New housing strategy misses a trick

Government intervention has made it more likely that we are on course for another lost decade in Bri

The three main planks of the government's new Housing Strategy represent a bonanza for Britain's big builders. The "Build Now, Pay Later" scheme, releasing plots held by statutory bodies like the MoD and NHS, will give them public land. The £400m "Get Britain Building Fund", intended to un-stall shovel-ready sites, will give them public money. And the new mortgage indemnity scheme will underwrite the house-buying borrowing that they rely on, at the taxpayer's risk. What is missing is the quid pro quo -- the crucial piece of the jigsaw that requires the development industry, in return, to perform.

In the past, a disproportionate amount of the money from previously announced pump-priming schemes has gone to the largest house-builders, without a clearly articulated "ask" of them in return. So, the danger is that this could again lead to the major developers repairing their balance sheets while the sector maintains its long-term record of under-performance. If this is allowed to happen, we will not see the 250,000 new homes each year we need.

The fallout from the credit crunch has left a damaged building sector at low levels of output with unhealthy balance sheets. The historical experience of past recessions contrasts with the current optimism about a strong supply-side response from the building sector. The past two British house-building recessions, starting in 1972 and 1990, both resulted in lost decades for housing output. The shock we are now seeing -- with the lowest levels of house-building since World War Two -- comes alongside long-term trends of failure from the building sector. We have seen a failure to increase output or respond adequately to growing demand; a trend towards industry consolidation within the sector over output growth; and a growing cyclicality and vulnerability to external shocks. There is little reason to think this behaviour is likely to change without reform. The danger is that we are now on course for another lost decade in British house-building.

If anything, today's government intervention makes that eventuality more likely. Government intervention has stopped any "creative destruction" in the building sector. Its effect has been to prevent the realisation of losses and release of cheaper land that is critical for facilitating new market entrants and delivering cheaper housing. Rather than leveraging up government investment, the current approach deleverages down the impact of government subsidy by allowing it to cushion financial weakness among existing larger players at the cost of under-performance. Larger firms benefit from being seen as "too big to fail", but smaller firms and possible new market entrants have become increasingly frozen out of access to credit and government support packages.

Planning reform and public land schemes should drive building sector innovation to increase output and encourage new entrants, as there is a real danger that existing UK house-builders will merely use building on public land with public money to displace activity from less viable market sites -- leading to no net increase in output.

The Housing Strategy sets out ways to get land and money to developers, but there are serious question marks as to whether house-builders are willing or able to deliver on their side of the bargain. Just as the government's attempts to increase bank lending have broadly failed -- with a banking sector more concerned about recapitalisation and risk management -- so the attempt to encourage the major UK house-builders to increase supply is currently likely to fail due to their overriding focus on restoring their damaged balance sheets and entering into a long period of risk aversion and stagnation. The government needs to come up with a programme of radical change within the building sector itself if it is to succeed in spurring growth through house-building. Like the UK banking sector, the UK building sector is a "broken transmission mechanism" in need of reform. IPPR will publish a paper next month analysing the sector's problems and suggesting ways to shake it up, such as tying public land release to stricter criteria for lower profit margins and faster build-out rates, as well as the government acting as a clearing house for the landbanks of failing developers. Meanwhile, it is not too late for the Chancellor in his autumn statement next week to show that government is serious about getting developers to develop; building the sorts of homes we need, where we need them, soon.

Andy Hull is Senior Research Fellow at IPPR

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.