In some respects, it's the most important statistic in modern Britain. In 1914, ten per cent of Britain's housing stock was owner-occupied: the figure now is around 72 per cent. During a century in which it fought two world wars, dismantled an empire and built a welfare state, Britain quietly transformed itself from a nation of tenants into a nation where the majority are homeowners. The massive impact that this has had on the social landscape of the country is often neglected, and yet it is key to understanding contemporary politics. Thatcher's sale of council houses under the right-to-buy scheme finally tilted the electoral balance in favour of the homeowner, and the imperative to pander to the interests of an owner-occupying 'middle England' that is inherently conservative has largely defined the policy direction of New Labour. Seamlessly, the property-owning democracy of the Thatcher years segued into Blair's stakeholder society. Homeownership has become a precondition of citizenship, while those without property are increasingly disenfranchised.
It has been in the electoral interests of successive governments to allow house prices to escalate, pushed up by irresponsible mortgage lending. The national obsession with home improvement - exemplified by programmes like Property Ladder - was part of a climate that encouraged people to view their homes as little more than investment opportunities. The result of this was that until the recent crash most homeowners lived under the happy but damaging illusion that they were sitting on an asset whose price would rise inexorably and forever. The fact that governments and banks also lived in the fool's paradise of permanently escalating house prices was a key factor in precipitating the crash in the first place.
Apart from playing a part in the economic disaster that has recently engulfed the world, neoliberal housing policy has been extremely socially divisive, driving a wedge between homeowners and social tenants. Sarah Glynn's timely book, Where the Other Half Lives, focuses on the impact of these policies on lower income housing, and explores the crucial question of what happened to those who were left behind by long-term inflationary rises in property prices. As the valorisation of owner-occupation as the normal tenure for all became a point of cross-party consensus, council housing was relegated to the status of a "residual" tenure, a sponge which was there to soak up the poorest and most socially disadvantaged members of society. Under Thatcher and Blair, council housing lost the utopian impetus which it had under Attlee and Bevan, when it was seen as a public service available to citizens of all classes, and not simply as emergency housing for the dispossessed. In 2009 - after twelve years of Labour rule - the boundary of the council estate is the frontier of the deepest social division in Britian, a dividing line which separates the property-owning majority from a lumpen underclass afflicted by drug addiction, crime and unemployment.
Glynn would argue that this characterisation goes too far, and it is undeniable that the association of estates with such markers of urban decay actually feeds the problem. In many cases - as Glynn's own involvement in housing activism attests - social problems have been overstated by those in power and used as the pretext for the demolition of council homes and the systematic gentrification of previously poor areas. Proceeding under the banner of "urban regeneration", this process is tantamount to social cleansing.
Where the Other Half Lives combines hard sociological research with a militant campaigning mentality. Essays by other authors are included which treat specific national case studies, balancing the overall focus on the UK with a sense of international perspective. We learn that in countries like Sweden, until the 90s at least, social housing enjoyed considerable success by catering for a broader range of income groups. But even this system came under attack from the all-pervasive global ideology of neoliberalism, the greatest threat to a fair and egalitarian system of social housing, according to Glynn. For her, "the solution is to build more good-quality, well-subsidised public housing, so that all who want it can use it". We must return to the Bevanite conception of council housing as a tenure for all, including middle-class tenants.
Glynn's prescriptions are somewhat quaint, even if they are radical. Her outlook is Manichean, condemning all private ownership and private enterprise as right wing, whilst championing state ownership as something of a panacea. There is much to regret about the dismantling of the Keynesian mixed economy and the onset of Thatcherite neoliberalism. But I am not sure that building more and better council housing can solve the problem as simply as Glynn seems to suggest. The stigma that attaches to the council estate is not easy to eradicate, and the aspiration to own one's home is not merely an element of neoliberal ideology, but an engrained element of the national psyche. The fact that an Englishman's home is his castle has a longer history than Thatcherism. Glynn's proposals also seem likely to fall on deaf ears: given the current state of the national debt, no government would countenance the expenditure involved in expanding the council housing stock. There is no question that Where the Other Half Lives has its heart in the right place. Yet the solutions Glynn proposes have a nostalgic ring about them, as if the clock can simply be turned back. This book will not save council housing and rehabilitate it as a part of our national life, but it should nevertheless be applauded for attempting to reopen the debate.
Where the Other Half Lives: Lower Income Housing in a Neoliberal World
Sarah Glynn (ed.)
Pluto Press, 224pp, £16.99
Matthew Taunton's "Fictions of the City: Class, Culture and Mass Housing in London and Paris" is published by Palgrave Macmillan