The ideological importance of housing.

Author:Houghton, John
Position:Features - Essay

'The money we are going to spend on housing is an insurance against Bolshevism and Revolution'. With these words, the Secretary to the Local Government Board finally convinced his Ministers that despite the global economic downturn and the financial burden of overseas military commitments, they should invest in a national house-building programme to quell the rising tide of domestic anger directed at the government.

The year was 1919, and although much has changed (the prospect of a Bolshevik uprising is very rarely a factor in policy deliberations today), a progressive government once again finds itself trying to deal with the economic and political fall-out of a sudden and severe housing crisis. Lloyd George's cabinet opted for a radical break with the past, by rejecting the pre-war ideology of laissez faire development in favour of the first national house-building programme. Today, we also need to plan for something more ambitious than a return to normalcy.

Housing is a profoundly ideological issue. But like food and water, it is such a basic need, such a normal part of everyday life that it's only at times of crisis, when its supply can no longer be guaranteed, that the terms and conditions of its production and distribution are questioned and challenged--or at least can be questioned and challenged. The potential for re-thinking, in the context of the current crisis, how housing should be produced and distributed in future is the subject of this article. In particular, it argues that we need to find more environmentally sustainable and socially just ways of accommodating the need for new homes. The economic turbulence following the implosion of the sub-prime market and the subsequent credit crunch has revealed with brutal efficiency the danger in relying on an under-regulated market to fuel home-ownership at all costs. It has also exposed the limitations of the government's strategy of trying to deliver affordable and sustainable homes on the back of commercial development.

Since the credit crunch, politicians on all sides have become more willing to highlight the failures of markets and re-validate the role of the state. Northern Rock has essentially been nationalised, and further policy options which only twelve months ago would have been dismissed out of hand are said to be under active consideration. In the US, that most ardent advocate of free markets George W. Bush has been forced to bail out the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage guarantee firms because the consequences of allowing market forces to work themselves through were too dire even for him. People are once again looking to the state for protection and support and, in more and more cases, for a roof over their head.

Yet the government seems torn between 'ruling nothing out' in the search for new solutions and sticking to the same script. Its recent response to the collapse in building completions and mortgage approvals was to reiterate that the 'the public sector must continue to prioritise support for private sector investment' by 'ensuring there is a planning framework that will support a rapid market recovery' (DCLG, 2008).

The task for progressives is to make clear that a rapid market recovery is inadequate to the challenges we face, if it means a return to the pattern of unsustainable growth which has distorted the economy, divided our towns and cities and damaged our increasingly fragile eco-systems. We need to remind the government that there should be no return to boom and bust, and instead fashion alternatives to the policies which are failing so badly at the moment.

The ideological importance of housing

That bold statement by the Secretary to the Local Government Board didn't just make the short-term case for a house-building programme. It also affirmed, with unusual honesty, the profound and abiding ideological importance of housing. All governments use their housing policies to project their deeper ideological assumptions about the nation's ills and the roles of the state and the market in solving them. For much of the past fifty years the ideological tide has flowed in one direction: away from investing in housing as a shared and valued common good which the state has an active interest in producing and regulating, and toward the promotion of home-ownership at almost any cost.

In the years after 1945, the mass construction of new homes under the Attlee government was supposed to be a key element of the new contract with the people; a recognition of their war-time sacrifice and an attempt to banish squalor, one of Beveridge's five 'great evils'. The housing minister Nye Bevan hoped that the high quality and design features of the new homes which would be built by local authorities with central government subsidy would maintain public housing as a viable and broadly accessible alternative to owner-occupation.

Bevan was never able to realise this ambition, frustrated by manpower and material shortages on the ground, and defeated at the ballot box by the Conservative Party promising a quicker burst of cheaper 'people's houses' and more homes for sale to an impatient electorate. The Conservatives delivered on their promise and tackled the immediate shortage, but at a lasting cost. As historians of the policy put it, 'from 1951 ... the delicate shield constructed by Aneurin Bevan around levels of investment and standards in council housing was quickly shattered' (Cole and Furbey, 1994).

The pattern of the state providing lower-quality homes was established, and council housing increasingly became an 'ambulance service' for the least well off. The residualisation of council housing was hastened by the poor construction and management of many new housing estates. The high-rise tower blocks and industrialised building techniques of the 1960s encapsulated Wilson's modernising faith in the power of the 'white heat of technology' to forge new solutions to old problems. The symbolism was powerful, and the ambition of creating 'neighbourhoods in the sky' lofty...

To continue reading