The ‘Social’ in Social Housing

August 4, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Posted in Conservative Party, David Cameron, Social Policy | 6 Comments

There are plenty of reasons why people who could afford to leave social housing opt not to do so.

The most obvious, of course, is cost; even if you did have the resources to find yourself private accommodation, you might prefer living in social housing if it leaves you with a little extra money for food, clothes, transport, a night out and the odd holiday.

The second is the security that social housing can offer. Not every private landlord is as scrupulous as a local housing association, and the further down the price scale you go, the less security you’re likely to have. Social housing can offer considerably more peace of mind for tenants.

Another reason is community. People might just prefer the part of the world they’re staying in: they’re on good terms with the neighbours; their parents live up the road; their kids go to the local school; they’re used to seeing and socialising with the same faces; they belong. Why would they want to leave those social networks – that familiarity – behind?

Although the first two reasons will be most commonly cited by those concerned about David Cameron’s social housing announcement, I think the third reason is potentially the most significant.

Functionalist sociologists – more often linked with the political right than the left – often talk about a thing called social solidarity. They believe that social harmony is best achieved by members of a community all sharing similar norms, values, lifestyles, histories and traditions. They’re the things that bind us together, that give us common ground and foster neighbourliness and a public spirit.

Now, that theory might have holes in it, but a glance at our nation’s past suggests there’s at least some truth there. When you look at our post-war history, many episodes of social unrest on the British mainland have had high population turnover as a contributing factor. Long-time residents saw their communities changing before their eyes and didn’t who their neighbours were; newcomers would be sent to areas they didn’t know, alongside people whose culture and language they didn’t always share.

Whilst most communities were (and still are) open-minded enough to adapt the changes around them (no thanks to you know who), those areas with acute social exclusion and economic inactivity would regard their new neighbours as competitors for resources that were already – are already – in short supply. Even then, bonds were (and still are) built over time: the ‘newcomers’ stick around, form relationships and embrace the community around them; the long-time residents begin to work and socialise and relate to the people they might once have treated with mistrust. Solidarity grows.

None of this is meant to diminish the problems afflicting some of Britain’s housing estates; rather, it’s meant suggest that the introduction of arbitrary fixed-term leases could make matters worse. If we know that a high turnover of population can erode the bonds which hold communities together, it is not far-fetched to conclude that a policy which leads to residents constantly moving on could erode those bonds further. If that happens, we should expect greater mistrust, dysfunction and social unrest in deprived communities. Like they need that right now.

I really don’t want to be one of those people who brings out the ‘Big Society’ as a ‘gotcha’ to thrash the coalition with each time they announce questionable policy. But a ‘Big Society’ is no substitute for an understanding of how society actually works.

David Cameron famously admitted that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. He was right on both counts. But if his coalition continues to act as if State and Society are two entirely separate entities, he will never ‘unbreak’ the Britain he inherited.


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  1. You’re always *almost* right.. And yet your references are almost always deflatingly lightweight. Very few sociologists refer with any serious commitment to ‘functionalism’ any more.. Are you a research sociologist, and if so, what does the reference to the caricature of “right wing” sociology [sic] achieve? What does your research involve? That aside, your analysis. here and elsewhere would have rather more purchase if you showed knowledge of those who are trying to systematically analyse the Con Dem coalition, and maybe even those who want to situate the current conjuncture in its proper historical context. Read David Harvey’s work, for one.. Mark Fisher’s book ‘Capitalist Realism’ would also do you some good. And remember, there’s no conflict between analytical seriousness and accessibility.. Other than that, keep up the good work

    • Well, the first thing I would say is that I appreciate the interrogative nature of your comment and am glad that I’m always ‘almost’ right.

      I’m not a research sociologist. I graduated from Cambridge in 2005 and now teach sociology in secondary schools, hence the references I use. Because I teach and write for Liberal Conspiracy, most Sociological terminology must seem to you like M-O-R sociology. I can understand that. It’s a means to an end.

      Thanks for the recommendations, though, and keep up the good work.

  2. These are all really good points, Neil, but they apply as much to people in privately-rented accommodation as to people in social housing, if not more so.

    Many working people who don’t qualify for social housing nevertheless have to spend large chunks of their income on rent, often the point where extra money, nights out, and holidays are lovely fantasties. They’re subject to the insecurities of landlords and the private rental market, particularly if, as you point out, they’re at the low end of the income and rent scale. And they, just like social housing tenants, grow accustomed to their neighbourhoods and neighbours and don’t necessarily like the idea of having to move for work or other purposes.

    But those are the breaks, and the average privately-housed person is insulated from none of these difficulties.

    I feel genuinely sorry for people who have no other choice than to seek social housing, but I cannot bring myself to care very much about people who could afford private rents but are allowed to retain their subsidised lifestyle. Especially when it’s people like me subsidising them, and that drain on my income means I can’t afford the little extras that make life so nice for them. If I were allowed to keep just 5% more of my income each month—to pay 15% in taxes rather than 20%—I’d be able to have a night out every now and then, too, and maybe a holiday once a year.

    I’d also be able to stay in my decent flat, with my nice landlady, in my nice neighbourhood where I know the shopkeepers, etc., rather than have to move to a cheaper place with a strange landlord closer to work because I can’t afford the transport costs any more.

    So it would be nice if we low-earning taxpayers didn’t have to subsidise the housing of people earning as much or more than we do, and could be sure that our hard-earned taxes were going to help the genuinely needy.

    • ‘Ello. I think your point about subsidising people who could pay their own is fair enough up to a point – it’s not fair to ask me to pay for the housing of someone who earns the same. I do, however, suspect that we’re not talking about all that many people. But whilst flushing out those who aren’t in need is fine in theory, it will certainly foster resentment among those who just fall the other side of a means testing threshold. All depends how it’s calculated of course, but it has the potential to be thoroughly divisive, and that’s what I’m most concerned about.

    • By the way, apologies if that comment wasn’t too satisfying – i am hopping across trains at the moment and don’t trust myself with long replies!

  3. I agree with your points and think security of tenure is very important. Perhaps to stop Daily Mail readers moaning about the odd council house owner who earns £100,000 a year they should be means tested with those earning more paying more rent on a sliding scale, this money can then go into funding the building of more housing.

    I think Cameron’s idea is a disgrace, the majority of people I know in council housing if they ever manage to get a job will be earning little more than the minimum wage so will never be able to afford private renting let alone a 25% deposit required for a mortgage on a house.

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