Sunday, 30 November 2008

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 Mr Nevin and his colleagues therefore concluded that terrace houses - which they referred to as 'obsolete', 'outdated', 'unwanted' and 'unsuitable for modern living' - need to be demolished and replaced with 'high value' products that 'contemporary' households wanted.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.


Rev. David Gray said...

I warmly welcome Chris Allen's blog. People living in ordinary communities are angry, hurt and fighting back against those who seek to destroy our way of life. We want safe, happy, friendly, healthy communities where people from all faiths and cultures and of all levels of ability can work together to build cohesion and the quality of life. Our parents and grandparents fought the kind of elitist fascism that assumes that those who seek wealth and power for themselves while others starve are the only people of value. We too stand against against such hate in our own time, though the enemy now is closer to home. While most people want just enough shelter for a decent way of life that takes as little as possible from global resources, some who seem motivated by greed seek to destroy such simple ways of being. We implore all decent people to stand with us in saying enough is enough.

Rev. David Gray,
Society of St. Francis (T)
Founding member of Communities for Stability (C4S).

Chris Allen said...

Thank you David. I agree whole heartedly with you and appreciate your comment. Best regards, Chris

DJJohne said...

I think one or two things should be clarified in your blog Chris, so that we get a 'balanced' view of the current situation and set the record straight!

I also think that you should point out that Mr Brendan Nevin is in fact, a Professor, who now works in private practice! He was once the 'Head' of the RENEW North Staffs Pathfinder and for whatever reason he left after only a short time in charge!

The terms 'working class and middle class people' are in my opinion, much outdates terms!

People in 'office' will criticise you because they do not like what you are saying about them, albeit the truth!

Remember SAVE Britains' Heritage report entitled PATHFINDER? The government rubbished it immediately because it contained so many hometruths about communities and terraced housing and which was a true reflection on the state of the housing market at that time!

Professor Nevin, along with John Prescott MP have a lot to answer for in stirring up this hornet's nest i.e. HMRP!

They had 'blinkered' vision right from day one and anyone who had an incline into the housing market situation at that time knew wholesale demolition was not and still is not the answer to this complex problem, as most of the Pathfinders are now finding out for themsleves!

I have met Professor Nevin and shared the same platform as him and even opposed him at the Edge Lane CPO Inquiry. I can tell you clearly that I disagree with most of his ideas on the 'clearing' of obsolete Victorian Terraced Houses in England, as do many other people in this country!

The main difference at this Edge Lane CPO Inquiry was that Professor Nevin was a highly paid consultant, who was paid for out of public funds. I was a consultant who paid for himself to go to Liverpool and represent the everyday people of Kensington, Liverpool in their campaign to save their homes from wholesale demolotion.

The whole concept of outdated Compulsory Purchase is under question in the 21st Century and time for an Inquiry into it's future is, in my opinion, imminent!

There are lots of exciting, imaginitive ways of solving this problem, if you really want to find them!

The most important way by far, is to involve the local community in the regeneration plans right from the very start of the planning process and see how things go then!

After all what is Hazel Blears trying to do as Communities Secretary? Giving power to the local people or is that another classic case of the government saying, 'do as I say, NOT as I do'

I do hope all goes well with your terraced house venture in Liverpool Chris and if you could give me call or email me via David or the 'loop', I'll call in and see you in a couple of weeks time when I attend my monthly meeting at Granby!

In the meantime, please see the on-line petition details below...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Please sign the online petition to Gordon Brown...then please pass it on!

Chris Allen said...

Thanks for your comment DJJohne. IN relation to the two issues you raise. First, Brendan Nevin is not a Professor; he does not hold a Chair at a University. Professor is a title that is given to people that are leaders in their academic field. HOwever, these days, universities do give out the title of 'Visiting Professor' to non-academics and do so for various reasons. For instance, universities may give the title of Visiting Professor to someone that is deemed to be influential in government or the world of business. And they might do this because these individuals provide them with a direct link to business opportunities. I have worked at the Sheffield Hallam and Salford Universities which have provided Mr Nevin with the title of Visiting Professor. Key reasons were because he was influential in the field of housing market renewal which was an important policy area with much funding attached to research. This has entitled Mr Nevin to use the title Professor although this can be misleading to non-academics that do not realise that there is a difference between a proper Professor (someone that has been given a 'chair' because they are a leader in their academic field of study) and a visiting Professor (someone that does not have an academic record but, nevertheless, is valued in other ways by a university).

Second, I understand what you are saying about them ignoring me because I make strong references to social class. But I also think that it is essential to continue to use the term working class because this is how many people still see themselves. If the government (and New Labour) do not like the term working class, because they think that social class is no longer relevant, then it is our job to make them realise how relevant it still is. We can't have elites dictating to ordinary people how they describe themselves. People should decide that and be able to defend their right to describe themselves in whichever way they chose - and class is still important to so many people. I know this causes the problems you suggest because it makes it easy for them to ignore me / us. But they would do that anyway. So it is a longer term struggle about language as well as politics. Thanks very much for your comments, do email me at and call in for a chat about Granby.

Rev. David Gray said...

You are right, Chris. Too often people allow others to frame the language that defines their reality, but we must define ourselves and we must shape our communal life together rather than accept a hand me down model life from others who do not themselves live as we do. People can only impose on us what we allow them to. Force and manipulation of citizens have no place in a true democracy.