Wednesday, 10 December 2008

One step forward, two steps back

Isn't it always the way; you take one step forward only to be forced to take two steps back. Only I fear, this time, I may be forced to take more than two steps back. Only yeterday I was reporting the about apparent conversion of Professor Michael Parkinson who seems to have repented of property led regeneration. Alas, Professor Parkinson's wisdom does not seem to have reached into the minds of all members of the urban elite that govern Liverpool. Today I received an email which informed me that a member of this urban elite told "one of the (reliable) people I was talking to at this conference that her aspiration was to "clear all the terraced housing from Liverpool". I would, of course, like to name and shame the author of this opinion. How can someone in such a powerful position say something so stupid? But it is the sheer stupidity of what this person said that would - if I identified them - probably lead them to threaten me with legal action. (This is what these people do when someone dares to challenge them). And why? Because they would probably want to dissociate themselves with such an unspeakably stupid opinion. That won't stop them pursuing their grand project, of course. Far from it. The idea that urban elites in this city can return Liverpool to some ideal 'year zero' without working class terrace housing prevails despite the 'credit crunch' that has wreacked havoc with Mr Nevin's idea that housing should be an 'aspirational good' and thus an aspect of our portfolio of consumption. Who is seriously thinking in these terms now, when most people are simply concerned to keep their home? Perhaps that is what we should have always been thinking about - homes and not 'investments'. But the urban elites that govern this city seem incapable of learning the lesson of the credit crunch - that endemic feature of capitalism that bites us every now and again (bust, boom, bust) but which we are encouraged to forget about as quickly as possible when the crisis has passed us by. So, in spite of the credit crunch, these urban elites are persisting in their attempts to eradicate working class housing from the urban landscape in order to replace it with 'high value' housing that represents an 'investment' or part of our portfolio of consumption that will 'speak' about who we are. Here is a extract from a paper that my colleague and Lee and I will be publishing soon which explains one of the reasons why;

"Pre-1919 terraced housing, it would seem, presents the wrong image: it is too industrial, too working-class. It symbolises a by-gone era of hard lives and hard, manual labour that sits uncomfortably with contemporary self-indulgent, leisured lifestyles. It represents backwardness not progress. As Short observes 'to be seen as industrial is to be associated with the old, the polluted, the out of date. A persistent strand of urban (re)presentations has been the reconstruction of the image of the industrial city' (1999:45). For Short, urban restructuring in the US has therefore been preoccupied with working towards a position where cities can announce, “Look, no more factories! (op cit.: 45). The equivalent ambition for housing ... might be, ‘look, no more terraced houses!’"

And that is why we should never dismiss the ignorant and stupid mutterings of urban elites (about eradicating all terrace housing from Liverpool) as too 'way out' to be credible. They mean it. And there is nothing more dangerous than stupid people with power and a penchant for class hatred. More on urban elites tomorrow when the subject will be FRUMPS. FRUMPS are Formerly Radical Upwardly Mobile Professors that once spouted Marxist views but whom have since made an about face and embraced the market. Some conversion you might say and, yes, you are right. The question is why?

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

No longer a lone voice?

The number of academics that have been lining up to proclaim the end of terrace housing over the last decade is too long to publish. But the corrollary of the idea that terrace housing has had its day is the notion that 'something better' must replace it. Welcome to the world of proprty led regeneration. This is where local authorities and developers get their hands on working class houses for next to nothing (this is what a compulsory purchase order is for) and then build 'high value' housing on it which secures super profits for both of them. Don't think it is only the developers that secure the profits in this. Local authorities also profit from these schemes; they take a share of the increased value of the redeveloped land and also charge higher council tax rates on the 'high value' houses that have been built in place of working class homes. So you thought the poll tax was bad? Well the council tax actually encourages local authorities to kick working class people out of their houses and to replace them with households that have money. But I digress.

The point is that there are no end of academics that have proclaimed this to be a good thing, and that have encouraged it. They sell their services as 'consultants' that have the 'expertise' to demonstrate that this is necessary because their 'social science' says it is, and because it is in the 'public interest'. What we have had in the last few years, then, are people like Professor Michael Parkinson of Liverpool John Moores University saying things like this about the latest property-led regeneration schemes in the city: "I cried when I saw it". So, Professor Parkinson is such a disciple of property led regeneration that he is reduced to tears of joy when placed in sight of its latest triumph. As if to bolster the view that property led regeneration is a raging success, Parkinson has also said things like this: "Many key players believe that Liverpool has dramatically improved its performance in recent years. Do the hard figures bear out their confidence? In fact, they do" (M. Parkinson, in report commissioned by Liverpool Vision, 2008).

It is interesting, then, that this is a summary of Parkinson's contribution to the recent Northern Regen Summit: Parkinson told delegates that the old way of carrying out regeneration development is gone. "City centre apartments, buy-to-let and volume housebuilders [have driven] the regeneration economy," he said. "That model is frankly dead." see

Readers, I am concerned that authorities such as Liverpool City Council are continuing with their schemes to knock down good houses that house good people when even some of the consultants that encouraged them to do this now seem to be changing their minds. Terrace housing obsolete? I don't think so. And I am clearly not the only one that does not think so.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Always worrying.

Readers, I'm worried. And what am I worried about. Area effects. I discussed area effects in a recent blog entry and I am woried that, perhaps, I trivialised them too much. Over the last few days I have had a chance to reflect on area effects borne of my experience of living in my obsolete terrace house that is unsuitable for modern living, especially for a contemporary flexible service sector householder like me. The problem seems to be this. Area effects happen when habits are transmitted between households. This is a problem when bad habits are transmitted between neighbours that are from the same social class backgrounds. It embeds the culture of that class when, perhaps, it is wrong and needs to be challenged. The way to resolve this is to create neighbourhoods with a social mix so that households from social class backgrounds that have good habits can act as role models and transmit their habits to other households so that they achieve a boost. I am beginning to think that there might be something in this and I want New Labour to do something about it because the human race is facing a crisis situation that we will not reverse unless radical action is taken to address it. And I think that social mixing can help us reverse the situation we face. And, funnily enough, housing market renewal can teach us a lot in this respect.

Let me explain. I think that the some people have some very bad habits and that these bad habits are being transmitted through the population like a disease. The bad habit I am talking about is 'rising aspirations' or over consumption if you like. This is a bad habit of the middle classes and I am worried about them. This obsession with consumption is devaluing human life and human relationships. The more we seek happiness from status, and status from onsumption, the emptier we become as people and the emptier our relationships with other people become. So it seems obvious to me that we need to break this habit. And I think I know what to do about it and, better still, housing market renewal is my solution. What I am thinking is this. There is a monolithic provision of bland detached and semi detached houses in suburban locations across Britain that are often under occupied and that primarily act as status symbols. The consumption problem writ large! Now, the problem with these areas is that they are sufering from chonic levels of what I think I will call 'superfluous demand' (a bit like low demand but in reverse). This is a waste when the realisation of this superfluous demand results in a general impoverishment of human beings. So we've a big problem here. Clearly, areas that are sufering from the problem of 'superflous demand' should now be deemed to be experiencing chronic 'housing market failure'. What I propose - and I am guided by the principles of housing market renewal here, which I find most helpful - is that we undertake a radical restructuring of these suburban housing markets. I propose that we issue compulsory purchase orders on houses that have a 'high value' (in exchange terms) but low value in utility terms. Personally, I would demolish some of these houses (but not all of them) and replace them with obsolete terrace houses that would be owned and managed by the state. Now if we put working class people in these houses, I think they would have a good role model effect. I say this because working class people, generally speaking, tend to prioritise the use value of their houses over their exchange value. This is certainly the case in the neighbourhoods in Liverpool that I studied (see my book HOusing Market Renewal and Social Class). If working class people did act as role models in this way then they could potentially save the middle classes from themselves and avert a human disaster. I am suggesting, then, that my proposals could pull us back from the brink of our obsession with consumption (in particular, its symbolic aspects) by returning us to a basic concern with use value, need and happiness. So, possibly, there is something in this area effects stuff after all. My recommendation today is: kick me out of my obsolete terrace house and put me into a nice bland semi in some suburban hell where I can compete with my neighbours for distinction and see how I like it there.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Monolithic vision

When I walked out of my front door this morning to go to work (the culture of worklessness has not yet worked its way into my subjectivity) I was confronted by a monolithic dwellingscape of terrace houses. Rows upon rows of terrace houses. How unsightly, I thought. And far too standardised. Perhaps they need to be knocked down and a more surburban aesthetic put in their place as, indeed, the architects of housing market renewal have suggested.

Yes, what we need around here is the imposition of the 'suburban ideal' that, Goodchild describes in his latest book as, "mass housing [which] meant repetition of basic housing forms, notably the semi". Although, to his credit, Goodchild also points out that this standardisation was mitigated by the use of "slightly different materials - for examples tiles rather than slate for the roof or more or less rendering to the external walls". Wow! I am simply overcome by the sheer diversity of the suburban aesthetic as, I am sure, you are too.

Funny that, because when I was staring out of my window on Sunday - and as I walked down the road this morning - I noticed amongst the monolithic dwellingscape of obsolete terrace houses all sorts of differences. My road slopes downwards (new estates tend to be flat), there are all sorts of front doors that reflect the different history of ownership (new estates tend to have the same crap front doors), some obsolete terraces have attic rooms whereas others don't (houses in new estates are often built with such shallow roof space that this is not possible) and there are all sorts of different ways in which my neighbours decorate the front of their houses with plants and so on (new estates all have the same crappy postage stamp gardens with no plants in don't they). So it is absolutely clear, then, that my obsolete terrace house is surrounded by a real monolithic vision of terraces and this proves the case that what we really need around here is demolition of these obsolete terraces and their replacement with a monolithic dwellingscape of lovely little 'suburban' like semis with no character whatsoever.

What is really interesting is that the mass builder that got the work to redevelop parts of Liverpool (after all the working class people have been kicked out of their homes, which are being knocked down) paraded their credentials for undertaking this work by pointing to their resounding 'success' in redeveloping Hulme in Manchetser. Would this be the same Hulme that a report by Professor Alan Harding and colleagues describes as rife with dissatisfaction? And all because people did not like the houses they were put into. They were too small and too shoddy. Yet Professor Harding and colleagues referred to these as "teething problems" because, of course, living in a crappy shoe box is just a "teething problem". Let me quote Professor Harding and colleagues in full so you can see exactly what I mean:

"There is dissatisfaction with the design, quality and space standards of some of the provate stock .... These disappointments, though real for individual home owners, are best seen as irritants rather than fundamental concerns"

Now let us think for a minute: would these middle class academics consider it an 'irritant' if they were kicked out of their home and put into a shoe box that was too small and dysfunctional for them. Food for thought eh!

I could stop there but this 'monolithic' argument is an interesting one. Myself and a colleague, Lee, recently spoke at the Royal Geograhical Society annual conference in London alongside two people that have been kicked out of their homes as a result of the schemes devised by the architects of HMR. We suggested that it was important that our friends' voices were heard because the academy had, basically, ignored them (see my book for more on this).

Well, we received a response from some academics suggesting that we were wrong to suggest that the academy had ignored the likes of our friends that had been kicked out of their homes. BIt of a paradox going on here, I think. Difficult to claim you have listened to the 'little people' if you then carry on with your schemes regardless of the objections that the little people have to them.

Perhaps the bigger charge against us, though, was that we were accused of being wrong to have such a monolithic view of the academy, i.e. that "the academy" had ignored the little people! This is another interesting one so let's explore it a bit. The very people that apply the term 'monolithic' to describe terrace housing - despite the massive diversity that exists in the dwellingscape of obsolete terrace houses - are, incredibly, suggesting that it is wrong to apply the same logic to the academy. Their reason for this: it is too simplistic to represent everything as 'the same' when there is diversity within.

Well, having walked out of my front door this morning to be confronted by my lived experience of the terrace dwellingscape, which I love because it is so interesting, I can only say that I am in full agreement that it is wrong to describe my obsolete terrace house and those that surround it as part of a 'monolithic'. The terrace dwellingscape around here is actually very differentiated. In the same way that my writing about the 'knowledge business' (see various things I have published on this) suggestes that knowledge production practices within the academy are complex and differentiated - albeit there are dominant tendencies that overlay this which result in the institutional production of academic arrogance which is what has resulted in my friends being kicked out of their homes. Perhaps the academics that accuse Lee and I of having a monolithic view of the academy should read my work a little bit more carefully, and, perhaps they should try and live here and see that this is anything but a monolithic experience.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Day 4 in the Obsolete Terrace House

Its day 4 in the Obsolete Terrace House and I am worrying about whether my 'role model' effect is working on the working class people that share my neighbourhood. I need to teach them middle class habits such as how to be nasty to people behind their backs in order to 'get on' whilst pretending they are my best friend to their face. I need to teach them to be like my colleagues that denigrated my book behind my back yet whom treat me as though I was their long lost best friend when they see me at the next conference. (Yes, this has happened). The trouble with working class people that live in these obsolete terrace houses is that they say what they mean and they mean what they say to your face. Honesty - how dysfunctional can you get! The other trouble with these working class people is, as Diane Reay has pointed out in her research, they tend to be happy with their lot so they don't have 'rising aspirations' to 'better themselves' like middle class people do. So I must do my best to teach them how to 'better themselves' by learning how to be more manipulative, devious, selfish and so on.

The other worry, of course, is that I might become a victim of 'area effects'. This is when the culture of the area drags you down with it. So I am worried that I might come to live in my obsolete terrace house as a nice middle class academic that, thankfully, has left my working class roots behind. But what will I be like when I have lived here for a year? I might start suffering from 'worklessness' and things like that. Heaven forbid. Watch this space for signs of worklessness creeping in to me. You never know, I might even get some nice middle class researcher coming around to my obsolete terrace house (that is unsuitable for modern living) to ask me lots of questions about what is wrong with me.

On the subject of my obsolete terrace house being unsuitable for modern living, I noticed something else today. My obsolete terrace house has actually got running water, hot water and windows. Its even got CENTRAL HEATING. I can't tell you how modern that makes me feel. I have to admit, though, I am a tad disappointed that I do not have a microwave. A sign of decadence, I know. But there's nothing like being able to come home from a hard day at the office (that is, until the 'area effects' around here drag me into a spiral of decline and reduce me to a state of 'worklessness') and quickly whack something in the microwave. There's nothing more modern and contemporary than instant crap food. But, alas, my obsolete terrace house does not have a microwave. So my recommendation today is: kick me out of this hovel and knock it down as soon as possible. Get a volume builder to throw up a semi-detached status symbol with 3 half size bedrooms and a path that is just too short to fit a mini on and, of course, some nice middle class neighbours. I will be as happy as Larry.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

All Mod Cons

I moved into my obsolete terrace house in Liverpool, which I rent, on Friday 28th November. You can imagine my surprise when I walked into the kitchen of my obsolete terrace house (which is unsuitable for modern living) to be confronted by a SMEG fridge freezer and a SMEG cooker. On opening what I thought were cupboard doors, I was even more amazed to discover a dishwasher. Actually, that was a bit of a shame because I don't like dishwashers - they always seemed to me to be a sign of decadence. I actually quite like washing dishes. It provides time for thinking and trying to understand things. Perhaps the architects of HMR have dishwashers.

I should make it clear, here, that when I refer to the 'architects' of HMR I do not simply mean that self-proclaimed designers and chief apologists for the policy, that originally came from within the academy. I also mean the elites that devise HMR programmes at local levels, to rid large parts of the dwellingscapes of their towns and cities of terrace dwellings so that 'exciting' dwellings can be erected in their place. That said, I will soon be writing to Pauline Davies to tell her that I have moved back to Liverpool to live in the type of terrace house that she thinks are unsuitable for the likes of nice middle class people like me.

So, there you have it. My first impression of my obsolete terrace house was quite surprising. Perhaps even more surprising was that a working class man - probably in his late 50s or early 60s - was standing in the street as I was moving my things into my obsolete terrace house. I was wary of this working class man, of course. And all of my fears were confirmed when the working class man said 'hello' and tried to engage me in a friendly conversation. Thus all of my fears about the dysfunctionality of the neighbourhood were confirmed before I had even moved in: someone had talked to me in a friendly way. This never happened to me when I lived in an middle class suburb in Oxford. The main memory I have from there is of an awful woman who barely spoke (she was far too posh to speak to me) and who stole kids' footballs that found their way into her garden.

In summary, then. My first impressions are that my obsolete terrace house is unsuitable for modern living (you only have to look at the contents of the kitchen to work that one out) and the neighbourhood is completely dysfunctional (re. the scary neighbour that says 'hello'). My initial recommendation would be: kick me out of my obsolete terrace house and knock it down.

Welcome home

I am starting this blog to explain to you what it is like to live in a terrace house. Why do I need to do this? In the late 1990s a group of researchers, led by Mr Brendan Nevin, produced a report about 'housing market change' in the M62 corridor. The authors of this report argued that terrace housing had become 'obsolete' and 'unsuitable for modern living', especially for 'contemporary flexible service sector households' (I think that means the middle class). They also suggested that the neighbourhoods in which many terrace dwellings are located were 'dysfunctional' - becuse they have too many working class people and not enough middle class people, amongst other things. Mr Nevin and his colleagues therefore concluded that terrace houses - which they referred to as 'obsolete', 'outdated', 'unwanted' and 'unsuitable for modern living' - need to be demolished and replaced with 'high value' products that 'contemporary' households wanted.

The above provides a quick overview of Mr Nevin and colleagues' arguments, which have been used to justify the demoltion of large swathes of terrace housing in the North of England, including in my home town of Liverpool. Mr Nevin has appeared at several public inquiries to present the case for demolition of terrace dwellings on the grounds that they are 'obsolete' and 'unsuitable for modern living'. So, earlier this ear, I published a book called 'Housing Market Renewal and Social Class' which provided a critique of the arguments (and 'evidence') that Mr Nevin and colleagues have put forward in support of their claims about terrace housing.

In return for taking the trouble to write a critique of the 'housing market renewal' (HMR) programme - which is the initiative that is promoting the demolition of swathes of terrace houses in Liverpool and elsewhere - I was subjected to all sorts of unpleasantries: I was threatened with legal action by Mr Nevin and Liverpool City Council; other academic colleagues denigrated my book as a 'diatribe' even though they had not read it; others attacked me behind my back and, then, chose not to attend events where I was speaking in public to openly raise their 'concerns' about my critique of HMR . All very unsavoury stuff.

Despite being subjected to these unpleasantries in the 6 months leading up to the publication of the book, I have heard nothing from these people since it came out. Perhaps it is strange that the people that were so vocal about the book (having not read it) prior to publication have, since its publication, fallen completely silent. (Although I know that some of the people that were so vocal in denigrating the book before publication have not even bothered to read it now that it is out!!!). I have my own thoughts on why my book has been met with this deafening silence from those that were so vocal about it prior to publication, but Iwill keep those to myself. Suffice it to say that, perhaps, the book is simply an academic critique of a pernicious and unjust urban policy programme. What could possibly be wrong with that?

So, here we are. The book is out. And it has been widely welcomed by many academics that were desperate for a critical perspective on HMR that showed up the nice cosy elite academic consensus on terrace housing for what it is - intellectally lightweight. Of course it is intellectually lightweight. It seems ludicrous (even intellectually naive) to argue that terrace housing has reached the end of its history given what we know about the dynamism of history. I seem to remember someone called Francis Fukuyama once arguing that we had reached the 'end of history' because Western liberal capitalism had finally triumphed over all. He has been spectacularly proven wrong, as have Mr Nevin and his colleagues.

Mr Nevin and his colleagues seem to have an obsession with 'managing urban growth' and, as such, responding to 'rising aspirations'. So, in their world, economies only ever seem to grow. How utterly absurd. Anybody with even a cursory knowledge of Marx will tell you that capitalism ha a tendency to bust and, often, in spectacular fashion. Any self-respecting Marxist would have predicted the current crisis. This is the current crisis that has wreaked havoc in the housing market and decimated middle class consumption. 'Rising aspirations'! Or perhaps this is a reality check. Rather than encouraging people to think that they should have (and can satisfy) 'rising aspirations' in the housing market, Mr Nevin and colleagues should have forseen the current crisis which is actually a consequence of exactly this type of greed that produces 'rising aspirations' without actally having the true means of satisfying them. So perhaps we all need to learn to live a bit more normally, again, and a bit more within our means. Perhaps we need to think less about the 3 or 4 bed semi-detached status symbol with a garden and 2 cars in the drive and shed loads of paper equity. Maybe, just maybe, we might need to learn to think about the functionality of our consumption rather than its symbolic value; I hope the self proclaimed 'architects' of HMR are taking notes at this point.

To return to the main theme of this blog, Mr Nevin and colleagues think that terrace houses are not very functional (they are, after all, obsolete) and that they have little symbolic value. Well having published the book, I have moved from Manchester to live in a terrace house in Liverpool, which is the focus of my book. I moved on Friday 28th November 2008. Lets see how I get on shall we. Iwill be posting about life in my obsolete terrace house as often as I can, starting with this post. I hope you enjoy reading it and, together, lets see what everyday life is really like in a terrace house. So rather than taking the perspective of someone sitting in an office in Biringham looking at tables of data and then deciding that terrace housing is obsolete, lets take a look at how it seems from the perspective of someone that lives in one. Me.