When she launched the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire in August, Theresa May said she was ‘determined that the broader questions raised by this fire — including around social housing — are not left unanswered’. A green paper on social housing was promised, and the government is now carrying out extensive consultation with tenants to inform its contents. Yet if ministers are going to respond to these broader questions, they need to examine why public attitudes to social housing and its tenants are so negative and deep-rooted.
The social construction of tenure is, after all, a relational matter. In the late nineteenth century, special scorn was directed at the subsidised council renter from the slum. ‘The slum’ was regarded as the locale of vice, crime, delinquency and disease. It was inhabited by the ‘residuum’, ‘the dangerous classes and the ‘casual poor’. The Inter-departmental Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration concluded that the people living in the overcrowded slum were ‘steeped in every kind of degradation’ and recommended ‘that local attacks, “without hesitation or sentimentality”, should be launched upon such areas, without re-housing in order to create dispersion’. ‘Slum dwellers’ said a prominent eugenicist in 1929, ‘carry the slum mind and the slum habit wherever they go’ (p 70). More recently, Conservative politicians have promoted owner-occupation by underscoring homeowner/renter differences. Stanley Baldwin, for instance, frequently linked homeownership to ‘self-respect and independence’, sentiments which Margaret Thatcher echoed when she said that ‘homeowners are members of a responsible society’ – implying that renters were not.
Conservative and Liberal politicians have generally been willing to tolerate local authority house building so long as it is not subsidised. A ‘subsidy’ was a rent below the market price, a definition reiterated by George Osborne in 2015 who asserted ‘social housing is subsidised because the price of private rental stock is the real price, reached by logic of the market’. In reality, however, the local authority sector pays its way. Between 1995/6 and 2015/16, the Treasury gained an average of £250 million per year from local authority housing, excluding right to buy receipts. The Localism Act 2011 started a process of redistributing debt between local authorities with the aim of removing the need for any local authorities to receive Treasury revenue subsidies. By 2015, local authority housing had become ‘self-financed’. No subsidies, no Treasury purloining of surpluses except that, between 2012 and 2015, the Treasury took £358.1 million of the £1.52 billion raised in right to buy receipts.
Housing forms have reflected negative attitudes to social tenants for more than a century. When directed to meeting the housing requirements arising from slum clearance programmes, council housing consisted of poor-quality flats. Commenting on the London County Council flats built for people evicted from slums, George Bernard Shaw (p 12) said:
Their revolting ugliness, their asphalted yards with the sunlight shut out by huge cliffs of brick and mortar, their flights upon flights of stony steps between the street and the unfortunate women and children on the upper floors ... relieving a crowd on the floor by stacking the people on shelves are overlooked for the moment ... but the municipalities of the future will be almost as active in knocking our towns down as in building them up.
When, in 1933, all state subsidies were concentrated on building houses and flats for displaced slum inhabitants, there was a striking decline in housing quality. Their stark exteriors seemed to emphasise that they were rough places for coarse people. As for the high-rise blocks, built to re-house slum residents between 1955 and 1974 in what Iain Macleod described as ‘a policy of sewage’, Simon Jenkins has said ‘the lesson from Grenfell is simple: stop building residential towers’. Yet the government’s post-Grenfell consultation document, Planning for the right homes in the right places, suggests this will be easier said than done. By assessing need according to household growth over the last ten years, together with an affordability indicator based on the ratio of median house prices to median earnings and various dampening measures, the document calculates the housing requirement for England to be just over 266,000 homes per year – a figure conveniently close to the 250,000 promised in the 2017 Conservative manifesto. Perhaps more importantly, the formula suggests that ‘need’ varies widely between local authorities. Hillingdon, with swathes of green belt land and Boris Johnson’s constituency within its boundaries, has a housing requirement of 595 houses per year between 2016 and 2026, while Tower Hamlets needs to build 4,873 per year. In other words, responsibility for meeting London’s housing need has again been placed firmly on the inner London boroughs.
Dorset Estate, Hackney, London, completed in 1957. Photo: Justinc via Wikimedia
Between 1945 and 1955, 1.5 million high-quality local authority houses were completed and the balanced make-up of local authority tenants made it difficult to stigmatise council housing, though there were attempts to do. After Labour had produced a plan to municipalise the private rented sector, the building societies commissioned a report warning owner-occupiers in streets with private tenants about the imminent arrival of about the imminent arrival of council tenants: ‘[A]lthough in Tory areas, there would not be pressure to put families of teddy boys into quiet, bank-clerk Acacia Avenue, one could not be sure in Labour areas’.
By the mid-1970s, however, academics found that council housing was increasingly dominated by low-income households – a pattern often labelled ‘residualisation’, though the term has uncomfortable echoes of nineteenth-century discussions of ‘the residuum’. Local authorities were discovering that their flats were difficult to let because their tenants were finding them difficult to live in. Such problems made it easier for Margaret Thatcher to attack council housing. Her attitude to council tenants was revealed in a letter sent in 1979 to a council tenant who had written to complain about delays in repairing her house:
I hope you will not think me too blunt if I say that it may well be that your council accommodation is unsatisfactory but considering the fact you have been unable to buy your own accommodation you are lucky to have been given something which the rest of us are paying for out of our taxes. (p 191)
New Labour inherited a depleted local authority stock with £19 billion needing to be spent on repairs, the best-quality homes having been sold under the right to buy. Its strategy was to invest in repairs and improvement, acquiring extra resources through stock transfer to housing associations. Distinctions between housing associations and local authorities were blurred by using ‘social housing’ to describe the combined sectors. This was probably not a good choice. Although ‘social’ may invoke warm feelings of mutuality in some circles, to others it has connections with ‘the social’, that is, ‘welfare’, and is akin to ‘welfare housing’, a term used in the USA to describe public housing. Michael Young, author of the 1945 Labour manifesto, complained as early as 1951 that talk of the ‘welfare state’ gave exactly the wrong impression:
It must have been invented by a diabolical copywriter who knew that if the nation was not poisoned by the first word [welfare], recalling the smell of carbolic acid and the tough brown paper of ration books, it could be done to death by the second cold word [state] suggesting the Law Court, the Sanitary Inspector and the Recruiting Officer. (p 201)
In the late 2000s, the Centre for Social Justice, set up by Iain Duncan Smith, constructed a ‘Broken Britain’ narrative. Social tenants featured strongly, with Duncan Smith claiming that ‘the levels of dependency among social housing renters is quite staggering … How can we expect different from people who never see anything different?’ He argued for a poverty definition based primarily on behavioural, not income, indicators.
The ‘Broken Britain’ theme was taken into the 2010 Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition and Cameron’s 2015 Conservative government. According to David Laws, George Osborne viewed ‘welfare’ as a big political dividing line. He wanted Labour to be seen as the party for ‘welfare scroungers’, and the Conservatives as the party for ‘strivers’. Cameron believed that housing estates ‘epitomise[d] both the scale of the challenge we face and the nature of state failure over decades’, and pressed for all social rents to rise to market levels. Income protection and access to social housing became more conditional, resources for the decent homes programme were cut, and National Tenant Voice – set up by Gordon Brown to ensure that social housing tenants had a say in shaping national policy – was axed.
If Theresa May is serious about tackling the root causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster, she could start by apologising for the contempt for social tenants which has pervaded much of the last 40 years of housing policy. Indeed, ‘social housing’ itself should have no place in government discourse. What the sector urgently needs instead is respect and resources. At a minimum, that means restoring National Tenant Voice, boosting resources for the decent homes programme, and giving local government the freedom to borrow for housebuilding. Only then will the decline in the quantity and status of local authority housing begin to change.