Malpass on Housing and the Welfare State

Housing and the Welfare State. So this took me some time to read — housing policy is such important stuff but not exactly gripping. Took me longer to blog, as work is life crushing at the moment.

I always wonder really why I am drawn back to housing over and over again.

Still. This made me see Britain in rather a different way, not having much delved into histories of the welfare state. I am glad I read it before a number of others that all refer to it, but don’t engage in the same kind of structural analysis that I value so much.  It is widely refered to, though rarely with full agreement.

So in thinking about how to define the Welfare State, Malpass finds two broad tendencies — one broad and one narrow. Narrow is encompassed by a defined set of public services, ie education, NHS, housing, personal social services and social security. The broad definition:

a specific type of society in which the state intervenes within the processes of economic reproduction and distribution to reallocate life chances between individuals and/or classes.(5)

For Malpass this state intervention does not exist in solitude, rather he quotes Esping-Anderson who writes:

we cannot grasp the welfare state without locating its activities in relation to the private sector…it is a myth to think that either markets or the state are more naturally equipped to develop welfare. Instead, markets are often politically created and form an integral part of the overall welfare-state regime. (6)

I would say that markets, at least in our times, are always politically created, what else underpins contracts, ownership, property? But I digress. Malpass describes himself as broadly in agreement with the academic literature in how it periodizes the welfare state:  two main periods (pre and post 1988), but also recognising  the difference between the postwar consensus and shared principles around welfare state, the mid 1970s watershed and its redefining and renegotiating of the welfare state, and then the 1980s and the work to re-engineer (and destroy) the welfare state as a whole.

Malpass also describes agreement around three distinct welfare state ‘settlements’:

political-economic: compromise between capitalism (private ownership & free markets) and socialism (state ownership & centrally planned economies). Commitment to a managed capitalist economy with central goal full employment, together with a series of universal services, free at the point of consumption, funded from taxes and insurance contributions. (9) (this has of course been renegotiated to a smaller role for the state in both managing the economy and delivering services. The cost of the 1980s renegotiations? Accepting labour insecurity and markets. The emphasis now is on ‘preparing/disciplining the work force‘  and a ‘redistribution of risk and responsibility from the state to the individual.’ (10)

social: which is centered around the push for full employment — though of course this would be full white male employment and he describes the ‘gendered, patriarchal and racialized nature of the postwar British welfare state.‘ (9-10) where the ‘Universalism of the welfare state was, in fact, deeply circumscribed’. (10) So even in the good old days, it wasn’t good for over half of us. Now? Changing patterns in households, much more diverse, more two-earner households, and no-earner. More pensioners. Old assumptions of white male breadwinners no longer work, but nothing has replaced it really. And of course the welfare state required full (male) employment, without it, things become very expensive. I’m not sure where that leaves us.

organizational: an early consensus on the way that these services should be delivered — large, public sector organizations in which professional and bureaucratic modes of coordination predominated. (10) Arguably, things could improve a lot. Now? Local authorities as ‘strategic enablers rather than service providers, relying on a range of private, voluntary and community organizations for service delivery. These are typically required to compete in provider markets or quasi-markets for the right to provide services.‘ (11)

And so we come to Malpass’s main argument about housing, noting how it has been seen as the wobbly pillar of the Welfare State. He writes, following Harloe (1995), that housing was always the

least decommodified and the most market-determined of the conventionally accepted constituents of such states.

Continuing the argument he quotes Cole and Furley (1994) on housing as ‘a stillborn social service lodged within a capitalist dynamic of property relations’. Housing is a commodity, and was seen even through the post war consensus as a commodity. Thus for Malpass, the turning point in the history of housing is not the end or transformation of any postwar settlement, but rather the ‘economic convulsions‘ of the post war boom and collapse of Keynesian policies in 1975. This book challenges

…accepted ways of looking at housing…arguing that housing policy in the postwar period is not best understood in terms of the welfare state. In relation to the more recent past and the present period, instead of seeing housing as being ‘amputated’ from the welfare state, it will be argued that it provides a model for the new, more limited, conditional and market-reliant form of the welfare state, increasingly delivered by non-municipal organizations. In this sense the modern housing system is more clearly delineated in terms of a large, private market serving the majority, and a slimmed down social rented sector, more focused on the least well off than at any previous point in time. … in relation to housing the postwar welfare state was a kind of rhetorical or ideological overlay on market driven processes that were already under way…(24)

Thus, while housing was something we did fight for and that we did win, when provided it was always for the better-off working classes until the 1970s. Only then did it become ‘residualised’. Where it had once started out being for the better off, it is now for the worse off, and brings with it all the stigma and social exclusion that such an obvious connection between tenure and the many dimensions of poverty can bring.

What I didn’t know (but have since read over and over again) — class was always explicit in housing policy’s foundations. Malpass acknowledges the difficulties in defining the term class, but notes that it is:

unavoidable in this context, if only because it was formally built into housing policy until the Housing Act, 1949. Until that time local authorities were technically restricted to providing housing for members of the working class… (27)

Yet even then, it was for workers, and the better paid ones. I think the key point is that the housing market alone has never provided decent affordable housing for a large segment of the population, so that the state successfully argued it had been forced to step in, yet this never

led to a decommodified state-run service comparable with those associated with other main planks of the welfare state. On the contrary, it is the persistence of the market as the main mechanism for delivering housing to the majority that is striking and demanding of explanation. (30)

While there have been step changes to manage the housing market, there had been no challenge to hegemony. He argues that it is significant that large scale provision of housing came only after the crisis in the housing market affected a large proportion of the working class. In this, housing policy has always worked to support the market, not challenge or replace it. For much of the twentieth century, this meant slum clearance, and building subsidized housing. For the latter end of the century, it moved to helping better off working class into their own homes, the least well-off into social housing.

Thus from 1915-1975 (when he argues the true change in housing policy came) he follows Ginsburg (1999: 226-35) in arguing that British housing policy followed a ‘liberal collectivist’ framework:

  • rent control/regulation for PR housing w/out significant fiscal incentives or cash support for landlords or tenants
  • nationally regulated and subsidized provision of local authority rented housing for the ‘respectable’ working class
  • programmes of Victorian slum clearance with replacement council housing for poor people
  • fiscal and general government support for owner occupiers (19)

From 1979 to 1989 under the Conservative government, consistent emphasis on

  • the promotion of owner occupation
  • the deregulation of private renting
  • acceleration of the trend away from general housing subsidy towards means-tested assistance with housing costs
  • the cultivation of the idea that local authority housing was a failed solution and that it had become part of the problem to be solved. (21)

By the 1990s, BEFORE Blair comes along in 1997, a new paradigm for housing established

  1. As opposed to subsidy, housing now characterized by taxation
  2. Always before it was the private sector subject to restructuring, now it is the public, social rented sector
  3. issue of demand on public agenda once more, yet unlike earlier period, resources for public housing continue to be cut despite projected massive increases in demand and assumption, relying on private market to produce housing and fund social housing through use of planning policies. Second problem is that now viewed that demand overall is needed to build in large numbers, but some areas demand is a real problem. (21)

Blair just followed along this trajectory.

In summary, from the conclusion to the introduction:

The housing market has never provided decent affordable housing for a large segment of the population, yet this has never ‘led to a decommodified state-run service comparable with those associated with other main planks of the welfare state. On the contrary, it is the persistance of the market as the main mechanism fir delivering housing to the majority that is striking and demanding of explanation. (30)

Step changes might have been made to manage the market, but no challenge to hegemony.

The rest of the book brings greater depth this argument through the many years of post-war housing policy, the shifting negotiations and increasing privatisation. I have so little time to blog, not sure I will have time to catch up with it. Hopefully I will have time to come back to it after reading a little more widely. I confess though, it’s the historical stuff that I love the most…

Malpass, Peter (2005) Housing and the Welfare State: The Development of Housing Policy in Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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