The best housing books of 2018

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 17.

As housing has risen up the political and media agendas, so the shelves are filling with books explaining where we’ve gone wrong and what we could do to put things right.

Reflecting that, and just in time for anyone wondering what to get the housing nerd in their life for Christmas, here are my three housing books of the year.

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First up is John Boughton’s indispensable history of council housing, Municipal Dreams – The Rise and Fall of Council Housing.

It’s a predictable choice and one already made by many other reviewers but it is one that is better late than never and one that will be even more worth reading next year against the background of the centenary of Homes Fit for Heroes.

Part celebration of housing achievements, part lament for what we have lost, part rallying cry for getting it back, Municipal Dreams tells a history that too many have forgotten. For all the mistakes made along the way (acknowledged in the book) it’s also an inspirational story of how local pioneers acted to improve the housing conditions of their citizens.

But as we approach next year’s 100thanniversary of the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act  this is more than just a history lesson. For all the impact of the Right to Buy and Stock transfer, the results are there in the 2m council homes that still exist in Britain and the lessons seem more relevant now than they have done in years.

If you are reader of the blog with the same name, you will know to expect a detailed account told via meticulously researched local stories with a strong emphasis on architecture and what those involved were trying to achieve. The story is not always the one you might think.

The final chapter begins, inevitably, with the night of Wednesday 14 June, 2017, and addresses the events of the decade that led up to the Grenfell Tower fire. This is a familiar and depressing story of austerity, welfare reform and estate regeneration that also includes hope that the politics is changing at last in council housing’s favour.

As John Boughton concludes:

‘There are indications that public opinion is changing, that, as the failure of the free market to provide good and affordable homes to all those who need them becomes increasingly obvious (the very reason why council housing emerged in the late 19thcentury), many people are revisiting both the past contribution of public housing and its current necessity.’

If you haven’t yet read the book, you should. Best of all, you can get 50% off on the Verso website until January 1.

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Next is Why Can’t You Afford a Home? by Josh Ryan-Collins. Having set himself one of the toughest questions to answer in housing, he gives himself a mere 130 pages to do it.

There are, of course, many people who already think they know the answer. It’s the one that has until recently dominated political and media discourse about housing. The reason why homes are unaffordable is really quite simple, runs this account: for decades we have failed to build enough new homes.

This explanation is what lies behind all of the government’s efforts to ‘fix the broken housing market’ and all the billions poured into Help to Buy. Behind it lie more radical free market arguments about deregulating planning and more reactionary ones about immigration. Yet the results so far are mixed. Supply has increased, though not by as much as housebuilder profits and share prices, but house prices have continued to rise.

Josh Ryan-Collins puts forward an alternative explanation that reconnects housing and economics – the housing-finance feedback loop that has developed throughout the Western world. Put simply, rising demand for home ownership has combined with a deregulated financial system to create a feedback cycle under which an ever-increasing supply of credit has flowed into a limited supply of property, creating house price inflation, financial instability, rising inequality and debt and leading to the Global Financial Crisis.

This book is the best short introduction I’ve seen to a burgeoning literature on housing and financialisation but it is also a rallying cry for a change of direction via radical reforms of banking and mortgage finance, land value tax, public ownership of land and alternative forms of tenure. Faced with all that, you can see why our politicians currently prefer the ‘jam tomorrow’ politics of simply building more homes.

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My third choice may not have housing in its title but and housing is still present on more or less every page of a book that touches on many of the same themes as the first two.

The New Enclosure – The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain by Brett Christophers is an investigation of the way that public land has been systematically sold off since the late 1970s. In what he says amounts to the biggest privatisation you’ve never heard of, 2m hectares of public land, or 10% of the land area of Britain, has been sold.

Thanks to the Right to Buy, housing is at the heart of the story but the book also makes some connections that will make you see the process in a new light.

The justifications for public land sales have varied over the year but have in common the assumptions that public ownership is inherently wasteful and private ownership inevitably efficient. At times the emphasis has been on shrinking ‘surplus’ public assets and putting them to more productive use in the private sector; at others it’s been on better outcomes as more homes and jobs are generated.

The book demonstrates pretty convincingly just how flimsy some of these arguments are when you bother to examine them but also how they have gone largely unquestioned under successive governments and under accounting conventions that make them seem like the natural order of things.

If the justifications are questionable, what of the outcomes? The impact of thinking that puts short-term value for money ahead of long-term value to the taxpayer can be seen all too clearly in the Right to Buy and in one of the worst privatisations in history, the sale of the Ministry of Defence’s homes in the name of private sector efficiency in 1996.

The connections the book makes made me think in a new way about estate regeneration (essentially ‘surplus’ public land with housing on it) and the current drive to release public land as quickly as possible to housebuilders. There are also direct connections with the council housing and financialisation themes of my first two books.

The conclusion starts with the question of how such a huge privatisation could have taken place with such questionable results and yet so little outcry. One answer is that so much of the logic for it is taken for granted in government policy, another that the outcomes tend to be experienced as thousands of local events rather as part of a systematic national programme.

It ends inevitably with a call for an alternative approach that sees public land as a finite asset to be cherished rather than sold to the highest bidder. If there are signs of hope, they lie in the promise of the different approach adopted in Scotland and the rise of community land trusts, and the fact that this book too is available for half price until New Year’s Day on Verso’s website.

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