Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A brief history of "social housing"

Forgive me for straying well away from the main focus of this blog.   In the current controversy over the bedroom tax or "spare room subsidy" no one seems to recall the history of what is now contemptuously called social housing.

A hundred years ago the large majority of the working class lived in private rented housing.  There were charities which had built "model dwellings"; some big employers like George Cadbury and James Reckitt had built estates for their workers.  But for most, housing was overcrowded and often squalid.  An inside toilet was an unheard-of luxury.  People moved house surprisingly frequently, perhaps doing a "moonlight flit" to escape rent arrears.  There were no regulations to protect tenants.  A few councils began to construct decent housing for rent.  But the real impetus for this came with the end of the Great War in 1918.  A big building programme was intended to create "homes fit for heroes" and the age of the council house began.  There was an added surge after the destruction of World War II.

Millions of us grew up in council houses.  There was no stigma attached to this.  The vast majority of tenants were working, but would never be able to afford the deposit on a mortgage.  Even if they could, most had a horror of taking on that sort of debt.  They were content to pay their rent and let the landlord take care of repairs and maintenance.  In the 1970s government encouraged other housing providers to enter the field, as housing associations.

And then came Margaret Thatcher.  A whole new lexicon was created, reflecting the free-market vision.  Anyone with aspirations would want to "get on the housing ladder".  Only life's losers would want to live in rented accommodation, and only those with special needs should be in "social housing".  Thatcher decided to dismantle the whole structure (and, in the process, destroy the power of local councils) by forcing the sell-off of houses at discount prices to their tenants.  Councils were not allowed to use the proceeds of the sales to build more housing, so the stock declined much faster than HAs could supply the deficiency.  People were encouraged to take on massive debt, and twenty-somethings were given a dozen or more mortgages for buy-to-let properties.  The only people who could get the tenancies of social housing were those perceived to be unable to afford to go private but in urgent need.

It has been a resounding victory for the political right.  As in other areas of our national life, a century of progress has been rolled back.





24 comments:

  1. Totally agree,the social housing in my area has been transferred to a newly formed housing group (not for profit,sic)over 3200 council homes.The new director is on £250k plus a year,rents have gone up and this group borrowed over £160 million pounds to renovate the existing stock.The majority of workers were transferred from the Council(fair enough) and although some work has been completed,like the WP no where near what was promised.As they are no longer part of the council,wage increases are protected under commercial privacy. Empire building,same players, same game..no accountability to the public.

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  2. The lack of affordable social housing was one of the main causes of the 2007 financial crisis. A lack of affordable homes for first time buyers forced them into the private housing market where prices were high. This meant that they took on too much debt. When the banks realised that they could not cover this debt - BANG!

    Houses prices are still too high - way above the average wage. Until we start to reinvest in social housing the UK economy will not improve.

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    1. ... but that would undermine the value of housing assets and a) make the banks' debts bigger and more visible on their balance sheets and b) alienate the tories' core vote.

      for these reasons, most of the current government's policies have been all about maintaining high property values (qe etc).

      so a) it isn't going to happen and b) once again the poorest amongst us will be penalised most. (oh, and blamed personally for their poverty.)

      we're all in this together (not).

      Delete
  3. I remember being told by my manager at the start of a new career that I should get the biggest mortgage I could obtain. I'm glad I didn't (decades later I'm in a council house) because I have left behind jobs when dishonesty raised it's head. Because I wasn't loaded up with debt it was an easier choice to make when temptation came around. If you have been on the wrong end of cruel treatment by WP agents etc and you wonder how people can be so unfeeling then maybe it's in part due to the pressures of modern life and being scared to lose a job. I think Thatchers revolution had a very corrosive effect on what were common values of decency. I don't blame anybody who bought their council home on the cheap but what they gained in money maybe wasn't such a great deal if other things which are not valued in money are factored in.

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  4. Iain Duncan Smith releases 'Black Death' microbes into London as a solution to reducing the Welfare Bill.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21784141

    Death occurs within 3-14 days so remember to notify the DWP 28days in advance of death so you don't incur an overcharging bill. You will still be regarded fit for work right upto the second you die.

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  5. ... not good news: http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/pcs_comment/index.cfm/id/BC6211D7-9363-4258-9DE92D95D6B4C0A0

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    1. Thanks. And here's the Guardian story:
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/15/dwp-law-change-jobseekers-poundland
      Sad to see Labour supporting this, but I suppose politically they can't do anything else.

      Delete
  6. ... oh, they could and they should. just maybe this once they could show a little spine and some sort of connect with working people.

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  7. Very perceptive post that summarises many of the things about social housing that I find troubling. One of the most pernicious aspects, which you do mention, is the way that social housing has come to be seen as the last resort of the desperate, the mad and the bad - and, if you're of a particular persuasion, the foreign.

    With regard to the last, it doesn't stand up to any scrutiny, but the other parts are hugely and genuinely socially divisive and dangerous. Per your post, growing up in the 70s, council housing was then seen as a neutral issue that didn't say much if anything about the people.

    Now, as has been covered ad infinitum, we now have (benefit caps notwithstanding) the ridiculous situation of local authorities paying large sums to rent properties that they built and used to own until they were compelled to sell them.

    A century of progress rolled back? Undoubtedly. I suspect that if any of us are around in 50 years, the post WWI & II drive towards some sort of equality of standard of life will seem like a brief aberration, and the current rather Hobbesian situation a reversion to the trend.

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  8. I had an appointment with my work programme "adviser" this morning. I wearily arrived in the city centre 90 minutes before, as I am cautions to arrive in the office precisely ten minutes before each appointment.

    I don't buy a newspaper any more as it is is a luxury I can no longer afford, but I wanted to read about the new Pope and having time on my hands I bought a copy of the Guardian, and found a cafe to settle in for a while.

    When I came home I switched on my laptop and saw the story that IDS is planning to change the law retrospectively to avoid repaying the monies the Court of Appeal says was with held unlawfully.

    I feel as sick as a pig, not because I was sanctioned - but because I have realised the depth of determination this man has to crush all opposition.

    Depressingly, however, IDS ambitions seem to sink under the weight of his administrative inability. The same regulations that seek to retrospectively change the law, specifically refer to Article 6 of the ECHR providing for the right of the citizen to a fair hearing.

    In the event of another challenge (there are so many) will IDS attempt to change the law again if the decision goes against him?

    While sitting in the cafe reading my luxury newspaper I came across an article that said that tycoons are favouring London as a centre for settling their disputes. None other than Chris Graying, who as regular readers of this site will recall used to be Minister for the DWP, was waxing lyrical on how wonderful the English legal system is for settling disputes. The reason, it seems is because of the reputation of English Judges for impartiality and integrity.

    Maybe Mr Graying should have a little chat with his old boss?

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  9. Thank you for this fascinating article, historian. I watched a documentary about 3 years ago which described the history of “social housing” in the UK. It seems to have been one of the finest ideas ever developed in the UK until successive central Governments wrecked the whole thing.

    Right now, though, I am concerned about IDS’s pusillanimous idea of introducing retroactive new legislation for the sole purpose of extricating himself from embarrassment. DC should sack that man without further ado but DC does not have the cojones to do it.

    I’m hoping that the Labour front bench will insist that the proposed new legislation cannot have a retroactive effect. IDS got it wrong. He is happy enough to sanction other people on the most specious of “grounds” so Labour should insist on sanctioning him now, in my view.

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    1. I don't think there's the remotest chance of Labour opposing this. It would cost £130m, and imagine the publicity!

      Delete
    2. I think it's high time that the Labour party stopped thinking about bad publicity and started to think about what is wrong and what is right. Anyway the £130m is NOT govt money - it has been unlawfully withheld from those victims of the pernicious sanction regime. I will never vote Labour again if they support Smith in forcing through retroactive legislation.
      Where has Labour's conscience and sense of fairness gone?

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    3. Here are the Pusillanimous Excuses for IDS’ appalling new Bill:

      http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2012-2013/0149/en/2013149en.htm

      In the Excuses, IDS admits that he doesn’t want to have to refund £130 million because he hasn’t got it. Presumably, IDS had it at one stage, did he (or Gidiot could have borrowed it instead?)

      However, if the DWP has ever held the £130 mio then the DWP has spent the money on something else, it would seem, since the DWP were clearly not expecting that the Court of Appeal would require the DWP to pay refunds.

      Right. So is this to do with “fairness to the taxpayer” or is it really to do with the impossibility of resurrecting hard currency once that has gone to Money Heaven? Does disguising or otherwise concealing the whereabouts of public money really count as “protecting the national economy?”

      Delete
    4. Let's put this economy threatening £130m into context. According to Wikipedia a single Typhoon plane costs £64.8 million, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurofighter_Typhoon.
      So the cost of paying what is rightfully owed amounts to the cost of 2 military planes.

      Delete
  10. As a measure of the effect that this economic crisis is having on workforce in the country. It is worth noting that people seeming to have had good & well paying jobs until recent years are now just beginning to appear as clients of A4e. If this is the case I suspect that a quite revolution might start when former senior and middle managers are dragged in by A4e for mandated 1.5 hour job search and creating cv & interview technique sessions. We live in interesting times.

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  11. Why would anyone want to be a work programme provider? i mean what do they actually do?

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    Replies
    1. ... they make money. lots of it.

      Delete
    2. My thought exactly,I have asked my Provider,what is on offer and they are baffled.
      I am then accused of being difficult and not engaging with the programme,what is the "Programme" I am unaware of the programme! Sorry we are unable to discuss the "Programme due to commercial reasons"WTF..sorry Historian,frustrated.

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    3. mkmy, this is what has been offered to me, printed c.v and copied 15 times, now get out there and hand it in to every employer within a ten mile radius, i think its called cold calling..oh i hadnt thought of doing that myself!! Useless training like cv building etc.. no accredited training to add to c.v.. there isnt acutally anything on offer if it costs them money. Infact i recently attended a job interview and needed tools to start the job. I priced my tools up and informed my WP provider, the tools came to just on 300.00 they offered to pay half if i got the job and told me to borrow the rest off family/friends!!

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    4. They can't make pots of money because if they did they'd be able to conform with the accessibility act. Can't remember it's name, but it means that anyone with a website has to ensure that it is legible to those using it. In the case of employers or training establishments they have to supply equipment if necessary.

      I'm still waiting having pointed this out to my provider twice.......

      And, yes, this does mean they are breaking the law.

      Delete
  12. Thanks for this timely reminder of what social housing used to be about. I'm getting sick and tired of fighting with idiots on comments sites who say 'well why should any social tenant think of their house as theirs? It belongs to the state.' One thing you might look into at some point is the heavily subsidised 'Homeswapper' site which has burgeoned since tenants were told of the bedroom tax. Housing associations pay a fee on behalf of the tenant but I think council tenants pay themselves. The site seems to be an excuse to make pots of money for those who run it. Properties which are no longer available are left on the site for months and months; presumably it is in the interests of those running it to make it look busy. I would also question their success rate. Might be worth a look.

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  13. Could anyone please give me the authors name for this article, as i would like to reference it for my dissertation. Kind Regards

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    Replies
    1. Joe, send me a comment headed "not for publication" with your email address and we'll discuss it.

      Delete

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