Coffee House

Social housing needs to be more social

12 August 2013

With the recent anniversary of the Beveridge report, TV channels have been packed with an array of documentaries on our welfare system. Most of these have been fairly hopeless, trying to make their points with extreme cases. Channel 4’s ‘How to get a council house’ was a notable exception. With devastating clarity it showed how our social housing system is nothing of the kind.

My grandfather, an electrician, spent most of the Second World War on Malta with the RAF. His house in East London was destroyed by bombing during the war. With no home of his own he stayed with relatives when on leave and happily fell in love with my grandmother who lived next door. They married on VE day and after a few years had a daughter, my mum. In 1955 he answered an advert in the paper for a self-build group setting up in Essex. Together the group bought a potato field and over the next few years jointly built houses on the land. Giving up every weekend, evening and their precious annual leave they built thirteen sets of semi-detached houses between them which still stand today.

I don’t remember my grandfather – he died when I was two – but I imagine the kind of man he was and the discipline, care and pride that years toiling to build those houses must have instilled in him. That was genuine social housing – people playing their part, each contributing what they could and toughing it out through the days when they wanted to give up because they had made a commitment to each other.

Electricians fit electric conduits in the roof of a prefabricated bungalow. Circa 1950.

Electricians fit electric conduits in the roof of a prefabricated bungalow. Circa 1950.


Channel 4’s documentary showed a system that has unashamedly built the complete opposite of those things, destroying any idea of self-reliance or need for relationships.

Families were unwilling to move more than five miles away and couldn’t see why they should. The possibility of going to live with relatives for a time was viewed with horror. There was never any discussion of the responsibilities of other related parties; for example, the father of the children being raised by a single mum or the grandparents on both sides. The idea that children should have to share a room seemed to create outrage. The notion that finding work might be a good step was eschewed, with people being offered leaflets on how to try and find a job as a vague afterthought with no expectation. ‘I’ve not been too concerned about looking for a job,’ said one young dad-to-be. In the midst of the moaning about the “bedroom tax” (that isn’t a tax at all), when people were provided with houses at a fraction of their market value and therefore at great cost to the taxpayer, there was no sense of gratitude; simply a belief that it was no more than their due. The administrators of the system were simply that: form fillers.

The people in the documentary have become victims of a system that encourages them to look to the state before they look to themselves or to family, friends or their community. Unravelling a welfare system that accounts for close to 40 per cent of government spending, and rebuilding it to foster relationality rather than destroy it, is one of the most pressing challenges in public policy today.

Fulfilment and purpose is found in work. Responsibility requires that people feel there is a connection between action and consequence, and the law of delayed gratification requires that we understand sacrifice is worth it for what we get in the end. We are not islands or statistics whose unique personal circumstances and characteristics can be understood by ticking boxes on an online form.

It may not be clear what all the answers are, but the documentary clearly showed the problems. A life on benefits in state housing isn’t easy. Reforms need to be made that help people to get out of it, rather than encouraging more people to go into it.

Ruth Porter is Communications Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs

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  • bil pearson

    Social Housing ceased to be that when housing was transferred to housing associations and was taken over by accountants and senior executives who’s only aim was higher salaries, mergers and empire building. Tenants became entries on a spreadsheet and houses just units on the same sheets not homes.

  • Liz Wakefield

    Lovely example of a post war social housing co-operative – such models are a great idea and they are happening, albeit not as much as we’d like – see And Housing Associations are doing great work beyond providing housing – take a look at the National Housing Federation Awards

  • Edward

    What a terribly ill-informed piece. Social housing is not subsidised. Much of it even makes a profit (what social landlords call a surplus). It is market rent that is inflated and distorted and that is subsidised by huge payouts of housing benefit to private landlords.

  • Joe Halewood HSM

    I see the myths prevail as fact in this very biased and frankly ignorant view – the subsidised issue. The article says “..when people were provided with houses at a fraction of their market value and therefore at great cost to the taxpayer,”

    A great cost to the taxpayer? Social housing receives £1.2bn per year in capital subsidy – money to build. Yet privately rented housing receives £2.2bn more in revenue subsidy as the 1.67m private tenants claiming housing benefit (LHA) get 30% more than the equivalent social tenant does for the same sized property.

    The capital subsidy social housing receives is an invest to save issue yet never looked at that way.

    IF the capital subsidy was taken away then social housing rents would rise to at least the level of the LHA received by private landlords. This would see the HB bill rise by nearly £5bn per year. So the £1.2bn investment saves the public purse and taxpayer £5bn per year. That is a conservative figure as if the rented housing market was a true market then social housing properties which are of better standard would command even higher rent levels than private ones.

    Finally, as the £1.2bn ‘subsidy’ saves the taxpayer £5bn per year it equates to every taxpayer paying £170 per year LESS in tax. The naive myth that social housing is subsidised however still prevails in the minds of those who want to believe the myth and do not want to look at the facts.

  • MrDDavies

    You could kick Bob Crow, who earns £150,000+ per year, out of his council house for a start. He could afford to buy his own homes and free up his council house for those who cannot.

    • HJ777

      and Frank Dobson.

  • channel.fog

    I notice how the writer goes on about her grandather’s self reliance but not her own. Presumably by the time she reached adulthood no self reliance is required, a previous generation having done the work for her.

  • EppingBlogger

    Meanwhile, we over tax new homes by imposing onerous obligations to subsidise social housing which ends up being managed by people who want to recreate the state dependancy in housing that scarred the 1950s and 1960s.

    In some planning districts as many as thirty per cent of all new homes have to be social housing. In effect that means the developer has to give away that proportion of housing to a social landlord, without strings attached.

    It is inequitable for buyers of new homes to have to bear this cost. I suppose the politicians involved imagine the developer pays. the fact is homes are not being built because of this cost.

    The choice of management for these social housing units (laughably called “affordable homes”) is instructive. The government could have mandated they be build and sold below a target price; they could have mandated a maximum rental; but their preferred solution is to impose this cost, demand their own specification of design and size and then let social landlords run them.

    This is encouraging dependency, ghettos and it deters new house building. A triple success for a socialist state.

  • madasafish

    A reduction in the UK population of 20% will solve housing problems.

    • Geoff103

      Go on then. You can volunteer to be the first to start the ball rolling in that reduction. Pistol or rope?

      • madasafish

        I am eating and drinking myself to death.

    • channel.fog

      But when the population was 20% lower there were housing shortages, just as there was unemployment. You know how stupid what you’re saying is, don’t you?

    • SadButMadLad

      The housing problem isn’t down to the size of the population. It’s because the population is in the wrong place. There is spare housing – but people need to move to the areas where it is. Currently if they don’t want to move 5 miles there is no chance of them moving to a different part of the UK.

  • andagain

    I’ve always thought of social housing as a way of paying people to live in areas they cannot afford, on condition that they stay poor.

    Silly way to spend money, really.

    • Derick Tulloch

      People are perfectly capable of building their own houses. But first
      A) the so called ‘Planning’ system, which merely facilitates NIMBYSM must be abolished
      B) That’s it.

  • HookesLaw

    Social housing estates paid for by inadequate rents and without stringent tenant controls resulted in the ill maintained ghettos they dissolved into

  • TonyB58

    I remember a couple of years ago when I was in a local authority housing office, I was there supporting a friend being victimized by a neighbour, when I over heard a young woman demanding a bigger house because the four bedroom dwelling she already had was not big enough for her seven kids! Of course I had no way of knowing the woman’s circumstances but her manner was both aggressive with an attitude of entitlement which got right up my nose.

  • MichtyMe

    The accompanying picture detracts from the message in the article. Having that as a home is unlikely to induce gratitude. Was wondering to myself, what would I require to be paid to endure a stay there.

    • andagain

      By that argument, if everyone in that estate was kicked off it and given nothing at all by the taxpayer, they would be better off.

      Do you want the government to do that?

      Do you think the inhabitants would be pleased if that happened?

  • Paul Ryan Lee

    Hello, I’m from the CPRE and National Trust and I’d like to complain about my ruined view caused by your grandfather inconsiderately “concreting over the countryside.”

  • dalai guevara

    The Britsh concepts of providing social housing is firmly stuck in the Sixties, followed up with a hint of buy-to-let naughtiness.
    Holland and Austria subscribe to one of the best approaches by a mile with regards to conceiving ideas, and their execution – not just for a brief decade, but the entire post-war era until today.

    Those who make the decisions in this sector ought to at least visit before they push for a certain policy.

    • Dan Grover

      Can you give some information on what they do and why you think it works well? I must admit, I’m totally ignorant about it.

      • dalai guevara

        Two search terms to get you started could be:

        Graz School (Architecture, not to be confused with Philosophy of the 1900s)
        Grazer Schule Sozialwohnungsbau, and

        anything to do with modern town planning of Amster- and Rotterdam.

        • Dan Grover

          Thank you, I’ll take a look!

  • Terence Hale

    Social housing needs to be more social. Must certainly but in addition the standard of architecture which is at the moment terrible must be improved. As can be seen by Britain’s new towns we are getting social ghettos of the future.

  • Austin Barry

    “A life on benefits in state housing isn’t easy. ”

    But for many the preferred option; and if you live in some Third World dystopia an option as attractive as a real, gleaming El Dorado. Perpetuate this madness and they will come, year after year after year. And what then?

    • channel.fog

      But for many is the preferred option…

      How many would you say? Give us some figures, maybe just a proportion. Something we can get our teeth into rather than the usual suburban saloon bar spite.

  • Paul Ryan Lee

    Well you wouldn’t be able to build in the potato field now as the NIMBY’s would doubtless oppose on the grounds of any self build development would (a) spoil the view (b) we walk the dogs there (c) we played in those fields as kids and (c) the local schools or full (at the same time opposing any extension of the local schools) (d) newts or nightingale habitats

  • monty61

    All very well-observed.

    However, you failed to mention that the state also has a parallel system of benefits spongers, in the form of state-funded legal aid providers, advocacy groups and ‘third sector’ (aka public sector with minimal accountability) organisations. The last thing any of these want is fairness and common sense in the system. They don’t just feed off, they actively foster that arrogant sense of entitlement and beligerent ‘helplessness’.

    Unfortunately the policy initiated during the Thatcher era has been to feed the rats hansomely in case they elect to leave the sewer and become even bigger pests than they currently are. The chances of any politician looking seriously at changing things is pretty remote.

    • Paul Ryan Lee

      Tories pretty much shut down advocacy help for housing matters

      • Hugh

        What would be the point since it would not save anything? Farming subsidies are administered through the EU, and our contributions would remain the same, with our net contribution simply increasing.

      • madasafish

        Yes.. The fatties need to slim so with no food in the shops except at much higher prices that’s a good idea.

        You obviously have no idea of the average farmer’s earnings.. It’s rather less than the minimum wage.. And the biggest farmer of them all is the Co-Op…

    • dalai guevara

      Helplessness, if only it were so. The average house price in London is now £235k, almost ten times average wages. This is not about helplessness, this is about hopelessness.

    • TonyB58

      Of course the Thatcher/Blair legacy of using ever-increasing house prices that now bare no relation to what most people are actually paid means the situation is going to get much worse before it gets better. Thank good I’m not a twenty-something today trying to get on the housing ladder!

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