Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Housing as a middle class problem

As my research interest has been predominantly on community regeneration, or neighbourhood renewal, in deprived neighbourhoods I have quite an interest in social housing. With my research “turn” to understanding middle-class or affluent communities, I’ve been pondering, in light of recent policy debates around housing (on housing supply, planning for housing and the “bedroom tax”), would the policy debate around housing be different if we were still in the “golden age” of social housing when, in Scotland in 1981 over 50 per cent of the population lived in “socially rented” housing? Would the policy debate be different, or better informed, if the middle-classes were as interested in rented housing as they are in mortgaged or bought housing now?

That golden age?

Big proviso here – this is my interpretation of what I have read of council housing in the late 1960s and 1970s (predominantly from CDP reports) so if there are factual inaccuracies, I’m happy to be informed by them and hopefully change my views.

First of all, I think we need to interrogate that “golden age” of “socially rented” housing – that period up until the early 1980s when local authority housing remained the tenure of choice for a large proportion of the population. In some readings of the debate about housing provision this period paints the UK as a sort of proto-Germanic/Scandinavian housing utopia. From my knowledge this is a simplification of a much more complex story. My knowledge here comes from just a few sources that I’ll be explicit about: the broad narrative of the welfare state in Timmin’s The Five Giants; the account of council housing in the 1960s in Tucker’s Honourable Estates; the account of corporate management and housing in Cockburn’s The Local State; and the accounts of interwar slum clearance housing in Sean Damer’s Wine Alley; and the reports of the Paisley Community Development Project (1972-77), the only CDP to be based in an area of local authority housing.

To apply our understanding of social housing as welfare provision to council housing up until the 1970s is, as I see it, to misapply a modern concept and to misunderstand the strategy of equality that local authority housing provision was aiming for. One thing that becomes abundantly clear reading Tucker and the accounts of the Paisley CDP is that council housing was neither equally good nor affordable to all. Rent levels reflected the mortgage the local authority had taken out to build the housing and grant levels varied wildly. Therefore the more modern and larger your house, the higher your rent and the more affluent your neighbours could be. To use some “experiential” evidence – my parents (a teacher and a social worker) struggled to pay the rent on their first council flat because of this and most of their neighbours in their high-rise block were also professionals and what we would now term “first-time buyers”.

Before the advent of housing benefit, the local variability of rent and rate rebates meant that those tenants in greatest need – those who would now access what we call social housing – were in the oldest, poorest quality housing with the lowest rent. Often this would be the stigmatised “supervised” housing set aside by the local authority for “incorrigible tenants” and such like. This was the class system writ-large over areas of council housing. Even by the epitome of the “golden age” of council housing in Scotland, just before the Right-To-Buy was introduced, the two local authorities in my two case studies for my PhD were actively managing the neighbourhoods as low demand areas, with low rents to keep this “sort” of tenant separate from the “respectable” tenants in other housing schemes.

The other aspect of this, often ignored, is that because of the direct link between rents and finance, local authorities were major builders of housing for sale. Tucker nicely discusses how as the political balance of a council would swing from Labour to Conservative and back again, the signs outside newly built council houses would change from “to let”, to “for sale” and back to “to let”. My own family did well out of this with my uncle buying a house in Essex in the 1960s with a mortgage from the LCC. And we must not forget that with the relaxation of credit controls that Heath introduced in the early 1970s that led to that first residential property boom that crashed in 1973, the pent-up demand for mortgaged occupation in the UK was already being released.

I would actually characterise the strategy of equality for housing policy until the 1980s as being one of one of producing enough good quality housing. You only have to look at all our cities and the vast suburbs of post-war council and private housing, to see the massive amounts of land that were released by local plans following the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. The high-rises that have become so symbolic within debates on housing were a product of this “numbers game” in housing policy. There was political consensus that there was not enough housing stock to meet the rising demand and we needed a lot more. And so it was built by governments of all political persuasions.

What happened since the early 1980s is a decline in the supply of new housing. This is a well-rehearsed story, but my take on the narrative is that overly pessimistic population projections from the 1981 census, combined with NIMBYism, and the Thatcher government’s attack on planning (especially the virtual halt to strategic long term planning in Structure Plans) meant new house building dropped dramatically. This was combined with a virtual halt to new socially rented homes being built. Again, “experiential” evidence (looking around Edinburgh) testifies to this. I don’t think I know of a major building or housing estate built in Edinburgh in the 1980s. Quite a few from the early 90s, but a bit of a gulf in the middle.

So what?

So, to return to the original question what if 50 per cent of housing was still socially rented? Well, first of all, based on my work on middle-class activism, I doubt it would be socially rented as we understand it today. The marginalisation of long-term rented housing as a tenure choice in the UK has come about for all sorts of reasons over the past 30 years. Before then, local authority housing was a mixed tenure. So, I’m pretty sure the middle-class, or more affluent residents, would have agreed to higher rents to improve housing management and maintenance, creating a further residualisation of a portion of local authority housing that would be available to less affluent tenants. Further, newly built housing would also be burdened with a higher mortgage and only be available to wealthier tenants as well. In a Britain with income inequality as low as it was in 1979 this would have less of an impact on the accessibility of housing as it would with inequality as high as it is today. A socially just way to manage this would be that as advised by Tucker back in the 1960s – rent rebates (or housing benefit) to enable people to access the housing they choose.

The great unknown at the moment in all of this is the private-rented sector. Lack of data means we don’t really know that much about it, although we do know it is still growing. That great historian of housing policy, my dad, suggested to me in a conversation where we were bemoaning my brother and his wife’s poor experience of PRS, that we’re essentially returning to a housing situation like that which existed when he were a lad, in the 1940s and 1950s – with Rachmannist landlords, and just people wanting a nest egg, purchasing poor quality property, renting it out to provide an investment income, without the reinvestment being prioritised to make these good homes.

And with this rise of the PRS and the short-assured tenancy as the tenure of no-choice (I was a victim of the tenure for five years myself) the middle-classes have been doing what my research predicts they would do and complaining about it – there’s been the long-running column in the Guardian and I recently discovered this group set up in Edinburgh. Alex Marsh also picks up on this here.

Which, oddly enough, brings me onto one of the problems with our research on middle-class activism – namely, is it a problem, and if so what do we do about it? In this case I don’t see it as a problem. Of course, the middle-class NIMBYism side of the debate is a problem in that it is limiting housing supply. But the fact that an increasingly large and vocal group is being priced out of the housing market altogether, or having to fall prey to some pretty horrendous practices by landlords in very one-sided contracts, is raising the issue of housing in national policy debates.

The challenge now seems to me to make this debate an informed one where we can produce some sensible policy decisions, rather than the mess of localism and neighbourhood planning and the poor-bashing of the Housing Benefit debate (latest inflection of this sorry saga here) . Another post on the over-regulation of social landlords in Scotland will be coming this way shortly (hopefully?), but if we are to increasingly rely on the PRS we do need (and this is where I very much agree with eptag) a much more regulated private rented sector that makes financial sense for tenants. Renting a home is not “throwing away” money; it should be about buying your housing needs over the long term with committed investment by landlords in properties.