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Analyse the relationship between housing problems and the policy-making process in the UK

Updated on March 3, 2014

Homelessness has been a problem in Britain since the beginning of recorded history from Hlothaere through William the Conqueror to Edward the First. They all acted against those who did not have homes, usually with violence, but homeless was not seen as a problem the state or government was responsible for. With the rapid industrialization during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century the majority of urban dwellings were overcrowded and lacking basic functions, like running water.

The social problem of no, or poor quality, housing becoming policy was born in the social and political movements of the First World War. Since then, through the inter-war period, the building of New Jerusalem, the Conservative government of the 80s and today social policy in terms of housing has evolved with the problem, changed due to the perception of the problem through the media and politics.

As the First World War came to a close there was a feeling among the general population that all that was sacrificed could not be in vain. Out of this was born the idea of ‘homes fit for heroes’. The promise of the government was that no servicemen would return to the living conditions of before. The Addison Act was the first law acknowledging that housing was an issue of policy, and a government responsibility. The act was meant to help finance 500,000 new homes. As the economy weakened funding was cut and only 213,000 homes had been built by 1923 (Living Heritage: Improving Towns). Furthermore the responsibility was given to local powers to build, maintain, sell and rent these properties where they were needed. Other acts made local councils offer housing as a social service. This is an acknowledgment that housing meets a social need and that an organization like the state is in the best position to provide that service. Wheatley’s Housing Act of 1924 continued this building as best it could.

In the 1930s another housing act forced local councils to clear as much of the slums as possible. It also urged them to provide more money for subsidies to re-housing. This clearance led to the building of a further 700,000 homes over the next eight years.

The inter-war period saw unprecedented change in both living conditions and attitudes. Some 1.1 million homes were built by, or with the help of, local council subsidies. These housing acts changed the role of policy forever, with housing becoming one of the first social policy programs. However, it was not the social problem that led to the social policy, but the perception of the social problem. Without the First World War being fought, mainly, by the working class and the brutality of the war it is unlikely that attitudes towards housing problems would have changed as rapidly. This meant any politicians who stood opposed to housing would be committing political suicide. The same for media outlets who’s majority audience was working class. In terms of the policy process nothing like this had been done before, most of the legislation relied on the private sector.

The next key developments in housing policy took place during, and because of, WW2. During WW2 bombing destroyed about four million British houses making an estimated 2 million people homeless. The debate on how far the responsibility and power of the state reaches ended because of the war. The British people had sacrificed and deserved improved social welfare, including housing. This new social welfare was based on the Beveridge report. Beveridge identified five giants each of which had a policy to tackle it. Hosuing policy aimed to tackle squalor. Mass building, slum clearance and re-housing. In 1946 55,000 houses were built, in 1947 140,000 and in 1948 284,000. These were mainly council houses aimed at those on low incomes.

The New Towns Act of 1946 led to the building of towns such as Harlow and Milton Keynes. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 stated land was to be developed in the best interests of the local community.

The need for better housing existed before the war, as did the need for the clearance of slums. Again, with housing it seems outside influences, not just the obvious need for housing, are key to make policy makers and politicians to act. . There was no way that any individual or organization with power was going to oppose the policies and no question, with the British economy in ruins, about a possible role for the private sector. The media had activity supported social improve ideas, such as Beveridge, during the war and it would have been impossible to perform a U-turn after that. The policies show a definitive reaction to housing problems.

Not until the 1979 Conservative victory was the belief state housing policy challenged. With a New Right critique an argument for the ‘residualisation’ of social housing was put forward; arguing that ‘welfare dependency’ had led to over funded services that did nothing to help people or Britain’s economy. Because of these believes the new government aimed to reduce public expenditure, reduce the power of local authorities and increase home ownership to encourage individual responsibility. The Housing Act 1980 gave Local Authority tenants the ‘right to buy’ at a discounted price, removed security of tenure for new private tenants and made repossessions simpler for landlords. All of this was designed to increase the amount of available private housing. However, the higher quality and more desirable housing was brought privately first, leaving the worst accommodation in the states hands.

The politics of the day and the media’s message had all been based around the removal of the state for the private sector to increase economic growth. The belief in a laissez faire economic policy and the removal of as much of the state as possible were highly controversial. However, once economic factors improved for the majority of people media and politicians were less likely to openly oppose any housing policy that seemed ideological laissez faire. Throughout this period home ownership took on a new sense of pride and superiority. Those who benefited from the economic boom created by the Conservatives privatization policy could look down on others. With the work of Murray playing a key role in categorizing and justifying of the new social problems that the policy created. However, the disparity increased the need for social housing greatly, and with the majority of decent social housing sold off social deprivation became more of a problem for Britain.

Time and time again throughout the history of British housing legislation it seems that the problem of housing is second to political, social and economic issues of other natures. Wars, political ideology and re-elections have influenced, or force, action on the social issue of housing. The housing problem has been recorded throughout history and policy comes closer and closer to dealing with the problem but it is ever growing, and ideology often gets in the way.

It is clear that once housing policy became a must for Britain after the first key pieces of legislation it has developed in parallel with the housing problem. The relation between the two has, arguably, always been the same; the policy solves the problem. However, changing perceptions have affected the way this relationship has worked. In terms of the development of future social housing policy there are definitely challenges; the double dip recession, the decline in construction industries and the quantity of land and housing needed. Societal perceptions of housing have led to situation where spending on welfare is seen as unproductive and a waste. Many do not hold this view, but it is now seen as a social and political acceptable. Indeed, it is now seen that the policy causes much of the problem, with the work of New Right thinkers such as Murray becoming, with references to an ‘under class’ and ‘dependency culture’ (Murray, 1994).

The difference between private and public sector reliance in policy is becoming difficult to distinguish. With laws in place protecting and owning land councils have a large part to play in even private funded housing. Ease of access and less restrictions is often used to encourage house building by private companies. The role of the state seems to still be to encourage rather than lead construction. Public opinion has solidified this view, with social housing being seen in many parts of the country as undesirable.

Until the perception of the public, and those in power, changes so that they can see the potential good effective housing policy can do it is likely that housing will remain in the fairly neglected position it currently is.


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Warnes, A., Crane, M., Whitehead, N., & Fu, R. (n.d.). Homeless Fact File. Sheffield: The University of Sheffield.


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