Reviewing a new book on art in Britain in the 18th century John Barrell suggests that ‘polite conversation, far from being the relaxed and informal activity it was supposed to be, was for many people, especially for those not born to it, apparently a trial by ordeal, or associated, at the least, more with anxiety than with ease’. I found this a timely reminder that ‘conversation’, polite or otherwise, and whether it’s constructed as a natural or a learned activity, works to rules which may not always be apparent and may not prove accessible to everyone. Taking part in group discussion can remain a challenge even with supportive facilitators. Since last summer I’ve been working with Caroline Holland and Jonathan Hughes in a largely unfunded, back-of-an-envelope, fashion on an approach to discussion called ‘Conversation into Action’. We’re experimenting with class-room techniques, using a group-work approach, and drawing on biographical materials. We’re asking how older people can intervene in policy debates about housing. And learning about what influences the housing decisions we make in later life. What follows here is an extended update based around our most recent BSG-funded workshop.

A new Mayor in London

On May 5th Londoners voted in a new mayor, Sadiq Khan. A week later the Tory government passed the Housing and Planning Act. This introduces ‘new measures to help people buy their own home and get houses built faster’. For Khan the coincidence is unfortunate. The government controlling the legislative arena is well to his right. The consensus encouraging him to take action is well to his left. Typical of those making demands on behalf of the city’s dispossessed are the housing activists writing to the Guardian:

‘London’s housing crisis directly benefits the global rich and any solution that plays to their tune is bound to fail. If Khan is serious about solving this crisis, his election promise to be “a mayor for all Londoners” needs rethinking. London needs a mayor for the 99%, not the richest 1%. Mayor Khan must build tens of thousands of council homes, particularly on public land like Bishopsgate, halt the demolition of estates in the name of “regeneration”, actively oppose the social cleansing of our city and protect private renters… Now more than ever, London needs a mayor who puts homes and people before profit.’

While Khan should be able to achieve improvements – he could start by registering all landlords across the city – he has so far done little to suggest he will take a radical approach. He may have already decided that lobbying for the wider legal powers needed to enforce rent control and to tax developers who hold land they won’t develop will not succeed. But many of us will want to see him try. The Guardian’s report on ‘The Tower for the Toffs’ has given him a chance to get on the front foot.

Older people an uneasy fit

But where do older people fit in? There are no organisations of older people listed among the twenty-five or so signatories to that Guardian letter. A recent policy announcement brackets ‘first-time buyers’ with ‘vulnerable and older people’ as if that’s how an ageing population must understand itself. While the city’s older residents are not unaffected by estate regeneration policies, for example, and are in some cases actively involved in campaigns, they are not on the whole prominent there. And older people’s campaigning groups, locally and nationally, have surprisingly little to say about housing – the National Pensioners Convention website lists neither campaigns nor publications. It’s not that the matter has been ignored – a report for the GLA last year called for a variety of lifetime homes, for making public land available for new social housing, for reining in incentives for capital gain, and the introduction of rent controls. But both the policy and practice focus seems primarily the province of alliances of charities and housing service providers.

Is this low profile evidence instead of pragmatism and self-interest on the part of the older public (given that nationally 75% of people over 65 own their own home)? A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2012 highlighted some startling discrepancies:

‘Our research confirmed that there is limited choice for older people who want to move to both specialist and alternative mainstream housing, in terms of tenure, location, size, affordability and type of care or support. Housing providers tend to focus on retirement villages and housing with care when thinking about housing that is ‘suitable’ for older people. Despite the majority of older people owning their homes outright, 77 per cent of specialist housing is for rent and only 23 per cent for sale.’

For many older people the issues directly at stake will be of a reformist character, easily misrepresented as market discrepancies, and not easily accessible as political issues. The question of intragenerational inequality – the gap between those who are relatively secure and those who are destitute and homeless, or stuck in hospital because of the outrageous delays in administering and implementing Disabled Facilities Grants – looms large and contributes to fragmentation. People taking part in Conversation into Action have been interested in life-long learning and in the built environment, in policy and practice. Some are owner-occupiers, others are working alongside each other as tenants and leaseholders of social or public housing. Maria Brenton and Sheila Peace have joined our meetings, alongside members of the Association for Education and Ageing, the Ransackers Association, Kilburn Older Voices Exchange and other Camden residents.

The conversations

The two meetings we’ve held so far have been undramatic. We’ve made short presentations. We’ve asked participants to bring material of their own. We’ve asked them to draw on material we’ve provided – make notes on the spot and present them to others. Some of this material has been historical, many of the responses personal and biographical. And we’ve set topics for discussion and debate – mostly these have been identified in advance, but one or twice they’ve been spur of the moment. We’ve had some disagreement about ‘facts’. Predictably we’ve generated more data than we can handle, so we’re struggling to keep up, to capture and sift it. And we’re finding it difficult to make clear the links with ‘action’, but that’s probably an aspect of the initiative which always indicated a longer gestation. Suffice to say for the moment the meaning of ‘action’ is less associated with (political) organising than with problem-solving and intensive review: this is not the Chomskyan model of ‘activism’. There has of course to be a concern that at points when austerity-driven policies are having such a violently disruptive impact on poor people’s lives and such a gross impact on our overall social fabric that the concerns we’re working with are a luxury or a distraction. But the recent argument that ‘truly effective protest against indebtedness will need to acknowledge the extent to which many indebted subjects may have invested in the strategies for future-making that are increasingly on offer in neoliberal societies’ could usefully be extended to examining many older people’s direct responses to housing insecurity and unfit accommodation.

At our April event, a small affair with just fifteen people taking part, our table group discussions covered a diverse range of themes: downsizing, the policy emphasis on specialist developments (like co-housing); and the question of older people’s ‘rights’ to housing. We set these conversations against the broader backdrop of the national housing crisis, particularly its effects in London, where social cleansing is a widely used term, though perhaps not on the scale often assumed. Responding to an article from a local paper one participant captured its wider impact: ‘Well it’s true. All of my grandchildren have moved out and three of my daughters. Their husbands still work in London – they have to because they couldn’t afford it otherwise. If it goes on we’ll have a dead city.’ She described one granddaughter with a new baby phoning in to say ‘Can you get mum to help me?’ but with mum too far away to come. Nor are these poignant experiences exclusive to younger families: older people who live in older stock are vulnerable to plans for redevelopment as I reported on this website last year. Sheila Peace shared her concern that the extension of the right-to-buy will gravely limit the implementation of the lifetime homes standards (which to its credit the GLA has sought to maintain in the city).

Alongside these discussions we drew on Caroline Holland’s rich presentation on ‘housing histories’. As I heard it, the built environment – the sequence of dwellings – offers a material framework, objective and personal,  for biographical narrative. Jonathan set out his own ‘history’ to lead an energetic final workshop in which we shared these personal accounts one-to-one or in small groups. Some people had brought in photographs, several of us struggled to get from beginning to end. Except, of course, that it may not be the end. Caroline’s question to Jonathan – ‘is this your last house?’ – introduced many of the issues captured by the concept of ‘option recognition’, an outcome of the Environment and Identity study she carried out with Sheila Peace and Leonie Kellaher some years ago. The emerging concern to keep addressing the future in old age is reinforced.

Preparing a position

The challenges now for Conversation into Action are threefold. First, we have to explore the fit with a progressive strategy at national level, where the reformist agenda leans towards the release of housing equity – in 2008 people over 65 held £250 billion of the £900 billion identified in 2007 as the value for the market as whole – without addressing the socially inequitable distribution of wealth which financialises and drains the real economy. Can the reformist and radical agendas be reconciled? We’re fortunate to have Michael Edwards, formerly of the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London, who has accepted an invitation to present, joining us at our June event. We’ve adopted his recent piece in Soundings as one of our ‘set texts’.

Second, we have to explain what has been learned and report back on the emerging picture. An issue here is the complexity of the whole picture. Two examples can illustrate this. For those of us who want to see action and achieve a new compact to provide social housing an important reference point as been the different traditions of provision and stock management in other parts of western Europe. But here the facts give less and less cause for comfort. The proportion of housing units in owner occupation in France, for example, is set to overtake that in the UK in the next few years, and even Germany now has more than 50% of housing in owner occupation. Then, as illustrated by a recent conversation between Lynsey Hanley and Dawn Foster, there’s a belief on the left that the turn to owner-occupation in the UK is relatively recent, and like so many other unpalatable social facts attributable to Thatcherisation. But, as Stuart Lowe demonstrates in his book The Housing Debate, it was during the 1930s that the trend to mass home-ownership took root in England: between 1933 and 1939, and largely without state subsidy, the private sector built and sold over 200,000 homes every year – peaking at nearly 290,000 in 1934/5. Thatcher reinforced quite deep-seated expectations. She didn’t create them, indicating that a radical social housing strategy, however expedient, may struggle for wider public support across the electorate, however much the turn to private renting might suggest otherwise.

The paper in which we develop a position as the basis for further discussion will need to have four reference points. The first is factual but fundamental: the rising number of households that will be formed by older people set alongside the rising proportion of households with a resident over 65. The second concerns the relationship between self-interest and principle: how far older people can be persuaded to support increased taxation of land, property and family inheritance, the reintroduction of rent control and other forms of market regulation. The third point rests with investment in social housing, the need to incorporate lifetime homes standards in design, support alternative lifestyles (like co-housing), the adaptation of existing property and the creation of age-friendly environments. The fourth is with the conversation itself: the need for better support for the individual and collective agency of older people in planning and preparation – a life-course approach deployed within an intelligent, multi-generational, public framework.

Learning tools for future conversations – the June workshop

Our third challenge concerns the content and aims of a future course of study. Here we have to consider the relationship between distance learning and face to face work. We have to look closely at the strengths and weaknesses of conversational practice, striking a balance between teaching ‘facts’ and helping participants get a grip on the more discomforting data. We have to consider our own vantage point in late mid-life as learning intermediaries: what gains and losses does our generational position represent? Can we go on to develop a tool as persuasive as Caroline’s housing histories to help older people explore the shape of households in their neighbourhood and share thinking with strangers about those intimate needs for shelter, security and identity implicit in the concept of ‘home’?  BSG members who want to get involved with our work should get in touch.

Conversation into Action will soon have to turn to new issues. But we still need to talk about housing. The third Housing for All workshop will take place on June 22nd 2016 from 10.30am to 4pm at the OU in Hawley Crescent in London. A free lunch, again courtesy of BSG, will be provided. We’d like to encourage members and associates to attend and boost our numbers at this vital stage.