had a conveniently indeterminate meaning. It has been a neat but empty
concept,3which has enabled successive governments to pay lip service to a
welfarist principle whilst at the same time providing those governments
with the necessary degree of latitude to ignore need whenever they deem
necessary. For this reason, adherence to the principle has been damaging.4
In this article, we suggest and exemplify a different rationale, drawing upon
the notion of ‘risk’.
By contrast to the political consensus around housing need, academic
research into council housing5allocation has found a more complex set of
bargaining positions and techniques which can be adopted by different
households at different times.6These positions and techniques generally
operate against need. The allocations process is, in fact, best understood as
being split into two intersecting aspects: selection and allocation.7Selection
relates to the ways in which households apply for social housing as well as
the different methods used to prioritize the households; allocation relates to
the processes which lead to households being offered a particular dwelling.
It is now apparent that speciﬁc groups have experienced selection tech-
niques which have denied their housing status (such as ‘homeless’) and
deterred households from even making an application for social housing.8
Over time, these techniques have developed an increasing subtlety. Some of
the more enlightened central government policies have failed to permeate
within local administrative systems of decision-making.9So, for example,
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1999
3Compare the attempt to universalize it in L. Doyal and I. Gough, A Theory of Human Need
(1991); and the attempt to draw up principles of housing need by P. Spicker, ‘Concepts of
need in housing allocation’ (1987) 15 Policy and Politics 17.
4The case of asylum and immigration provides a paradigm of this – see Cowan, op. cit.,
n. 1, ch. 10.
5Whilst a considerable amount is known about council housing allocations, there has been
hardly any empirical investigation into RSL and housing association allocations (see, for
example, P. Niner with V. Karn, Housing Association Allocations: Achieving Racial Equality
– A West Midlands Case Study (1985)). More recent work for the DoE on this subject has
been concerned with comparing the effectiveness and efﬁciency of councils and housing
associations (a clear example of the skewing of central government research funding): see
W. Bines, P. Kemp, N. Pleace, and C. Radley, Managing Social Housing (1993) ch. 9. In the
current housing quasi-market, referred to in the literature as raising issues of housing ‘gov-
ernance’ (see P. Malpass (ed.), Ownership, Control and Accountability (1997)), this lack of
research is difﬁcult to justify.
6See, for example, D. Clapham and K. Kintrea, ‘Rationing, choice and constraint: the allo-
cation of public housing in Glasgow’ (1986) 15 J. of Social Policy 51; A. Bowes, N. Dar,
and D. Sim, ‘Too White, Too Rough, and Too Many Problems’: A Study of Pakistani
Housing in Britain (1998).
7 Clapham and Kintrea, id.
8See P. Carlen, ‘The governance of homelessness: legality, lore and lexicon in the agency-
maintenance of youth homelessness’ (1994) 41 Critical Social Policy 18; D. Cowan,
Homelessness: The (In-)Appropriate Applicant (1997).
9See, for example, Cowan, id.; S. Smith and S. Mallinson, ‘The problem with social housing:
discretion, accountability and the welfare ideal’ (1996) 24 Policy and Politics 339; I.
Loveland, Housing Homeless Persons (1995).