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Here’s what David Cameron could learn from a history of social housing

There’s a housing crisis engulfing the UK, and London is at its epicentre. In his recent vow to regenerate over 100 so-called “sink estates”, David Cameron would have us understand that public housing has failed: that the result is poor people, living in poorly designed homes, that were poorly managed. But this version of history is not definitive - nor even particularly accurate.

So what can history tell us about what works and what doesn’t, when it comes to housing? As planners and politicians cast about for solutions to the current crisis, the answer may well be found at their feet – or rather, under them.

In 1892, parliament realised that the building of the Blackwall Tunnel would require hundreds of homes to be demolished. This resulted in a new act of parliament, which stated that no work could commence on the tunnel until those evicted had been rehoused. And so, with private builders unable to supply these new homes, the first council housing in London was built.

But while the new estates sheltered those displaced by construction, their rent was still relatively expensive, so the nation’s poor and vulnerable remained in the private rented sector. So-called “slum landlords” routinely exploited the high demand for housing, leaving vulnerable tenants with substandard and overcrowded accommodation.

The pioneers of housing philanthropy – Joseph Rowntree, George Peabody and Octavia Hill, to name a few – battled to tackle poor housing conditions, homelessness and poverty. But it was often difficult to attract the required support from investors for philanthropic housing projects, when the alternative profits from being a slum landlord were so high.

Meanwhile, the government’s view was that – whatever the solution to the urban housing crisis may be – it most certainly was not state-owned housing. The parallels with 2016 are obvious.

Search for solutions

But all that rapidly changed in the first half of the 20th century – particularly following World War I and World War II – as successive governments took greater responsibility for the social welfare of citizens. Building programmes were supported by government grants and subsidies, which allowed rents to drop below market levels and made housing available to lower income households.

The vision of Anuerin Bevan – a key architect of the NHS – was that council housing, owned and managed by local authorities and built to a high standard, would be home to a diverse range of social classes. Bevan’s vision was not achieved in its entirety: some architectural design and building materials did not meet the needs of residents. Even so, by the 1960s, more than 500,000 flats had been added to the housing stock in London alone.

Worse for wear. sarflondondunc, CC BY-NC-ND

From the late 1970s, council housing was seen as increasingly problematic. As well as an ideological shift away from state provision, the government had concerns about the cost of maintaining council-owned houses, and the higher concentration of poor and vulnerable citizens living in them. It appeared that the 20th century’s use of council housing to provide accommodation for lower income households would not be a 21st-century solution.

Instead, the Thatcher government’s Right to Buy policy for council tenants sought to cement the UK as a nation of home owners. As well as being sold off, council housing stock was transferred to housing associations or arms length management organisations. Together with housing cooperatives and mutuals, these new arrangements became known as “social housing” and “registered social landlords”.

The idea was that housing associations would be able to borrow on the markets to invest in their housing stock – making them less dependent on government funding – and that tenants would have a strong influence about housing management decisions. Tenant participation was certainly strengthened in all forms of social housing, particularly where associations were local and community-based. Greater private investment was also secured to enhance housing quality.

Yesterday’s issues today

In 2010, the coalition government began referring to “registered providers of housing”, dropping the “social” altogether. That said, it should be noted that in other countries in the UK, housing policy has moved in different directions since the issue was devolved to the governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Now, the Conservative government is introducing the Right to Buy for housing association tenants, as well as implementing fixed-term tenancies and the policy that tenants on higher incomes should pay more rent or leave. This all sounds like the final death knell for mixed income, long-term and secure public housing. In its place comes “affordable housing” – a term which is stretched to describe homes costing up to £450,000.

The current housing crisis is displacing lower income families from many parts of our cities. Young people have much worse housing prospects than their parents. Recent research says that in less than ten years time, only the rich will own their homes. And new cases of slum landlords have been reported in London. It is 2016 but, when it comes to housing, in many ways it could actually be 1891.

The key difference now is that we can look to the past for lessons. We have learned that private developers and landlords cannot be the entire solution. We know how to deliver very large scale housing programmes in periods of debt and austerity. And we can do so again now – while avoiding the pitfalls – with a diversity of social housing models and new roles for private developers, landlords and investors.

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