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Response to Review no. 693

The review takes a well worn path, expressing opinion largely based on economic reductionism. As such, it utterly fails to engage with the central ideas about shifting discourse, policy and the local decision-making process.

First, the title may be misleading as it does not refer to economics or the politics of the state, local or central, as these have been extensively debated. Rather, it is concerned with social and cultural influences on the process of government and governance. The reviewer claims that the central-local dynamics are inadequately explored, but, again, that is missing the point. This, and the role of central government, is explored as context, in the early sections, but the idea is to move beyond the obvious direct politics towards an understanding of the local factors influencing policy. As such, it is arguing that the politics of housing is more complex than others suggest. The idea was to provide a broad context but then to examine the other local influences on policy in a historical context. Similarly, the role of the private sector is not the issue being explored. This is about discourse, rhetoric, society and culture. The book is trying to add not repeat the same (tired) one-dimensional approaches.

Second, the reviewer claims that the book is anti-municipal. This, again, points to a traditional interpretation and defence of local authorities. Moreover, it is inaccurate. He claims that ‘the council seems to get the blame whatever it does‘ and that ‘this is a black and white world in which the council are the bad guys’, but these are superficial statements. I make it very clear that Manchester was often faced with limited choices. Local issues impacted on local politics. This is the point of the book, something which has not been fully appreciated. The fact that Manchester tried to build quality cottages in a decent environment is not anti-municipal. Indeed, the reviewer actually contradicts himself by later acknowledging that I had made this point. Furthermore, the battle between Manchester and Cheshire is not a criticism of the council but underlines the fact that their attempts to deliver the best for their tenants were often thwarted through no fault of their own. In what way is this anti-municipal?

Third, he claims that the concept of civic culture ‘is used as a short-hand for continuities such as the preference for cottage estates rather than flats, and the city fathers’ determination to pursue grand ambitions.’ However, civic culture is also about the dynamics of the relationship between local government and the citizen. As the book is also concerned with the tenant, it does actually go further than his narrow understanding. Connected to this is the role of the tenant. He argues that:

[a]nother criticism of the way Shapely writes about tenants concerns the suggestion that they were ignored until the 1960s. This just will not do. The historical evidence suggests that the middle class and self-help voluntary organisations that were active from the latter part of the 19th century failed to build anything like enough houses to dent the shortage, but when housing was politicised by working-class demands during the First World War then an effective policy response was rapidly forthcoming. It is simply not credible to write tenants out of the story until they start to become visibly active in the 1960s.

Again, this is missing the point. The book makes it clear that the council was desperately trying to force that pace of change but that the process did not include consultation with the tenants. The labour movement, together with progressive liberals, was very influential, but the tenants themselves were not consulted in any meaningful sense of the word. Hence, this is an examination of discourse. The reviewer ignores this fundamental point. The idea is to show why the process continued as it did, largely unchallenged, until ordinary working people had finally had enough. There continued to be a top-down approach which was more akin to the patronising attitude of 19th-century middle class reformers. The fact was that, due to practical reasons, when the tenants of Hulme objected to being moved en masse they were overruled. The reviewer is intent on justifying the top-down approach and he assumes that ‘working class demands’ equates to the specific wishes of the tenants, which it did not. The point is that civic culture is also about inclusion. The fact was that the specific hopes and ambitions of the tenants were rarely sought and often ignored. The process began in the 19th century and remained engrained in civic culture. It was a part of the politics of housing. This is not a revisionist account and is not intended to go over old ground.

Fourth, the tone and perspective of the reviewer are best appreciated with his understanding of the analysis of the tenant. Again, in the review there is a sense that the post-war welfare state needs to be rigorously defended and that any mention of the ‘consumer’ must, by implication, be a right wing critique. The book is intended to be neither of these things but is an attempt to move beyond the outdated, welfare, top-down, institutional approach. Moreover, it is provides an understanding of how the politics of housing started to change in the 1960s, away from the rigid polemical approach. The tenants were actually acting on many levels, something which has not been appreciated in his simplistic dismissal of the angry consumer. Most were trying to influence policy on a collective basis, though between them they embraced the entire political spectrum. The Labour council struggled to come to terms with this shifting political landscape because it was entrenched in its own top-down approach. Perhaps it was not alone. Besides, tenants had a right to be angry given many of the decisions made on their behalf and in their name. However, the central point, again, is the attempt to identify the social and cultural influences on the process, the politics of housing, and how it changed over time. The impact of these historical processes was highlighted in the rebuilding of Hulme in the early 1990s. None of this is debated as the reviewer simply refers to old ground.

Fifth, in some cases this is very old ground. The reviewer will know that any historiography needs to be carefully edited so that it includes different viewpoints and that it does not have to include everything. The historiography attempts to be extensive and balanced. Seven of his 11 texts that he criticises me about for failing to include actually pre-date 1980.  Some of the sources are, perhaps, intended as primary material (very restricted if this is the case, but it’s unclear) while others are unintentionally in danger of becoming primary material. Therein lies the possible source of our differences. This book looks at the 1970s as part of a historical process.

Sixth, the book is concerned with discourse, but the review completely ignores this issue, preferring instead to refer to more obvious and well trod approaches.

The review is highly selective. There are a number of other issues which are contentious but the failure to appreciate or engage with the central point of the book leads me to feel it would be pointless to do so. The review side steps the core issues, relying on old interpretations. It is far from being subtle and is difficult to take seriously.