Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Dying Groyne Field

A shortish walk from where I live - on the coastal path from Seasalter to Faversham in north Kent, southern England.  The sea wall that runs from left to right is a really heavy duty piece of engineering, and a curious feature in a place that is otherwise pretty much abandoned to the elements. The only sound here comes courtesy of whichever birds happen to be around (at the time I made this sketch there were Turnstones and Canada Geese as well as the ubiquitous Gulls), whilst decaying groynes protrude from the shingle and silt like blackened stumps of teeth. The place feels haunted. Beyond the wall is marshland - no buildings, no roads - and it is a sign of how much priorities have changed that the government is now content that this area should be given up to the sea in the medium term, despite the presence of this great structure. Meanwhile, those of us living just down the road who would like our homes to be protected are told that it simply can't be done.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


The UK government stresses the importance of working in ‘partnership’ with communities in seeking just outcomes to issues presented by policies not to defend some coastal areas from the sea in the longer term, and not to compensate people for the resulting loss of their homes.  However, relevant academic literature encourages further consideration of the ways in which those affected get to influence decision-making.

Government’s position that it will defend the coast only where it is sustainable to do so, and that it does not plan to compensate individuals for any loss of property, has proven contentious.  By way of mitigation where homes are to be lost to the sea, it has stated an intention to support communities in adapting to the physical, social and economic effects of change.. .”[1] (p.19).

DEFRA-commissioned guidance for local authorities specific to this purpose – ‘Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast’ - states that “communities that are most at risk to coastal change (sic) must be informed, engaged, and empowered to take an active part in what happens locally.”[2] (p.7) Whilst government acknowledges, then, that some communities will need support in contributing to policy decisions, a reading of relevant academic literature suggests a more fundamental dissonance between government prescription and the experiences of citizens in their engagement with authority. 

A small number of UK studies has considered relevant coastal change and related governance arrangements. Whilst it is important to be wary of generalisation, they have potential for shedding light on – and prompting further questions about - how threatened coastal populations fare in their interactions with power.

In these studies, the involvement of people in coastal planning takes place in a variety of contexts – from structured and facilitated deliberative events involving local people in formal ‘stakeholder’ capacities, to citizens’ interests largely being represented in decision-making fora via local elected representatives, to more ‘hands-off’ involvement such as attending public exhibitions. O’Riordan et al[3] and Milligan et al[4] explore the potential of participatory approaches[5] to involving local people in the setting of coastal policy, and report improved  relationships and greater understanding between the various parties involved.  Milligan et al suggest potential for finding a successful common vision for the Winterton-on-Sea case study area (p.211), whilst O’Riordan et al report a willingness by participants in their North Norfolk study to engage in debate, with a raised awareness of the issues emerging alongside the bringing together of various facets of coastal management. (p.12)  It’s good, of course, to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Conflicting objectives

However, this is contradicted by findings that locating common ground between actors is a problem - Milligan et al find that that local and official cultures are neither aligned nor likely to be in the future, with one problem lying in the limits to what people are able to understand (p.210)[6]  Difficulties are also presented by the need to balance the sometimes conflicting objectives of a wide mix of stakeholders (Milligan et al, 2009; p.211). O’Riordan et al point to the importance, on one hand, that participants’ expectations of the degree of influence on decisions should be managed and, on the other, their desire to have ownership of the outcomes – a tension possibly exacerbated by concerns that agencies and authorities are unwilling to give up power to negotiated results (p.24-25). It is perhaps telling that the researchers identify the very need for public acceptability as a blockage to the effective delivery of managed realignment schemes (p.23)[7].  
Whereas O’Riordan et al and Milligan et al explore participatory approaches to decision making in this context, Fletcher[8] looks at coastal partnerships which employ a different approach. Whilst such arrangements have the potential for local people to participate, the orthodoxy instead appears to be one whereby communities find voice on decision-making bodies via local elected representatives[9]. This study, which explores relationships between the various stakeholder representatives in the relevant decision-making bodies and their constituencies and the making of decisions/setting of policies through partnerships, points to various issues with the ways in which the interests of coastal communities are understood, the motivations of those who represent them, and how power imbalances come to influence the making of decisions and policies.

Many stakeholders in Fletcher’s study reported limited enthusiasm for their role and its value (it is unclear whether this includes those representing the public interest), with very few operating within a formal system to identify any misrepresentation. Interestingly, Fletcher reports that those participants representing the public interest “had no direct method of seeking the views of the public except for informal ad hoc routes” (p.618).[10]  This, we must assume, is likely to raise the bar for local interests seeking to be exert influence in such fora.
Doubts were expressed concerning the robustness of decision-making processes, with opportunities to influence agendas perceived as poor and concern expressed over how contributions were received from the wider community of stakeholders. In each of the partnerships studied, a degree of inequality of influence over decision-making was perceived by respondents, with funding, chairing and hosting of partnerships all seen as important in this regard. 
The studies hint at issues that arise from the literature on coastal change regarding the ability of local people to influence state-led efforts to make related policy  – whether that should be as a consequence of a reluctance on the part of authority to submit their interests to negotiated outcomes, the effectiveness of elected representatives, the power that various actors are able to bring to bear on making decisions and setting policy, or irreconcilable expectations of local influence on decisions.[11] Of course, this is based on a very small number of studies with diffuse objectives, and so any conclusions must be tentative. However, it is worth saying that they chime broadly with findings from a recent and significant piece of work.  In 2009 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a round-up of findings drawn largely from its Government and Public Services research programme, which explored “the experiences and perceptions of communities, councillors and public officials involved in a range of governance processes.”[12] (p.2)  As with the literature on coastal policy, conclusions suggested “conflicting views about how far communities and citizens can exercise substantial influence over decisions about public services” (p.3) – whilst community respondents expressed positive feelings about the potential benefits of engaging, there was also frustration about the barriers that limited their involvement. 

There are many coastal activists who have developed a deep appreciation of the help given them by politicians and local authority officers on this issue – indeed, I am one of them. Many  will also tell of their frustration at the disinterest, incompetence, and even obstruction of others in similar positions of influence – sadly I am one of this group, also. It would be good to think that the promise of ‘partnership’ might iron out some of these inconsistencies, but the literature – light as it might be at the moment – does not offer us a great deal of hope in that regard. We deserve, and need, authorities to sing a different and better hymn.

[1] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2009a. Consultation on Coastal Change Policy.  London: DEFRA.
[2] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) 2009b. Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast, working paper, Scott Wilson/DEFRA.
[3] O’Riordan, T., Watkinson, A. and Milligan, J. 2006. Living with a changing coastline: Exploring new forms of governance for sustainable coastal futures. Technical report 49. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
[4] Milligan, J., O’Riordan, T., Nicholson-Cole, S. and Watkinson, A. 2009. Nature conservation for future sustainable shorelines: Lessons from seeking to involve the public. Land Use Policy , 26, pp. 203-213.
[5] What Arnstein might categorize as ‘partnership’, whereby power is distributed through negotiations, with responsibilities shared.
[6] In sympathy with this finding, Few et al conclude that “public input into decision-making is devalued if information on long-term implications of climate change is insufficiently accessible.” (2007, p.265)
[7] Myatt et al see public relations as a means through which authorities might alleviate public scepticism (2003, p.566), and as having a role in the promotion of managed realignment. This would appear to see engagement as having a persuasive rather than simply democratic purpose potentially at the expense of discourse around conflict, legitimacy and social justice.
[8] Fletcher, S., 2007. Representing Stakeholder Interests in Partnership Approaches to Coastal Management: Experiences from the United Kingdom. Ocean &Coastal Management, 50(8), pp. 606-622.
[9] Held proposes that political representation “involves the delegation of government to ‘a small number of citizens elected by the rest’.” (1987, p.64)
[10] Concerns that such a model of stakeholder representation may not guarantee that local people are properly represented are echoed by Milligan et al (2009, p. 206).
[11] More fundamentally, a recurring theme in these studies is that managed realignment is seen by local people as politically controversial – especially where radical change is proposed.
[12] Foot, J., 2009.Citizen involvement in local governance: Reviewing the evidence. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Friday, 3 August 2012

CLIMATE CHANGE, CONSUMPTION AND CONFLICT What inspires coastal ‘losers’ to protest, together, about their lot?

Where homes are to be lost to the sea as a consequence of climate change, sea level rise and related policy decisions, Defra has stated an intention to support affected communities in adapting to the physical, social and economic effects of change.[1] (p.19) 

Defra-commissioned guidance for local authorities specific to this purpose – ‘Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast’ - states that “communities that are most at risk to coastal change (sic) must be informed, engaged, and empowered to take an active part in what happens locally.”[2] (p.7)  CAPE has it that extensive engagement might be recommended where consultation is “characterised by (potential or actual) high conflict, controversy and uncertainty about the problem” although, again, this is “most likely to affect many.” (p.23) Here, the guidance appears to assume an awareness and capacity on the part of affected communities that might inform coherent and powerful protest – but on what basis, or bases, might we expect people in affected communities to act collectively with a view to influencing policy?

The social movement theorist Charles Tilly proposes that “The analysis of collective action has five big components: interest, organization, mobilization, opportunity, and collective action itself”, with ‘interest’ concerned with “the gains or losses resulting with a group’s interaction with other groups”[3] (p.7). Recent decades have seen reevaluation of ‘traditional’ structural interpretations of collective interest and action in the context of industrial societies. According to Della Porta and Diani, such interpretation made central conflicts between capital and labour. Key to this was the idea of a working class identity – and associated political behaviour – that was the consequence not only of its relationship to the means of economic production, but also to the concentration of workers in “large productive units” and in urban areas.[4] (2006; p.38) 

However, change has thrown the utility of this interpretation into question. Della Porta and Diani propose that a decline in industrial work in favour of administrative and service occupations and accompanying new middle class, a shift away from stable and protected forms of work, migration to the stronger economies and the entry of women into the labour force have all contributed to a muddying of the water in terms of class relations and conflicts, with the consequence that it has “affected lines of definition and criteria for interest definition within social groups, which were previously perceived as homogeneous.” (p.39)

The rise of consumption sectors

Potentially useful to us given the centrality of state decision-making to coastal change is Touraine’s proposal that the crucial cleavage now is “between the different kinds of [state] apparatus and user – consumers or more simply the public – defined less by their specific attributes than by their resistance to domination by the apparatus.”[5] (1981, p.6-7)
Taking up this theme, Taylor-Gooby describes the development of the state and its involvement in people’s lives as a “striking feature of the post-war political economy” and describes as important attempts to understand the relevance of these developments for political consciousness through “the idea of consumption sectors”[6] (p.592). This refers to “the division between groups in society who share common interests based on division in access to the means of consumption” (p.592). Saunders observes that “One obvious candidate for such a new fault line is housing tenure, for the decline of class voting seems to coincide with the growth of working-class home ownership”[7] (p.206) – again, this seems apposite given what is at stake for home owners who stand to ‘lose’ from coastal change.

In terms of the formation of political alignment and activity, Dunleavy writes that “Collective consumption…is typically concerned with services provided by the state apparatus…In exclusively individualized forms for consumption, location continues to be determined by household incomes…”. Collective consumption processes, he tells us, “create an inter-subjective-basis for the development of political action”, in part due to “the directly politicized context of provision”.[8] (p.418-9) I take this to mean that conflict is sparked by competing demands on collective provision which may not all be satisfied as a consequence of decision-making processes. So, has the UK’s becoming what Peter Saunders has described as ‘a nation of home owners’ surpassed traditional class effects in terms of people’s sense of self, political attitudes and willingness to work together to protest? 

Class or consumption as a predictor of social action?

Whilst Taylor-Gooby is of the view that “The consumption sector approach…appears to be relatively successful in explaining a range of political phenomena – from local party organization to voting behaviour in national elections” (p.593), Saunders is less clear – at least as to political alignments and motivations of home owners.  On the one hand, he argues that “In Britain and in other countries, home owners frequently act in concert against what they see as a perceived threat to their common interests” (p.256), whilst on the other he states that “To demonstrate that owner-occupiers share common material interests is to say nothing about whether and how these interests are mobilized politically.” (p.229). To cloud the picture still further, he cites Halle’s view[9] that “a class solidarism at work may go hand in hand with a tenure-based conservatism at home…we all occupy a number of different roles which give us different sets of interests to pursue or defend according to the situation…”. (p.256-7) 

Whilst home-ownership - by far the most popular form of housing tenure – is a prime example of individual consumption according the consumption cleavage thesis, the provision of sea defence which, despite recent reforms, continues to be funded principally by the state – is an example of collective consumption, and one that is politically contentious in that it’s benefits are not universally enjoyed. Put crudely, the majority living on the coast will have their individual assets (and means of welfare) protected by a collectively-funded and managed ‘good’ for the foreseeable future, whilst a minority will not.  There is potential, then, in our asking how the ‘interests’ of coastal ‘crunch’ communities might be structured by their consumption position and the effects of this on political mobilization – although not to the exclusion of consideration of traditional occupational class structure.

[1] Defra, 2009. Consultation on Coastal Change Policy.  London: Defra.

[2] Defra 2009c. Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast, working paper, Scott Wilson/Defra 2009.

[3] Tilly, C. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. New York: Random House.

[4] Della Porta, D. and Diani, M. 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction (second edition). Blackwell.

[5] Touraine, A. 1981. The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Taylor-Gooby, P. 1986. Consumption Cleavages and Welfare Politics. Political Studies, XXXIV, 592-606

[7] Saunders, P. 1990. A Nation of Home Owners. London: Unwin Hyman

[8] Dunleavy, P. 1979. The Urban Basis of Political Alignment: Social Class, Domestic Property Ownership, and State Intervention in the Consumption Process. British Journal of Political Science. Volume 9, 409-443.

[9] Halle, D. 1984. America’s Working Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Empowering coastal communities - a note of caution

Why silence is not always golden
Conflict - beyond mentions in dispatches

In 2010 the Environment Agency in collaboration with maritime local authorities published a handbook for practitioners working on the coast in England and Wales[1]. It covers a range of activities and considerations, including the process of Shoreline Management Planning, adaptation, and communication and engagement with communities. The handbook explains the importance of engagement as practitioners “work with communities to find sustainable solutions”, and “the need for society to make some difficult decisions” given “an evolving coast and the effects of climate change” (p.171) and the need for consideration of “social and environmental outcomes” (p.172).

Intriguingly, a fictional case study is included which, in part, appears designed to show how the engagement of a coastal community in pursuit of new arrangements with regard to flood risk might play out. The first scenario outlines how activity inspired by a presumption to invest in new defence might work, whereas the second assumes a presumption towards ‘management’ of flood risk – in this case, resulting in “tidal inundation of the site” (p.175) in the longer term.  It is no secret the setting of Shoreline Management Plans has proven contentious in areas where decisions are made not to defend.[2]  I find it surprising, then, that the handbook – and the case study in particular - gives so little attention to conflict and its meaning in such encounters.  It is possible, of course, that I’m missing the point here, but if the tidal inundation mentioned in the case study results in the loss of homes, then might not the claims that “Although some people disagree, most of the community can see that managed realignment is the most suitable long-term agreement”…and that the relevant team has “successfully engaged the community” be rather undercooked?

Civic participation

It should be observed, of course, that the scenarios are at least partly designed to demonstrate distinctive approaches to communication with communities – the first ‘Decide Announce Defend’, the second the favoured ‘Engage Deliberate Decide’. Such ‘empowerment’ of people and communities through involvement in decision making has been prominent in the policy narratives of both the Coalition Government and New Labour before them, but I would suggest that government is perhaps optimistic in its assessment of people’s levels of comfort with this kind of activity. A government report on the findings of the most recent Citizenship Survey[3] warns that participation in civic engagement – and in particular ‘civic participation’ which includes “engagement in democratic processes, such as contacting an elected representative or attending a public demonstration” fell “significantly” over the previous year from 38% to 34% (p.7). It is also worth bearing in mind that the most common form of such participation is the relatively ‘hands-off’ activity of signing a petition, with less than a third of respondents reporting contacting a council official (33%) or a local councillor (29%) [p.8].

Why does this matter? I would suggest that the outcomes of the setting of coastal policy in this way are likely to influenced by both the appetites and abilities of those affected to make their case forcibly to decision-makers. By way of example, in 2007 the draft SMP for where I live proposed that ‘our’ policy unit’ – some 75 homes flanking a road, with beach on one side and marsh on the other – might cease to be defended and lost to the sea in 20-50 years.  Residents formed an action group to oppose the plan, with the (possibly indirect) result that this policy unit – one of 26 such - was identified as the subject of approximately 50% of all consultation responses in a subsequent official account of the consultation[4]. The policy was later modified.  Meanwhile, a policy unit on the same patch that was similar in terms of number of homes and predicament elicited no response at all according to the same account – despite being covered by the same consultation process.

Exercising influence – conflicting views
I’m interested in why – on the face of it at least – people in one area concerned about the potentially negative effects of proposed coastal policy kicked up a stink and pushed for change, and people similarly challenged in another location did not.  It is possible, of course, that (to paraphrase the fictional case study from the Environment Agency handbook) when it was explained to them, most of people were persuaded by utilitarian arguments and came to see that managed realignment was the most suitable long-term agreement.

However, I would draw attention instead to recent studies testing the success of attempts on the part of authorities to involve people in local decision-making.  In 2009 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a round up of findings[5] drawn largely from its Government and Public Services research programme, which explored “the experiences and perceptions of communities, councillors and public officials involved in a range of governance processes.” (p.2)  Conclusions suggest “conflicting views about how far communities and citizens can exercise substantial influence over decisions about public services” (p.3). 

Whilst community respondents expressed positive feelings about the potential benefits of engaging, there was also frustration about the barriers that limited their involvement.  It appears that only a small proportion of citizens get involved in such encounters, with uneven take up of opportunities to influence decision-making.  Despite government efforts, it would seem that disadvantaged groups don’t necessarily gain increased access to – and influence over – those with power.  Rather, suggests Foot, when people from deprived neighbourhoods get involved to tackle deep-rooted social problems, they need to persuade people from the more affluent and socially influential neighbourhoods to ally with them. By contrast, Foot suggests that others exclude themselves or are not invited to join because they find it difficult to deal with bureaucracy, they ‘don’t fit’ or they feel they can have more effect as an outsider. This is just one study of course, but its findings are supported in other literature and, for what it is worth, chime with my experience of community activism in this context. It should not be assumed that the absence of noisy opposition indicates a contentment with what is being proposed. And as for those who disagree, if it is they whose future well-being is to be traded away for the greater good, do they not warrant more than a mention in dispatches when the process is written up?

[1] Environment Agency. 2010. The coastal handbook: a guide for all those working on the coast
[2] See my previous post ‘Loss of coastal homes – time we knew the big picture.
[3] CLG. 2011. Community Action in England: A report on the 2009–10 Citizenship Survey. Office for National Statistics.
[5] Foot, J., 2009.  Citizen involvement in local governance: Reviewing the evidence. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Individualising climate risks - an idiot responds

Owner occupation, conservatism and social unrest
Could climate change have come at worse time for UK coastal dwellers?

Many years ago my then girlfriend told me that she found it hard to respect me because I lived in ‘rented accommodation’. I remember at the time thinking what a curiously formal description it was (you can imagine Wallace using it when speaking to Grommit), and what a deadly weight it seemed to have. Looking back, two things strike me. First is my naivety in not seeing this as a signal that the relationship might struggle, and second is the place of housing tenure in considering loss of homes due to the impacts of climate change and associated government policy.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when the story about the availability of insurance for those in areas with a high risk of flooding was covered by the Guardian[1].  Predictably, the subsequent on-line discussion prompted a range of views, one of which I would suggest is broadly represented by the (verbatim) post:  “Why should I bail out…some idiot who buys a house in a flood risk area?”. Broadening the area under discussion to cover responsibility for adaptation to climate change as it applies to coastal dwellers rather than simply flooding, there is an important point to be considered here.

As things stand, those who have been told that they can expect their homes to be lost to the sea at some point can also expect to bear the full cost. Our Guardian commentator would presumably see this as proper given the individuals’ presumed choice to have bought houses is such locations. But this is to ignore an opportunity to put such questions into a wider and more interesting context with regard to the allocation of risks.

The Anglo-Saxon model

The UK pursues a distinctive approach to housing tenure that favours owner-occupation – characterised by Ronald[2] as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model. This has not always been the case, however. He explains that “At the beginning of the 20th century most British households rented their homes from private landlords and as few as one in ten were owner-occupiers”, and that despite the promise of state support for local authorities in providing new houses for rent in the early 1920s “funds were increasingly shifted…into the provision of owner-occupied homes” (p.22). By 1938 the proportion of owner occupied housing had increased to 32 per cent.

The immediate post-war period and the Labour government’s welfare state, Ronald tells us,   “called for radical changes in housing policy which involved the mass building of rental housing” (p.23). However, this was followed by a reversal in policy which appears to have proceeded more or less uninterrupted ever since. In the 1950s the Conservatives “committed themselves to the ideal of the ‘property owning democracy’” (23) with homeownership establishing itself as the majority tenure by the 1970s. The accompanying property price-boom not only established an “enduring belief that homeownership is one of the best, if not the best, investment accessible to ordinary people” but also saw Labour governments become “more partisan to homeownership policy…”. (23)
Under the Thatcher government, housing privatisation – including the sale of council houses - became a focus of policy accompanied, Ronald observes, by deregulation of the credit market so that by the end of 1990s “the homeownership rate was above 64 per cent” (p.23). Despite an initially cautious approach, Ronald explains that “…New Labour soon began to warm-up to owner-occupation”.  In 2005 plans to “extend homeownership to 75 percent of housing” were announced, with Brown during his tenure as Prime Minister “explicit about his desire to further expand opportunities for homeownership and enhance the features of an asset-based social security system.” (p.24) Thus, we might observe that the individual’s assumption of risk through home ownership can at least in part be historically located and be identified as the product of a politically consensual policy transformation – with this style of tenure operating in lockstep with emerging orthodoxies concerning individualism, welfare and citizenship.

The General Strike 1926 - crossing London Bridge
Kemeny, Ronald tells us, conflates private ownership to the development of “a reserve of housing wealth” that, amongst other things, “offsets pension shortfalls in old age” (p.22); whilst between the world wars the expansion of working class ownership was considered “a potential antidote to both the decline in the private rental sector, on one side, and labour-union agitation, social unrest and demands for the expansion of citizenship rights on the other.” (p.22) In post-war Britain, he namechecks MacMillan, Eden and Thatcher in identifying “an assumption that homeownership would improve civic responsibility and encourage support for conservative political parties…”. (p.29) Buying a house, then, appears to offer value way beyond any individual benefits – an alternative to state welfare provision, and a means of encouraging a certain political disposition in service of a particular type of social order.

Finally, Ronald identifies the current era as “a period of ‘total homeownership policy’ whereby this type of tenure is “almost universally considered the ‘best’ or ‘natural’ way to produce and consume housing” (30). ‘Tenure imperialism’, he calls it.

Where the heart is

Writing some years previously, Gurney[3] explores the ways in which the idea of ‘home’ – being ‘where the heart is’ and ‘where charity begins’, and ‘an Englishman’s castle’, is closely associated with owner-occupation in government policy. He observes of policy documents that: “’Home’ is frequently used to differentiate between the dwellings of householders in owner occupation and in rented accommodation; and dwellings of those in owner occupation are imbued with the warmth and security ‘home’ whilst renters are accorded a more Spartan language to describe their dwelling.” (p.172) In the 1995 Housing White paper, Gurney argues, the idea of ‘home’ exists in a much more meaningful way for those in home ownership than it does for renters, and is expressed through “ideas of love, warmth, comfort, pride, independence and self-respect” (p.173). 

Policy papers also associate home ownership with the uptake and expression of certain values. A 1971 Department of the Environment and Welsh Office command paper sees the government associate home ownership with social advance, whilst in 1981 the Department of the Environment has it that home ownership “ensures the spread of wealth through society…enables parents to accrue wealth for their children and stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society” This, proposes Gurney, “carries with it the expectation of home owners being good citizens, good parents and good caretakers.” (176)  Perhaps even more fundamentally, Gurney tells us, the 1971 Department of the Environment and Welsh Office command paper tells us that the desire for home ownership is a “basic and natural desire” (p.178), with the obverse presumably the case for those living under other tenancy arrangements.

I’m not sure how familiar my old girlfriend was with government housing policy papers - not very, is my guess. However, is hard not to wonder at the power of official pronouncement to shape individuals’ opinions and actions through various means.

And I would challenge the individual who responded in such glib fashion to the story in the Guardian to reconsider his (or her) position on the individualisation of risk. I would never argue that those of who own homes on the coast that are at risk from rising sea levels have not exercised choice in so doing. But it is clearly the case that the situation we find ourselves in is significantly the result of forces associated with political preference and the cultivation of certain values, and that accordingly we are threatened as much by socio-economic and political impacts as we are natural ones.

Had climate change as currently understood become an issue in the same way 100 years ago, the consequences for coastal dwellers might have looked very different.  Far fewer would have owned their homes and been exposed to the kinds of risks identified here. Had it happened before the 1970s housing boom then the amount of capital at stake for those who did own their homes would have been smaller relative to earnings, and a state welfare may have been better placed to supported losers. It is also well documented that sea defence in the UK was provided more on the basis of vulnerability in the UK until relatively recently. This is, of course, to simplify.  However…

With best wishes


[2] Ronald, R. 2008. Market-Liberal Homeowner Societies: Questions of Convergance in & around an Anglo-Saxon model? Housing Finance International, March 2008, pp. 21-34.
[3] Gurney, C.  1999. Pride and Prejudice: Discourses of Normalisation in Public and Private Accounts of Home Ownership.  Journal of Housing Studies, Vol. 14. No. 2, 163-183.