Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Debating the Future of Social Housing at the Durham Book Festival (Saturday October 18 2014)

Debating in Durham: from left, John Tomaney, James Meek, Lynsey Hanley, RTK

Saturday October 18 saw me back at the Durham Book Festival for the first time since 2011, the purpose being a discussion of the UK’s housing crisis – and the share of that pain facing the social housing sector – with a couple of excellent writers who have, like me, published on the subject. My contribution is a new book called Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing, commissioned by New Writing North and the Gosforth-based Isos housing association - who basically invited me to root around their business for six months and draw my own conclusions about what they do and why they do it.

The Durham discussion was chaired by John Tomaney, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UCL. My co-panellists were James Meek and Lynsey Hanley.

James Meek is an acclaimed novelist and contributing editor to the London Review of Books, whose new book Private Island is the outcome of a series of investigations he made, mainly for the LRB, into the steady selling-off of the UK's public resources since the Thatcher era. His chapter on housing is derived from an LRB article entitled Where Will We Live? and it recounts and laments what could be called the privatisation of council housing. Lynsey Hanley writes mainly for the Guardian and in 2007 she authored a fine book called Estates: An Intimate History, inspired by her experiences of growing up on the massive Wood estate in Birmingham and, later, making home on another problematic estate in East London.

Hanley's book also attempts – just as James Meek and I have attempted in our respective efforts – to recount a history of social housing in the UK, and in her version there is a melancholy and aggrieved feel, a sense that good intentions and high ideals behind the cause of subsidised housing were betrayed by a push for brute numbers, a subsequent plummet in quality, and a steadily etched stigma upon social housing as a ‘residualised’ tenure of last resort. In Durham Hanley spoke feelingly about how social housing has been looked down upon, how the injuries of class end up inscribed on the unkempt bricks and mortar of the stock, also in the minds of the tenants.

James Meek set out some of the arguments of his LRB piece, noting, inter alia: how the UK’s supply system of housing (a tripartite arrangement of developable land, planning permission and volume house-builders) is not set up or incentivised to meet real housing need; how central government funds for housing associations have steadily shrunk over the last forty years; and how housing associations have got much larger, though not necessarily better, since receiving large-scale stock transfers from councils - a process begun under the Thatcher government and accelerated under Tony Blair. Meek cited the recent calamity of the Cosmopolitan housing association as a warning of how a landlord's failure to meet its loan agreements could put its tenants' homes at risk; and he also raised the spectre of larger (mainly southern) associations perhaps seeing no bar to self-financing and so turning to pure for-profit development.

As for my contribution to the debate – well, it’s all there in my book, really: I reprised my own opinions and arguments. I ought to say, though, that in chatting to James Meek beforehand he told me that he felt I had misrepresented his argument, especially so in this passage from the book:
For Meek, one suspects, housing associations are the spawn of original sin. They just shouldn’t have got the position that they obtained. Having done so, one might, if sympathetic, call them the victims of their own success. But Meek seems to want them quietly put down.
It’s a fact that nowhere does Meek say he wants to see the back of housing associations; and since I don’t have the power of reading his mind, it was needlessly quarrelsome of me to imply otherwise. My error, probably, was to conflate some of his concerns and contentions with those of assorted other parties, without proper discrimination.

What I said to the Durham audience was that in my research for the book I quite quickly felt jaundiced by arguments emanating from some quarters of local government, certain journalists, and from within the Labour Party, to the effect that local councils make the best social landlords, and that housing associations are a poor second or substitute - essentially for the reason of their not being councils, tainted by association with the policies of Thatcher and Blair, and with borrowed money and bond issues.

In the last century local councils did create social housing in the UK as we know it. But post-war council housing did not solve the housing problems of Britain's poor: these were carefully allotted homes for working people in an age of full employment. Moreover, a council house was a state-furnished product that had no incentive for any sort of improvement, and unsurprisingly it didn’t get any. If you think council housing is better for being democratically accountable, somehow answerable to the people, you need to take at least an occasional dip into Private Eye’s 'Rotten Boroughs', also to remember that social rental is a minority tenure with strictly limited ballot-box clout.

You could say, in spite of the foregoing, that council housing is still a better idea than the public/private model of the housing association. One may second James Meek's argument in the LRB which builds to a defence of the principle of ‘public responsibility for meeting basic needs’ and 'the ideal of social housing supported from general taxation on the better-off, the ideal that it is not only the prosperous who matter.’ But if one adheres to that, one must then say what is to be done about  our current housing crisis, our absolute need for new homes, right now. Even Labour has promised no new funds for housing after 2015, only re-prioritising within capital budgets. And no party now seeking your vote intends once in government to borrow an extra £5 billion annually so that the state can build 500,000 houses with it.

The crux, really, is that a lot of wise heads want to see councils build houses for rent again. This time, though, unlike in 1945 or 1968, councils will need to borrow the funds to build, against their future rental incomes and assets. In other words, they will have to get up to speed with what housing associations have been doing for the last 25 years, using basically the same kinds of skills, savvy, and funding. It’s quite understandable that campaigners of today might want to see social housing reinstated in the public sector and flying free of what some consider the all-too-worldly pull of big developers and private finance. But if those campaigners honestly survey the work that needs doing then they ought to see that housing associations remain best placed to lead the effort – with, of course, local councils working in comradely partnership.

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