For more than 20 years we have been researching and writing about the downgrading of public housing in the UK. Thankfully, the tide finally appears to be turning.
Government failure can be seen most clearly in the form of homelessness, but the problems are bigger – high prices, high rents, housing insecurity and its high toll on mental health, overcrowding, beds in sheds and so on. For decades, financial support for public housing has been cut. Politicians have referred to estates of public housing as “sink” areas, marring the reputations of places and people.
While homelessness and rising prices and rents fill conversations about the housing problems of today, government action has focused on helping existing and new home owners. In the meantime, private landlords reap profits from an insecure, frequently poor quality and high cost sector.
But finally, several British political parties – Labour, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats – are offering evidence-based and convincing analyses of the problem and pledging to improve non-market housing provision.
It is perhaps not surprising that recent decades have generated this new position on how to fix the broken housing system, where the state – local and central – takes a more active role. It is increasingly clear that the market, often lauded as the most efficient way of providing and allocating housing, is actually a key driver of the failure to provide decent homes for many hundreds of thousands of households.
So what are the parties offering at this stage? The Conservatives focus on overseeing the construction of a million homes in the next five years. Social housing, it seems, will continue to be neglected under a Tory government.
Labour, meanwhile, have pledged to build 100,000 council homes a year by 2024 for those most in need. It also wants to fund a further 50,000 homes a year to be built by Housing Associations who also target those needing a home and will put a stop to Right to Buy: a scheme which has led to over 40 per cent of former council homes now being rented out by private landlords.
The Liberal Democrats propose 300,000 homes a year by 2024, to include 100,000 for social rent (by housing associations). The Greens match the Lib Dems while stressing the need for zero-carbon homes.
This social housing project won the Stirling Prize 2019.
The Conservatives stand out here, with their continued focus on offering public money to help aspirational owners rather than providing housing for those most in need. Their costly Help to Buy scheme, which they plan to extend, has been widely criticised for inflating prices, bolstering developer profits and doing nothing to help those in most need. The party’s election manifesto does not provide any details as to how it will increase the supply of social other than to state that “it will bring forward a social housing white paper”.
Talk of austerity, poverty and inequality may be tiring for some to keep hearing, but it is critical that we understand how bad things are for many people. Many older homeowners find it hard to understand the pressures of simply finding a place to live, let alone the ongoing challenge of funding that space, heating it or accessing it if disabled. Paying rent to help secure someone else’s retirement is particularly galling for many.
A social system
A system is needed that is designed for the needs of all people. Research shows that yes, of course a regulated market in owned housing is needed (controls are needed to ensure it is high quality and built in the right places). But this needs to exist alongside a high quality, professionally managed public housing sector capable of helping people to find decent homes. Increasingly, the shortfall in supply has enabled private landlords to offer low income households sub-standard properties.
The argument that public housing does not work is locked in a vision of large-scale estates that became increasingly unpopular as funding has been drained from them. Most analysts today envision a for-life option (the ability of tenants to stay for as long as they like so that they can feel secure) at a cost that allows other areas of life to be better enjoyed (health, education, access to work). Only home ownership and public rented housing can provide these kinds of outcomes.
Whatever our personal politics, it is vital that we understand that powerful interests circulate to promote housing as a market commodity, rather than a critical social good to be enjoyed by all. The pathway to this vision is littered with the profits to private landlords and the shattered dreams of the homeless and ill-housed.
It is precisely not in the interests of market providers to resolve the housing crisis. This may sound like heresy, but it is the evidence of many years of analysis.
Hope for the future
Looking to a future in which social housing forms a basis for social and economic investment offers genuinely thrilling prospects. There is no reason that a new council building programme cannot be enjoyed in partnership with private builders, and indeed using smaller companies, many of whom have been threatened or busted by the current crisis.
On the environmental front, social homes can be built or retrofitted to enhanced standards that are warm, safe, flood resistant and carbon neutral.
To say this will cost a lot of money is stating the obvious. But housing is a major component in the reproduction of wealth inequalities, private profiteering and carbon emissions (energy use in homes accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s total). The fact that political attention is being focused more clearly on challenging these problems and getting traction on a home-building programme for citizens should be welcomed by all.
The housing crisis of today is an enduring problem, one that goes back more than a hundred years, when walking through the slums of the growing industrial metropolises, Friedrich Engels asked why more housing wasn’t provided when so many people were in need. The question today is, why are we still asking the same old question?
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