Writing the Con: Housing and the Big Society

At first glance there’s not much of a connection between the politics of housing development and the Big Society. But as Karen Buck pointed out at the recent launch of Chartist’s two new pamphlets, a big society can’t be a good society unless it’s underpinned by decent housing. MATTHEW BROWN reports.

Buck, Labour MP for Westminster North and shadow education minister, was guest speaker at the meeting in Portcullis House where Duncan Bowie’s The Politics of Housing Development in an Age of Austerity and The Big Society: The big con and the alternative, by Andy Gregg and Mike Davis, were launched by the respected left magazine group.chartist_big_society cover

Buck began by contrasting David Cameron’s notion of the Big Society with the idea of a good society, one that “places a premium on those qualities of life that make being human about so much more than what happens in the workplace or what we earn”.

That kind of society, she said, is predicated on having a decent housing strategy. The problem, she said, is that “we are reaping the whirlwind of decades of failure to deliver housing that works for people’s needs”.

“At one time housing was seen as an integral part of the welfare state, and as a useful source of public funding,” she said. “But it disappeared from the public accounts in the 1970s and since then housing has become primarily about individual empowerment and enrichment.”

Buck outlined how the market model has come to replace any sense that housing is an aspect of public welfare. Housing is no longer seen as an obligation of the national community to provide homes for its citizens, but an opportunity for private investment, profit, personal income, and even substitute pensions.

Public need

In his pamphlet, Bowie contrasts how much was achieved in public housing and planning policy in previous periods of austerity with the failures of the last few decades when both Conservative and Labour governments have embraced a neo-liberal reliance on the private sector, an approach that came crashing to earth with the bust of 2008.

Bowie is a member of the London Labour housing group which advises Ken Livingstone, and he clearly knows his stuff. Indeed, he bemoans a lack of knowledge on the left about the history of housing and planning policy, and takes us through its development in three previous periods: pre-world war one, from 1909; post-world war one from 1916 to 1924; and the welfare state years from the second world war to the early 1950s.

Although these were eras when resources were far more limited than they are now – periods of genuine austerity, he calls them – each saw the development of a national housing regime that aimed to meet people’s needs largely through public funding, national standards, planning and regulation, and effective use of resources.

Bowie claims the current housing crisis is comparable to those periods, pointing out that housing shortages in London now are greater than they were even in the post-blitz city after the war.

The difference is one of political and economic legacy. Now we are living in the wake of the fundamental shift in policy instigated under Margaret Thatcher in 1979, with the advent of right to buy and de-regulation of the private rented sector, and continued since through transfers of council stock to housing associations or private companies, the disappearance of government subsidies for new building, and an obsessive focus on home ownership over collective provision.

Comparing 2009 with 1909, he writes: “In contrast with previous recognition of the role of public sector agencies … the contemporary consensus has been in favour of a) limited powers of direction over the market, b) reliance on private sector ownership and development, to the extent of assets being transferred on a significant scale from the public to private sector, c) light tough regulation, if any, and d) reliance on private sector investment to reduce demand on the public sector budget and the taxpayer.

“It is significant that in both 1909 and in the previous periods of austerity, this fourfold approach was rejected as inadequate. This was generally not seen as a matter of ideology but of pragmatics. There are clear lessons from the past for any government with responsibility for planning and housing policy.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Conservative-led coalition has not only ignored these lessons but pursued a strategy that pushes even further the prevailing market orthodoxy. Within two years, it has sought to abolish planning and housing targets, reduce national housing investment budgets by 60%, stop funding for social rented housing, set the definition of affordable housing at 80% of market rates, instantly doubling or trebling many rents, and introduce a housing benefit cap that threatens to force low income families into impoverished ghettoes.

“There is no longer any recognition that central government has any responsibility for directing either public or private resources to the most cost effective use or greatest public benefit,” concludes Bowie. “The effect of these policy changes, combined with the continuation of the economic downturn will be to further slow down housing development, just at the time when needs are becoming more acute and the backlog in demand is ever greater.”

This failure to meet public need is a question of politics and ideology, Bowie suggests, not due to a lack of resources. “We have done it before and we could do it again,” he says. “If we could do it from the public purse in 1919 then surely we can do it now when we are so much more wealthy.”

The big con

A significant aspect of these previous “public policy frameworks” for housing was the central role of local authorities as providers and managers of homes.

It’s one of the ironies – paradoxes, Andy Gregg calls them – of the Big Society that it claims to be about devolving power to local level just as coalition cuts are slashing council powers and resources and undermining services that empower local people.

Davis points out that local authorities have suffered average cuts in income of 28%. The results are all around: in Haringey, north London, for example, scene of last summer’s riots, there are now 12 youth workers for the entire borough instead of 112.

Meanwhile, schools all over the country are forced by the central dictats of education secretary Michael Gove to become academies, breaking their ties with local democracy, while money is transferred from maintained schools’ budgets to ‘free’ schools.

Such ‘localism’ is just one of the wobbly pillars of the Big Society rhetoric, says Davis. The other is ‘volunteerism’, the Tory notion that community groups will spring up to replace state-run services with spontaneous social action at neighbourhood level.

“Yet, 190 voluntary organisations have closed in Birmingham alone, and 174 have gone in London,” says Davis. “More than 300 children’s and young people’s organisations have closed in the last 18 months.

“Voluntary groups exist in a symbiotic relation with local authorities; without it they collapse.”

Voluntary and community organisations rely on state funding, but government cuts to charities this year amount to £1.4 billion, while big state contracts go to big companies, not the small battalions of the Big Society – some 90% of work programme contracts, for example, have been awarded to large corporations such as Serco.

In this context, says Davis, “It is hard not to condemn Cameron’s Big Society as a big con.”

Gregg has a neat set of equations to highlight the paradoxes: Big Society = big cuts = equals smaller civil society; Big Society = big contracts; Big Society = ‘little England’. In the end, he writes: “Spouting about localism and empowerment without a real redistribution of resources is a lame joke rather than a viable policy.”

“Big Society is a disguised attempt to get rid of the welfare state,” he says. “You have to have some state mechanism that redistributes, and have some notion of equality, or you will be left with a free-for-all where everyone is fighting for scraps.”

So what of the ‘alternative’?

Refreshingly, the authors don’t merely call for a return to the old Labourist model of a centrally controlled welfare state. Davis, in particular, recognises the appeal of some of the Big Society and Red Tory language around community empowerment, active citizenship, and devolved decision-making. It’s a bottom-up approach which Labour needs to rediscover.

“The Big Society is a corruption of the socialist idea of building from the bottom,” he says. “It’s a tradition that goes back to the Diggers and Levellers and runs through the birth of the co-operative movement, friendly societies and trade unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The Big Society exposes the fact that Labourist politics became overly statist and centrist, and lost sight of these sort of organisations.”

He writes: “Many would agree the left needs an alternative economic strategy which breaks from neo-liberal orthodoxies. But equally it needs a new politics built on the cherished values of mutualism and co-operation and inspired by the idea that to really cherish an institution people need to have a stake and a say.”

For Davis, the principle of participative democracy should drive Labour’s attempts to respond to Big Society concerns and reconnect with the potential creativity of “active citizens”.

The left needs “to undertake a deep review of practices and views that have held sway for several generations and which have seen a leftist mechanistic, state-centred, top-down collectivism combine with a pernicious marketisation”.

“If the Labour and trade union movement is to effectively meet the challenges of the 21st century it will be necessary to build on the rich traditions of co-operative and mutualist organisations, to plan out and embrace a new relationship with the voluntary and community sector and campaigns such as UK Uncut, to enable the ideas and creativity of bottom-up organisations to percolate through to the highest levels of government.”

Quite how it should do so, and within what kind of redistributive state framework, is not explored, nor is the question of how to win the political and ideological battle for such an approach in our increasingly marketised world – problems, perhaps, for another pamphlet.

The Politics of Housing Development in an Age of Austerity, by Duncan Bowie, and The Big Society: The big con and the alternative, by Andy Gregg and Mike Davis, were launched on 22 February in Portcullis House, London. The meeting was organised by Chartist and supported by the ILP.

You can download the pamphlets here.

Read more from Chartist here.

Karen Buck’s website is here.