Uses of Macro Social Theory: A Social Housing Case Study

Publication Date01 Jan 2016
AuthorDave Cowan,Chris Bevan
Uses of Macro Social Theory: A Social Housing
Case Study
Chris Bevanand Dave Cowan∗∗
This article reflects on the use of macro social theoretical perspectives to explain micro social
issues, using social housing allocations as a case study. In contrast to a number of social theo-
retical examinations of social housing allocation schemes in recent years, spanning socio-legal
studies, we argue that ‘cookie-cutter’ theories may overlookother positions and counter-f actual
scenarios. We draw on a sample of local authority allocation schemes to reflect on the growing
category of households (commonly termed ‘unhouseables’ by housing officers) which are ex-
cluded from appearing on such schemes because of their former housing deviance or some other
disqualification. Weoffer a set of reflections grounded in our data, which focus on sustainability.
Thus, rather than point to particular rationalities or the like, we offer particular housing issues
as explanatory factors – including the declining stock and financial ‘competitiveness’ of social
housing management – as well as a rise in punitiveness.
Public services in England and Wales are in a state of flux. On 21 July 2015, the
Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, launched a spending review
calling for further savings amounting to £20bn to be found from Whitehall
budgets. Every unprotected government department is to begin modeling how
they might cut budgets by 25 and 40 per cent by 2020. Those savings are
in addition to the £12bn of welfare savings already unveiled. Such cuts are
likely to involve a reinvention in the very manner by which public services are
delivered and enjoyed. On any assessment, public services are, across the board,
entering yet another period of significant change and upheaval.
In this article we focus on housing, more specifically the allocation of ‘social’
housing, but in truth we could have selected other public services, from high-
ways to prisons. Housing in particular has become a political hot topic, with
each political party in the run up to the general election in May 2015 pledging
to outdo their rivals as to the number of houses they would build if elected,
and with the Conservatives guaranteeing housing association tenants the right
to buy their homes. It is now widely acknowledged, quite apart from party
politicking, that there is an acute housing shortage, both private and social, and
that previous measures designed to redress this shortage have failed.
Whilst the crisis within the housing sector is now highly topical, challenges
to the very nature of public services and their functions are anything but new.
Indeed, almost every change in government leads to apparently stark claims
University of Nottingham.
∗∗University of Bristol. The authors are grateful to Simon Halliday, Tonia Novitz, StevenGreer, and
the anonymous referees for helpful comments on an earlier draft.
C2016 The Authors. The Modern Law Review C2016 The Moder n LawReview Limited. (2016) 79(1) MLR 76–101
Published by John Wiley& Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
Chris Bevan and Dave Cowan
about the need for fundamental changes to the purpose of public services,
which have extended beyond a simple question of who is to provide them.1
Specifically in the field of social housing, this has been shown to be too sim-
plistic.2The precise purpose or purposes behind social housing have remained
largely undefined and unclear since its inception. As Power pithily observed,
‘Councils became landlords without commitment, plan or forethought.’3The
fevered context within which social housing operates and the contemporary
public services ‘cuts agenda’ provide us with the impetus to consider not only
how social housing is allocated by local authorities in this testing environment
but also how social theory might be employed to explain this process.
As to such theorising, quite grand theoretical claims have been made. Thus,
the Conservative Party’s time in office in the 1980s has been described as
entailing a shift in the provision of social housing from allocation on the
basis of ‘housing need’ to being awarded according to who ‘deserved’ it. That
shift was underscored by the government of John Major, with its ill-fated and
ill-conceived ‘back to basics’ philosophy, embodying a nostalgic appeal to so-
called ‘traditional values’.4By way of illustration, there was an explicit bias
towards favouring marr ied couples over cohabitants.5The allocation of social
housing in the New Labour era from 1997 has been defined as founded on
‘advanced liberalism’, a link between a mentality of government and ethical
self-regulation.6The introduction of greater ‘choice’ into the system as a means
of empowering communities during this time was portrayed as a solution to
the principal housing problems. The Coalition Government’s interventions
have been identified with a number of new problematics including: whether
the purpose of social housing was to be a welfare safety net, an ambulance
service;7the site of further ‘class war conservatism’;8or the culmination of
processes of the production of ‘welfare ghettos’.9The Coalition focused its
attention on the need for social housing to be governed from within, by and
1 See, for example, P. Vincent-Jones, The New Public Contracting: Regulation, Responsiveness, Re-
lationality (Oxford: OUP, 2006) and C. Harlow and R. Rawlings, Law and Administration
(Cambridge, CUP, 2009) ch 2.
2 See, for example, the discussion of purpose in S. Fitzpatrick and H. Pawson, ‘Welfare safety
net or tenure of choice? The dilemma facing social housing policy in England’ (2007) 22
Housing Studies 163; S. Fitzpatrick and H. Pawson, ‘Ending security of tenure for social renters:
Transitioning to “ambulance service” social housing?’ (2014) 29 Housing Studies 597.
3A.Power,Property Before People: Management of Twentieth Century Council Housing (London: Allen
& Unwin, 1987) 66.
4 See, for example, S. Fitzpatrick and M. Stephens, ‘Homelessness, need and desert in the allocation
of council housing’ (1999) 14 Housing Studies 413.
5 See Department of the Environment, Allocation of Housing Accommodation and Homelessness
(London: DoE, 1996) para 29.
6 D. Cowan and A. Marsh, ‘From need to choice, welfarism to advanced liberalism: Problematics
of social housing allocation’ (2005) 25 Legal Studies 22.
7 Fitzpatr ick and Pawson, n 2 above.
8 S. Hodkinson and G. Robbins, ‘The return of class war conservatism? Housing under the UK
Coalition Government’ (2012) 33 Critical Social Policy 57.
9 L. Hancock and G. Mooney, ‘“Welfare ghettos” and the “broken society”: Territorial stigmati-
zation in the contemporary UK’ (2013) 30 Housing, Theory and Society 46, drawing in particular
on L. Wacquant, Urban Outcasts:A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Cambridge:
Polity, 2008).
C2016 The Authors. The Modern Law Review C2016 The Moder n LawReview Limited.
(2016) 79(1) MLR 76–101 77

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