Tag Archives: jon henley

Why class still matters

There have been a series of articles in the Guardian over the past week that have made it clear that class is still a very real issue and demands a Liberal Democrat response.

First, John Harris wrote about the impact of right to buy on Tuesday. Then, Felicity Lawrence wrote about the politics behind Jamie Oliver’s new Ministry of Food. Finally, today Jon Henley wrote about smoking, and how people on low incomes remain resistant to attempts to persuade people to kick the habit. It strikes me all these issues are linked.

Taking John Harris first, I don’t share this romantic vision of sprawling 1960s era housing estates draining the coffers of local government (“when I were a lad, this were all sprawling council estate”), but I well recognise the problems of landlordism (*ahem*). What is interesting about Harris’ article is his description of how the positive side of right to buy that was very clear in the mid-90s – where, as he said, you could tell which houses where privately owned and which were council run simply by looking at which ones had the hanging baskets or had been painted relatively recently – has given way to a culture of buy to rent. The nice homes have been sold, their occupants have moved either abroad or to the country, and their homes are being filled with economic migrants. Local people aren’t getting a look in and with no new council houses being built they have extremely limited options. As we have seen in Dagenham, this is fertile ground on which the BNP can build their lies and half-truths.

In student areas, such as Headingley in Leeds where I used to work and Fallowfield in Manchester where I lived as a student, the result has not been ethnic ghettos (although there are plenty of those in Leeds and Manchester) but student ghettos. What these areas have in common is that the toxic mix of right-to-buy and buy-to-let has atomised – or more accurately stratified – local communities. Our cities have curdled like milk, with the rich clumping together in gated communities. Council housing won’t solve that problem by itself (indeed it pre-existed council housing, albeit not to this extreme), because the problem with that is rooted in our exaggerated land values which we allow people to speculate on not because of who owns the property.

Buying back properties owned solely for investment purposes and building on land with inflated values is a very expensive way of levelling the playing field, but with no senior politician prepared to look seriously at taxing land values (nice to see Polly Toynbee on board with that particular issue), it may be the only thing we can do. Meanwhile the cost of housing will continue to price our own workforce out of a job and favour economic migrants willing to spend a couple of years sleeping on floors in the UK in order to better their families’ lot. You can’t blame them, but there is little to be gained from expanding our own underclass.

Jamie Oliver’s programme dealt with fundamentally the same problem but from a different angle. Instead of housing, his concern is – not surprisingly – food. Oliver has an agenda to get Britain eating more healthily. In 2005 he set out to transform school dinners successfully (although it should be pointed out that Lib-Lab controlled Scotland was way ahead of him), although this in turn lead to a backlash. That backlash lead him to ringleader Julie Critchlow and the town she lives in – Rotherham.

In order to get Rotherham eating more healthily, Oliver’s plan is simple – teach eight “can’t cook, won’t cook” local residents the basics of cooking but on the strict understanding that they will undertake to pass the recipes they learn on to two of their friends, who are then to pass the recipes on to another two and so on, until the whole of Rotherham is cooking. If that sounds like a nice idea in theory that doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of succeeding, on the basis of the first programme you are correct. By the end of the first episode (I’m blogging instead of watching part two), even the most enthusiastic of his eight trainees are flagging.

Oliver’s mistake is hardly unique. It is the problem common to anyone who is convinced that policy makers need only concern themselves with equality of opportunity and “meritocracy” as opposed to outcomes. The theory goes that if you give people the right training and opportunities, they will run with it – unless they are lazy and feckless and not worth bothering with. At several points in the programme, you can see Oliver wrestle with that idea. To his credit, he is prepared to try to understand, but watching him listen to explain why, at the end of a long day at work, they lack the energy to leap in the kitchen and rustle up a meal, you can see it really grates against his whole outlook on life. Thatcher has a lot to answer for.

As is the nature of such “reality” television programmes, they have cherry-picked some pretty extreme examples of individuals who can’t cook, including an unemployed mother of two who feeds her kids kebabs on the floor every evening and has never so much as boiled an egg in her life despite having a fitted kitchen. What is clear though is that the problem is more than simply educational; as Oliver acknowledges but perhaps does not internalise, the problem is actually cultural and deeply ingrained. That won’t be solved by a few cooking lessons.

It isn’t to say his initiative is a wasted exercise (although if he really does want to get millions of people cooking he should probably consider producing a 99p version of his £25 book), just that it can only scratch the surface.

This is reinforced by Jon Henley’s article. Independently, I drew remarkably similar conclusions to Darrell G on Moments of Clarity. We appear to have come up with an anti-smoking policy that has proven to be remarkably effective at stopping you smoking – so long has you happen to be well educated, well housed and on a good income. If you are from a lower socio-economic background all it appears to be doing is eating up a bigger slice of your income and leaving you even more addicted. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

“One of the things that means, says Jarvis, “is that if you’re a poor smoker you’re going to want to maximise the ‘hit’ you get from each cigarette, because it represents a larger chunk of your income. The amount of nicotine you can get from each cigarette is very elastic; it depends how hard you puff, how deeply you inhale, how much of the cigarette you smoke.” Across all age groups, and even if they smoke the same number of cigarettes, poorer smokers take in markedly more nicotine that wealthier ones. “Smokers in lower socio-economic groups,” says Jarvis, “are addicted to a higher hit. Their nicotine addiction is stronger.

I have to admit, that gave me a “what the fuck are we doing?” moment. Sheesh – maybe John Reid was right. Unlike Jon Henley, I’m less than sanguine about the progress we’ve made in reducing smoking because it seems to have increased inequality. This is skirting dangerously close to Morlock / Eloi territory.

But it is also silly to say that we should never have made smoking a public health issue and settled for a less healthy but more “equal” society. And the theory advanced by some libertarians that any political party that became pro-smoking would instantly become massively popular is pie in the sky as well and not backed up by any evidence. It isn’t that poor people want to smoke; its that they live tough lives that make them prone to dependency. It is the same underlying problem that Jamie Oliver identifies. It’s about quality of life, but fundamentally it is about economics.

Most studies I’ve seen suggest that social mobility is now going in reverse after a half-century of progress. If that is the case, and our society is becoming rigidly stratified once again, then despite the “classless society” platitudes of the 1990s, it is time we started talking about class. In this respect, I pay credit to Nick Clegg for forcing the agenda on the pupil premium. We need more of that sort of approach.

Property Prices and Jon Henley

I meant to blog about Jon Henley’s essay in the Guardian the other day about the housing market but didn’t get round to it. However, watching the second half of the first part of his TV series on Channel 4 last night has spurred me into action.

Generally, I was disappointed with the article and disappointed with the programme. The latter was a very cosy fit with Channel 4’s usual output of Housing Porn, only with a guilty edge. The entire programme was spliced together with gorgeous aerial views of housing estates and London skylines. When Henley visited a £40m home, the tone was positively orgasmic. I’m not suggesting that Henley himself felt this way, but clearly someone on the production team is a Location, Location, Location refugee. Fundamentally though, the programme didn’t really say very much. I’m amazed they are spreading this out over several weeks – there simply isn’t enough content to justify it.

Happily the article itself is much less vaseline lensed and to the point. Henley’s analysis of the problem is entirely sound and will sound familiar to readers of this blog. The problem is, he doesn’t really go into the solutions, is dismissive of the the most important one and misunderstands the nature of the eco-towns debate.

Adam Sampson, the Chief Exec of Shelter, does a pretty spot on analysis of what the problem is:

“Essentially, what has happened in this country is that we’ve confused home ownership with the acquisition of wealth. Those two concepts, which should be distinct, have become irrevocably yoked together. It shows plainly in the reasons people give for wanting to buy: 30 or 40 years ago, you bought a home for security, stability, status, to gain control over your life. Now you do it to acquire wealth. And that has been encouraged as an article of faith across the political spectrum. It really has been the equivalent of the South Sea Bubble, or the Dutch tulip bulb hysteria.”

He then provides Henley with a pretty spot-on analysis of what should be done about it:

“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with home ownership, particularly if the alternative is expensive private renting with a maximum of six months’ security of tenure, or increasingly residual social housing. Home ownership encourages stability and social stakeholding. But in recent years my house has earned far more than I have. I work and am taxed; it doesn’t and is not. Is that justifiable?”

But rather than really engage with this issue, Henley retorts:

There are problems with this option. If you tax the profit made on selling a primary residence, what do you do about a loss?

But this isn’t what Sampson and Shelter are proposing at all. They aren’t saying that only profits should be taxed after a sale, but property values on an ongoing basis.

It’s a shame he doesn’t explore the option of a property tax (or even land tax, which Adam Sampson has indicated support of in the past), because it may provide an answer to the problem he sees with protests over eco-towns:

But no matter how valid the arguments, it’s hard to believe that [the anti-eco town campaign in Stratford-upon-Avon’s] opposition is not also reinforced by nimbyism. Protesters here do fear for their house prices, and several sales have fallen through since the ecotown plan was announced. “Fundamentally, it’s about preserving our existing environment,” confesses Clive Moy, a retired chartered surveyor. “Most of us chose to live here, in this wonderful countryside, and the last thing we want is a new town in the middle of it.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less tolerant of the dismissal of anyone who opposes a development as being a “nimby.” As a former resident of Warwickshire, I’m pretty sceptical of the area’s ability to support a major new development as well (the commute from Leamington Spa to Stratford by public transport was a bastard…), and how can they become anything but dormitory towns?

Fundamentally, it is entirely reasonable for someone who chose to live in X to not want X to change – that’s why they moved there in the first place. And having your property values take a dive is a very rational reason to object to the building of a development. It is a question of compensation. A proper land value tax would provide that compensation in two ways: by reducing tax bills from people whose properties have lost value and by collecting tax from new the new properties. The problem is that because our current property taxes are so low (and only tangentially related to value), the benefit of more housing to a local community is pretty minor and largely dependent on the benevolence of national government. There is no direct benefit, so no wonder people are sceptical. Inversely, when we build new infrastructure such as new schools or rail links, local people who had made no investment into the project unfairly benefit.

So instead of dismissing anyone who objects to a new development as automatically being a nimby, it’s high time we started looking at things from their point of view. Local people are stakeholders and should be treated as such.