The Housing Debate, by Stuart Lowe

Policy Press, 2011, 1 847 42273 6, pbk, 280pp, £14.99

Stuart Lowe’s The Housing Debate takes a refreshingly broad view of housing and welfare. Rather than a balanced introduction for students to current debates around housing and social policy, Lowe has a clear case to make. ‘There is mounting evidence that housing is not only an important pillar of welfare states, but, looked at in its broadest sense, has become a foundation.’ (p33)

Through a series of historical and thematic chapters, Lowe argues that there is a fundamental connection between housing systems and the type of welfare states that develop from them and alongside them. In the UK, the growth of home ownership from the mid twentieth-century and the liberalisation of mortgage markets from the 1980s have been integral to developing our asset-based welfare state, where individuals and families use personal wealth to buy into welfare.

In 260 pages, Lowe doesn’t attempt to offer a comprehensive history of housing policy; rather, he draws out key themes and illustrative aspects of housing policy that have helped shape both the current structures of the welfare state and political debates about housing. Historians and welfare experts may occasionally be frustrated by this brevity. Indeed, its introductory style is occasionally prone to over-simplify, oto gloss over important subtleties. This includes, for instance, the changes to social housing to be introduced through the Localism Bill currently before Parliament, which Lowe reduces to ‘effectively creating a mirror image of the tenancy arrangements in the privately rented sector’. (p4) However, readers already interested in tax, welfare and benefits, but who come fresher to the housing debate, will value the clear structure and the balance between history and welfare theory.

The historical account begins by identifying the emergence of a distinct housing policy from Victorian public health concerns, and then traces the socio-economic roots of the modern concept of home-ownership in the interwar years. Those interested in a Citizen’s Income might be particularly taken by Lowe’s comparative analysis of housing markets across Europe and the US. He focuses on the divergence of a municipal approach to housing in Britain, where state housing was an acceptable response to a dwindling private rented market, and Germany, where a social insurance model and related scepticism of a statist approach helped more diverse provision to develop through housing co-operatives. One can see this initial split at the start of the twentieth century extending and deepening. The author’s perception of the 1961 Housing Act is that it was the end of a brief period of reliance on the private rented sector and the return to housing provision by local authorities.

Lowe’s distinctive offer is in Chapters 6 and 8, where he argues for a clearer role for housing in the analysis of welfare states. The Housing Debate neatly contrasts a historical analysis with literature on comparative welfare to argue that different approaches to housing have shaped very different welfare systems. In the UK, this means asset-based welfare. This is, in part, due to home-ownership’s significant initial costs that lead to electorates in countries with high proportions of home-owners favouring low taxes, low interest rates, and low spend social policies. And so one trade off to be made is between home-ownership and pension provision. Lowe identifies examples of explicitly asset-based welfare, including the Child Trust Funds in the UK and the experiment with individual asset bonds for low income families in the US. And as the author indicates in his conclusion, there is much still left to consider in the welfare debate, once we acknowledge that housing is part of a state model where citizens are expected to secure savings and assets to contribute to welfare.

This book has been written to persuade students of social and public policy to take housing seriously. The debate should stretch further than this. It provides a very timely analysis as policymakers turn again to reconsider housing policy in the face of slow economic growth, accelerating private rents, and projections for the costs of social care for an ageing population.

Reviewed by Jake Eliot