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.