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Critical Issues in a Complex UK Housing Market

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Housing
Wordcount: 2086 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Critical issues in a complex UK housing market: Exploring the purpose of social housing, residualisation and the changing profile of social housing tenants and Financial Exclusion, Housing Poverty and Inequality.

This essay will aim to examine the underlying purpose, effects and possible solutions to social housing and its tenants, residualisation, financial exclusion, housing poverty and inequality. Through the use of a wide variety of literature, I will present arguments as to how and why the issues that we face today have come about, with later suggesting policy recommendations as to how these critical issues could be overcome in the UK. I begin by exploring the purpose of social housing, how its purpose has changed since the 1900s, and what its purpose is regarded as today. Following on from this, I will explore how residualisation has contributed towards the changing purpose of social housing, and how this has caused changing social perceptions of what social housing is today. Thirdly, I begin to interlink how residualisation has affected the changing profile of social tenants and how the current demographic contrasts prior to the 2000s. The latter half of this essay will attempt to explore the effects and problematise financial exclusion and how many of these social housing tenants find themselves vulnerable. Finally, I will give a general insight on poverty and the affordability of housing, while finishing with a look into the inequalities for many social housing tenants.

A brief history of social housing and its changing purpose.

Before social housing was introduced, many working-class families struggled to afford the high rents that most city landlords were charging as the demand for city homes was astronomical (Burnett, 1986). During the industrial period of the 1800s, the population was becoming increasingly more urban, many workers flocked to the cities in hopes of industrial work with the promise of vast opportunities. However, this widespread migration to the inner cities led to a critical lack of concern for public health, safety and sanitation (Engels, 1987).  The poor housing conditions were exacerbated with the rising city populations and extremely high urban density. The effects of this was felt across the country with most cities experiencing overcrowded, sombre, squalid living environments (Engels, 1987). With the declining standards and inclining public concern over safety and well-being, the UK government began to slowly intervene. With Ebenezer Howard pioneering his garden cities movement at the beginning of the 1890s his association began to pick up recognition during the 1890s. His spacious principles of greenery and limited housing to the acre led to public austerity towards the government allowing the diabolical conditions that plagued the inner cities in Britain. It was this movement that led towards the Housing and Town Planning Act (1909) banning the insalubrious ‘back to back’ homes and paved the way for affordable good quality homes in later years.

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After the first world war the UK faced a housing shortage, for private landlords who had provided the majority of the housing before the war, however costs to build more dwellings remained high meaning that working-class residents were becoming increasingly outpriced as existing homes increased in value (Burnett, 1986). It was clear that the government needed to do more for the working class especially for those returning from the war, this was where Lloyd George famously announced ‘homes fit for heroes’ (Swenarton, 1981). This initiative was the first purpose of social housing, it aimed at providing good quality homes which were much cleanlier than the ones that many inhabited at the time and was largely provided for working families and ex-servicemen (Swenarton, 1981). As a result of this, the watershed for council housing was the Housing and Town Planning Act (1919) the act provided local authorities with building subsidies with the plans of delivering 500,000 new homes in three years (Cullingworth et al, 2015), although despite this, the poorest still remained in the slums of the city as rents were too high (Cullingworth et al, 2015).  Therefore, the purpose of social housing began to change and was pushed to accommodate all while still ensuring good quality homes. As a result of this, during the inter-war period slum clearance was at the forefront of agendas with The Housing Act of 1930 (Cullingworth et al, 2015). Councils planned to replace the city slums with much cleaner lower density homes for the poorer members of the community. The purpose of this remains clear, social housing during the interwar period created good quality homes for all members of society, however in the decades that followed the purpose of social housing began to change.

Following on from World War Two the UK housing market was in a state of disarray with thousands of homes and neighbourhoods sitting as piles of rubble following the bombings. In light of this, in 1951 the Conservative manifesto planned a ‘housing priority’ and stated that ‘Housing Is the first of the social services’ (Churchill, 1951). It was clear from this point that social housing was to be a well-respected, good quality aspect of the welfare state and that it would accommodate all members of the community from a variety of incomes and not just those in the lower percentile as one may argue it does now. During the 1950s planners and architects favoured a modernist building approach with ‘streets in the sky’, as a result many high-rise blocks amongst suburban neighbourhoods were erected in the 50s and 60s (Parnell, 2013). The purpose at the time was to house all, but especially the poorer working class, however there was a juxtaposition between the social housing tower blocks and the social housing estates such as the likes of Arnold Circus in London. These contrasting conditions significantly dented social perceptions and attitudes after the 1980s which will be examined below.

Residualisation and its effect on the purpose of social housing.


As the UK housing shortage began to slowly decline it was considered solved during the 1970s with social housing and home ownership as the leading tenure while the private rented sector hit a long-term decline until the mid 1990s (Mullins, 2015). However, the 1979 Conservative government introduced arguably the next watershed event for councils and social housing tenants across the country. The Conservative party introduced the ‘Right to Buy’ under the Housing Act (1980) which allowed housing tenants who had occupied their homes for several years to purchase them at a discounted rate in comparison the market (Mullins, 2015). This policy was detrimental for the condition that social housing is in today, when the act was published 2 million council dwellings out of 6.5 million were sold to sitting tenants and transferred into the private market (Mullins, 2015). 

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As a result of this, the most desirable homes were swiftly purchased under the act by those affluent enough to do so, which resulted in the economic disparities that we see today. Consequently, the vast majority of the properties sold were houses rather than flats which left the poorest of social housing tenants in the most dilapidated housing stock. In a study conducted by Hills (2007), the proportion of social housing that contained someone in full time employment fell from 78% to 34% from 1981 to 2006, this illustrates the harrowing reality of the number of middle-income households that the sector has lost while the poorest of the community have been left behind in a process known as a residualisation.

It is this process of residualisation that has caused the most recent shift in the purpose of social housing. Prior to the 1980s, social housing has not only provided homes for those who are the least fortunate but also for those considered to be in the middle class, however now we see a different purpose. During the mid 1990s there was a shift in targeting where the purpose of social housing was to house those who needed it the most as the stock began to dwindle, this was specifically households with complex needs while other low-income households were argued to be able to afford the private rented sector (Fitzpatrick and Pawson, 2014). With this in mind, it can now be argued that social housing is an ambulance service that acts as a ‘safety net’ for residents who are unable to find accommodation within the private rented sector (Malpass and Murie, 1982, p. 174). This can be illustrated by Gregory (2009), his study found that in 1979 over 40% of social housing tenants were in the top half of income distribution, however, today the figure has more than halved. The consequences of this have resulted in a drastic demographic change in the profile of social housing tenants highlighting and contributing to the inequality and stigmatisation that many of the residents feel that they carry.

Exploring the changing profile of social housing tenants.

While the aim of social housing is to provide a good quality home for its tenants, studies have shown that when social housing is clustered together rather than developed under mixed tenure schemes the consequences can be disastrous. Due to this, social housings credibility is widely hindered by the association of the sink estate, while many are aware that this is a small minority, it has left many tenants alienated and stigmatised in their own ‘apartheid cities’ (Gregory, 2009). This has been exacerbated by the current ambulance service paradigm has resulted in social housing disproportionately accommodating those unemployed or with a range of impediments. At the same time the only way to overcome this is to provide a mix, however with housing lists exceeding one million the poorest are inevitably prioritised. Therefore, this social mix becomes increasingly harder to achieve


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  • Churchill, W. (1951) 1951 Conservative Party General Election Manifesto. Available at: http://www.conservativemanifesto.com/1951/1951-conservative-manifesto.shtml (Accessed: 28 October 2018)
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  • Housing Act 1980, c. 51, England: Bernard M. Thimont
  • Hills, J (2007) Ends and Means: The Future Roles of Social Housing. [pdf] London: ESRC Research Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion.
  • Mullins, D. (2016) Housing. In: Alcock, P., Haux, T., May, M. and Wright, S. eds. The Student Companion to Social Policy, 5th edn. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Fitzpatrick, S. and Pawson, H. (2014) ‘Ending security of tenure for social renters: Transitioning to ‘Ambulance Service’ social housing?’, Housing Studies. Vol. 29 (5), pp. 597-615.
  • Malpass, P. and Murie, A. (1982) Housing Policy and Practice. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
  • Gregory, J (2009) In the Mix: narrowing the gap between public and private housing. London: Fabian Society.


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