Tag Archives: housing

Why are English local authorities behaving like property companies?

By Brett Christophers, Uppsala University

Flickr user Balmain

In March 2019, Harrogate Borough Council in North Yorkshire launched an independent, arms-length housing company called Bracewell Homes to focus on ‘the purchase, development, sale and leasing of dwellings, as a commercial venture for the borough’. The same month, at the other end of the country, but in an equally leafy milieu, West Berkshire Council announced that it had spent £60 million of a planned total new investment of £100 million in commercial property, not for the purpose of delivering council services but rather to be let to tenants; the properties it had purchased included offices, a warehouse and two supermarkets, the latter located, ironically enough, in North Yorkshire.

Since the global financial crisis of 2007–08, a string of English local authorities (‘councils’) have pursued similar initiatives: over a third are believed to have invested in commercial property to earn rental income, and nearly half are estimated to have established a private housing company.

These ventures have elicited a barrage of criticism. Councils, it is said, should not be behaving like property companies – investment in commercial property is a risky business at the best of times, and if councils are going to build residential property then it should only be social housing on a not-for-profit basis.

The initiatives in question are the focus of my new Transactions article, which is targeted toward a general audience as well as a scholarly one. It tries to do four main things.

The first is to paint an overview picture of these initiatives. Drawing on a range of secondary sources, the article discusses how prevalent they are, the regulatory context within which they have evolved, and the different approaches used by different local authorities.

The second contribution of the article is to conceptualise the initiatives in terms of what has come to be termed the ‘financialisation’ of urban development, namely a set of processes whereby financial actors, markets and/or logics come to play an increasingly important role in the development of the urban built environment. Insofar as English local authorities have been establishing housing companies and investing in shopping centres and the like with a view specifically to earning financial returns, they can be said to be financialising both residential and commercial property.

The article’s third aim is to explain. It is to ask why local authorities are pursuing these initiatives. While there are numerous factors in play, I argue that the most important is a set of profoundly significant recent transformations in what I term local authorities’ financial ‘conjuncture’ – the nexus of circumstances and forces bearing directly on their financial wherewithal.

I highlight three such transformations: the post-financial crisis devolution of austerity from central to local government, which has seen the latter bear the brunt of public-sector funding cuts; the largely unsuccessful reform of local authority housing finance in 2012; and a progressive cheapening of council borrowing capacity, also occurring in the wake of the financial crisis.

These transformations have not so much caused local authorities’ new commercial and residential property ventures as encouraged and enabled them. They have impacted local authorities in such a way as to make those initiatives considerably more appealing and arguably, in some cases, even necessary. They have, in short, pre-disposed councils to act as they have done.

In the light of this explanatory argument the article asks, fourth and finally, whether the criticism that has greeted councils’ new property initiatives is justified and fair. My answer is that it may not be, or at least not entirely. While local authorities would not need to pursue such ventures in an ideal world – one where they were amply funded to provide the services that local communities require of them – that is not the world in which they currently find themselves. For councils desperate to maintain social care, homelessness and other key front-line services in the face of savage cuts in funding from central government, commercial and residential property ventures appear to be – and indeed, may well be – the least worst option, a more sustainable and strategic approach than say liquidating remaining assets or raising council tax.

If we are to criticise these ventures, our criticism is perhaps better targeted not at local authorities themselves, but at the central government that is primarily responsible for shaping councils’ constrained financial conjuncture and that, in the process, has motivated them to behave like property companies rather than the service-focused community caretakers that the public expects them to be.

About the Author: Brett Christophers is Professor at Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University

References

Christophers, B. Putting financialisation in its financial context: Transformations in local government‐led urban development in post‐financial crisis England. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2019; 00: 1– 16. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12305

Moving home? The social and spatial (re)configuration of student accommodation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

University campuses up and down the country are looking rather bare at the moment, but at the end of the month the students will descend once again, moving into halls of residence and shared houses or flats. This important rite of passage into adulthood is seen as a means of teaching young adults domestic skills. However, Holton’s (2016) paper in the most recent issue of Area suggests that shared student accommodation is perhaps not the best environment in which these skills can be learnt, providing some thought-provoking findings that may be of interest to students this autumn as they prepare to move.

There are subtle differences between ‘house’ and ‘home’, although we almost invariably use them interchangeably. In general, a house is simply a building, a space which is bought, occupied, and sold. Its foundations make it a permanent space, but its use is transient and ever-changing. A home, then, is more than just bricks and mortar; it is a house with meaning, a space in which we can express identity, a tool for fashioning familial relationships, and a means of fostering a sense of belonging. Houses become homes when they become lived spaces, spaces which define us and mean something to us. That is what makes a house a home.

With this definition in mind, then, students moving away to university leave their homes and move into houses (or flats). This, as Holton’s (2016) work suggests, raises the question; can students really call their student house a ‘home’? He considers the micro-scale geographies of student interactions in shared accommodation, interactions which are spatially mediated. Shared student houses, he argues, are dynamic spaces in which multiple, fragmented identities are performed and different versions of ‘home’ are embodied.

In moving into shared accommodation, students are thrown into hybridised spaces, very different to their home environments. They try to make their new abode a ‘home from home’, taking with them things from their home life; a few photographs, clothes, and books, but also, more importantly, Holton (2016) contends, taking preconceptions of how ‘home’ should be lived. All of a sudden, the ways in which they behaved in various spaces at home are challenged in the new environment of student accommodation. In their new residence, students have to renegotiate their time-space routines, changing the ways in which they use space, the habits that they have acquired, and the norms in which they believe.

With each student having their own individualised behavioural norms, house-sharing inevitably involves compromise. Whilst a lot of students who live together get on like a house on fire, tensions arise when conflicting norms clash and compromise is unheeded. Such tension, Holton (2016) identifies, is spatialised, arguments invariably being caused by the (mis-)use of space; leaving dirty dishes on the kitchen side, not taking the bins out, or being inconsiderate and noisy whilst others are studying. These are just a few clichéd examples, the point being that space has an important role to play in student relationships. Appropriate behaviour is judged based on its spatial location, variously deemed ‘in place’ or ‘out of place’. For instance, it may be acceptable to be untidy in your bedroom, but, relocate this behaviour to the living room, and it becomes a misdemeanour.

Thus, in student accommodation, it is the shared spaces in which most problems occur. Holton (2016) refers to these spaces as ’24-hour spaces’, flexible and communal, facilitating constant interaction and socialisation. In the lounge, for instance, students watch TV, play video games, drink, and chat. In the kitchen, they may cook or eat together and, when hosting house parties, the whole house can become a space for social interaction and general merriment. These shared spaces are a contrast to the relative privacy of students’ bedrooms; very individual spaces. Bedrooms become personalised with posters, photographs, and other keepsakes reminding students of home, but they also personalise these spaces with their behaviour, the only space in which they can do as they please. Nonetheless, this is all within reason, an inconsiderate use of these personal spaces also causing many arguments in student houses, where walls are thin and noise can travel.

So how do students resolve the conflicts that seem so inevitable? It is quite possible that the reason behind students being untidy and inconsiderate is not that they behave like that at home but, rather, because in their shared accommodation there is no authority figure to map out and implement domestic norms. Thus, Holton (2016) identifies that some student houses create house rules or rotas, in an attempt to keep order. In other student houses, Holton (2016) states, students adopt almost familial roles, some becoming ‘parents’ in order to enforce behavioural norms, in the formation of an albeit fragile hierarchy. Other houses still may resort to, what Holton (2016) has termed, ‘boundary-making’, students locking themselves away in their rooms and dodging shared spaces to avoid confrontation.

The student house, then, is a complex space, simultaneously facilitating and thwarting social interaction through the use of space within it. It is, thus, a halfway house, not quite home, but more complicated than most houses. Holton’s (2016) article hammers home just how vital compromise is to inter-student relationships. Thus, whilst not a true reflection of domestic life, living in shared accommodation teaches some very important life-lessons of its own.

books_iconHolton M 2016 Living together in student accommodation: performances, boundaries and homemaking Area  48 57-63.

60-world2Cahalane C 2016 Halls or Houses: where will you live at university? The   https://www.theguardian.com/open-days/2016/sep/05/halls-or-houses-where-will-you-live-at-university

Mortgaged lives: when lives become numbers

By Melissa García-Lamarca and María Kaika, University of Manchester, UK

shutterstock_306279413

Eviction Foreclosure Mortgage Poverty Vector Design. Image Credit: iluistrator via Shutterstock

In early May 2014, the Bank of England issued a warning: the increase in gross mortgage lending combined with a rise in UK housing prices place the country’s financial stability under serious threat. Indeed, the running figure for mortgage debt in the UK is alarming, sitting at over £1 trillion, as mortgage lending only continues to expand.

But the UK is not alone. While data from the European Mortgage Federation from 2014 reported the ratio of outstanding residential loans to disposable income for the UK at 116.4%, this figure was even higher in other advanced European economies: 237.4% in Denmark; 197,3% in the Netherlands; and 135% in Sweden.

At the aftermath of the US subprime mortgage crisis, the risk that escalating mortgage debt poses on the global economy has received increasing attention. However, the risk at the household level – the ‘lived’ dimension of the financialisation of housing – remains largely off the radar of both academic research and policy making (with a few notable exceptions like Desmond 2012).

In our recent paper titled “Mortgaged lives”*: the biopolitics of debt and housing financialisation, we consider mortgages as a tool that engineers an intimate relationship between global financial markets, and the bodies and lives of the workforce. Drawing upon ethnographic research and in-depth interviews with people affected by mortgage debt defaults in Spain, we show how mortgage contracts connect not only a person’s current and future income into global speculative financial strategies, but also tie the practices of everyday life into the very heart of financial markets. In other words, as housing becomes financialised, so does life itself. This process affects not only access to housing, but also the ability to care for oneself and others, perceptions of self-esteem, social status, class, citizenship and belonging in society.

By linking the changes in macro-economic processes that made mortgage credit broadly available to the experience of living a “Mortgaged Life”, our work explains how interest rates, the fluctuation of real estate prices and currency exchange rates became factors determining not only access to housing, but the very conditions and (im)possibilities of life. It shows how people begin to realise that they had never really been homeowners or middle class. Just a proletariat indebted for life to their creditors.

As the impact of mortgage debt defaults cuts across borders, educational, income, status, gender and age groups, there is urgent need to focus beyond the macro-economics of mortgage lending and into their personal, family, health and community impacts. This is of particular importance as products like 100% mortgages are reappearing on the market in the UK, and mortgaged homeownership continues to extend across the world as an increasingly common way to access housing.

For the time being, a continuous rise in housing prices, relative economic stability, low interest rates and relatively low unemployment keep mortgage defaults at bay in the European north. However, the combination of escalating housing prices, rock-bottom interest rates and extensive mortgage lending is a potentially explosive mixture not only financially, but also socially. Our paper seeks to highlight this reality, and to call for deeper attention and action.

*The paper (and blog post) borrows its title from the title of Ada Colau and Adrià Alemany’s (2012) book Mortgaged lives: From the housing bubble to the right to housing.

About the authors: Melissa García-Lamarca is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at the University of Manchester and María Kaika is Professor of Human Geography at the same university.

books_icon Colau A and Alemany A 2012 Mortaged lives: From the housing bubble to the right to housing available online https://libcom.org/files/mortgagedlives.pdf [open access]

60-world2 Council of mortgage lenders 2016 Market commentary May 2016. available online at: http://www.hypo.org/Content/Default.asp?PageID=524

60-world2 Cunliffe J 2014 Speech: Momentum in the housing market: affordability, indebtedness and risks Bank of England Available online at: www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/speeches/default.aspx

60-world2 Jamei M 2016 European mortgage federation: the voice of the European Mortgage Industry. Available online at: https://www.cml.org.uk/news/news-and-views/market-commentary-may-2016/

books_icon García-Lamarca, M. and Kaika, M. (2016), ‘Mortgaged lives’: the biopolitics of debt and housing financialisation. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41: 313–327. doi: 10.1111/tran.12126 [open access]

60-world2 Osborne H 2016 Barclays 100% mortgage: how much does it really help homebuyers? Available online at:  http://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/may/04/barclays-100-per-cent-mortgage-how-much-does-it-really-help-homebuyers

Floods should not mean disasters

by Ilan Kelman

Buildings in Moss' city centre in the floodplain (photograph by Ilan Kelman)

Looking back over past centuries, Norway, as with many other countries, has long experienced major river flood catastrophes. Several hundred died along the Gaula River in 1345. In eastern Norway in 1789, flooding killed over 70 people.

Fortunately, river flood deaths have been rarer in contemporary times though threats are still frequent. Most problems are property disruption and damage. Part of the reason is that we own more to be damaged.

Part of the reason is Norway’s tradition of managing rivers by relying on walls–dams, levees, and dikes. When (not if) a wall’s flood design limit is exceeded, the land behind it floods. People are unprepared because they thought that they would be protected.

Instead of forcibly separating people and water, why not let floodplains–called that for a reason–do their job? Let rivers behave as rivers, spreading out when it rains or when the snow melts. Use walls occasionally or as a part of flood risk reduction, but don’t rely on them for everything.

River floods are part of Norway’s environment. They are a natural process. When humans get in the way of floods, then disasters happen. We can stop disasters by permitting floods.

The author: Dr. Ilan Kelman is Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO).

Kelman I and Rauken T 2012 The paradigm of structural engineering approaches for river flood risk reduction in Norway Area doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01074.x

Sandelson M 2011 Norway storms isolate thousands The Foreigner  27 December

Geography, imagination and understanding the world around us

Logo of the RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2011. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

by Madeleine Hatfield

As the first term of the UK’s current academic year draws to an end, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference of August and September already seems a long time ago – in fact, planning for next year’s conference in July is well underway. Those who attended will remember a wide range of papers and presenters sharing their research under the theme of ‘Geographical Imagination’. Several of the research projects behind these presentations also made the news, showing how geographical research informs wider debates, including Tom Hargreave’s work on smart energy meters, Jon Anderson’s research on surfing and coastal conservation and Jenny Pickerill on the short-comings of ‘eco-bling’.

The Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers journal offers another window onto the geographical imagination with its Virtual Issue guest edited by the conference chair, Stephen Daniels (University of Nottingham). This brings together papers – still free to access online at the time of writing – published across the history of the journal and shows how the concept of a geographical imagination can provide a new way of understanding places, how we think about them and how we represent them through our writing and maps. Our understanding of the world around us is always influenced by our imagination, not just when we dream or write stories, and our imagination is equally fed by everything we see and do – reading the news, attending lectures or going on holiday.

Daniels, S. ed. 2011. Virtual Issue on The Geographical Imagination. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

Dr. Jon Anderson’s Spatial Manifesto website with audio and visual media coverage from the BBC.

Bawden, T. 2011. The Smart answer to the energy crisis? The Independent, 1 October 2011. [Report on Tom Hargreave’s research as presented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference]

In Loughborough. 2011. When eco-friendly means eco-bling. 15 September 2011. [Report on Jenny Pickerill’s research as presented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference]

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference.

Researchers Find a Link Between Gas Prices and Home Foreclosures

By Georgia Davis Conover.

For more than half a century, major metropolitan areas in the United States have experienced urban flight, with people moving further and further away from the city center.  Typically, the further homes are from job centers, the more affordable they are.  What this means, however, is that as gasoline prices rise in the United States, so does the cost of getting to work.  American Public Media’s Marketplace recently reported on a study that showed a correlation between the number of foreclosures, the distance workers travel and the price of a gallon of gas in the Chicago area.  According to the report, as gas prices increased, the number of home foreclosures also rose in concentric rings away from the city center.  The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is now encouraging home ownership with shorter commutes.  HUD officials say they want to ensure the next time gas prices rise, foreclosures do not follow suit.

Of course, this report leaves out important factors such as the nexus between income levels and home buying decisions, incentives for buying homes in different areas and differential travel times between people of different genders and races…all of which have been explored by geographers.  For example, in their article, “Journey to Work” Sultana and Weber look at the commuting characteristics of residents of two metropolitan areas in the Southeastern United States.  Through the use of Census data, the researchers conclude that people living in urban sprawl areas do have longer commutes than those living in higher density areas.  The commutes of the sprawl area residents are longer in terms of both mileage and time.  Sultana and Weber, however, also determined that residency in a sprawl area alone was not a definitive predictor of commute time and distance; socioeconomic factors also come into play.

 Connect to the MarketPlace report.

 Read Sultana, Selima and Joe Weber.  2007.  Journey to Work Patterns in the Age of Sprawl: Evidenc from Two Midsize Southern Metropolitan Areas.  The Professional Geographer 59(2): 193-208.