Sarah Glynn (Editor)
Pluto Press (2009)
Reviewed by Stewart Smyth - firstname.lastname@example.org
In a similar manner to they way the current economic crisis (with its asset bubble, pyramid schemes and banks being bailed-out) reminds us of past economic crises stretching back over the past century and a half, this collection of essays shows how the clock has been turned back on the housing needs of the poorest in our world. Neoliberalism has attempted (and in many ways succeeded) in returning housing for the poor to the era when the deserving poor received basic homes and the rest were left to rot. Years of under-funding and neoliberal policies have lead to the residualisation of what was once a tenure of first choice for many and an important expression of collective solidarity in many societies. However, all is not just despair partly because of the framework Sarah Glynn adopts and more importantly the actions of tenants groups and housing activists, there is hope that is captured in this book.
Glynn’s framework brings together two aspects of the research on social housing. Firstly, she adopts David Harvey’s work on neoliberalism as the guiding framework in which to explain the reforms that social housing has been subjected to over the last 30 years. Central to this framework is an understanding that the neoliberal project has sought to shift power and wealth from the poorest in our society to the richest. This process though is laden with contradictions, not least of which is the resistance generated by social movements and housing activists to changes in social housing. Secondly, the framework is then utilised in a series of chapters by other contributors, to analyse and explain the changes to social housing in a number of different countries. The outcome of which is a comprehensive assessment of the impact of neoliberalism on a key human need across several national boundaries.
In the first three chapters, Glynn develops a framework within which to analyse the changes in recent decades to social housing. Largely based on the UK Glynn’s arguments develop along three strands. Firstly, there is a historical look at social housing throughout the 20th century. Two important factors are highlighted that remain pertinent today – those in charge have only invested in social housing building as a respond to movements (or the threat of) from below and, secondly despite this pressure UK (and other) governments have only ever seen social housing as an expedient, rather than integral service central to the welfare state. Secondly, Glynn sets the housing policies of the last thirty years in the context of the rise of neoliberalism. Glynn illustrates how Harvey’s formulation, that neoliberalism’s achievement “has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income” in favour of the rich and powerful and at the expense of the poor, has been achieved in social housing. Central to this process has been the commodification of the social housing stock through privatisations (e.g. PFIs and stock transfers) and the introduction of the tenants’ right-to-buy schemes. Glynn shows how this has benefited speculation from a new breed of “investors” and growing corporate organisations (such as housing associations) that buy up former municipal housing on the cheap. In the process, the best quality public housing has been taken into private hands leaving a residual stock of often the poorest estates in the worse physical conditions. At this point, the third strand appears; gentrification through regeneration. Thus, central government has reduced social housing to a residual service, often with the active support of local government bodies, who now come along with plans to regenerate areas based on notions of housing market failure. Local residents are moved out, those who may have bought their own homes are forced out by the use of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs). The area (often in a prime location), is then handed over to a private development scheme who have only minimal responsibilities placed on them to provide social housing, which can in any case often be avoided through payments to the local authority. Meanwhile the original tenants have no right of return.
It is this process of gentrification through regeneration that many find particularly invidious and has become a front on which campaigners and academics has engaged. For example, Chris Allen has documented the regeneration of housing in Liverpool in lead up to the “City of Culture” in 2008. In an echo of the Engels’ description of the attitudes of wealthy in Manchester in the 1840s, Allen reports a senior housing renewal manager in Liverpool commented “people driving into the city must have a more pleasant outlook than the one that is currently there”. Thus through the euphemisms of housing market failure and regeneration working class communities are disbursed and private developers gain access to prime land.
Having established a framework centred around the neoliberal agenda the middle chapters apply it to the circumstances in different economies. What quickly becomes apparent is that though different countries all have different starting points and there are also subtle differences in the way neoliberal reforms are pursued, the direction of travel is the same for all. Thus, two inter-related neoliberal processes – the rolling back of the state and the rolling out of neoliberal provision – are evident in the case studies of countries with such differing welfare traditions as Sweden and the USA. A second point is also highlighted in the manner in which this dual process is pursued by governments, who will attempt to divide tenants groups thus reducing effective opposition; play on pessimism by arguing there is no alternative, and reduce the cause of “problem estates” to one of “faulty design” thus ignoring all other socio-economic factors such as poverty, cuts in provision and racism. There is little or no open discussion of policy consequences (e.g. the impact on existing communities of regeneration); there is almost no control of the regeneration processes by local communities and existing tenants (the one exception to this is the requirement for a tenants’ ballot before municipal housing in the UK can privatised). The language often used by policy-makers and others is drawn from the Orwellian school of “newspeak”, as forcefully argued in the case study on the USA. In this respect, sections of academia have been complicit, as the furore over Chris Allen’s work shows. Allen has accused academics of imposing middle class values onto working class communities and not understanding (either through ignorance or deliberate avoidance) the nature of those communities.
Despite all the foregoing, the book is not left on a pessimistic note. After the case studies, Glynn contributes the final two chapters charting the history of housing campaigns (mainly in Britain) and the prospects for a revival of social housing. Glynn locates social housing policy as an outcome of both campaigns over housing and broader class struggles. These campaigns come in different forms such as the court cases against the use of CPOs or the refusal of locally elected politicians to implement central government policies. Housing campaigns come in a variety of forms from the direct action of the post-war squatters to Les Enfants de Don Quichotte tent encampments set up in French cities in 2006-07 to highlight the plight of the homeless. Or the Defend Council Housing (DCH) campaign in Britain that has brought together tenant activists and groups, politicians and trade unions to campaign against the privatisation of municipal housing and in favour of increased funding for this tenure. The variety of forms of resistance raises the question of which strategy and tactics should be adopted. Here Glynn does state her position in favour of organising campaigns from below and to link the question of housing to broader issues. However, this is argued in a rather abstracted manner and deserves a more detailed consideration.
One other small criticism concerns the focus on developed economies in the case studies. Readers of this journal in particular will note the absence of the experience of housing activists in developing and poor countries. However, this could be rectified in a subsequent volume. That said, “Where the other half lives” strengths far outweigh these weaknesses and the book represents an important contribution to the literature on the impacts of neoliberalism on housing the poorest. As such, its audience is not just those involved in housing but anybody looking for an alternative to the current neoliberal hegemony.