It may sound like a daft question given recent events, but what is ‘the housing problem’ exactly? Everybody with an interest in the discussion appears to agree – more or less enthusiastically, depending on whether they live on an estate or stand to inherit one – that there is indeed a problem. There aren’t enough houses for people to live in. We can agree on that. But why is it proving so difficult to build them? Despite Gordon Brown’s talk of 3m homes by 2020 and meeting the aspirations of a new home-owning democracy, the rhetoric and the reality parted company long ago.
The latest figures suggest that even if we go by the government’s own (and some would say inadequate) target of building 200,000 homes a year, we’re falling well short already. This is to increase to 240,000 in 2016. But regardless of whether it’s being met, even the grand target seems less impressive when put in its proper historical perspective. For instance, compare 3m homes by 2020 with the million built in the first five years of the post-war Labour administration. What about the Tory record of 300,000 every year during the 1950s? Though the era of competitive house building peaked in 1968 when 450,000 new homes were built, even during the years of Depression in the 1930s hundreds of thousands of houses went up. With this in mind, Brown’s apparently ambitious targets look anything but. They’re actually pretty run of the mill, especially when there’s so much talk of crisis and the need to build, build, build.
Clearly, the numbers game isn’t the only game in town. There’s something else going on. Just arguing for the planners, the developers or the government to get on with it isn’t enough. There are other agendas going on not far beneath the surface that detract from and inhibit the pursuit of a straightforward needs-led house building policy. They need to be dealt with head on. The Chartered Institute of Housing, for instance, thinks that housing is about more than just bricks and mortar. It is also about investing in “better educational performance, in tackling climate change, in improving health outcomes, [and] in empowering communities”. But it seems to me that the more housing policy is framed not in its own terms but as the continuation of other government agendas, the fewer houses are going to get built. Seemingly old-fashioned calls for more social housing, for instance, are getting bogged down in the politics of wellbeing and community building.
Apparently it is not enough that 1.5million people are waiting to get on to the housing list. In the hope of persuading the government to do it for the kids if not for us, the homelessness charity Shelter has made sometimes dubious claims about the damage done to the ‘wellbeing’ of the million children living in overcrowded housing. For Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates, it’s not just the kids who are having a hard time. The poor carry the stigma of run-down housing estates and broken lifts around with them into adulthood. This apparently damages their self-esteem irreparably and seriously compromises their ability to get on in life. Having said that, Hanley can’t quite shake her nostalgia for the welfare state, equating public housing with better times – when we were all more equal (if poorer) and knew our neighbours. Well that’s all right then.
But it really isn’t. Instead of coming up with at least the rhetoric to match the inter-war ‘homes for heroes’ or the post-war welfarist vision of decent homes for all, we are left with a housing debate that offers little hope of a better future. Indeed, it’s worse than that. The housing discussion has surprisingly little to do with the business of building houses or meeting people’s needs at all. The politics of behaviour seems to be never more at home, so to speak, than when on housing estates lecturing tenants and unruly youths. Rather than conjuring up visions of the good society, we are encouraged to settle for the ‘good life’. Whether that means neighbours not being noisy, kids not being anti-social or everybody obediently sorting through their bins, it is all pretty depressing stuff.
The ‘social’ in social housing means something else today. By imposing punitive sanctions on people’s conduct and worrying about community breakdown and people’s abilities to cope with everyday life, key players are avoiding having the most important debate of all – ie how they should go about meeting people’s housing needs. If they really want to meet those needs and, just as importantly, people’s aspirations for a better life, they should do so rather than spout the often meaningless rhetoric to which we’ve become familiar. We should be humanising housing rather than obsessing over matters on which its impact is somewhere between unknown, negligible or beside the point. Let’s not use housing to lecture people about how to behave responsibly, as a way of psychologising what are social problems or as an attempt to build ‘mixed’, ‘safe’ and ‘sustainable’ communities. We’re having enough trouble building houses as it is.
Read Shelter’s response here