Risking Housing Need

AuthorChristina Pantazis,Rose Gilroy,Dave Cowan
Published date01 December 1999
Date01 December 1999
It is commonly suggested that social housing is allocated on the basis of
‘need’. The authors, however, suggest that the concept of risk provides
a much better explanation of the complex interplay of interests involved
in the allocation process. In particular, risk explains developing alloca-
tion methods in low-demand areas. The thesis is exemplified by drawing
upon data derived from the authors’ original research on the rehousing
of sex offenders.
It has almost been a mantra in housing circles that social housing1is allo-
cated according to ‘need’. This principle has been a particular influence
upon political discourse about social housing. Until recently, it has been
regarded as an absolute given, indeed a necessity, in housing welfare terms
and one accepted across political divides.2In fact, housing need has always
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1999, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
* Department of Law, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building,
Queens Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, England
** School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, University of Newcastle,
Newcastle NE1 7RU, England
*** Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Social Justice, School for
Policy Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TZ, England
We are indebted to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which provided funding for the research
reported in this article, and to the interviewees who took part in the research. Paddy Hillyard,
Andrew Sanders, Carolyn Hoyle, and Steven Greer gave helpful comments and observations
on earlier drafts.
ISSN: 0263–323X, pp. 403–26
Risking Housing Need
1For the purposes of this article, the term social housing refers to housing provided by coun-
cils, registered social landlords (hereafter ‘RSLs’), and other housing associations. RSLs reg-
ister with the Housing Corporation, a quango which is responsible both for regulating RSLs
and distributing central government’s capital finance to RSLs, which must usually also be
matched with private finance. RSLs were the Thatcher/Major/Blair governments chosen orga-
nizations for the provision of new units of ‘social’ housing (for discussion, see A. Stewart,
Rethinking Housing Law (1996); D. Cowan, Housing Law and Policy (1999) chs. 5, 9, 13, 18).
2As was shown by the apparent consensus over the 1996 redrafting of the categories given
reasonable preference on the waiting list (s. 169, Housing Act 1996). For a critique of this
process, see D. Cowan, ‘Reforming the homelessness legislation’ (1998) 18 Critical Social
Policy 435; M. Carter and N. Ginsburg, ‘New government housing policies’ (1994) 41
Critical Social Policy 100; I. Loveland, ‘Cathy sod off! The end of the homelessness legisla-
tion’ (1994) 16 J. of Social Welfare and Family Law 367.
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).

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