[DEBATE] : Stop romanticising council housing
grinker at mweb.co.za
Tue Jul 24 15:41:42 BST 2007
Monday 23 July 2007
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.
Allocated a silver-level needs certificate, Linda is unlikely to get into
the most popular development
but after a years 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
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
Rouses 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 Rouses 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 sectors
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 peoples needs, and everything to do with state
control over supposedly anti-social elements. The Housing Corporations
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
Throughout its history, social housing has always been intimately related to
the perceived problem of social order. In Nathaniel Rothschilds 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 Viennas
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. Labours 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
In the Nineties, local authorities pioneered the systems of social control
that would later be generalised under Labours 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
authoritys 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 Lets Build! Why We Need Five Million New
Homes in the Next 10 Years.
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