Rob Gershon takes one of the speaker slots on a speaking tour organised by Keith Taylor - MEP for the Green Party for the South East. The tour aims to look at some of the problems and solutions to the Housing Crisis, and Rob attends to explain SHOUT's idea of returning to sensible government investment to build 100,000 social rented homes as part of the 200,000 - 250,000 homes that the country needs each year.
This is Rob's personal account of the evening, held on the 8th April 2015.
“What if they're all Vegans?” I ask my wife and one of her carers, as I put my leather jacket back on a hangar, in the suddenly nervous five minutes before I leave home. I'm about to drive to Winchester, local to me, to be one of the speakers on the billing of Keith Taylor MEP's speaking tour of the South East.
“Everyone knows we have a housing crisis, let's do something about it”.
I decide on my suit, covering my SHOUT T-Shirt, and my leather shoes as my outfit. The speaking tour is due to cover five dates, and although the SHOUT campaign has representatives broadly spread around the country, Winchester was the only cast-iron date when we could get somebody to speak, and I'm the nearest volunteer.
“We're a cross-party campaign” appears in my speaker notes on three occasions. I'm intending to hammer this idea home if it turns out that the event is under any heavy political direction. It's true. In the machinations of local and national politics, and with the election looming, this can't be restated often enough. SHOUT is a cross-party campaign.
There are supposed to be four speakers but one has dropped out at the last minute. Owen Hatherley, who I can't help but feel meets the criteria of the 'expert panel' touted in the event description, couldn't make it, leaving myself, Leanne Smith of the Winchester Housing Trust and Keith Taylor himself. It feels like everyone else is an expert and I'm not.
I introduce myself to Leanne as she sits beside me at the speakers' table, the three of us sat facing the audience as they make their way into the room. I hold up my hands, shaking them on purpose to make it look like I'm scared. More to try and calm my nerves than anything, I ask Leanne what the thrust of her speech will be. I'm still not sure if the presentation I've cobbled together from others given by fellow SHOUTers Martin Wheatley, Aileen Evans and Tim Morton is just going to be repeating what other people are saying this evening. Leanne quickly recounts the local focus of her presentation, and I'm relieved that we probably don't have the same pictures in our slideshows.
Keith is quietly singing some lyrics to me in the final minutes before the speaking starts as I explain that I'm a rank amateur at this stuff. If I hadn't been so nervous I'd have written down what the song was to give this story more authenticity, but I tell him my SHOUT colleagues (I nearly say comrades) would approve of the era he's gone back to. I'm reminded that Tom Murtha and Colin Wiles are big on using Bob Dylan lyrics in their written pieces, and this makes me smile, and relax a bit.
The room is full. It's a small community hall on the side of a church, and there are about sixty people all told in the audience. Nigel Farage would have counted them as about five hundred people, for sure. I watch a mix of interested, attentive and inquisitive faces as Keith gives his introductory speech. He quotes some of the figures that are now starting to make their way into the political arena as housing finally bubbles into the consciousness of politicians. 1.8 million people on the housing waiting list. 80% of market rents. House prices in Winchester are the second most relatively expensive in the country, at ten times the average local wage.
I pay close attention to what Keith says, so that when my turn comes I'm not going over the same ground. Inevitably there is some crossover but I relax even further when I realise he's not using slides, so my reproduction of the housebuilding mega-graph that Toby Lloyd of Shelter peddles is probably going to be unique content.
Those ten minutes pass quickly and it's my turn to stand up. Alison Inman had emailed me to tell me that I'd be unlikely to squeeze everything I had on my slides into ten minutes, and I know she's right as I walk through the bright light beaming from the projector onto the screen, the SHOUT Logo replicated on my T-Shirt, and the pull-up banner I've brought with me.
I smile, I introduce myself, I don't say “Um”. I abandon the careful pages of notes I've made almost straight away.
“I wasn't at the inaugural meeting where they chose which acronym to go with, but I'm led to believe that SHOUT was the most practical one beginning with the letters S and H that we could use in polite company”.
This raises a laugh, and I give a quick outline of how the campaign came to be, and how it doesn't have a hierarchy, any offices or paid staff. It's a group of volunteers, and anyone can be a supporter, we don't have official members. I use this opening to explain how I got here.
There is some sympathy for my bedroom tax tale in the room. I go through the basic SHOUT stuff – our success at local authority level, the adoption of a SHOUT motion by the Greater London Authority and then a slide dedicated to the Green Party's announcement they'll build 500,000 social rented homes by 2020. This is heady stuff for our campaign, but we're still a cross-party campaign, and we need all the parties to see the advantages of investment in a sustainable, fair, affordable and flourishing housing model.
The housebuilding mega-graph goes down a treat, which is great news as I have two versions of it. One colour-coded to show how we've only built enough homes when the government has stumped up capital grants for it, and one with the ever-rising price of housing on it. I flick impatiently past material covered in Keith's opening talk, muttering “boring, boring boring” out loud. I read a quote from last week's Financial Times about how private housebuilders don't want to build in volume because it'll damage their profits.
I explain we will need private housebuilders to meet demand. We need to set rents based on income levels. We're not opposed to the notion of Right To Buy if those homes are replaced on a one for one basis and that our campaign has commissioned a piece of economic research to prove the case for social rented homes, in conjunction with other initiatives like a serious look at a land value tax and the building of mixed garden cities.
I've put a photo of the Welwyn Garden City Golf Club sign in a slide. I'm using it to illustrate that Garden Cities can work, and in some parts of the country more land is given over to golf courses than houses. There's a hint of bemusement from the audience, which turns to laughter when I explain I haven't used the picture because the Welwyn Garden City MP is Grant Shapps.
Keith is checking his watch.
I Ad Lib the ending. I explain that I'd like to have been able to bring SHOUT economic research but it won't be ready until June. We're in agreement with Keith that what's needed are solutions and I explain we'll be sharing our findings with all political parties when the research is published. We are, after all, a cross-party campaign.
There is warm applause as I head back to my seat and this is a huge relief. I tweet something to this effect, but I'm immediately distracted from further social media by Leanne Smith, who is spelling out her success story, and that it's important to tell these stories when housing news is so easily bad.
The Winchester Housing Trust is not a registered social landlord. It's a charity, and in the space of a few short minutes I'm transfixed by the idea that this one hundred and four unit provider is getting so much right. They are sensitive to local planning considerations, they refused to operate affordable rents for their tenants because their tenants couldn't afford them. Their properties sit on land under rural exception rules, which meant that Leanne could make a firm, if legally hard-fought stand over affordable rents and staircasing to full ownership in their shared ownership properties. Tenants can't staircase their way into the property-owning democracy, homes always have to be sold back to the Trust. They don't charge their tenants rent, though they must raise the 60% value of the price of the home through traditional methods like a mortgage.
Leanne doesn't have time for Twitter. I smile wryly at this, and resolve to try and get her to write a blog for the SHOUT website and 24Dash. For ten glorious minutes of Leanne's presentation it's clear that there are at least 104 households living in homes where they are the most important part of the equation.
“It's about everyone rowing in the same direction”, Leanne finishes, and I get the impression that for those people in the partnerships she's formed between her Trust, the Council and other agencies involved in providing homes, not rowing in the same direction will get them pushed into some nearby rapids.
The Q and A is brilliant. The questions have had a lot of thought put into them. They cover brownfield development, concerns about greenfield and green belt, homelessness, under-occupation, energy efficiency and addressing ever-growing waiting lists.
One gentleman in the audience suggests homes should be built with more insulation and energy efficiency in mind. Utility savings can be used for an increase in rent to offset the initial investment required. The interests of the energy-efficient Greens meet the cold reality of building to a code standard for insulation. I get the sense projects like this are already happening somewhere, but I didn't gen up on it.
A lady asks about re-purposing Right To Buy slightly, so that tenants who qualify for it could be subsidised to move out of the home they occupy, into an affordable home for purchase, and the home they leave could then remain as a social rented home. It's a brilliantly simple idea, and I resolve to come away and see if there's anything like it.
I get involved in the answering of questions, surprising myself with how much I've learned about housing in the last couple of years. A small queue of people forms to ask me more questions when the Q&A is over. I spend another half an hour making sure I talk to them all, before being grabbed for a quick photo op with Keith and Leanne, who I chat to about grants, subsidies, principles and values.
There is a great deal of understanding about the housing crisis and the affordability crisis in Winchester. Recent local struggles over the Silver Hill affair sound like they're set to repeat themselves in the planned development of 2,000 homes that Winchester Council has committed itself to. There's an undercurrent of dissent in the room – not because there is going to be development, but because that development won't be affordable enough, or seen to be of a high enough quality, and will be more for the benefit of developers than people in need of homes.
The EU gravy train will pay for my mileage to Winchester, too. I drove home without breaking any speed limits. Well, it was the Green Party.