‘Squalor’ was one of Beveridge’s ‘five great evils’. For most people the word probably conjures up Victorian slum conditions that were gradually overcome, over many decades, by better housing standards, state intervention, and the building of millions of new homes.
The belief that things gradually get better has been undermined over the last 35 years, at least in housing. Something, somewhere has gone seriously wrong and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, while the majority are better housed than ever, a significant section of the population is now being returned to Victorian squalor. We don’t build enough. Housing is too expensive to rent or buy. Now we punish the poor for living. More people are expected to share, more are becoming overcrowded, homelessness remains a scourge, more people are insecure in their home. The consequences of bad and expensive housing, severe enough in themselves, can be seen across the piece: it affects the health of adults and children, it affects educational attainment, it makes it hard for people to work, it makes people poor.
Duncan Bowie’s exceptional paper for Class explains why we have arrived at such a bad place. But what sets his essay apart is not only the strength of its description of events unfurling but also its consistent analysis of the economics and the politics of housing over the long term.
Bowie focuses on the importance of social housing as the tenure primarily responsible for the great improvement in standards – before and after Beveridge – and he looks in detail at the deliberate policy, since the 1980s, of residualising the sector and blaming it, and its tenants, for many of society’s other ills. He observes how the seemingly progressive policy of ‘mixed communities’ has been used as a cover for reduced commitment to social housing, and argues that the only way to create genuinely mixed communities is to build more social housing in areas that are predominantly owner occupied now. He argues for a major increase in social housing to widen access to a secure and decent home environment to many more people.
He puts a lot of the current British housing problem down to the obsession with home ownership as a means of wealth appreciation and the political association of home ownership with citizenship and personal worth. These arguments were ‘swallowed’ by many on the left and by Blair government, which introduced a formal policy of increasing home ownership for the first time.
In the event, of course, home ownership went into decline for the first time in living memory as the failure to build homes to meet demand, and the all-too-obvious effect of years of hidden subsidy (mortgage tax relief, relief from property taxes), worked through into ever higher prices. Desperate policies to maintain the drive for homeownership – primarily the excess of credit – led inevitably to boom followed by bust.
Rather than privatising the social rented sector, Bowie argues for the ‘socialisation’ of the private rented sector with a stronger system of regulation, security and managed rents. It is carrot and stick, because he also supports incentives for landlords such as direct payments to encourage letting to benefit recipients and grants for improvements.
Bowie also takes on the current hot issue of ‘benefits versus bricks’, whether public subsidy should go into paying benefits to enable people to live in increasingly marketised housing or into investment to get more genuinely affordable homes built at lower rents. He argues strongly that the advantages of subsidising new social housing, creating an appreciating public asset that lasts several generations, are much stronger than the option of continuing a de facto subsidy to landlords.
As a Planner, Bowie is strongly critical of the move towards ‘localism’ without adequate checks and balances, because it reinforces the power imbalance between richer and poorer neighbourhoods which will in practice lead to further social polarisation. He decries those on the left who have adopted the localist philosophy on the grounds that ‘It is not acceptable for any national government to be neutral on the key issue of where people will live, work and play in the future.’ He supports the return of regional planning and the adoption of a national strategy that accepts the need for a spatial redistribution of investment.
In addition to setting out a broad strategic view of what needs to be done, Bowie also proposes the adoption of a series of new policy priorities around investment, taxation and subsidy. Each of his 11 propositions is worthy of a blog post in its own right.
Bowie has produced a sweeping overview of housing strategy and policy which looks back over 150 years and looks forward two or three generations. It is a strong denunciation of the failed policies of the last 30 years, examining housing policy in a structural and long-term way. It adds to the growing reputation of The Centre for Labour and Social Studies, otherwise known as Class think tank, for producing challenging and controversial policy analysis which is also expert and evidence-based. Of course it is possible to disagree with Duncan Bowie on some of his specific prescriptions but it is incredibly refreshing to read a thought-through and holistic alternative to the policy muddle of recent decades.