Home Truths

Home Truths:  How We Were Duped Into the Ownership Ideal.


The history of housing in the UK is, in general, a rather dry topic.  But in recent times, during what could fairly be described as turmoil in the housing market, the whole debate about tenure has become rather pertinent.


In the UK we are used to the debate over ownership v rental with rental usually coming out as negative and ownership positive.  Different generations have different views over many things, and, as generational evolution will have it, what was good for mum and dad, might not be so good for the kids. But for the last ninety years or so, there has been one constant: that ownership of your home is the ultimate aspiration; a place to call home, to hang your hat, to marry have kids and be secure in later life.


‘Home’ is such a simple word isn’t it – and yet it remains synonymous with the association of ownership. A depth of meaning that has for years slowly, but doggedly, eroded the status of renters. We’ll look at that a bit later.


Are We Really a Nation of Home-Owners?


It’s a good question; looking back towards the end of WW1 there are various assumptions made about the level of homeownership in the UK at that time.  The most often quoted number is 10%.  E.J. Cleary’s calculations in “The Building Society Movement” (1965) were based upon data from the Departmental Committee on Valuation for Rates 1939. From which he concluded that ownership was less than 15% and could easily be less than 10%. But Swenarton and Taylor (1985) argue that his approach was flawed and omitted a significant number of households. So, given the lack of empirical data, we can’t be certain. Whilst a figure of 20% can’t be fully endorsed, it would seem to be a fair assumption.


But 20% ownership following WW1 doesn’t historically make us a nation of home-owners.  Given that the level of social housing at this time was virtually nil, that supposes that 80% or so were reliant on the private rented sector. So what changed all that?


Homes Fit for Heroes.


Following WW1, popular Liberal, Lloyd-George promised the returning soldiers a ‘land fit for heroes’ and he charged Christopher Addison with delivering the Housing & Town Planning Act 1919 which introduced subsidies for local authorities to build new homes. However, despite delivering a substantial number of good quality homes, this was not aimed at homeownership.  Around the same time, there were serious concerns that the rise of Bolshevism (In  1917, industry and the docks had been hit with some damaging strikes, no doubt spurred on by events in Russia in that year) could spread to the UK and so it was felt imperative to imbue the middle and working classes with a stake in the country.  What better way to do that than to promote the idea of homeownership.  Initially, this was not as simple or as attractive as we would think today. ‘Ownership’ at that time was also seen as something of a millstone.


However, at the same time, private landlords were also seen as a scourge and there was a distinct impression that they were profiteering from the misery of war.  And so we arrived at an interesting and unusual political paradox where both, on the right and on the left, saw ownership as a positive outcome: the right, because it gave those who could afford to buy, a financial stake in the country. Thus creating ‘mini-capitalists’ (and presumably Conservative voting); and the left, because it removed workers from the evil clutches of rogue landlords.


‘Home’. The Ownership Message.


The UK in the 1920s was essentially a conservative society with what we would today describe as ‘traditional’ values.  Women’s magazines of that time: Women’s Weekly. Good Housekeeping etc., were full of content that gave advice on home-making, cooking, children, husbands, decorating, furnishings & appliances. Everything, in fact, that promoted the idea that ‘home’ meant ‘ownership’. And by the late 1930s ownership and those paying for ownership (mortgagees) had doubled. Of course, by promoting ownership as desirable, aspirational and positive, it had a negative, inverse effect on other tenure forms.


Politically, this was expedient and promoted a settled society. Not only was homeownership rising, but the huge push into building social housing had seen wide-spread slum clearance and a better quality of living.


But had this inadvertently created the rental stigma? The haves and the have nots? Perhaps. But It’s my view that this was much more a post WW2 phenomenon and one more associated with the 1960s, where social housing became rather unfortunately associated with Brutalist 'sink' estates and Modernist experimentation.


Today’s Language of Tenure.


You don’t have to look far to find negative rental references.  Theresa May at this season's Tory Conference said “For too many people the dream of homeownership has become all too distant”  Liz Hamson in Property Week commented “While BTR advocates maintain rental is a positive lifestyle choice, the reality is that most people would rather not toss up to half their earnings into the rental black hole”  It doesn’t matter what you read or where you read it; on the left, right or centre; Daily Mail or Morning Star, propaganda from the 1920s, driven home by past generations, colours our understanding of rental as a tenure. "Trapped in renting" is often a throw-away, lazy comment and is rarely challenged.


Build-to-Rent. The Challenge


To reach this point without mentioning Build-to-Rent is something of a record for me since it’s ‘my’ sector and it’s all I (mostly) write about.  But the challenge the sector faces is more than creating beautiful structures in brilliantly convenient and desirable locations, managed by wonderful, innovative operational management.  It’s about reversing 90 years of deeply ingrained thinking. About challenging the default position of ‘owning good, renting bad’. (Apologies G.O.)

So how do we challenge this view? It’s clear the sector doesn’t have the same support from the government or the media, as was the case in the 1920s.  And when industry professionals also casually promulgate the status quo it’s clear we have a tough job on our hands.   


BTR has to be consistent in delivering messages of change. It must be true to its principles, relentless in pursuit of brand consistency, it must focus on being a catalyst for creating a new renting paradigm and for that to be seen as a positive experience.  It must represent and embody great service, convenience and security. It should enrich the lives of our residents and represent value.


But most of all, we must be smart, patient and persistent. We will change the rental world, but not in a day.


thanks for reading.




Thanks to http://www.newsontheblock.com/ who first published this piece. 

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© Richard Berridge