Can Social Housing Offer the Solution?
Photo: Craig Maclean
The economic crisis has exposed the flaws at the heart of the so-called property boom. In this article Joe Crawford, who has worked for the housing charity Shelter and now lectures on housing at Stirling University, analyses the roots of the housing crisis and outlines a socialist response.
Mortgage repossessions in the UK are set to reach an all time high. First time buyers will increasingly struggle to get a foot on the property ladder with the forced retrenchment of lending. In fact, even the most optimistic neoliberal commentators are estimating anything between ten and fifteen years before overly inflated house prices begin to claw their way back up to what they were in 2007. Marxist economists like Professor Richard Wolff, now pulling big crowds with his entertaining YouTube lectures, make a robust case to suggest that things will never be the same again.
Yet, if you lived in Switzerland, Germany, Holland or any of the Scandinavian countries, the chances are you would be sitting much more comfortably in well designed accommodation which you rent at a fair percentage of your income, from a social landlord. Switzerland has the lowest rate of home ownership in Europe, yet one of the highest standards of living. Is there a connection between the two? There is a strong argument to suggest there is. There are a number of burning questions that arise from this comparison with Europe. Why are we so obsessed with home ownership in the UK? What happened to our social housing sector? How can it be fixed?
Whatever Happened to Social Housing?
As the private housing market in the UK saw unprecedented growth, the social sector declined year on year. So much so, in fact, that social housing in Britain has become a residualised tenure of last resort. Today council housing acts as a safety net for those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum. Taking the issue a step further, the argument can be made that social housing has not only evolved into a widely used instrument of social control, but that the deprived council estate serves, in many respects, as an open prison.
This was no accident. There is nothing organic, natural or inevitable about the demise of social rented housing in the UK. This situation was the deliberate and calculated manifestation of a raft of policies by government, working in concert with the interests of capital, to marginalise a sector in order to prove its inadequacy. It is wholly significant that, since New Labour took office, housing has never featured in any of their top ten policy objectives. Thatcher’s right to buy of 1979 was the very last time that housing, as an issue, occupied a prominent place on the political stage.
Thatcher’s objectives for housing were three-fold. Firstly the government engaged in the wholesale promotion of ownership in housing. Secondly they aimed to restructure housing subsidies in order to encourage further marginalisation of the public sector. Thirdly an attempt was made to reinvigorate the private rented sector. These were all achieved with varying degrees of success. It was not, however, until New Labour took power that these policy objectives started to really take shape.
New Labour arguably did more to promote home ownership than any previous Conservative government and the number of home owners continued to grow, along with house prices, almost unhindered until the collapse of the global lending market in 2008. The policy mechanisms employed in the promotion of owner occupation were many. Subsidies for first time buyers, reductions in stamp duty and the deregulation of the mortgage lending sector continued to boost the numbers of home owners in the UK. These policy reforms created new opportunities for previously excluded groups to get onto the property ladder. Following on from practices in the US, predatory lending was widespread across the UK. The possibility of increasing credit as well as the level of profits generated from trading on mortgage backed securities meant that selling the mortgage became more important than seeking to ascertain whether the loan represented a reasonable credit risk (Northern Rock’s 125% mortgage is one example).
So why was the New labour government obsessed by the continuation of Thatcher’s vision of a home owning democracy? There are a number of clear governmental motives. Firstly, the rise in home ownership benefits capital, which was Labour’s primary objective. It also brings economic benefit to a wide range of professions such as developers, construction firms, surveyors, lawyers and estate agents all of whom did very well from the housing boom. Many of these associated professions had traditionally been Tory voters, and a large enough number resided in areas of England where Labour wanted to gain control.
As well as direct profitability, capital benefited in a number of other, indirect ways. Firstly, there is the aspect of social control. The creation of a home owning working class almost eradicated the threat to capital from protracted periods of industrial action on a large scale. Unlike sympathetic councils of the past, lenders are less likely to allow borrowers the opportunity to accrue arrears as the result of loss of pay due to strike action. With increasing levels of home ownership, the principle consideration for someone ticking a box on the ballot paper, is whether or not industrial action will result in the loss of the family home.
The second objective which owes it origins to the Conservative pledges of 1979 was the restructuring of housing subsidies to encourage further marginalisation of the public sector. Again, New Labour outperformed their predecessors. Virtually no council housing has been built during New Labour’s term in office. The right to buy has continued unfettered and social housing was starved of funds in an attempt to discredit council housing as a viable tenure. There has been large scale voluntary transfers of housing stock, from council to registered social landlords (i.e. Housing Associations). From 2001 to 2006 almost half a million homes were transferred from council control to other providers. We need only look at the recent spat between Glasgow City Council and the GHA over lucrative contracts to see the true motive behind stock transfer.
As well as making housing and housing services more receptive to the market, transfer also brought benefits to capital generated by the neoliberal push towards the continual diminution of the role of the state. A state with a reducing public expenditure is a state with less of a mandate for taxation. If the financial burden of providing public housing can be passed to the private sector then the pretext for progressive taxation is weakened. What is important to note here is the fact there is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ about the demise of the social rented sector in the UK. It has been micro managed as such for the last thirty years or more.
Private Rented Sector
This brings us onto the third Tory objective, the reinvigoration of the private rented sector, which was by some way their least successful. They need not have worried. Buy-to-let mortgages boomed under New Labour and in their first term alone, with the private rental market seeing more than 347,000 new dwellings added, far more than the 102,000 during 18 years of Conservative rule. There were a number of drivers here for New Labour. Of course, buy-to-let mortgages and mortgage backed securities brought great benefits to capital. In a time of economic buoyancy a strong private rental market is needed to ensure the mobility of labour, particularly in a climate where European workers were entering Britain to fill the skills gap. More recently with the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006, the reinvigoration of the sector would lead to a situation where the demands would be of a suitable standard to alleviate pressure on the shrinking social sector where demand still far outstrips supply. This is still an active area for policy experimentation.
Measures to encourage buy-to-let purchases served another government objective. By encouraging people to take control of their own financial destiny, the burdens on the state, particularly in respect of pension provision, are greatly reduced. For the government, self-sufficiency via asset accumulation is envisaged as a direct replacement for state dependency via benefits. There was, certainly until 2007, no greater investment opportunity that the property market and Gordon Brown’s main incentive for asset accumulation was a change in the regulations to allow pension funds to be freed up early in order to purchase buy-to-let properties. The rent was exempt of tax, so someone with a healthy pension could purchase a property, and get someone else to pay off the mortgage. Not only would their pension grow disproportionately, they would also be in possession of an asset with which to sell for their retirement fund. The rich could, basically, get richer. However, the New Labour requirement to invest in your future doesn’t stop at the rich. An asset based welfare regime carries with it an expectation that when all homeowners retire, they cash in their chips, move into a smaller flat where they can live off the money they made from the sale of the family home.
Boom and Bust
For asset- based welfare to deliver, one necessary condition is required. House prices need to keep increasing. Herein lays the fatal flaw. Nothing in life is more certain than the boom and bust nature of capitalist markets. Asset based welfare also requires buy-in from participants. With an asset based welfare regime, many homeowners may be left wondering what a life time of tax and pension contributions was actually for. Asset based welfare also requires transformation through social control. The British public, Thatcher’s vision of a home-owning democracy, need to undergo some level of behaviour modification, from consumer-spenders, to saver-investors. This has happened only to a certain extent as the contradictory presence of rising personal debt tends to hinder our ability to save, if not invest, in assets that we will need to see us through old age.
What we have witnessed over the last ten years is a comprehensive suite of policy measures that have seen the combined efforts of government and capital acting in concert to promote home ownership. Perhaps, however, we have missed the most fundamentally important aspect which may go some way to helping us understand the UK’s obsession with home ownership. The best and most effective way to promote home ownership is to remove any viable alternative. As we have seen, governments over the last thirty years have successfully pushed the social rented sector to the very margins of residualisation. The government’s mechanisms for subverting social housing range from the legislative and administrative, to the more sinister aspects of regulation and governance, namely as an instrument of social control.
The various flagship Housing Acts following devolution, particularly with the introduction of the Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003, have given us an unprecedented package of rights for Homeless people. By 2012, it is hoped that all barriers to housing will be removed and everyone who is homeless in Scotland will have a statutory right to accommodation. This is an impressive pledge and the clear benefits of such a framework have placed us at the enviable centre of rights-based housing provision in Europe. No matter how beneficial to homeless persons, however, this level of safety net carries with it a profound problem of image. If a ‘social good’ is reserved for the most vulnerable, excluded or economically disadvantaged, it is going to carry with it the burden of stigma. In our consumer society, we value things which are difficult to obtain, things which carry status and which set us apart as being somehow successful, special or important. If homelessness is, in itself stigmatised, then housing employed mainly in accommodating the homeless will suffer in the same way. This aspect of stigmatisation has to be addressed if social housing is going to play a wider role in provision for the future.
The second problem is one of allocation. Statistics on concentrations of multiple deprivation show clear signs of what some people term ‘ghettoisation’. This is not the most helpful terminology but certainly one that paints a picture of socially and economically homogeneous groups clumped together. It is this phenomenon that has acted as the main thrust behind the policy drive for ‘socially mixed communities.’ It is widely accepted that areas where no one works, most are sick, crime is high and prospects non existent, are in themselves an independent source of disadvantage. Poor areas are synonymous with poor services, inadequate transport links, unemployment and bad health. It is therefore accepted that it is worst to be poor in a poor area than to be poor in an area of social mix. There is a strong argument to suggest that socially mixed communities are the most sustainable. If we look at the original vision for social housing we can see that this is exactly what was intended. The idea being that the local authority provided homes where the entire community from the local doctor, the teacher, artisans, labourers – skilled and unskilled, the young and the old, all lived side by side in communities which were vibrant and diverse. As we have seen above, the dismantling of this vision was deliberate and calculated.
Instead of fully integrated communities, Britian has seen an increased growth in ‘gated-communities.’ Imported from LA, many affluent new developments in Britain come with perimeters and private security guards who make sure those who are excluded remain so. Spatial segregation and geographical separation has never been so pronounced. It is, therefore, not difficult to see why social housing has evolved into an instrument of social control. More specifically, is has become a means of controlling the poor. Most of the current thinking around social control comes from the work of the French philosopher Michelle Foucault whose seminal work Discipline and Punish looked at how institutional control techniques have pervaded all levels of modern life. It is acknowledged that social control takes many forms and can be found in all aspects of everyday life, form the way we are policed, to urban design, surveillance, risk management and regulation. Although much has been written about social control, actual research on the relationship between housing and social control is less prevalent. The theory, however, is wholly transferable.
Foucault illustrates the fact that the prison constitutes a focused example of how control functions permeate the everyday routines and structures of modern society. These disciplinary technologies and surveillance mechanisms that are integrated into everyday life (in his case prison) provide an unparalleled opportunity for exercising a systematised form of control over the regime’s subjects. All of this is, of course ,is a wider metaphor for the transformations taking place in modern societies. Housing is certainly one area that fits this model. What is seen by many to be a benign safety net for the homeless and the poor, actually turns out to be more akin to an open prison, where those, perceived to be a ‘risk’ are incarcerated and monitored.
In my years working for Shelter I saw, daily, a constant stream of individuals and families who claimed they could not ‘escape’ from their estate, no matter how bad things got. Even when families presented as homeless as a result of domestic or external violence, they were relocated at the other end of the estate. The obvious difference between an area of multiple deprivation and prison, it would seem, is the reasonable expectation of discharge. You would serve your prison sentence in the knowledge that one day you will eventually get out, a liberty which does not seem to extend to many in the worst social housing estates.
The other connection with Foucault’s work revolves around the notion of surveillance. Through the development of the concepts of both ‘panoptic surveillance’ and ‘discipline’ he details how a pervasive and penetrating regime for monitoring the conduct of inmates induces a form of social control. In few settings outside of the prison system are there more similarities than in the area of social housing. Surveillance and punishment of social tenants have become so embedded in housing management methods as to almost pass unchallenged. Tenants regularly complain about the levels of surveillance they are constantly under. CCTV covers almost every inch of deprived estates. Behaviours are constantly monitored by professional groups such as housing officers, social workers, community wardens, health visitors, the police, support workers, mental health nurses and anti-social behaviour teams and taskforces.
Surveillance as a form of social control is fairly limited without some form of punishment. In a housing context these are many and varied. Anti Social Behaviour Orders (turning the civil offence into a criminal offence) and the more recent Criminal Anti Social Behaviour Orders (turning the criminal offence into an even more criminal offence) are served upon tenants whose behaviour is deemed as deviant. If we compare the numbers of ASBOs issued to social tenants with those living in the private sector, accusations of victimisation are given some weight. The principle sanction here is the loss of the family home. This is seen as the ultimate deterrent. There was one interesting example of this fairly recently in Glasgow. On one particularly deprived estate, community wardens drove around in vans that had CCTV cameras mounted on the roof. Young people were filmed constantly and if their behaviour was deemed to be ‘inappropriate’ the tapes were passed to the local housing office. Upon identification, the parents of the youths were issued with a Notice of Proceedings for Recovery of Possession, called to the office and told that if their children were ‘caught’ again, the housing association would have no alternative but to seek decree for eviction. A worrying methodology for dealing with behaviour which is deemed to be problematic and a far cry, some may argue, from what social housing is actually ‘for’.
So the problem of housing persists. The mortgage lending sector is in ruin, social housing has been reduced to a tenure of last resort, and the UK is dire need of employment opportunities. It would seem that a massive building programme of social housing could address a gallimaufry of social and economic problems, but much remains to be done.
Social housing needs to be dragged back into the public domain. This means that provision should be universal and there should be more accountability in how housing services are run. Genuine social mix must be made a prerequisite. Warehousing the poor serves a very short term, narrow and ultimately damaging purpose. Social housing cannot be revived as a viable tenure as long it remains as a stigmatised safety net for the most vulnerable in society. In Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, France and the Scandinavian countries, social housing is a popular and accessible option. The Swiss model proves that an affluent and dynamic population can thrive in well-designed and sustainable housing that they rent as a percentage of their income from a social landlord. It is possible. There is no need for the hard-sell. After recent economic events, more and more people are beginning to wake up to the fact they have bought into a system, whose sole purpose was to benefit the narrow interests of a powerful minority. The solution is there in front of us. We need only look at the tenure profile of our European neighbours to realise that so much more is possible.