Housing policy as if people mattered

We’re doing the housing policy debate all wrong. That, at least, is the argument Danny Dorling advances in his recent book All that is solid: The great housing disaster.

all_that_is_solid_danny_dorlingAt the heart of the book is the claim that the focus on increasing the supply of new homes misses the point. If you look at the statistics it is clear that there is pretty much enough housing relative to population – even in the areas of highest housing pressure – it is just that it is increasingly unequally distributed. You can’t understand what is happening in the housing market without understanding the changing distribution of income and wealth. The actions of those at the top of the pile, as they pull away from the rest, ripple through the system and make it more difficult for everyone else to find appropriate, affordable and secure accommodation.

And the Government is complicit in all of this. Indeed, most recent policy is, as far as Danny is concerned, simply making matters worse. Some of it is inadequately treating the symptoms. Some of it is exacerbating the causes. Policy makers are doing exactly the wrong thing by prescribing more of the same. They have either failed to recognise this or are pursuing policies that benefit sectional interests rather than the broader public interest. Danny is particularly critical of a Parliament in which a substantial proportion of MPs are private landlords and property investors. It is unsuited to looking beyond its own self-interest. We are heading for a Parliament just as unrepresentative as those that sat before the great reforms of the nineteenth century. If we aren’t already there.

In Danny’s view, things need to change:

The vested interests in British housing are currently stoking up the embers of the last crash to create a new crisis. But a crisis is as good a time as any to get our house in order.

The book was published last month and gained widespread coverage in the mainstream media. It was positively received. Most people agree that there is a housing problem, and Danny points out forcefully many of the negative consequences of poor housing. Something must be done. He proposes some solutions – some of them are well-rehearsed elsewhere, some are more novel.

Housing bloggers provided a sympathetic but more critical reading of All that is Solid. Jules Birch, for example, summarises much of the argument and notes some of its weaknesses. Brian Green examines whether Danny has substantiated, rather than asserted, his core claim. Brian feels that the argument that increasing wealth inequality is driving the problems of the housing market is not as strong it needs to be to form the foundation of the argument.

I’ve only just finished Danny’s book. It’s taken me a while. The book is easy enough to read, indeed it is quite engaging, but it is one of the most non-linear arguments I’ve read in a long time. Despite having chapters and subheadings, the book has no very obvious structure and feels like it does several laps of the same track before it reaches the finish line. It contains many interesting ideas and observations. It makes all sorts of unusual and intriguing connections. But it contains plenty of claims about problems and consequences that felt like they would have hit harder if they’d been more closely argued and backed up with more explicit reference to supporting evidence.

It feels like there is a much more concise book in there trying to get out. It could have made all the points it makes within a stronger structure in about half the space. And the resulting book would have made the case more effectively.

That is unfortunate because I think it is an important addition to the debate. It is important not so much for the detail of its analysis and the policy proposals it offers at the end, but for the challenge it presents and its underlying orientation. In this respect it’s more radical and subversive than perhaps it has been represented in the media. That shouldn’t perhaps come as a surprise – if you miss the allusion in the title, the book closes with the relevant extract from the Communist Manifesto, sandwiched between a quote from Keynes and some statistics from the Financial Times.

Danny is arguing for the need to go back to first principles and recognise the profound importance of good quality housing to life and life chances. He does a good job of giving a flavour of the ways in which housing interconnects with and influences almost every other aspect of our lives. He gives a strong flavour of the negative consequences of insecure and unaffordable housing on the lives of its residents. He bristles with barely disguised anger at the sorts of inadequate housing conditions that we in the UK allow our fellow citizens to experience.

Danny asks us to rediscover a lesson that we first embraced fully at the close of the First World War. Good quality, secure housing is an essential platform from which to build a life, and the government has a vital role in ensuring that it is available to all, regardless of income. Housing provision is too important to be left to the market, and especially to private landlords, about whom Danny has very few positive things to say.

That is, we need to start the housing policy discussion from people and what’s best for their welfare. We need a clear view of the sort of housing people need access to in order to live safely and with dignity, and realise their potential.

The implication of this, for Danny, is that we cannot focus on only part of the picture. Current housing policy debate starts from the premise that the current distribution of housing is acceptable and property rights are sacred, we then worry about how to build more housing to meet the needs of those who are inadequately housed. Danny invites us to challenge the premise. What if the current distribution is unacceptable – that the rich are underoccupying and hoarding much more housing than they need? And what if property rights shouldn’t be treated as sacred – in times of pressing housing need, if current property owners are not going to use housing then it should be made available for others to use? Challenging these parameters opens up new policy possibilities. That is the consequence of putting the welfare of people above the rights to hold as much property as you might want.

In a sense All that is solid is only partly about housing. It is a book about the housing consequences of inequality. And it is a book about the consequences for inequality of an increasingly marketized society. But it is also a book that argues that the housing market is a key vehicle through which broader social inequality is propagated and entrenched.

It argues that if we want to do something about our housing problems in a way that is sustainable then we have to recognise that assumptions that have underpinned the direction of policy for the last thirty years will need to be overturned. People are better housed in societies that are more equal in terms of income and wealth. And these two observations are not coincidental. Introducing this comparative dimension to the discussion points up even more clearly how dysfunctional the British system has become. The implication is also that the solution to the housing problem does not lie entirely within the scope of ‘housing’ policy. But then that has always been the case.

This is a book about the big picture. It asks us to recognise that the root of our problem is that we took a wrong turning in 1980 with the arrival of Mrs Thatcher. Only if we recognise the folly of our current social trajectory will we be able to arrive at effective solutions. The problems may appear acute, but they are chronic.

This is a message that will resonate with many of those who, despite their best efforts, find themselves shut out of the housing market or find themselves living in squalid conditions in declining neighbourhoods. But equally it will be perceived as threatening to those who benefit from current policy directions. And theirs are the voices that are currently heard most clearly in the policy making process.

It also feels like a message from a different era. I was finishing the book just as news of Tony Benn’s death was being reported. Some of the commentary on Benn’s career took the form of criticising him for failing to recognise that the world had moved on from the sort of socialist solutions he favoured. While the world has undoubtedly moved on from social democracy – in England at least – we might reflect more carefully on whether that is self-evidently a good thing for anyone. For, as Danny argues, in line with a much broader evidence base, more unequal societies are bad for the rich as well as the poor. We haven’t yet reached the stage where that has been fully acknowledged, let alone acted upon.

Danny’s bigger point is, I think, that the apparently self-defeating nature of current policy is no reason to give up on aspirations for a housing policy as if people – all people – mattered. And on that point I entirely agree.

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