Friday, May 28, 2010

Mixing it up

The Chartered Institute of Housing’s report from the Independent Commission on the Future for Housing in Northern Ireland is published today. It's a terrific achievement and to be warmly welcomed.

The report's three most important features are, in my opinion, the proposal for a Northern Ireland Housing Strategy; the emphasis on the importance of housing for the economy; and the need for greater coherence between housing and planning policy. It places less emphasis than I would have liked on housing support for people with special needs such as mental health problems and physical disability.

However, this being Northern Ireland, many people will be turning first to the section on housing divisions by religious background and also by income.

The section begins with some rather misleading statistics citing the most extreme figures for small area religious segregation in Belfast’s Housing Executive estates as if they are for the whole of Northern Ireland and for all social housing. The situation outside Belfast is much more varied, unsurprisingly (there is a second NIHE report covering this, but I can't find a web link). Then, for contrast, we are told that the Life and Times Survey says 80% of us want to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood. Perhaps we know what to tell the nice person with the clipboard, or perhaps it’s a genuine aspiration but, for some, not quite the right time. Whatever the reason, as the Commission accepts, the problem has always been how to instil a sufficient sense of security to encourage individuals to make the move.

The Good Friday Agreement aspires to ‘the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing’. More pragmatically, the Housing Executive, which is in charge of allocating social housing, promises in its community cohesion policy to ‘support individual housing choice whether it is exercised in favour of single identity or mixed neighbourhoods’. That’s because the closer you get to having to deal with the consequences of getting it wrong, the more cautious you have to be.

The Commission’s consultation document last year reported mixed views about the speed of change, with some urging a more prescriptive approach but most endorsing the Housing Executive’s existing method of promoting greater sharing where there is support for it on the ground – as does the final report. One suggestion is that a different way of allocating social housing, called choice based lettings, could help housing applicants to be more proactive in selecting a mixed religion area. The economic crisis may be a further driver. The report notes that segregated housing is an inefficient use of land. It doesn’t say that the current practice of spending public money on building new houses in one area while others nearby lie empty will become increasingly untenable as budgets shrink.

The report’s discussion of housing segregation by income will be less familiar to many in NI. Housing tenure is usually a proxy for income: in other words the poorest people live in social housing, and nowadays quite often also in the private rented sector, with richer people owning their own homes or renting more expensive property from a private landlord. The housing policy orthodoxy is that ‘mixed tenure’ schemes will dilute deprivation, create better environments and encourage social mixing between people of different backgrounds. Unfortunately, the actual evidence on mixing is patchy – it appears that no amount of social engineering can make you talk to your neighbour if you don’t want to. However, there’s no doubt that the alternative of living in a highly disadvantaged area is worse in other ways, and from that point of view the report is right to point out that mixed tenure reduces ‘stigma and social disadvantage’. But it’s unrealistic to propose that ‘mixed tenure developments should become the norm by 2015’, not least because some people with purchasing power will never choose to live in them. Small amounts of new social housing (say, 6 houses, or a block of 6 - 8 flats) in more affluent areas create mix in a different way - but that might upset influential people.

The most contentious point comes when the report tries to link the two forms of segregation, proposing that ‘mixed tenure schemes could also play a part in breaking down the barriers of the religious divide. Not least because there is less propensity to live separately as people become better off’. This is a new angle on the idea that mixed tenure somehow modifies the bad habits of the poor, in this case sectarianism. Although I am prepared to be corrected, I have never seen this connection made in the academic literature and it may be significant that it’s worded very conditionally. Now it may be that more affluent areas are less segregated, although more research is needed. But moving into a new mixed tenure scheme isn’t going to be like moving to Malone or Culmore.

It has taken the Housing Executive ten years to get from commissioning a report on how to promote integrated housing to the current, still small scale, shared housing programme. Any attempt to introduce a new model fusing both mixed religion and mixed income housing will also require a great deal of preparation and should be handled with care.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On coalitions

I’ve been doing my best to follow the coalition negotiations and post- general election angst from inside my own, unconnected, personal hell which always takes place at this time of year. I have noticed, however, that angst and upset prevail - no-one seems to be celebrating the result and no-one feels they got what they voted for.

Of course I would have preferred Labour to win a clear majority and form another government that would do its best to protect the more vulnerable members of society while gradually bringing the economy back into balance at a pace that wouldn’t damage recovery. But I can hear the laughter even as I write. Surely the reason Labour didn’t win was because they had lost the trust of the people. I hope a period in opposition means they can get it back.

I feel ambivalent about the general reaction to the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition. I voted for a local party linked to the LibDems, but for a reason unconnected with what they might do at Westminster, and so I don’t feel disappointed. I do understand why people in GB feel cheated if they voted LibDem on the grounds that Labour is no longer radical enough for them. I think this attitude has been a particular problem in England, where they have no experience of coalition in devolved administrations. In Northern Ireland, of course, we are also more familiar with the situation in the Irish Republic, so we know that coalitions involve parties with different politics views coming to a sometimes unpalatable agreement in order to govern together.

So if you are a LibDem voter you should realise that your party isn’t going to form a majority government. In effect LibDem voters are voting for coalition, and this would be even more the case under proportional representation. The LibDems made it clear in the week before polling day that they would negotiate first with the party with the largest number of seats/ votes, at a time when the opinion polls showed that would be the Tories. Perhaps that’s why they did less well than anticipated.

And once you are in negotiations, what you come out with is going to reflect your negotiating strength. The LibDems have 57 seats; the Tories have 306. The LibDems have 16% of the coalition seats, and whatever the rights and wrongs of the proportions of votes, under the current system it’s seats that count. Under the circumstances I think they have done well to gain as much formal influence as they have. Of course there has also had to be negotiation on policies. Here, the LibDems have done themselves no favours although of course they will argue they have protected us form the worst the Tories could have done. I’m not convinced. My favourite blunder is the cap on immigration, which makes no sense in either human or economic terms.

Coalitions are a feature of modern political life in electoral systems that reflect voter preferences more closely than in First Past the Post. I am concerned that the public reaction to our current situation in the UK may cause a backlash against PR systems, and that a referendum on the subject may be defeated (not that we’re getting one on a proportional system at this point in time, anyway). Political parties need to educate the public about the realities of coalition and people need to reflect on this as part of their voting behaviour.

However, we can’t get away from the fact that coalition negotiations show what parties are prepared to give up to gain political power. In the Irish Republic’s 2007 general election, Labour stood on an unsuccessful platform of preferring Fine Gael as a coalition partner. The then leader, Pat Rabbitte, was adamant that he wouldn’t form a partnership with either Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin, for different reasons. Perhaps in future we’ll see parties making their post-election intentions clearer as part of their manifestos. But the results will remain unpredictable – it’s the price of democracy.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The 2010 general election – a turning point for Northern Ireland?

The dust is still settling on the results over the water, and it’ll be some time before we know the composition of the next UK government. So that’s the subject of another post. However, it was clear straight away that this was an extraordinary election here in Northern Ireland, with a number of pointers towards a different way of doing things in future.

As this is East Belfast Diary, I have to start with Northern Ireland’s Portillo moment. Naomi Long ran a highly effective campaign, despite the disingenuous and irritating claim that she was ‘only 52 votes’ behind Peter Robinson. This statistic applied to the last Assembly election, whereas in the 2005 general election she came third, with 3,746 votes compared to Robinson’s poll-topping 15,152 – a distinction that our Alliance canvasser struggled with. She’ll have to work hard to retain the seat, but for now the combination of disgust at the Robinsons’ antics and tactical voting gains from nationalists and the PUP (who didn’t stand) produced the most fantastic result of the night. As an East Belfast resident, I was also pleased because I think the result reflects the changing character of at least some parts of this fascinating constituency.

The East Belfast result, along with the Justice Ministry, strengthens Alliance’s position as a serious political player. But the failure of the UUP/ Conservative partnership to win a single seat has more far-reaching implications, in two ways. First, it raises questions about the future of the UUP. On BBC NI’s election night programme, David McNarry lost no time in putting the boot into Sir Reg, but, more rationally, Arlene Foster talked about unionist ‘realignment’. Although more unionist pacts are an option, I’m beginning to wonder if the UUP will simply fade away, with some members going to the DUP and others to Alliance. Secondly, and of more interest to me personally, is the likely fallout from the link with the Conservatives. It shows the problem with trying to merge territorial politics with a left – right continuum. I suspect that the Tory version of the experience will be ‘it’s a nightmare, don’t go there’. It’ll make UK Labour Party involvement in NI elections even less likely, but if they do come in, it’ll be on their own rather than in coalition with a local party.

My final point is about the role of NI’s MPs in a hung Parliament. We have eight unionist MPs, three nationalists taking their seat; one Alliance and one unionist Independent who is known to have Labour sympathies. All plan to make strategic choices to maximise the benefits to Northern Ireland in the new Parliament, or rather, in reality, to minimise the damage. Although this approach sometimes came across in the election campaign as irritatingly parochial, it’s also a unifying factor. In particular, it may be that the SDLP, Alliance and Lady Sylvia find they have a lot in common. Cross-party working at Westminster could help to create an environment in which we can move to a voluntary coalition in the Assembly, and start to discuss more creative ways of working together in the new local councils.

These three aspects of the 2010 NI general election are extremely significant. Together, they indicate the possible beginning of a restructuring of NI politics that might begin to move us away from the domination of the territorial issue and the sectarian carve-up – I am being very tentative here. A stronger ‘middle ground’ party; a realignment of unionism; and new partnerships at Westminster in the interest of all Northern Ireland’s people. Moving away from ethnic politics may start to look like less of a bonkers idea than previously.

This post is also up at Irish Left Review.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A view from the periphery

This is my third general election as a Northern Ireland voter, and I don’t remember feeling this marginalised before. In 2001 and 2005, there was never any doubt that Labour would win. The contest in NI had no influence on this. The NI electorate wasn’t really concerned about what our politicians would do at Westminster, or who they would do it with. MPs were part of the numbers game to show where we all stood on territory and national identity.

This time, every seat counts. The polls are pointing towards a hung Parliament with the somewhat unprincipled LibDems appearing to favour a coalition with either the Tories or Labour – or perhaps a narrow Tory majority. Some of the highest profile issues such as tax, immigration and macro level economic policy have not been devolved and therefore are also of interest to us in the Celtic regions. Others, such as health and education, are covered in terms of what will be done in England, without candidates or the media making this clear. Labour have not claimed the credit for the substantial political achievement of devolution, no doubt because it’s regarded with such suspicion by the English.

So the first question in this election is: are you going to vote Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative? And the second is, if not, how will the party of your choice contribute towards a coalition or voting pact with two of the three main parties?

The first of these questions is only of marginal interest to us here. You can vote for UCUNF if you want to back the Tories, but even that vote isn’t for one of the Big Three, it’s for the Tories allied with the UUP. Unfortunately, canvassers for UCUNF have not called, so I haven’t been able to use my highly original killer line ‘I’m not a unionist and I’m not a Tory’. Perhaps the UCUNF candidates are too busy kicking themselves for signing up to work with a leader who is all too willing to put Northern Ireland at the top of the list once the removal van has left no.10, and not in a good way.

So we arrive at the second question, with the options I’ve outlined in a previous post. In other parts of the UK, a vote for a smaller party is an option as a protest vote or a strongly held opinion - Plaid Cmyru? SNP? Greens? BNP? But in every case, they are an alternative. Here, smaller parties are all we’ve got. Most candidates are telling us they’ll get the best deal for Northern Ireland, no doubt fantasising about holding the balance of power and saving the block grant here while being unconcerned about deep cuts in Sunderland or Glasgow. There’s no sense of how our MPs might contribute to UK-wide policy decisions, for example on Trident, ID cards, or tax rates.

Except of course in one instance – Sinn Féin. They won’t be arguing to protect anything, because they won’t be there. Gerry Adams has the brass neck to say he doesn’t care about the election result. Blaming the Brits is all very well, but it’s not going to stop your job going, your dole being time limited, your children’s university fees being increased and your hospital services being cut back. This time around, it’s a real possibility that Sinn Féin’s absence could put the Tories in. You’d have to be a very determined Irish republican not to mind about that.

So for the next few days I’ll watch the press coverage from over the water with interest, but give tomorrow night's local leader’s debate a miss. The most interesting aspect of this election is going to be what happens after the votes have been counted.