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towards the decommodification of housing .pdf



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TOWARDS THE
DECOMMODIFICATION OF
HOUSING? A comment on
council house sales *
Michael Harloe
I found much to agree with in Sydney Jacobs’ arguments about the problems which the
anti-sales campaign faces as well as in the criticisms made by Norman Ginsburg and
Elly Karnavou of, for example, his glossing over the ways in which these sales have
serious consequences for the supply of working-class housing. But I am less convinced
that either Jacobs or his critics move the debate about strategy very far forward. In my
view this can only be achieved by adopting an approach which considers owneroccupation and council housing together, avoiding the traditional radical trap of trying
to wish away the fact that much of the working class has a stake in the former tenure and
of pretending that the latter tenure offers a socialised alternative.
In this respect Jacobs raises few fundamental issues, basically he accepts the present
constitution and functioning of the two tenures; Ginsburg goes further, outlining some
of the ways in which owner-occupation is of dubious benefits for some-but this
provides no more than the basis for a negative and limited campaign; and Karnavou, in
the last analysis, wishes away all problems with the heroic but sadly idealistic proposal
that working-class prospective buyers be asked to sacrifice their chances of buying ‘on
the grounds of class solidarity which is the basis for effective working-class struggle on
every front and at all times’.
What more can be said? The problem is that housing policy in Britain and in other
advanced capitalist countries is moving ever further towards the dominance of statesupported owner-occupation via the market with the restriction of semi-socialised
rental housing for some of those who fall into categories from whom a profit cannot
acceptably be extracted (some only because others remain to be exploited in private
rental accommodation). As I have shown elsewhere, in many Western European
countries social rented housing is becoming welfare housing, socially stigmatised and
politically weak* Core sections of the organised working class, who could formerly
expect to live in the social rented sector and who provided, through the social
democratic parties, a relatively strong political base for this tenure, have increasingly
been induced by the differential material and financial benefits of the two tenures to
leave such housing to buy. So, as the shift from rental to ownership has taken place, the
latter tenure has become dominant economically and politically.
In these circumstances any simple campaign against sales taken in isolation will face

*See Critical Social Policy, 1, 2, 1981 for.
S. Jacobs, ’The sale of council houses: does it matter?’,
N. Ginsburg, ’A note on council house sales’; and,
E. Karnavou, ’Defending the council housing system or opposing the sales?’.
**Michael Harloe, ’The recommodification of housing’ in M. Harloe and E. Lebas
(eds) City, Class and Capital, London: Edward Arnold 1981.
zo

11

all the problems that Jacobs outlines. For, despite all the problems of ownership that
could and should be made apparent to those who buy, relatively few are going to accept
that they would be better off in council housing as it is presently constituted. They will
be right to come to this conclusion, especially as rents rise and maintenance
deteriorates. The only way to avoid the dilemma of either alienating the mass of those
who appear to have done quite well from current housing arrangements or simply
accepting (with marginal reform perhaps) the present trends is to adopt a strategy which
is, at one and the same time, both more radical and more capable of gaining popular
support. I will now suggest some elements of what such a strategy might be.
Above all the aim must be to move housing provision away from a situation in which
the market and profitability determine what housing is received towards a situation in
which its production and distribution is increasingly socialised. This need not and
should not imply a preference for one tenure over another. What I am arguing is that the
types of housing service which one receives as a tenant and as an owner are different
and may be preferred in purely housing terms by different types of household, at
different stages in the life cycle and so on. To illustrate, ownership may well be desired
by families with children but rental be preferred by the young and mobile and the
elderly. There is no reason in principle why we should not move towards a housing
system in which everyone is able to choose between these two forms (and a variety of
other tenures of course) and yet where the present economic social and political
imbalance between renting and owning are removed, and consequently where the
pressures to leave inferior rented housing for superior owner-occupied housing

eventually disappear.
The distortion of housing provision, so that the tenure system becomes not a means
of satisfying housing needs but an element in the structuring and reinforcing of social
inequality, stems from the fact that it is a commodity and a source of capital
accumulation. The basis for any radical alternative to the present system should be the

progressive removal of housing production and distribution from the market, without
removing (indeed enhancing) the present ability to choose between tenures. Socialised
housing need not imply an attack on the individual ownership of housing, it does imply
an attack on the provision of housing as a commodity whether it be owned or rented
More concretely what would such a change of direction involve? A preliminary list
would include:
1 A very substantial increase in new building for ownership and rental and in
improvement. This would increase expenditure on housing but other reforms
mentioned below would, by systematically reducing the amount of resources which
simply assist the inflation of house prices, bring down landowners’ speculative gains
and commercial lenders’ profits.
2 An ending of the present system of housing subsidies (which would face
considerable transitional difficulties) and its replacement by subsidies which enable all
households, whatever their incomes, to obtain reasonable housing of whichever tenure
suits their preferences and at a cost which they can afford A universal system of
housing allowances would seem to be the most likely basis for such a change, but might
not be sufficient on its own.
3 The progressive removal of housing from the realm of commodity production. This
would involve land nationalisation (less will fail, as three successive Labour attempts
since 1947 to solve the problem have proved); the rapid expansion of non-profit
agencies in building and building materials production as well as of the ’exchange
professions’ such as estate agency. The problem of removing the provision of finance
from the market would have to be tackled too ( and, it must be admitted, could hardly be

40

solved without very much wider economic and social changes).
Although such a series of changes could not occur overnight there are steps which could
be taken in their direction and which could be an immediate agenda for, for example, a
future Labour government Thus, the changes in housing subsidies could be initiated,
the increased production could be channelled through the local authorities and other
non-profit bodies, not just for council housing but for owner-occupied housing too.
Alongside a revived public rental sector there could grow a socialised owner-occupied
sector in which there were controls over the price at which property was disposed of
(presumably accompanied by tax or other means of controlling capital gains in the rest
of the housing market). Note though that any non-market system of distribution will
break down while severe shortages remain and the possibility of a black market exists.
This means that production has to be expanded and that the discouragement of
overconsumption of housing is one of the keys to the removal of underconsumption. To
some extent the removal of the present system of subsidies, which rewards
overconsumption, will help but upper limits on, for example, the ability of those with the
highest incomes to overconsume may also be necessary (such limits were quite
common in Europe after the last war). Other matters such as land nationalisation and
the provision of ‘exchange facilities’ on a non-profit basis could also be tackled.
Returning to the question of council house sales, in the context of the broader
changes outlined above, the demand would not be for an end to council house sales but
for an end to the disposal of socially owned housing assets to the market The expanding
socialised sector would aim to provide housing for rent and for sale in the proportions

completelv

which matched peoples’ choices. In some cases, and in some areas, property might be
transferred from renting to ownership or vice versa. But it would never be disposed of in
ways which would enable it to be added to the market sector. Resale within the
socialised sector at, I would suggest, a price which did not involve real capital losses for
those who are selling, would be essential. Within such a system there would seem to be
no justification for the additional subsidy of massive discounts, unrelated to resources,
which are presently available. Politically the opportunity for substantial capital gains
would be denied to would-be tenant purchasers, the opportunity for the other
characteristics which make some desire to own their own houses would not Such a
restriction could hardly be politically attractive if the situation in which some are able to
make large financial gains from ownership (while others are excluded) was continued.
Yet this is what a simple ban on sales, taken in isolation would achieve. And if this
occurred, those who are well off in housing would continue to benefit, while others
would be penalised. An anti-sales campaign must involve far wider housing issues and
must not simply become an attempt to build a ring fence around council housing as
currently conceived, while allowing the private market to dominate elsewhere. A
limited campaign will be at best idealistic and politically weak, at worst it may simply
arouse panic and rejection and divert energy and attention from the task of breaking the
present system of market generated inequalities in housing.
In the next few years we are likely to see a growing housing crisis as increasing
numbers of middle and lower-income households find that’they no longer have the
resources to become owner-occupiers (or to maintain mortgage burdens) nor access to
public housing (as less and less becomes available via new building and relets). If it
becomes clear that the present market dominated system can no longer deliver a rising
standard of housing provision for the majority, it is not unreasonable to suggest that
political support for more radical change may grow. But such support is only likely to be
forthcoming if the changes proposed do not involve the improvement of the position of
the worst off at the expense of those who have achieved a basic standard of good
housing, while leaving those who really benefit from the market system-the financiers,
41

landowners, builders and distributors--untouched.
One cannot underestimate the obstacles that radical change would face, especially
be effective, it would have to progress on all fronts. Simply, for example,
increasing new building via the existing system would only serve to maintain present
trends. There would be strong resistance to the removal of housing from the market,
although not perhaps so strong after the last few years in which the building industry has
all but collapsed and the prospects for the continued supply of credit to sustain the
status quo have become increasingly problematic. Nor could the removal of housing
from its role as a hedge against inflation for the owner-occupier be politically
practicable without a period of transition. The inadequacies of public rental housing
would take time to change too.
A short article such as this cannot possibly cover all the changes that would be
needed The position of the private rental sector has, for example, been ignored Some
may find what are claimed to be insuperable difficulties in the suggestions made above,
others will certainly point to their numerous inadequacies. But unless a critique of
housing provision under capitalism is to remain no more than an abstraction, linked
only by rhetoric to a series of piecemeal and ineffective immediate demands, some
attempt must be made to spell out an inter-linked series of specific changes in the
current production and distribution of housing. As yet this has not been done, until it is
done- and in a far more detailed manner than in this article- arguments over questions
such as the attitude to be taken to council sales are likely to remain dialogues between
radical, even romantic, idealists and pragmatic acceptors of the status quo ( even when,
as Ginsburg notes, such positions are tinged with ’latent revolutionary purism’).
as, to

Michael Harloe is

a

University of Essex

42

lecturer at the

Department of Sociology,


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