Paul Burton introduces Danny Dorling’s paper in Policy & Politics, Policy, politics, health and housing in the UK.
You know you’re in for a bit of a treat when Danny Dorling begins by saying he’s written something that is not in the standard journal style; and so it turns out in his paper ‘Policy, politics, health and housing in the UK’. His wide ranging analysis connects recent developments in UK housing policy with a variety of current and possible public health impacts and offers some thoughts on the political motivations of those responsible for these developments. As usual he offers a fine example of engaged scholarship that avoids the piety, academic sniping and wilful opacity that characterises some work in this field.
In a nutshell, since the end of the last millennium we have seen a pronounced rise in private landlordism so that one quarter of all families with children in Britain now live in a home owned by a private landlord, mainly because of transfers of housing from the public sector and the emergence of a tax and welfare regime that underwrites many of the costs of private landlordism. Dorling acknowledges that this policy direction is not a new one (when I moved to Bristol in 1980 I could, in theory, have exercised my right to buy the hard-to-let maisonette I rented from the London Borough of Southwark and become a private landlord myself) but the pace of change in the last few years has increased dramatically and its consequences are only just becoming apparent. Nor is he shy of reminding us that many of the politicians responsible for these measures benefit considerably from them, although I tend to find his arguments about structural changes within the housing finance sector and the historical analysis of housing bubbles in the USA almost a century ago more fruitful. The health impacts of these housing market developments are becoming more evident and of course they both reflect and exacerbate existing patterns of inequality. So, not only are younger households finding it increasingly difficult to buy their first home, but older people are experiencing more precarious housing conditions. While a growing cohort of perpetual renters may be an attractive proposition to the new landlords, it does little promote social cohesion or to provide the resources for people to live a dignified life in older age. And of course and somewhat ironically it is at odds with the political convictions of Margaret Thatcher, whose belief in the power of a property owning democracy kick-started this new housing policy direction in 1979.
Dorling’s paper is, therefore, most stimulating and I look forward to the more detailed and systematic analyses that will no doubt follow. In the meantime it gives me a refreshing comparative perspective on similar developments in Australia, where I now live and work. Here too there is a looming crisis of housing affordability and in Sydney and the other capital cities the inability of hard working, solidly middle class and aspirational young couples (including academics) to make the transition from renting to owner occupation is laying the foundations for a substantial crisis of legitimacy. And here too there are attempts to deflect attention away from recognising the domestic policy-driven and structural causes of the crisis by raising the spectre of (in this case) Chinese investment driving up house prices and rents.
Paul Burton is Professor of Urban Management and Planning at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia.