Bricks, mortar and social engineering
The authorities built more houses in the Depressed 1930s than New Labour is planning to build today. Britain's housing crisis is built on a failure of political imagination.
First, the figures…
- The government plans to build three million homes by 2020
- The annual target is to build 200,000 homes a year
- We are already falling short by around 30,000 a year
- The target will increase to 240,000 a year from 2016
- The government’s advisers say the existing target should increase to 270,000
Compare this with…
- The million homes built in five years by the postwar Labour government
- In the 1950s the Conservatives built 300,000 homes a year
- By the late 1960s it was not far off half a million homes a year
- Even during the 1930s (the years of the Depression) we were builiding more than the target of 270,000 put forward by today’s advisers.
It is not just the figures that are important here. Whether it was decent houses for all or public housing as a stepping stone to a wider home-owning democracy, the building of houses has historically been about more than just how many of them went up. In today’s discussions around housing there seems to be no great vision of what the good society might look like. Instead, we have an obsession with things like shared ownership, inheritance tax and stamp duty thresholds. And with the absence of vision, there is little political will to see through a programme of mass household building.
In a sense, housing is about more than bricks and mortar; it’s about meeting people’s needs and aspirations. But today, housing has become about everything except… building some houses! Why, if everybody agrees that we need more houses, are we failing to build them? It seems to me that we are not having the right kind of discussion about housing anymore. It has become obscured and weighed down by other contemporary concerns and preoccupations. Here are some examples.
According to the National Housing Federation, ‘A home is not just about bricks and mortar, it is the community in which you live’. There are ‘safe communities’, ‘mixed communities’, ‘active communities’, ‘sustainable communities’. The list goes on. And each poses a new problem for the business of building houses. It is perhaps significant that something called Communities England is to take over the delivery of public housing from the Housing Corporation. It will be accountable to the Department for Communities and Local Government. But this communities-talk is not just political rhetoric; it articulates new rationales for housing policy, and new roles for housing providers.
With over 1.5million people on the list for social housing, and just 300 council homes built last year, you might think that meeting this shortfall would be uppermost in the minds of social housing providers. On the contrary, housing associations are being encouraged to manage the lives of their aparently feckless tenants. They increasingly see their role as one of protecting the vulnerable from loan sharks on the one hand, while evicting anti-social tenants on the other. Eviction has, apparently, become something of a ‘badge of honour’.
The same goes for the lobbyists. Shelter, the English housing and homelessness charity, for instance, argues that poor and overcrowded housing is damaging our children’s health, education, future prospects and wellbeing. But this undermines the old arguments about social housing being about meeting social needs. It reduces people to victims of their own homes, ‘damaged’ or ‘stigmatised’ by their everyday lives, rather than simply poor and deserving of somewhere better to live. It invites unwarranted intrusions by housing associations into the lives of tenants on account of their presumed vulnerability. It also implies that if children are not sufficiently badly affected by their sub-standard housing then they are not in need of new, better housing.
In addition to housing being about ‘community-building’ and addressing the ‘vulnerability’ of children and adults, it is also about creating ‘sustainable’ homes. This term seems to mean anything and everything, but again it shouldn’t be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Efforts to reduce the ‘ecological footprint’, whether by protecting the green belt, building zero-carbon homes or bolting solar panels and wind turbines on to houses, are real enough, but this is only a small part of the sustainability agenda. In an apparent attempt to arrest what little housing development there is, critics repeatedly point to a lack of infrastructure or remind us of the historic lesson of sacrificing quality for quantity. But the argument is always the same. The more houses we build the less ‘sustainable’ we are being.
Constraints on housing are more apparent than real. There is more to the housing problem than planning guidance and local resistance. It is easy to blame speculators, developers and city bonuses for spiralling house prices and rising rates of homelessness. The fact that some homes are left empty (or under-occupied) is only a problem because we don’t have enough houses. Those who treat their homes as an investment, those who buy-to-let or leave their holiday homes empty are wrongly condemned for their part in the housing crisis. The biggest constraint on housing today is the failure of the political imagination.
The sum of human happiness is not reducible to bricks and mortar. And yet housing has always been a part of wider debates about the kind of society we want to live in. At one time the political parties competed to build more houses in an attempt to realise that new and better society. Today we seem to have set our sights much lower.
We should be aspiring to a society where everybody can afford a holiday home instead of complaining about the few who can now. Instead of arguing that housing queues amount to a revival of social housing (as some do), we need to recognise that people aspire to much more than a run-down housing stock. There is nothing to celebrate in the way people have been forced to lower their aspirations and join the housing queue.
We are far more affluent than we were in the Sixties when housebuilding was at its peak, but we’ve lost the optimism that characterised that period. Instead of housing expressing our individual or collective aspirations for a better life it has become a vehicle for contemporary prejudicies, anxieties and orthodoxies about how to live the ‘good life’. We are burdening housing with questions that it simply cannot answer. We expect both too much and too little of it. Meanwhile, the most important issue – building more homes – is obscured.
Treating bricks and mortar as a metaphor for building a new society is no bad thing. But treating houses as a way of cementing society together is destined to fail.
Dave Clements works in children’s social care. This article is an edited version of a presentation given at the session More than bricks and mortar? at the Battle of Ideas Festival on 28 October 2007.
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