottish Government’s regeneration strategy

The Scottish Government launched it’s Regeneration Strategy today: Achieving a Sustainable Future?

No big surprises; rather it represents a reply to the previous discussion document and the responses received to this.

Whilst I was pleased to see a strong emphasis on Community-led Regeneration I find this at odds with the emphasis on Local Authorities and Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) as lead agents of regeneration. There is an important question of scale here in terms of what is the best ‘scale’ at which to deliver regeneration. To me, ‘community’ and ‘municipalism’ aren’t the same thing (although I imagine there are people who’d disagree with me on this) … indeed many community organisations report very negative experiences of CPPs, not least because of local ‘politics’. Alas, it seems however that the re-establishment of a national regeneration housing agency (a la Scottish Homes) is not on the cards.

A major criticism I had of the previous discussion document (as outlined in my response to it on behalf of the GWSF of HAs) was a surprising lack of awareness of the contribution community-based houisng associations (CBHAs) have made to Scotland’s renaissance over the last 30 years. Thankfully this iteration of the document demonstrates a more nuanced and informed awareness of the contribution of Third Sector organisations and their capacity to act as ‘anchor organisations’ in a regeneraton context. I was also genuinely excited by the prospect of the new People and Communities Fund and the Community Ownership Fund. Nonetheless, the SG’s assertion that an “asset-based approach will also help to overcome stigmatisation and will support communities to have a positive identify in the future” (p19) seems at worst ill-informed with regards to the research on poverty and place, or at best very naive.

At the end of the day Scotland’s deprived communities are the product of deeply entrenched material inequalities. Giving people more control over local assets and decision making although important and welcome, cannot on its own address poverty and its damaging effects. This requires redistribution of wealth. Something that was largely absent from the regeneration strategy discussions. Perhaps this reflects the limits of the currenty devolution settlement, for control over the benefits and tax system (which are key tools for redistributing wealth) are preserved powers of the Westminister Government. Targeted place-policies, I fear, on their own are not enough to tackle the scourge of poverty in Scotland. We need to think about people as well as place policies.

On a final note, I was extremley pleased to see the point about the negative effect of stigmatising language (p46) as this was something I stressed in my own response to the discussion document. Nonetheless, despite this insightful reflection the document then continues to use exactly the type of language it admits to be stigmatising (‘disadvantaged communities’, ‘our poorest places’), so still more thinking needed on this one me thinks. Perhaps they should read the excellent report they commissioned from John McKendrick earlier in the year on ‘Writing and Talking about Poverty’.

Overall, an interesting paper which ticks all the regeneration buzz-word boxes, but I would have liked the SG to be bolder in its vision for regenerating Scotland’s low-income neighbourhoods, and to not shy away from talking about inequality. After all, as recent reports from the OECD and the JRF highlight the UK (and Scotland as part of that) is an increasingly divided nation.


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