On the front page of the Telegraph is a piece focusing on St Vince of Cable’s warning that the housing market is exhibiting all the signs of overheating and that Mark Carney is considering stepping in on the lending side. He fears we’ll repeat the mistakes of the benighted Brown. The story takes the usual form – there are references to the danger that the market ‘may be heading for a bubble’, never the suggestion that there’s already a problem. There is no real appreciation of the lags associated with these types of macro-relationships. The market has already been given a big push, which hasn’t worked its way through the system yet. And nor, of course, is there a discussion of the difference between a boom and a bubble.
In my view Vince is right to be worried, but I don’t suppose it will have much effect. Yet by the time it becomes hard to dispute a boom is in progress it’s already way too late to act.
Over in Graunland private renting is described as the “social scandal that is being ignored”. And there is a piece about our old friend Mr Fergus Wilson, Britain’s biggest buy-to-let landlord. It reports that Mr Wilson has decided to evict the 200 of his 1000 tenants who receive housing benefit. The argument here is that rents are increasing while benefits are being eroded. Benefit-dependent households are therefore more likely to be in arrears, even before the arrival of Universal Credit. Mr Wilson considers he’d be better off reletting the properties to Eastern European migrants because they are more reliable.
One interesting additional wrinkle in the story is the difficulty of getting rent guarantee insurance for tenants on housing benefit. Mr Wilson will no doubt attract criticism for his actions. Indeed he already has. But if insurance is difficult to come by then it may well be that even landlords who would be willing to let to benefit recipients are not able to do so on a sustainable commercial basis.
Of course, rising prices and the rental squeeze are not entirely unrelated. But the problems in the private rented sector are compounded by the idiocies of welfare reform. In a high pressure market, the retreat of private landlords from housing benefit recipients once their income stream became more insecure was entirely predictable, and indeed widely predicted.
You may well think the coalition’s policy agenda constitutes a conscious attack on the poor. The most benign interpretation is that it is an abject failure of holistic thinking and joined up government. If you speak to policy makers at the DWP you will hear that the housing benefit bill must be contained. That is the key priority. So benefits must be made less generous. As more and more people are forced to claim benefits, and the total bill therefore goes up, the first thought is to work out how benefit rates can be pared back even further.
The fact that this makes it impossible for households to secure adequate housing is not the primary concern. Housing isn’t a DWP responsibility. That’s for CLG to worry about. But CLG’s budgets have been cut substantially so it doesn’t have much scope for acting decisively to develop the supply of genuinely affordable housing, even if it wanted to. Housing policy decisions of any significance are now taken by the Treasury, who, in my experience, have little or no feel for how the housing market works.
That is a problem for effective policy making. It is a tragedy for those who are unable to find safe, secure and affordable housing.
One of the aspects of the contemporary housing policy debate that I find particularly striking is that we appear to be destined to replay debates that last took place in the 1950s and 1960s. That was went the private landlord was last big news and private landlordism cemented its reputation for being rather disreputable, barely legal, and exploitative. Policy concluded that the private landlord offering market rented housing on an unregulated basis was not a suitable vehicle for providing decent housing for low income households. It appears we are rediscovering many of the old practices and the old arguments.
There seems to be a growing inclination in the mainstream media to look back into the history of housing policy to work out how we have ended up with the current mess. For example, James Meek’s piece in the London Review of Books, which I blogged about here, has attracted all sorts of attention, even though it is a rather council housing-focussed account of housing policy. There is much more to say to tell a rounded story. Policy towards private renting between the development of the 1957 Rent Act and the passage of the 1965 Rent Act is a particularly fascinating part of the overall story.
But that brings me to the point that the history of housing policy does not loom large in the collective policy memory. We seem to be destined to replay old mistakes and old debates in part because we have little sense of where we’ve come from. And there is a bigger question for the academy here.
The British housing studies community, ever since I have been involved, has tended to contract out historical investigation to a small number of scholars. I’m thinking here of Alan Holmans, Alan Murie and, particularly, Peter Malpass. But these colleagues have now all retired. Alan Holmans has retired about four times as far as I can make out. While the two Alans remain active they are not, as far as I am aware, undertaking major new works of historical scholarship. Peter retired a couple of years ago and that was a genuine retirement from academic life.
At present we don’t therefore have any academic heavy hitters championing the importance of understanding the history of housing policy. There may be younger scholars around, just setting out on this road, who I am not aware of. That’s great. But a secure grasp of our trajectory to the present can bring great wisdom to the policy process. And just when we need it most, it seems least accessible to us.