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Published on August 20th, 2014 | by Laura Collings
Image © Brian McNeil 2013


Social Housing UK: A crisis of identity

The Beveridge report of 1942 heralded the introduction of the modern British welfare state. Underpinning the report was the notion that there existed five ‘Giant Evils’ in society at the time: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Following the report a range of social policies were introduced to tackle these issues.

The NHS emerged as the answer to disease’, social security mechanisms as the solution to ‘want’, and social housing to tackle widespread squalor across Britain. While the NHS and our various forms of social security have experienced fluctuating difficulties over the period since their introduction they have nonetheless remained key policies underpinning the welfare state. The idea that everybody should have access to life saving medical treatment or that those who are unable to financially support themselves should receive some state support are entrenched in our understanding of the social safety net. There is certainly an argument that the NHS now represents much more than that becoming synonymous with British identity, having been voted the thing that makes most people proud to be British.

Social housing on the other hand has struggled to cement a place in the nations consciousness in quite the same way. In Britain we appear conflicted about just what social housing means to us and exactly what place it should hold in the welfare state. The current government has been clear about their perception of the social rented sector, that is that it should be available only as a temporary measure for those who have exhausted all other options for housing in the private market. David Cameron speaking about the removal of lifetime tenancies for social housing residents in 2010 noted:

There is a question mark about whether, in future we should be asking when you are given a council home, is it for a fixed period? Because maybe in five or ten years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you wont need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector

In many ways the Prime Ministers comments tap into the British psyche when it comes to housing preferences. That is that private home ownership is the pinnacle, something for which we should all strive towards. How often do we hear about the importance of ‘getting your foot on the ladder’ or securing a future ‘nest egg’?

The difficulty with adhering to an identity of social housing as a temporary safety net for a select few, while the private sector is held up as a superior housing option is that we are currently experiencing a crisis of affordable housing. The average age of a first time buyer now stands at 37, you can push that up to 38 if you’re looking in London. This is all coupled with what appear to be ever increasing costs for private renting. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that currently 1.8million households are on a waiting list for social housing, and as of the 2011 census there were 4.2 million households currently living in the sector, this is out of a total of 23.4 million households across the UK.

Attempts to paint the social housing sector as one that should only be provided for a few and in a temporary fashion does not fit with the reality that many people do not have the resources to enter the private market, nor will they have in the future unless we see widespread restructuring of the housing market. We should be acknowledging that social housing as a concept can provide answers to our current shortage of affordable homes. While we may consider that social housing has never acquired the same status within the welfare state as health care or social security, there should be no doubt that it still has a large role to play in providing support enabling many families across Britain to secure a home.

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