15 August 2011

Would 'Right to Buy' have passed Cameron's 'Family Test'?

 As you'll see from the comments on yesterday's post, my contention that the Right to Buy scheme has contributed in no small way to the transformation of social housing into ghettoes of despair has not gone unchallenged:
'I thought the facilitation was to allow residents to buy the council house they lived in rather than continuing to rent them; the idea being that those who owned their own home would be more involved with, and attuned to, their neighbourhood and community. I don’t see then why this led to a regression from “stable families” in “stable neighbourhoods” to “ghettoes of intergenerational deprivation and despair, with no visible way out for those left behind.”


If people who bought their council houses were no longer regarded as being part of those in "social housing", then clearly the remainder that then constituted the social housing group would consist of a statistically higher proportion of the unemployed and one-parent families. But this in itself is a mere statistical realignment, not a change in the reality of who lived where and in what community or neighbourhood.'
These are understandable criticisms, so I'm going to stay my planned topic for today in order to try to answer them.

Before Thatcher
It would, I think, be absurd to argue that all was perfect in the world of social housing in 1979, when Mrs Thatcher came to power. About a third of all British housing was then owned by local councils, much of this housing having been hastily built during 1960s slum-clearing campaigns. Many of these estates were built in line with the architectural fads of the time, with flats in high-rise buildings joined by raised walkways and with underground car parks. In hindsight it's easy to see why such arrangements were a recipe for disaster, with crime and vandalism swiftly becoming rife, and people refusing to move there unless they had no choice whatsoever.

The Right to Buy Scheme
When the Right to Buy scheme was introduced, Michael Heseltine declared that it would lay 'the foundations for one of the most important social revolutions of this century'. He was right, but not quite in the way he meant.

The Right-to-Buy scheme was in many respects a very good thing, enabling lots of people to own their own homes, something which I think we probably all recognise as desirable, even if -- as Labour argued at the time the scheme was introduced and for several years afterwards -- it was economically profligate. However, while acknowledging the good the scheme did, we shouldn't gloss over the scheme's dire though wholly unintended consequences.

The first thing to grasp is that while the scheme allowed tenants of council houses to buy their homes, it did not allow for a significant or systematic construction programme, and councils were prevented from reinvesting in social housing. The nation social housing stock fell from more than 6.5 million in 1980 to below 5 million in the mid-nineties. Labour, though divided on the issue, subsequently relaxed the rules barring reinvestment in new social housing and eventually encouraged the building of new properties, but the damage had been done.

Crucially, this reduction in stock has not been spread evenly across the country, such that -- say -- a third of all properties in every single housing estate or block of flats was bought by the families living there. On the contrary, stock reduction has varied nationally, regionally, and even locally. The remaining social stock is disproportionately concentrated in areas with lower property prices and employment opportunities than elsewhere, and is notable for being of a generally lower quality than those properties which have been bought.

While the earliest tenants to avail of the Right to Buy scheme tended to be relatively affluent families from the skilled working class, centred on middle-aged, married couples, it was more common during the nineties for buyers to be younger tenants with stable incomes, buying their homes with a view to selling them quickly and moving out, such that their neighbourhoods became increasingly transitional and unstable.

The Right to Buy was hardly ever exercised on estates that were already rife with problems or were in areas of high unemploment, with no more than one property in twenty in such estates being bought, such that 'problem estates' remained in the hands of local authorities. The social composition of these estates became far more homogenous than before the introduction of the Right to Buy scheme. The reduced social housing capacity forced authorities to allocate housing on a basis of strict need, such that the poorest, most vulnerable, and often least-educated of people -- many of them having recently been homeless -- were concentrated together in unpopular and unstable run-down housing estates. Rather than housing a mix of people, including families headed by skilled manual workers or public servants such as policemen and nurses, they became dilapidated ghettoes of the poor and desperate, overwhelmingly inhabited by the young and the elderly, typically on low incomes and dependent on benefits.

A large quantity of social housing stock owned by local authorities was transferred into the hands of housing associations, these being less shackled than the authorities in how proceeds from sales could be reinvested, and being able to build new estates, such that the amount of social housing owned by housing associations now approaches the amount still held by local authorities. Unlike local authorities which are run by elected counsellors, however, housing associations are largely unaccountable, such that their increasingly marginalised and stigmatised tenants have next to no say in how the estates where they live are run.

A Living Tapestry of Men and Women
In her famous 1987 'there is no such thing as society' interview, Mrs Thatcher said some important stuff, worthy of real consideration. Thatcher's acolytes have a self-deluding tendency to gloss over what she said, while her opponents tend to misrepresent it, scorning a caricature of her argument. What she said is worth engaging with, and I just want -- briefly -- to look at two passages in the interview in connection with the social revolution brought about by the Right to Buy scheme. Early in the piece she said:
'... when people come and say: "But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!" You say: "Look. It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!"'
I think she's correct, of course, but I also think that such arguments have next to no moral or rhetorical force in homogenous ghettoes where everyone is on benefits, and where there's nobody to point to as examples of those people who are supporting other people. Sure, if you're familiar with the idea of the Good Samaritan, you'll know that your neighbours aren't just the people on your street, but even then arguments like this need a human face. It's no good saying that 'other people are supporting you', if you and those 'other people' don't go to the same schools, don't worship in the same churches, travel on the same buses, drink in the same pubs, or even talk to each other occasionally. It's not good saying that 'other people are supporting you' if you believe those same people look down on you as failures -- even as scum.

Later in the interview Mrs Thatcher said,
'... when we have got reasonable housing when you compare us with other countries, when you have got a reasonable standard of living and you have got no-one who is hungry or need be hungry, when you have got an education system that teaches everyone -- not as good as we would wish -- you are left with what? You are left with the problems of human nature, and a child who has not had what we and many of your readers would regard as their birthright -- a good home -- it is those that we have to get out and help, and you know, it is not only a question of money as everyone will tell you; not your background in society. It is a question of human nature and for those children it is difficult to say: "You are responsible for your behaviour!" because they just have not had a chance and so I think that is one of the biggest problems and I think it is the greatest sin.'
If it takes a village to raise a child, then we really need to give some thought to the kind of villages our society has created. By removing the leaven of hope and aspiration -- stable families, married middle-age couples, and skilled workers and public servants -- from our social housing, Right to Buy has effectively resulted in Britain's social housing being reserved for those with the worst problems, such that social housing estates are ghettoes blighted by intergenerational illiteracy, ignorance, broken relationships, drug abuse, alcoholism, child abuse, violence, vandalism, gangs, and a desperate lack of facilities, opportunities, or hope.

Roughly a sixth of Britain's population lives in social housing, in neighbourhoods that, as Will Hutton puts it, 'are caught in a self-reinforcing loop of decline'. Given this, I think Mr Cameron might have done well today to think of what his predecessor had said about children not having had a chance when he so swiftly dismissed the attitude he characterised by saying:
'People aren’t the architects of their own problems, they are victims of circumstance.'
Sometimes -- to a large extent -- they are. That doesn't excuse anything, of course, but it does help explain things. We need to diagnose illnesses properly before we launch at patients with dictats, drugs, and scalpels.


Anonymous said...

The claim that social housing offered “stable neighbourhoods” in “stable communities” may well be misleading if it suggests that such stability was organically attained and sustained by people who shared a common sense of purpose and community aspiration within any given community. Social stability can also be attained when a dearth of opportunity only allows for a basic, static social order. People put up with it because they have no alternative. It might be claimed that most of those dependent on social housing prior to Thatcher’s initiative were in fact “trapped” and culturally “condemned” to a socially immobile order.

By offering people the right to buy their home at a fair market value discounted proportionately by the number of year’s rent they had already paid, many came into a position of being able to be equity holders, and of sharing the values and aspirations of the community of equity holders. That many of these bought their homes, and of these again many subsequently sold their equity, becoming socially mobile, indicates that the nature of the stability that previously held sway wasn’t what they would have chosen.

It does not follow that, because people should trade their newly acquired equity in an act of social mobility, their former neighbourhoods become “increasingly transitional and unstable.” The stability of a community is not dependent on the fixity of the set of particular individuals who compose it at any given time, rather it depends on the continuity of manner and purpose with which people within the community at any given time relate to each other. For all those who sold their houses there were others who bought them. And presumably most of these did so with the intention of becoming home-owning neighbours to those who still remained in the neighbourhoods; new neighbours committed to the wellbeing of the neighbourhood to which they had bought-in.

Apart from the intangible benefits of having home-owners as one’s neighbour, the right to buy scheme cannot have helped those who were simply too poor in any event to afford to buy their homes. And certainly there were neighbourhoods in economically distressed regions where the vast majority could not afford to take up the offer. But I don’t see how this has a bearing on the worthiness of the scheme or how it contributed to “ghettoes of intergenerational deprivation and despair, with no visible way out for those left behind.”
Those left behind would have been left behind with or without the scheme. Whereas those actually liberated into social mobility would also have been left behind if those who opposed the scheme because it was “profligate” and disruptive of “social stability” had had their way.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I appreciate all that, and what you say makes some sense on paper, but it seems that in reality it didn't work out that way. In itself, I don't think that the selling of the houses was a bad thing -- having distributionist inclinations, it appeals to me -- but the ban on reinvesting proceeds in new housing stock seems to have been a cataclysmic error, especially in a decade when poverty rates doubled.

Of course, if you still don't believe me you could write to the Centre for Social Justice, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Iain Duncan Smith, Phillip Blond, Will Hutton, and Richard Vinen, and tell them that they're all wrong. Because if you think this analysis is wrong, then you should probably take issue with some rather more influential subscribers to it.