LONG READ Building on what we know: Fault Lines for Housing Research?

LONG READ Building on what we know: Fault Lines for Housing Research?

In this long read, Alan Murie, Chair of HSCT, presents a discussion paper to underpin the HSCT-funded seminar series on re-conceptualising housing tenure.


This paper seeks to contribute to debate about future directions for housing research.  It refers in particular to housing tenure. Recent changes in housing provision and in divisions within as well as between tenures increase doubts about how far conventional housing tenure categories reflect key fault lines in housing and society. Does a continuing focus at a whole tenure level obscure important trends and differences? Should future research work with alternative categories or sub-categories of tenures, local contingencies and organisational responses and connect these with unhealthy and insecure housing and spatial and social divisions?  This short paper explores some of these issues.

Housing Research in the UK; looking back

Housing research in the UK has a long history. Early evidence based accounts largely adopted a public health paradigm focussed on unhealthy, damp, overcrowded and slum housing.  Reference was made to dwelling size and condition, sole use and sharing of accommodation and amenities, household composition and the family life cycle. Little reference was made to ownership. Before 1919 UK housing was predominantly privately rented: key fault lines were within that tenure and related to the adequacy, security and appropriateness of the dwellings people lived in.

By the 1960s the decline of private renting and growth of other tenures had generated new fault lines. The inadequacies of tenure-blind perspectives were very evident. There was a real gap between modern, high amenity housing built for sale or as council housing and dilapidated, older housing in inner city and other areas that was more likely to be rented from private landlords. Housing tenure was included in Population Censuses from 1966 and a series of studies (including conurbation housing surveys, movers’ surveys and filtering or turnover studies) incorporated tenure as a critical variable[1]. A more comprehensive picture emerged that linked household movement, dwelling type, class and demographic groups with housing tenure. These studies often distinguished between furnished and unfurnished private rented accommodation (because this indicated security and rights) and between outright owners and owner occupiers with mortgages.

Once there was evidence that enabled the social and spatial characteristics of the major tenures to be described, attention shifted to explanation. A new generation of studies used qualitative and case study methodologies to explore political economy and locality perspectives. They considered, for example, how access to and movement between tenures was managed and processes leading to gentrification and homelessness. Studies highlighted financial arrangements, policy and practice and the use of discretion by managers in public and private sectors. Analysis of council housing allocations and the activities of private sector lenders and exchange professionals identified systematic discrimination that adversely affected lone parent households, black and minority ethnic groups and others.  Unequal outcomes were not explained by differences in income. Competition for high status housing was managed differently between tenures. For example, the management of slum clearance and access to high demand council housing involved giving priority to households according to where and what they lived in, household structure, ethnicity and length of residence. Rex and Moore (1967) identified parts of tenures forming a hierarchy of housing classes – some owner occupied and privately rented housing had lower status than purpose built council housing.

By the mid-1970s the UK had a tripartite tenure structure and housing tenure was widely regarded as a key fault line in British society. Public health variables continued to feature but housing tenure and social class were more prominent. While the emphasis was on consumption and access to housing, there was an important corrective that emphasised the production of housing. At this stage generalisations about the attributes of tenures – especially home ownership – became the target for energetic dispute. Representations of home ownership as a demand-led tenure of choice and preference drew responses about social engineering, false consciousness and contingent rather than intrinsic attributes[2]. The alternative to an unedifying exchange of generalisations about home ownership was to highlight discontinuities and differentiation. Studies of owner occupation in inner city areas and elsewhere referred to working class, marginal and poor home owners: and discussion of wealth, housing assets, negative equity, arrears and debt extended the argument that home ownership did not imply common origins, values or interests. Subsequent research and policy investment in low value owner occupation and markets at risk of low demand further demonstrated the gap between the bottom of the market and high status home ownership that represented positional or investment goods. Similarly, as council housing matured and disposals and demolitions progressed, differentiation increased between estates with different vintages, reputations and management and maintenance histories. Households beyond the scope of a tenure based analysis remained – those living in hostels and homes that were not defined as permanent private residences. They were often invisible and only reached by research that explicitly referred to them.

Once housing tenure had been established as a key variable time series data indicated changes in the roles of tenures. Home ownership had always included working class communities but middle and lower income groups increased. And in council housing there were increasing numbers of lower income households affected by the reduced capacity of the private rented sector. This is the origin of observations about residualisation. What was emerging was not tenure polarisation but a narrowing of the social base of council housing alongside a widening of the social base of home ownership. Both were principally explained by the declining capacity of private renting and affected by increased attractiveness and access to home ownership and changes in the relative attractiveness and access to council housing (e.g. Forrest and Murie, 1980). This explanation emphasised long term shifts in market structure and public and private sector responses. Rather than new homelessness legislation driving residualisation, as sometimes suggested (e.g. Perry and Stephens, 2018), it was recognition of manifest changes in the demand for council housing.

The break in policy continuity that was apparent by the 1980s, shifted the dominant paradigm for housing research. The Right to Buy (RTB), expenditure cuts and later stock transfers reduced the public sector, introduced a social rented category and changed the balance between tenures and the physical, financial, social and spatial characteristics of each tenure. The disproportionate sale of ‘better’ council dwellings to more affluent tenants changed that tenure but also increased differentiation in home ownership. The rolling out of housing benefits across the rented tenures, deregulation of private renting and deregulation and reorganisation of lending to owner occupiers and buy to let landlords further changed the structure and operation of the market.

It is unclear how far these developments changed how access to housing was negotiated. Earlier discussions maintained that income was neither the direct determinant of housing access nor a reasonable proxy for the various factors determining access. More recent analysis seems to have disregarded these perspectives and appears more willing to regard current income, affordability and access to housing benefit as determining divisions between and within tenures. The implication is that complex rules that did not relate directly to incomes have been replaced by more uniform processes that refer, across tenures, to income and housing costs. But is this the case? Is there robust direct evidence that processes determining access operate uniformly in relation to income and that employment, ethnicity, household structure, migrant status, residence or other factors have little impact? And where discussion is about housing situation, rather than access, there are important influences beyond income (including security of tenure and inertia)? Is there a risk that housing research in a deregulated context, adopts a reductionist paradigm, referring to large, generic tenure categories, housing costs and current income and neglects occupation, social class, lifetime income or access to sub categories of tenure?

The shift towards a simple income and affordability paradigm was facilitated by analysing large data sets and using multivariate techniques that are less robust if sub sets of data are analysed. There has also been an elision between research preoccupied with affordability and suggestions that relaxation of planning and expansion of housing supply will reduce affordability problems and increase access for excluded households. But the implication that building anything anywhere will reduce house price increases, involves denial that tenure is important and disregards earlier research that indicated that new private housing served a limited market while turnover did not generate supply that reached households in most need. The latter benefited to the extent that new social housing was built. Either previous research is being disregarded or there is an unacknowledged (and implausible) assumption that turnover processes in the housing market have changed radically.

The emphasis on affordability also appears to have crowded out other perspectives on the links between housing and poverty. Rather than the traditional emphasis on how housing affects the probability of living in poverty through impacts of living conditions on health, education and employment the focus has been on the effects of housing costs on how housing costs affect household budgets and the immediate measurement of poverty before and after housing costs.

Fragmenting tenures?

The housing tenure structure in the UK, its countries and their regions has changed and continues to change. And this also applies to divisions within tenures. In some cases change is explained by reference to housing and public policy but more convincing accounts have adopted a whole system account. Tenures are changed by how they are financed and managed but also by how the external environment or the alternatives proffered by other tenures have changed. The nature and characteristics of individual tenures and divisions within them are neither intrinsic and unchanging nor generated solely by internal processes but also reflect competition between different tenures and parts of tenures.  How social housing compares with private renting or with owner occupation (for example, in quality, cost, security and accessibility) varies enormously by locality.

In spite of these changes there has been continuity in tenure categories and reference to sub categories of home ownership and social renting may be less now than when debates about housing classes, marginal owners and rough and respectable estates were more prominent. The tendency to generalise about individual tenures plays into a crude housing tenure politics that presents binary choices. This has not  diminished even though we know, for example, that home owners have different levels of mortgage indebtedness and own different value properties in different markets. Rather than polarisation between owner occupation and council housing in terms of levels of satisfaction or other measures there is substantial overlap between tenures. Any polarisation is between parts or outliers of tenures and spatial dimensions are less clear than in the 1970s.

Much analysis continues to unashamedly treat owner occupation as a homogeneous sector and we lack conventions over how best to disaggregate such a broad category and acknowledge divisions within it. In recent years differences within home ownership have increased with different rates of house price inflation across the market. In addition tenure transfers and the property sizes and types included in new development have changed the spatial distribution of owner occupation and what dwellings it comprises. The RTB, earlier transfers from privately rented mansion blocks and recent practice by some private developers also expanded leasehold home ownership, subject to different laws, practices and costs than normally associated with owner occupation. Home ownership has also been accessed through a state sponsored RTB route and some of this (and more to come) involved temporary additions that transfer to renting on resale. All of this as well as shared ownership adds to differentiation previously apparent within owner occupation. But there has been little change in how tenure is categorised and a continued tendency to generalise about whole tenures.

Although differences between housing markets in London and the South East and other parts of the UK have increased in recent decades some accounts imply that neoliberalism involves a common pattern of change in housing. But other arguments (e.g. Wilson, 2004), that local contingencies mean that the same policy, structural changes and ideology generates different outcomes are more consistent with earlier findings.  The reorganisation of the private sector in the 1980s (especially lenders and estate agency) changed where and how decisions were made – resulting for example in less discretion about who to lend to and what to lend on at local level. The development of electronic communication and data sharing led to a centralisation of decision making and reduced differences in policy between organisations. But does this mean that no differences remained? And by the late 2010s are we sure that new rules and regulations affecting lending are applied in a uniform way or that they do not introduce ‘indirect discrimination’ that favours certain places and people and disadvantages others? Do we know whether exchange professionals and lenders adopt different practices in different places and for different parts of the market? Do we know whether the more cautious lending regime since 2008 has led to the introduction of new practices that discriminate between people and places? Are there new ‘fault lines’ affecting new migrants or different types of property and neighbourhood? When reliance is increasingly placed on algorithmic regulation, to what extent has inequality been automated?

This argument applies to other tenures. As private renting has expanded distinctive parts of the market have been identified (e.g. Rugg and Rhodes, 2008; 2018). Nevertheless, the default position adopted in analysis of major surveys and policy debate is to refer to the whole tenure. There is no sustained discourse about fault lines within private renting related to segments of the market serving different populations or related to security, quality and condition, access and segregation and how these relate to location. The ritual acknowledgement that there are both good private landlords and criminal ones has not carried through into the conventions applied in research and policy debate. There is limited systematic and sustained analysis of divisions within private renting related to the characteristics of dwellings, costs, security, health and safety or location.

In relation to social housing there has been an argument that neoliberal policies have resulted in convergence on practice that is becoming indistinguishable from market providers. But this has been challenged by evidence that local authorities and housing associations have responded differently to changing financial and policy environments[3]. The shift from social to affordable or market rented housing and disposal of properties has been uneven and emerging hybrid providers do not conform to conventional state or market practices. Perhaps it is too early for these debates to indicate new research categories? It is also unclear whether affordable rent and social rent cater for different income or social groups (everywhere or anywhere; initially or in the longer term). Social housing has a narrower social base than in the past but is far from homogeneous. It may be that earlier perspectives on competition and housing class should be adapted in the light of changes in tenancies, rather than displaced. But if differences in quality and type of dwellings and locations form key divisions in social housing should they be more visible in research designs and outputs?

The attributes of tenures and divisions within them have changed considerably with the residualisation and maturation of council housing, stretching of the home ownership sector and regrowth of private renting including segments that escape regulation. Have housing researchers sufficiently examined whether these changes demand some modification of categories, definitions and frameworks to generate better understandings and explanations? Has there been sufficient recognition of these developments in the way that research is conducted and outputs presented? Does continuing to adopt a framework that refers exclusively to whole tenure categories involve some collusion in a discourse that obscures key fault lines within housing?


This paper has argued that there have been significant changes in housing tenure in the UK; but that housing research has failed to respond sufficiently to the challenge that key fault lines are within tenures rather than between them. In the next phase of research and policy we should anticipate continuing change both because of the working through of previous policy and other drivers and or because of new developments. Just as the demand for council housing and owner occupation were affected by the decline in private renting as well as by ‘internal’ changes so we should expect these tenures to continue to be changed by the expansion that has occurred in private renting – and further growth or contraction in the future. Perhaps there is a reversal of residualisation affecting social housing as a poorly regulated private rented sector has expanded to house the lowest income groups or those with least bargaining power? How does private renting relate to social housing (access, preferences, aspirations, rents, standards) and does this vary between regions?

It is important to reflect on households and processes that remain invisible to tenure based analysis. There have been important changes in institutional provision of housing and in hostels alongside changes (increases) in homelessness and rough sleeping, sofa surfing and informal and temporary ways of accessing housing. The issues about how to embrace these within housing research, and definitions of dwellings and households, remain. Are the ways these have been managed still appropriate? Where rough sleeping and informal arrangements become or have the appearance of becoming permanent or where they involve permanent structures that are not regarded as formal dwellings they need a place within research agendas.

Beyond this there a need for evidence and discussion of how to deconstruct housing tenure and explore the fragmentation of tenures, in order to develop a better understanding of changes affecting places and parts of tenures and  ‘housing classes’ associated with them. This involves building on earlier studies and discussion of contingent urban neoliberalism to analyse local markets and neighbourhood patterns, urban managerialism and organisational responses; and how these contribute to the public health problems that have increased, especially in parts of the private rented sector. If the regional and local outcomes from housing market processes are very different and generate debates about the need for different policy approaches and priorities in different places we need more sustained analysis at regional and local levels – to generate a sufficiently detailed grip on different outcomes and their origins.


[1] For example Donnison (1961); Gray and Russell (1962); Woolf (1967) presented results from housing surveys conducted in England and Wales; Cullingworth set out the role of tenure in England (1965) and Scotland (1967). Targeted studies include private renting (Cullingworth, 1963; Milner Holland Committee, 1965); council housing (Cullingworth, 1966); council allocation policies (Cramond, 1964; Cullingworth, 1969), council rents (Parker, 1967) and homelessness (Greve, 1964). See also references in Murie et al., (1976).

[2] See e.g. Merrett (1979; 1982), Kemeny (1981), Saunders (1990), Forrest, Murie and Williams (1990), Murie, (1991), Harloe (1995), Gurney (1999a; 1999b); Ronald (2008).

[3] E.g. Morrison (2016); Tang et al., (2017); Mullins et al., (2018)



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