Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by Sabine Dunstan (Land Economy 2015), who attended the ‘In Conversation with the Master’ event on affordable housing on 2 November 2017.

Yesterday I attended one of the several ‘In Conversation with the Master’ events Nicky hosts throughout the academic year. In case you are unaware, the format of these events involves welcoming guests into College to converse with Nicky about a topic which relates to their field of expertise and professional experience. However, for audience members, the event is much more than this; participation is actively encouraged in the form of both questions and challenges to arguments presented, making it a really dynamic and interesting event. If mingling (or, dare I say, networking) is your thing, then there is also the chance to meet the guests following the debate and get those burning questions answered over supper which, by the way, was divine.

This week, the title of the event was ‘Affording Housing in Cambridge, London and Manchester’, with Matthew Gardiner and Jonathan Rose as guest speakers. Whilst Jonathan is based locally as the Master Planner for North West Cambridge, Matthew kindly travelled down from Trafford, where he is the Chief Executive of a Housing Association. Matthew studied Geography at Fitz and, as a Northerner myself, it was great to meet a College alumnus who has made the venture back up to make a real difference where action is needed.

Whilst such events tend to be more conversational than more formal lectures (a welcome break from the usual academic structure), both Jonathan and Matthew had gone to the trouble of preparing a slideshow presentation to help illustrate some of the projects they are currently working on. Jonathan explored the development of Eddington in North West Cambridge which has been made possible by the release of greenbelt land and has been developed as a partnership between the city itself and the University of Cambridge. Meanwhile, Matthew talked us through the Old Trafford Masterplan and the importance of a holistic approach in tackling housing problems through examples such as the creation of a new health and wellbeing centre at the heart of the area. Both of these case studies set the scene of the current climate in the UK housing market, allowing even those who had no economic background to engage with the topic. It transpired quickly that, even with these fantastic examples of development, the demand for housing far outstrips supply, thus rendering it unaffordable to huge sections of the market.

During their case studies, Nicky was keen to establish definitions of key terms such as affordability and what a home actually was, which in turn led to discussion, raised by an audience member, about whether in fact housing was a right or a commodity. This sparked contributions across the audience and, whilst settling on an overall consensus that it was in fact a combination of the two, it was not without exploration of the very concept of human rights and the role that the state does and/or should play in what is essentially one of the most attractive private investments.

The overall theme of the discussion was the sheer complexity of the housing market. We touched on the importance of density, constraints to the supply of housing both in the form of institutional and political constraints and also within the housebuilding industry itself and explored the role of development in addressing this. There was a general consensus from the speakers that devolution and the election of City Mayors, whilst certainly a step in the right direction, is not sufficient and that there are still huge steps to take in tackling the problem.

As much as I would love to be able to report otherwise, we did not, unfortunately, manage to solve the Housing Crisis. Nor did we find a way for me to be able to continue to afford to live in this beautiful city after I, as a finalist, leave Fitz later this year. However, what we did achieve was a thoroughly enjoyable evening engaging with a topic which is absolutely crucial to keep discussing. Thank you, once again, to Matthew, Jonathan and, of course, Nicky for making it possible. And, if you haven’t yet been to an event, make sure you come along to the next!

In Conversation with the Master - Affording Housing in Cambridge, London and Manchester | 2 November 2017, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

In Conversation with the Master – Affording Housing in Cambridge, London and Manchester | 2 November 2017, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (Credit: John Cleaver)

Posted in Master's blog

I’ve let the blogs slip… why? Well, I was away on leave for three months and allowed myself to get immersed in my research world. So the blog was not a priority – was I wrong? I haven’t let everything slip. I think the answer is that I am not sure who I am writing the blog for, and who might be reading it. I find my monthly editorials in the Criminal Law Review much easier – the audience is obvious.

The sabbatical leave was fantastic, allowing me the space to complete the fieldwork of a research project observing the Parole Board at work, in particular observing oral hearings of the Board where they are deciding whether to direct the release of life sentence prisoners. These lifers include the thousands of prisoners, most of them well past their minimum term, still serving a sentence of ‘Imprisonment for Public Protection’, a sentence abolished in 2012. I carried out the first part of the project in July and August last year, observing 19 oral hearings conducted by video from the Parole Board’s Headquarters in the Ministry of Justice –  the panel of the Board in the Parole Board’s ‘hub’; the prisoner and his lawyer and ‘Offender Supervisor’ (a member of the prison staff) in a room in a prison; whilst the ‘Offender Manager’ (his probation officer) was often on a third video link, or on a telephone link. In January and February I was able to sit in on 17 hearings held in 11 different prisons, where the prisoner and the panel would be in the same room (but even here the Offender Manager might be only on a telephone link), and to interview a wide variety of ‘players’ in the process, including prisoners.

It was a privileged opportunity. I was often shocked: in part at the squalor of many of our prisons, but more often at what appeared to be a culture of inertia. My report for the Board concludes that there should be a much clearer commitment to avoid delays and to create a culture of urgency, both within the prison and probation system and within the Parole Board. The Board’s leadership (of the parole process) and independence within the broader penal system seemed to be missing: were they really an ‘independent court or tribunal’? Prison and probation services should be required to be more pro-active in seeking ‘progression’ for prisoners, less focused on offender ‘management’. Prisoners should have access to strong independent support and advice throughout their sentence.

It is very difficult to comment on the outcome of these hearings: for a start, there were only 36 cases in my sample. But only seven of the 36 cases resulted in the prisoner being released, so the Board is certainly cautious. Many of the prisoners were already many years post-tariff – they had served years more than the minimum term specified by the sentencing court. Probably 13 of the prisoners were satisfied with their ‘result’ as they had not all been seeking release: some were seeking a recommendation that they could be moved to an open prison. But the most depressing outcome was the fact that 15 of the 36 cases were deferred or adjourned on the day of the hearing. Expensive and cruel last-minute delays which could put the hearing back many months.

Since this fieldwork ended I have had the opportunity to visit (briefly) prisons in France, Japan and Scotland. I am left with the urge to write much more – but I am not convinced that, if there is an audience for this blog, they (you) really meant me to focus on what’s wrong with English prisons today. It’s a Fitzwilliam College blog. (If you want more on parole, let me know, or try my Understanding Recall 2011 as the system hasn’t changed – http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2201039). And now I’ll get on with writing about Fitz as well…

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.