Social housing after Octavia Hill
Looking back on the life and work of Octavia Hill over the century since her death is to be reminded of how many wider political and social issues are played out through housing. This has been especially true of Britain’s post-war immigration story. It is where many of the real life clashes over race, displacement, integration and segregation have happened. It is also where the left has faced an acute tension between preserving strong, stable communities for established citizens and fairly accommodating the housing needs of new ones.
Octavia Hill would have been unfamiliar with many of the debates that have arisen with immigration, but in her work she encountered a similar situation in which the big social issues of the day bubbled through in the context of housing. The era in which she worked was one of mass influx from the countryside to cities. The story of housing in the twentieth century was one of similar challenges, but in the radically different context that was brought by immigration. The influx of immigrants from the 1970s onwards placed greater pressure on social housing to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable over objectives such as community, with the unintended consequence of breaking estates into volatile and fractious places.
Politicians did eventually respond. In an article for the Observer in 2007 Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, referred to the need to ‘question and debate whether our rules for deciding who can access social housing are fair and promote tolerance rather than inviting division’. She also acknowledged the concerns of long-standing residents arguing:
'We should also look at drawing up different rules based on, for instance, length of residence, citizenship or national insurance contributions which carry more weight in a transparent points system used to decide who is entitled to access social housing.'
This led to a shift away from a pure needs-based housing allocation system back to one that gave at least some priority to local residency.
The tension between preserving strong communities and fairly accommodating the housing needs of newcomers reflects a broader concern in all of Octavia Hill’s work. Her dilemma was whether our small-scale and necessarily particular loyalties to another can ever translate into bigger, more impersonal systems. The problem with nationalising a decision is not merely the introduction of bureaucracy, it is the distance and the strain that it can create in relationships between citizens.
Writing of volunteering in 1872, Octavia Hill pondered:
'The problem to be solved… is how to collect our volunteers into a harmonious whole — the action of each being free, yet systematised; and how thus to administer relief through the agency of corporate bodies and private individuals; how in fact to secure all the personal intercourse and friendliness, all the real sympathy, all the graciousness of individual effort, without losing the advantage of having relief voted by a central committee, and according to definite principles.'
In housing, just as in her other work, Octavia Hill stumbled across debates that enliven our politics today: a big, systematic state or a more diffuse, disorderly society? Deliberately or not, the solution she often found was to adhere to neither. She sought to combine good relationships with principled systems; she valued both individual thrift and social responsibility; she sought to reward contribution, not just respond to need. In doing so her work achieved what our politics often does not: it tapped into our willingness to cooperate, so long as the feeling is mutual.
This extract is taken from 'Immigration and social housing: the story since Octavia Hill', the sixth chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.