Community Organising

What do Ed Miliband’s Labour party and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have in common?

Part of their dramatic failures was down to the limitations of embracing community organising as a strategy for winning elections and as a model for exercising power.

Much has been said about what organisational lessons Labour should learn from the 2015 defeat. For example

  • Mike Kane argued that Stella Creasy’s Sharkstoppers campaign should be a template.
  • Stella herself said that voter ID should be complemented with community organising which “has brought energy and innovation to our campaigning”. Wes Steering has said that “We need to open up our party to wider involvement to build the movement we need to win elections and change our country.”
  • Rafael Behr said that “the standard model treats members as a resource to serve the party when it should be the other way around: party as a service to its members and their neighbours.”
  • Paul Cotterill said that “All politics is local, even at constituency scale.  Just do stuff.  Throw away the Labour stickers.  Stick the Voter ID sheets in the shredder.  Come election time, if people know what you’ve been up to, they’ll vote for you.  If not, they won’t.”

There is something in all of these positions but, to varying degrees, all of them are limited by the idea that community organising offers either a method for winning elections or a credible platform for government. It does not.

You could fit what I know about Egyptian politics into a tweet. However, I was very impressed by Hazem Kandil’s argument that the Muslim Brotherhood had won over many with their ability to run community services but that operating these services did nothing to prepare them to reform a corrupt and reactionary Egyptian bureaucracy.

The same could be said of Ed Miliband’s Labour party. The skills needed to be an effective community organiser have very little to do with the traits people look for in politicians. For example, effective organisers are not visible, concentrate on developing local leaders and constantly struggle for the victory of their side. As Saul Alinsky put it

“Action comes from keeping the heat on. No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.”

Credible politicians have very few of these traits. They are visible, they attach themselves to successful campaigns and they position themselves as unifiers who can bring factions together for the greater good.

the skills needed to effectively organise at a community level have little or anything to do with the skills needed to govern effectively.

Similarly, the skills needed to effectively organise at a community level have little or anything to do with the skills needed to govern effectively. Running a campaign to get companies in an area to pay the living wage requires a completely different approach than designing and implementing an economic policy that will bring about full employment.

There is lots that Labour could learn from community organising, not in terms of a programme for government or a blueprint for campaign, but around public service reform. Teachers, doctors and police would all benefit by developing their listening skills, their ability to bring people together and to mobilising local civic institutions. This was an area on which Ed Miliband was curious silent.

Whoever is chosen as the next leader of the Labour party should incorporate the ideas of community organising into the area of public service reform rather than modernising the party or governing the country,

In 2014 1 in 10 charities supporting homeless people in London disappeared

There are fewer and fewer charities supporting homeless people in London and a handful of larger charities are doing the lions share of the work.

Last year alone 1 in 10 charities supporting homeless people in London disappeared. They were almost all swallowed up by larger organisations. According to the London Housing Foundation, there are now 122 charities supporting homeless people in London (down from 133 a year ago).

Of the slightly over 13,000 beds in specialist hostels in London roughly a third are now delivered by just three organisations: St Mungo’s Broadway, Look Ahead Care and Support, and YMCA (West London and South London).

Of the nearly 8,000 people who receive ‘floating support’ in London, over 80% receive that support from either SHP, One Housing or Look Ahead. If you are homeless in London and receiving floating support the chances are that you will be receiving it from someone who works for one of these three organisations.

This is not to say that large charities will deliver a better or worse quality of support to homeless people than smaller organisations. However, there is a risk that as local government budgets are cut further we will see these trends continue. There will be further consolidation within the sector, with fewer and fewer charities supporting homeless people. The larger organisations will dominate provision to an even greater extent.

This could lead to less innovation at exactly the time when the sector will need to be coming up with creative solutions to the innumerable problems faced by the growing number of homeless people in London.

An attack on mixed income communities

The Government has announced an attack on mixed income communities.

The previous coalition government certainly showed no interest in the idea of building or maintaining mixed income communities. This logic is now being pushed further and we are witnessing an all out assault.

The Government will:

  • Force local authorities to sell council housing in richer areas
  • Continue to squeeze the local housing allowance
  • Cap the total amount of benefits a household can receive at £23,000 pa

The combined impact of these policies will be that deprivation will be more concentrated in certain areas and there will be fewer mixed income communities.

This all comes at a time when academics in America are finding more and more evidence that growing up in mixed income communities is good for children in low income households.

Of course, under New Labour there were legitimate criticisms that the rhetoric of ‘mixed communities’ was far more often used to justify destroying social housing than to help poorer people to live in richer areas.

What Lawrence Katz and others are looking at is slightly different. They found that children in poor households who grow up in richer areas do better in a number of ways than children in poor households who grow up in poor areas.

every extra year of childhood spent in a low-poverty environment appears to be beneficial

This is true for different races and genders. Similarly, they found that children who moved to poorer areas, did less well as adults than those who stayed in richer areas.

This is not to say that poverty is inevitable. However, it does appear that it’s better to be poor in a mixed income neighbourhood than to be poor in a poor neighbourhood.

Housing and neighbourhood policy should aim to be part of eradicating poverty. While poverty is still a feature of our country, housing and neighbourhood policy should aim to make sure that as many poor children as possible can grow up in richer areas. The Government is failing to do this. What’s the phrase for the opposite of evidence based policy?

Expensive houses or really expensive houses?

Houses are getting more and more expensive in the UK.

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Expensive houses in London are getting more expensive at a fast rate

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Expensive houses in inner London are getting more expensive at an even faster rate.

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The gap between the cost of the more expensive houses and averagely priced houses is getting bigger and bigger in London, while it is quite stable in other parts of the country.

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Similarly, the gap between how much an average home costs and how much a cheaper home costs is getting bigger and bigger in London, but not in other regions.

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What’s going on here? It’s partly a matter of not enough homes being built. If there were more homes being built in London then house prices would not go up so quickly.

However, is there something else at work here? Larry Summers has argued that the rich countries are experiencing ‘secular stagnation‘. Economies with low interest rates and low growth rates don’t offer investors many places to put there money. It’s perhaps to be expected that in these circumstances rich people from around the world invest their money in property in inner London.

Are there slums in the UK?

Do slums exist in the UK? It’s more complicated than that.

Peter Marcuse’s blog has a ‘critical discussion’ on the nature and role of slums. This lead me to ask whether there are slums in the UK, or, more specifically, whether housing in poorer parts or areas of the UK is of substantially worse quality that in richer parts.

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Many people’s initial reaction to this would be to say of course housing in poorer areas is of a worse quality than in richer areas.

It’s certainly true that, as this chart shows, the poorer the area the more likely it is that housing will have damp.

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However, if we look at a different wider measure of housing quality (the decent homes standard), the picture is more complex.

There are a similar percentage of homes that don’t meet the decent homes standard in the poorest areas of the UK as there are in areas of average wealth.

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The picture gets still more complex if we look at a different way of dividing areas, not by wealth but by whether they are urban or rural.

This chart shows us that homes in rural areas are far more likely to fail the decent homes standard than homes in city centers which are in turn more likely to fail the decent homes standard than homes in suburbs.

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Part of the explanation for this complex picture is that social housing in the UK is often kept to a good standard, while lots of private rented housing is not kept up to standard.

What to conclude from this? Perhaps the idea of area based housing initiatives in the UK is wrong headed, and a strategy to improve the quality of housing in the UK should focus on giving individual homeowners, landlords and tenants, the right support and incentives to bring all homes in the UK up to a decent standard.

Where should homeless people live?

While the number of people who experience homelessness has been rising, the number of bed spaces in homeless hostels has been declining.

  • In 2010 there were 43,600 bed spaces in homelessness accommodation services. Today, this stands at 36,540.
  • In 2010 there were 1,768 people sleeping rough in England (using the government’s measure). In 2014 there were 2,744.
  • In 2010 Local Authorities accepted 42,390 household as homeless, in 2014 they accepted 53,250 as homeless.

Many homeless hostels were funded by through a government scheme called “supporting people”. This money is no longer ringfenced meaning councils can use the money for other things. Given the overall cuts in funding for councils, this is exactly what many have done.

The effect is that many single homeless people end up living in private hostels. While the anonymity of “dosshouses” can be attractive, it is a highly insecure way to live and not one that aids many people’s recovery.

Is this the future? More people being made homeless and fewer specialist services to support them. Sadly, a combination of austerity and so-called localism points that way.

The so-called ‘Housing first‘ model offers a glimpse of a different future. The model essentially works by giving homeless people a flat (i.e. paying their deposit and rent) and linking them with a worker who sees them for hours a day, helping them in whatever way is best.

Using this method Utah has seen a 72% reduction in the number of homeless people.

A bold Labour candidate for the Mayor of London could announce a pan-London Housing First scheme and end homelessness in the capital within 8 years.

Housing the homeless

The New Statesman doesn’t care about homeless people.

Their recent leader called for an increase in the number of homes being built in this country “For the sake of growth and our young people”. They didn’t mention the need to prevent homelessness once.

It is of course a pressing issue that the average age of a “first-time homebuyer without parental assistance” is now 37. But is it as significant as the terrifying increase in the number of homeless people?

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Over the past 5 years almost all boroughs in London have seen an increase in the number of people sleeping rough.

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The New Statesman is not alone in failing to link this problem with the challenge of how to build more homes. The recent, and in many ways comprehensive, Lyons review included just two paragraphs on “housing for vulnerable groups” and a couple of mentions on homelessness in a report that is nearly 200 pages long.

I’m not suggesting that homelessness is simply caused by high rents or a lack of affordable housing. I am suggesting that building more homes would reduce the number of people who have to spend even one night sleeping on the streets.

We are currently building nowhere near as many homes as Boris’ London Plan says are required.

4As long as we continue to build far fewer new homes than are needed it will be harder to prevent people becoming homeless, especially now the biggest cause of homelessness is people losing their private sector tenancy.

Many journalists and politicians do not consider preventing homelessness and helping overcrowded families as significant an issue as supporting economic growth or helping first time buyers afford a deposit.

Given that I have written numerous pieces on the need to increase the number of houses being built in Britain, it’s perhaps a bit churlish to criticize others who are calling for the same thing. The idea of building more homes is an excellent one, partly because it would make it easier for young people to buy their first home, but also because it would help prevent homelessness.