The right to adequate housing? Reflections on an avoidable tragedy

The right to adequate housing? Reflections on an avoidable tragedy

Nigel de Noronha

As the tragedy at Grenfell Towers unfolded we watched the destruction of people’s homes and the failure to protect them. We could relate this to our own experiences, our own hopes and fears and, as, the evidence of neglect mounted, feel the anger at those responsible. Many individuals turned out to help. Without them the aftermath of the tragedy might have been worse. There has been a lot already written about the events, commemorating those who lost their lives, articulating anger about the consequences and the vulnerabilities of those living in similar properties, and highlighting the extreme inequalities that had fostered a political and social disregard for the victims. As the media move on and the tragedy returns to the personal concern of those affected, it seems appropriate to reflect publicly on how we should react to these events in different ways. Here, I focus on what this might mean for housing policy in the UK in the future.

We are living through a social crisis in which access to housing symbolises inequalities between poor and rich, young and old, black and white. Resistance to these inequalities is evident in conflict over the right to housing articulated by residents of London housing estates. Regeneration plans for demolition have been challenged by residents who object to the way that state and commercial actors have stigmatised where they live and how they have then used this stigma as a rationale for displacing them from their homes. They know that these processes are designed to free up valuable land for others who can pay more and recognise that this will create places in which they and their children don’t belong.

The violence that this approach to regeneration represents should be seen as a failure by successive governments to adequately invest in housing needs for the future. Governments have not delivered their responsibilities, giving power and control to the market where supply is provided by property developers and construction companies, and, access is regulated by estate and letting agents. The coalition government has increasingly denied access to housing for the poor through austerity measures. They set maximum housing benefit levels for the private rented sector (PRS) that has made the larger part of most cities inaccessible, penalised social housing tenants for ‘under-occupation’ and forced local authorities’ to sell off more valuable properties.

For many commentators, the history of the housing crisis starts with Mrs Thatcher and her introduction of neo-liberal policies to reduce the role of the state and encourage the market. The introduction of the right to buy which led to the sale of two million social homes between 1980 and 2012 was accompanied by the privatisation of some public services and cuts to others, the run-down of manufacturing and extractive industries with devastating impacts on some working-class communities, the development of the financial sector in London and the encouragement of greed and selfishness encapsulated in her claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’.

Whilst the disposal and neglect of the social housing stock forms an important part of the story, we also need to know why and where it was built, and for whom, to develop an inclusive vision for the future of housing in the UK. In 1914 three quarters of housing was in the private rental sector (PRS) and, in response to action against landlord profiteering during the First World War, a rent freeze was introduced. After the war, the government committed to a programme to build ‘homes fit for heroes’. This led to slum clearances and the building of good quality garden estates managed by local councils to house the displaced working-classes. At the start of the Second World War, a rent freeze was again imposed and the post-war Attlee government oversaw the construction of one million homes, 80% of which were social housing.

By the 1950s, the Conservative government claimed that the rent freeze meant that the existing PRS had been gravely neglected and was in poor condition. In 1957 they lifted the rent freeze enabling landlords to raise rents to deliver improvements. Landlords had an incentive to evict existing tenants as they could increase the rent, a practice that entered the language as ‘Rachmanism’. Perec Rachman owned around 150 properties in North West London and used intimidation to evict rent-controlled tenants. He died in 1962 before his infamy became a symbol of what was wrong with the housing market in London. A Royal Commission was established in 1963 to report on housing in London. Their main conclusions were insecurity of tenure, landlord harassment and poor conditions. They did not find that immigration was a major factor in their report though the evidence of racialisation of the housing issue was argued to have forced many migrants into ownership.

The findings informed the introduction of rent regulation and security of tenure in the 1965 Rent Act. Housing and race were also an issue in other cities, Birmingham used a five year residence requirement to stop recent migrants getting on the housing waiting list. The central government response to the arrival of East African Asians in Britain was to ‘redline’ areas to minimise the concentration of migrant communities.

Grenfell Towers was part of a building programme to address the housing crisis for the working classes. It reconciled cost considerations and the need to prevent urban sprawl by pre-fabricated assembly methods within existing urban boundaries. These investments were problematic because of poor building standards and scant regard for the social conditions they fostered as well as an unwillingness by the social landlords of the day to listen to and address residents’ concerns.

Continuing discrimination in social housing allocation policies at local level was documented in a series of reports by the Commission for Racial Equality from the 1970s onwards. Whilst many local areas sought to provide non-discriminatory access to social housing the emergence of black-led housing associations provide evidence of independent action to secure adequate housing.

In 1976 the UK adopted the right to adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context. Their failure to deliver this right in a non-discriminatory way was evident in the continuing evidence of racial exclusion from housing.

New Labour promised to address the neglect of the previous government with action to address social exclusion, a place based policy that promised to transform inequalities between neighbourhoods. Their policies were underpinned by a commitment to transform problem neighbourhoods through mixed tenure development in partnership with the private sector. I would argue that their demonization of these neighbourhoods and the people who lived in them heralded a new assault on the right to housing for the ‘undeserving poor’.

The election of the coalition government saw this assault on the right to housing extended through austerity measures and increasing restrictions on migrant access to housing. Their increasing failure to deliver this right fairly was reflected in the report of a UN Special Rapporteur visit to the UK in 2013. In 2014 she reported that the UK faced ‘a critical situation in terms of availability, affordability and access to adequate housing’ that was exacerbated by welfare reforms. The UK government challenged her right to comment on the UK context and continued with a policy of creating a ‘home-owning’ democracy with investments targeted at increasing access for younger middle-income families whilst refusing to recognise or invest in social housing that had been such an important element of access to housing for the poor.

The political focus on immigrants has led to discrimination in the allocation and financial support for housing by migration status. Legal restrictions are exacerbated by discriminatory practices that are hard to evidence and challenge as they have become embedded and normalised over a long period through the shifting racialisations of migrants and minorities.

Delivering the right to adequate housing means not only making sure that as a society we affirm that housing is a public good but also that we address the exclusion from these rights. For many, access to social housing is impossible so short-term measures to regulate the private rented sector are essential. They should include regulation of rent and housing quality, fair taxation on the profits of landlords and the enforcement of the intentions of existing affordable housing investment by stopping sales to landlords and compulsory purchase of properties owned by those who have abused the lax controls. In the longer-term it is likely to mean building affordable housing through public investment. To ensure that the right to housing is delivered without discrimination we need to challenge and reformulate the discourses of exclusion based on race and migration status (amongst others) and the ways that these have been enacted in housing and welfare policies.

Note: This article uses the term social housing to cover both council and housing association property.


Nigel de Noronha is a Teaching Fellow in Sociology at Warwick. His research reflects broad concerns around social inequalities and social justice with a particular interest in housing, race and migration.