We must raise our ambition and build many more homes

With a new prime minister, Labour needs to seize the opportunity on housing - including new eco town

From "concreting the countryside" to eco towns: we have come a long way in the housing debate in the past two years. When John Prescott set out his housing plans a few years ago, the government was attacked for proposing too many homes. Now, Gordon Brown's new towns have been welcomed and the government is challenged for delivering too few.

Housing is increasing at its highest rate for nearly 20 years as a result. But we have not yet been ambitious enough. Current targets need to be higher. With a new prime minister, this is the moment to raise our sights. It is also the moment to challenge the Tories on housing - if they want to get serious about the aspirations of the next generation, they need to start backing at local and regional level the new homes Britain needs.

If we don't do more, housing will become the greatest cause of widening inequality over the next ten years. We have an ageing, growing population with more people living alone and the truth is this country hasn't been building enough homes to meet rising demand for decades. House prices have doubled in the past six years and more than quadrupled in the past 20 years, as a result. Talk to young couples from Midhurst to Manchester and you hear how many of them already depend on the Bank of Mum and Dad to get them started. And that's deeply unfair on those who can't get family support.

We need more social housing and shared-ownership homes, too. New social housing is up by 50 per cent in the past three years, but we need to go much further. Over recent years the investment priority has been refurbishing existing council homes. Nevertheless, the urgent need now is for more social housing, with councils and housing associations both able to build more.

The stark evidence of rising house prices is changing attitudes. Several years of concerted campaigning to change public views are making a difference too, as government-backed reports on the link between rising prices and lack of supply are starting to sink in. Websites such as ww.pricedout.org.uk are marshalling the voices of frustrated young first-time buyers. Deputy leadership candidates (all six of them) are calling for more affordable homes.

Zero-carbon homes have captured the imagination, too. The programme to improve design and cut carbon emissions from new housing is one of the most ambitious in the world and is helping to change the politics of housing. Now the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, alongside WWF and Friends of the Earth, all say we need more homes, so long as they are built in a sustainable way.

But this means Labour now needs to seize the opportunity on housing - including new eco towns and bolder plans. Current targets to build 200,000 homes a year by 2016 will not be sufficient to keep up with rising demand. New homes are needed in the north as well as the south. The gap right now between the number of new households being formed and the number of homes built is actually bigger in Yorkshire than it is in the south-east. Further reforms are needed on top of recent planning changes and investment in infrastructure to make sure the homes come through.

Of course the real challenge is still to win the argument for more and better quality homes in every town and community, where local councils play such an important role in delivering (or blocking) development. It is easy to back new homes in principle, while somehow objecting to all the locations in which they could ever be built.

Too often Conservative councils are still arguing strongly against more homes. The Tory-led South East England Regional Assembly has adopted the utterly bonkers position that new house building should be cut rather than increased. So far David Cameron can just about get away with warm words on housing nationally, while his troops block them locally. But with the growing spotlight on housing, such contradictions will not hold. Housing will be the next grammar schools: when it comes to real policy, the Tory reactionaries win through.

Harold Macmillan's Tories would have been horrified at the hostility of Cameron's party towards more homes. In the Sixties, every party campaigned for 300,000 new homes a year. This shows it was possible to build consensus around major housing change. Previous generations managed it because they recognised the shocking consequences of denying families affordable quality homes of their own.

Brown has made clear his determination that the Labour government should make housing the priority now, in order to help future generations. The challenge for Cameron is whether he has the values or the strength to take on his party and join the consensus for more homes.

Yvette Cooper is minister for housing and planning

Yvette Cooper was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2009 to 2010, and is chair of the Changing Work Centre, set-up by the Fabian Society and Community Union.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?