Are Britain’s political parties finally taking housing seriously?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

For more than 20 years we have been researching and writing about the downgrading of public housing in the UK. Thankfully, the tide finally appears to be turning.

Government failure can be seen most clearly in the form of homelessness, but the problems are bigger – high prices, high rents, housing insecurity and its high toll on mental health, overcrowding, beds in sheds and so on. For decades, financial support for public housing has been cut. Politicians have referred to estates of public housing as “sink” areas, marring the reputations of places and people.

While homelessness and rising prices and rents fill conversations about the housing problems of today, government action has focused on helping existing and new home owners. In the meantime, private landlords reap profits from an insecure, frequently poor quality and high cost sector.

But finally, several British political parties – Labour, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats – are offering evidence-based and convincing analyses of the problem and pledging to improve non-market housing provision.

It is perhaps not surprising that recent decades have generated this new position on how to fix the broken housing system, where the state – local and central – takes a more active role. It is increasingly clear that the market, often lauded as the most efficient way of providing and allocating housing, is actually a key driver of the failure to provide decent homes for many hundreds of thousands of households.

New homes

So what are the parties offering at this stage? The Conservatives focus on overseeing the construction of a million homes in the next five years. Social housing, it seems, will continue to be neglected under a Tory government.

Labour, meanwhile, have pledged to build 100,000 council homes a year by 2024 for those most in need. It also wants to fund a further 50,000 homes a year to be built by Housing Associations who also target those needing a home and will put a stop to Right to Buy: a scheme which has led to over 40 per cent of former council homes now being rented out by private landlords.

The Liberal Democrats propose 300,000 homes a year by 2024, to include 100,000 for social rent (by housing associations). The Greens match the Lib Dems while stressing the need for zero-carbon homes.

This social housing project won the Stirling Prize 2019.

The Conservatives stand out here, with their continued focus on offering public money to help aspirational owners rather than providing housing for those most in need. Their costly Help to Buy scheme, which they plan to extend, has been widely criticised for inflating prices, bolstering developer profits and doing nothing to help those in most need. The party’s election manifesto does not provide any details as to how it will increase the supply of social other than to state that “it will bring forward a social housing white paper”.

Talk of austerity, poverty and inequality may be tiring for some to keep hearing, but it is critical that we understand how bad things are for many people. Many older homeowners find it hard to understand the pressures of simply finding a place to live, let alone the ongoing challenge of funding that space, heating it or accessing it if disabled. Paying rent to help secure someone else’s retirement is particularly galling for many.


A social system

A system is needed that is designed for the needs of all people. Research shows that yes, of course a regulated market in owned housing is needed (controls are needed to ensure it is high quality and built in the right places). But this needs to exist alongside a high quality, professionally managed public housing sector capable of helping people to find decent homes. Increasingly, the shortfall in supply has enabled private landlords to offer low income households sub-standard properties.

The argument that public housing does not work is locked in a vision of large-scale estates that became increasingly unpopular as funding has been drained from them. Most analysts today envision a for-life option (the ability of tenants to stay for as long as they like so that they can feel secure) at a cost that allows other areas of life to be better enjoyed (health, education, access to work). Only home ownership and public rented housing can provide these kinds of outcomes.

Whatever our personal politics, it is vital that we understand that powerful interests circulate to promote housing as a market commodity, rather than a critical social good to be enjoyed by all. The pathway to this vision is littered with the profits to private landlords and the shattered dreams of the homeless and ill-housed.

It is precisely not in the interests of market providers to resolve the housing crisis. This may sound like heresy, but it is the evidence of many years of analysis.

Hope for the future

Looking to a future in which social housing forms a basis for social and economic investment offers genuinely thrilling prospects. There is no reason that a new council building programme cannot be enjoyed in partnership with private builders, and indeed using smaller companies, many of whom have been threatened or busted by the current crisis.

On the environmental front, social homes can be built or retrofitted to enhanced standards that are warm, safe, flood resistant and carbon neutral.

To say this will cost a lot of money is stating the obvious. But housing is a major component in the reproduction of wealth inequalities, private profiteering and carbon emissions (energy use in homes accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s total). The fact that political attention is being focused more clearly on challenging these problems and getting traction on a home-building programme for citizens should be welcomed by all.

The housing crisis of today is an enduring problem, one that goes back more than a hundred years, when walking through the slums of the growing industrial metropolises, Friedrich Engels asked why more housing wasn’t provided when so many people were in need. The question today is, why are we still asking the same old question?

Rowland Atkinson, Chair in Inclusive Societies, University of Sheffield and Keith Jacobs, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Housing and Community Research Unit, University of Tasmania.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.