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Stop romanticising council housing

Those calling for more ‘social housing’ could do with a history lesson: council estates have always been authoritarian tools for social control.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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‘Allocated a silver-level needs certificate, Linda is unlikely to get into the most popular development…but after a year’s acceptable behaviour she will be given a secure tenancy certificate. This, however, is a floating security given the owners will be able to insist she moves into one of their smaller premises if her needs change. Next door to Linda is one of six extra care homes…they include video monitoring and biosensors to allow 24-hour video supervision from the district health centre.’

Speaking is Jon Rouse, outgoing head of the UK Housing Corporation, which controls all social housing in the UK (1). The slide that accompanied Rouse’s recent speech represented the family of four – Linda, Tom, Dick and Harry – as little lego people. Rouse was not warning us of an Orwellian dystopia; this is actually his ideal of what should happen with social housing in the UK.

In Rouse’s social-democratic hell, people will not talk about ‘social housing’ – they will talk about ‘different degrees of ownership’. Even new tenants will be ‘gifted’ two per cent equity – except that this equity is conditional upon good behaviour, and will be recovered in toto if tenants fall into more than eight weeks’ arrears. Furthermore equity in the leasehold is conditional, since the Housing Corporation would have the (until now unheard of) right of first buyback, and there is absolutely no right of succession (meaning you cannot bequest the home to your children). In other words, this ‘equity’ is not ownership at all – except that it does come with responsibilities for the repair and upkeep of your home.

Prime minister Gordon Brown has announced that three million homes will be built and that the state will take up the slack left by the private sector’s failure to build enough houses to match demand (2). For many, this is a sign that Old Labour is back. Council housing in particular is something of a nostalgia-trip for born-again Labourites like Jon Cruddas, commentator Lynsey Hanley and London mayor Ken Livingstone.

This nostalgia for council housing is hard to take. There is no principle that says that houses built and managed by the state are any worse than those in the private sector. But in practise, social housing has precious little to do with meeting people’s needs, and everything to do with state control over supposedly anti-social elements. The Housing Corporation’s thinking about dividing people into Gold, Silver and Bronze levels – imposing tenancy agreements, issuing secure (but floating) tenancy certificates, partial equity, video- and bio-monitoring, 24-hour surveillance, retaining the right of first buy-back – are all drawn from the real way that social housing tenants are intrusively regulated by the authorities.

Throughout its history, social housing has always been intimately related to the perceived problem of social order. In Nathaniel Rothschild’s ‘Four Per Cent Dwellings’, which opened in 1887, each landing had its own warden, usually an ex-NCO from the army who would enforce curfews and respectable behaviour. When philanthropists decanted tenants into the subscription-funded Somers Town estate in the 1930s, their bedding was burnt and furniture put into a mobile fumigation wagon…as part of a public ceremony overseen by local dignitaries, complete with the burning of papier maché effigies of rats, fleas and other pests.

Similar things took place outside of Britain. In ‘Red’ Vienna’s much-trumpeted inter-war municipal houses, Social Democrat councillors enforced a ‘social contract’ with tenants, which committed them to responsible parenting. Where this was lacking, social workers were on hand to remove children to the municipal Child Observation Centres (3).

In the postwar expansion of social housing in Britain, the charity-laden character of such housing was moderated: tenants were more like citizens and less like supplicants. Therefore, other ways of relating to the estate-dwellers had to be found. Labour’s Peter Shore (1924-2001) oversaw the racial segregation of Tower Hamlets’ Council Stock in the 1970s, as the London borough used divide-and-rule tactics to win the support of white residents with marginally better estates. Then, 20 years later, in the early and mid-1990s, the council turned around and started threatening white residents, who had believed the promise of preferential treatment, with being evicted for racism (4).

Between 1979 and 1997, the Conservative government stopped new council houses being built in Britain, sold off some homes and transferred others to Housing Associations. The declining stock of council homes shifted the social mix, as the more affluent workers moved out of local authority management. This was when people started calling Council Housing ‘social housing’, meaning that it was primarily for housing people who were a social problem.

In the Nineties, local authorities pioneered the systems of social control that would later be generalised under Labour’s Crime and Disorder Bill in the form of the ASBO: that is, the Anti-Social Behaviour Order. Before there were ASBOs there were tenancy agreements. On 24 May 1995, 2,500 council tenants in Cross Farm Road, Birmingham, were warned that they would have to put their children under an 8pm curfew. They were told that not annoying or harassing their neighbours – or allowing their children to do so – was a condition of their council tenancies. Breaches were to be heard by a subcommittee of councillors (5). Councils had expanded the terms of their tenancy agreements to include clauses governing social behaviour on top of keeping up rent payments and looking after the fabric of the home.

In June 1995, the Labour Party, then still in opposition, published a housing consultation paper titled A Quiet Life. It was influenced heavily by the thinking of the (mostly Labour) councillors who had enhanced their powers of social regulation through the issue of housing. A Quiet Life proposed special Community Safety Orders, which could be imposed to regulate behaviour, on the same model as the expanded tenancy agreements. These were later renamed Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. Just as the councils had done when enforcing their tenancy agreements, so Labour proposed dealing with ‘problem tenants’ through the use of professional witnesses (that is, housing officers) and by the lower standard of proof that is normally used in civil proceedings.

Recently the courts struck down an ASBO that was issued in Manchester on evidence supplied by the council, when it came to light that the reports they had solicited against the unfortunate accused were entirely made up. Manchester City Council had told the courts that they had independent corroboration, which was not true – but it was in keeping with the local authority’s contempt for the rights of their tenants.

Brown is right that we need more homes. The market is so restrained by bureaucratic controls that it cannot meet the real demand that exists. It does not matter who builds or manages the homes, private sector or government. But council housing was never just about providing homes; it was always about regulating social behaviour. Those who long for a return to council housing are either ignorant of what a trap it was, or more likely, they look forward to the day when they can tie up more of the people they imagine to be ‘problem families’ in bureaucratic regulations.

James Heartfield is author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield argued that we need to lift the controls on building, explained that Britain’s housing boom is a phantom one, and that the government’s 2005 housing plan was all talk and no bricks. James Woudhuysen warned of the dangers of Brownfield Brutalism. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

(1) Superbia: the case for the Suburbs, Kingston University, 23 September 2006

(2) More Council Homes in Labour’s Plan, Daily Telegraph, 16 July 2007

(3) ‘Red Vienna’, J Lewis, European Studies Review, 13:3, 1983

(4) ‘An Island Race’, Evan Andrews, Living Marxism, April 1994

(5) ‘Council Curfew’, Vicky Richardson, Living Marxism, November 1995

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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