The UN comes to town: to see ourselves as others see us

by Ken Gibb

Earlier in the summer at a conference I met Raquel Rolnik, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Sao Paolo and UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. I was interested to hear that she was planning a ‘mission’ to the UK. Shortly thereafter I agreed to convene and host a group of Scottish housing academics talking to Raquel and her UN colleague, Juana Sotamayor. We finally met last week and I have been reflecting on it and the wider responses that emerged.

The UN seeks an invitation from governments – so this ‘mission’ was an officially sanctioned one that involved meetings with organisations, academics, politicians, public servants, citizens and communities. This is an important point, as when they went round England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, they were accused of meddling in UK housing; yet, they were here by invitation. We will see what the report says when it comes out and what sort of response follows.

Although I think they would agree that one function of such a visit is to allow comparative policy analysts look at our housing system afresh and objectively but also to, as a result, ‘shake things up’ in the host country. Apart from questions of housing need, housing adequacy and the rights of minorities, The UK was of material interest to Raquel and the UN because of its status as a key source of the Global Financial Crisis, its financialised housing and mortgage markets and the apparent fact that the housing system had not collapsed in quite the spectacular way that was found elsewhere (indeed it had shown a degree of surprising resilience). Thus, they were interested in the causes of the 2007-08 crisis and the extent to which (and why) we have managed to apparently do a little better than anticipated in the most recent bust of the housing system.

A second reflection is that in the media spin world we live in, a structured and analytical focus on a range of topics (as Raquel intended to work through) can be somewhat lost in the froth of the major political debates of the moment. Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that the mission was to an extent overtaken by the housing sector’s antipathy to the bedroom tax (as opposed to the mid-range tabloid support of the policy).

I want to focus on a few of the general themes that emerged in the Glasgow meeting three days ago in an unattributable way. We did talk about welfare reform and the bedroom tax but more in the wider context of the fit into how the housing system integrates with welfare benefits i.e. we have spent so much money on housing benefit because (a) the private rented sector has grown in an uncontrolled unregulated fashion, (b) social security in the UK has been long premised on rather miserly general cash support because HB paid most eligible housing costs for the poorest and (c) in-work benefits like HB help to support low wages and maintain high levels of relative poverty internationally in the UK. This is a poor all-round background to the reforms underway.

Second, we discussed at length the new force of the private rented sector, its aforementioned lack of standards regulation, the consequences of higher rents and, in particular, the desirability of moving away from standard 6 month tenancy agreements.

Third, the Scottish homelessness policy and its implementation featured prominently, as you might expect. This is of course not independent of the changes to the rental market and the lack of sufficient new social and affordable housing given the financial constraints facing investment in the housing system in recent years.

Fourth, the rise of asset-based welfare through home ownership housing equity and its link to rising house prices and their societal and wider damaging effects was also thoroughly rehearsed. The case for a more balanced housing system, house price stability and more progressive subsidy and more investment also flowed – though I recognise that these questions raise important public policy opportunity costs – under austerity or certainly tightly constrained shrinking budgets, which other departments will pay for more housing funding, even if the case is objectively strong?

There was a final thing that struck me as our conversations widened into broad questions of funding and supply, levels and nature of material poverty and a long term view of housing in an urban setting like Glasgow . This was how much fun and how rare was the opportunity for housing academics across Scotland (and disciplines) to have this sort of roundtable free for all. I was a little anxious before the meeting about whether it would work or not – but it was a wholly worthwhile exercise that whetted the appetite for more of the same. I don’t think I was alone in reaching that conclusion.

I for one was therefore pleased to take part in this exercise and will be look out for Raquel’s report and in that way see ourselves a bit more as others see us.