Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Individualising climate risks - an idiot responds

Owner occupation, conservatism and social unrest
Could climate change have come at worse time for UK coastal dwellers?

Many years ago my then girlfriend told me that she found it hard to respect me because I lived in ‘rented accommodation’. I remember at the time thinking what a curiously formal description it was (you can imagine Wallace using it when speaking to Grommit), and what a deadly weight it seemed to have. Looking back, two things strike me. First is my naivety in not seeing this as a signal that the relationship might struggle, and second is the place of housing tenure in considering loss of homes due to the impacts of climate change and associated government policy.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when the story about the availability of insurance for those in areas with a high risk of flooding was covered by the Guardian[1].  Predictably, the subsequent on-line discussion prompted a range of views, one of which I would suggest is broadly represented by the (verbatim) post:  “Why should I bail out…some idiot who buys a house in a flood risk area?”. Broadening the area under discussion to cover responsibility for adaptation to climate change as it applies to coastal dwellers rather than simply flooding, there is an important point to be considered here.

As things stand, those who have been told that they can expect their homes to be lost to the sea at some point can also expect to bear the full cost. Our Guardian commentator would presumably see this as proper given the individuals’ presumed choice to have bought houses is such locations. But this is to ignore an opportunity to put such questions into a wider and more interesting context with regard to the allocation of risks.

The Anglo-Saxon model

The UK pursues a distinctive approach to housing tenure that favours owner-occupation – characterised by Ronald[2] as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model. This has not always been the case, however. He explains that “At the beginning of the 20th century most British households rented their homes from private landlords and as few as one in ten were owner-occupiers”, and that despite the promise of state support for local authorities in providing new houses for rent in the early 1920s “funds were increasingly shifted…into the provision of owner-occupied homes” (p.22). By 1938 the proportion of owner occupied housing had increased to 32 per cent.

The immediate post-war period and the Labour government’s welfare state, Ronald tells us,   “called for radical changes in housing policy which involved the mass building of rental housing” (p.23). However, this was followed by a reversal in policy which appears to have proceeded more or less uninterrupted ever since. In the 1950s the Conservatives “committed themselves to the ideal of the ‘property owning democracy’” (23) with homeownership establishing itself as the majority tenure by the 1970s. The accompanying property price-boom not only established an “enduring belief that homeownership is one of the best, if not the best, investment accessible to ordinary people” but also saw Labour governments become “more partisan to homeownership policy…”. (23)
Under the Thatcher government, housing privatisation – including the sale of council houses - became a focus of policy accompanied, Ronald observes, by deregulation of the credit market so that by the end of 1990s “the homeownership rate was above 64 per cent” (p.23). Despite an initially cautious approach, Ronald explains that “…New Labour soon began to warm-up to owner-occupation”.  In 2005 plans to “extend homeownership to 75 percent of housing” were announced, with Brown during his tenure as Prime Minister “explicit about his desire to further expand opportunities for homeownership and enhance the features of an asset-based social security system.” (p.24) Thus, we might observe that the individual’s assumption of risk through home ownership can at least in part be historically located and be identified as the product of a politically consensual policy transformation – with this style of tenure operating in lockstep with emerging orthodoxies concerning individualism, welfare and citizenship.

The General Strike 1926 - crossing London Bridge
Kemeny, Ronald tells us, conflates private ownership to the development of “a reserve of housing wealth” that, amongst other things, “offsets pension shortfalls in old age” (p.22); whilst between the world wars the expansion of working class ownership was considered “a potential antidote to both the decline in the private rental sector, on one side, and labour-union agitation, social unrest and demands for the expansion of citizenship rights on the other.” (p.22) In post-war Britain, he namechecks MacMillan, Eden and Thatcher in identifying “an assumption that homeownership would improve civic responsibility and encourage support for conservative political parties…”. (p.29) Buying a house, then, appears to offer value way beyond any individual benefits – an alternative to state welfare provision, and a means of encouraging a certain political disposition in service of a particular type of social order.

Finally, Ronald identifies the current era as “a period of ‘total homeownership policy’ whereby this type of tenure is “almost universally considered the ‘best’ or ‘natural’ way to produce and consume housing” (30). ‘Tenure imperialism’, he calls it.

Where the heart is

Writing some years previously, Gurney[3] explores the ways in which the idea of ‘home’ – being ‘where the heart is’ and ‘where charity begins’, and ‘an Englishman’s castle’, is closely associated with owner-occupation in government policy. He observes of policy documents that: “’Home’ is frequently used to differentiate between the dwellings of householders in owner occupation and in rented accommodation; and dwellings of those in owner occupation are imbued with the warmth and security ‘home’ whilst renters are accorded a more Spartan language to describe their dwelling.” (p.172) In the 1995 Housing White paper, Gurney argues, the idea of ‘home’ exists in a much more meaningful way for those in home ownership than it does for renters, and is expressed through “ideas of love, warmth, comfort, pride, independence and self-respect” (p.173). 

Policy papers also associate home ownership with the uptake and expression of certain values. A 1971 Department of the Environment and Welsh Office command paper sees the government associate home ownership with social advance, whilst in 1981 the Department of the Environment has it that home ownership “ensures the spread of wealth through society…enables parents to accrue wealth for their children and stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society” This, proposes Gurney, “carries with it the expectation of home owners being good citizens, good parents and good caretakers.” (176)  Perhaps even more fundamentally, Gurney tells us, the 1971 Department of the Environment and Welsh Office command paper tells us that the desire for home ownership is a “basic and natural desire” (p.178), with the obverse presumably the case for those living under other tenancy arrangements.

I’m not sure how familiar my old girlfriend was with government housing policy papers - not very, is my guess. However, is hard not to wonder at the power of official pronouncement to shape individuals’ opinions and actions through various means.

And I would challenge the individual who responded in such glib fashion to the story in the Guardian to reconsider his (or her) position on the individualisation of risk. I would never argue that those of who own homes on the coast that are at risk from rising sea levels have not exercised choice in so doing. But it is clearly the case that the situation we find ourselves in is significantly the result of forces associated with political preference and the cultivation of certain values, and that accordingly we are threatened as much by socio-economic and political impacts as we are natural ones.

Had climate change as currently understood become an issue in the same way 100 years ago, the consequences for coastal dwellers might have looked very different.  Far fewer would have owned their homes and been exposed to the kinds of risks identified here. Had it happened before the 1970s housing boom then the amount of capital at stake for those who did own their homes would have been smaller relative to earnings, and a state welfare may have been better placed to supported losers. It is also well documented that sea defence in the UK was provided more on the basis of vulnerability in the UK until relatively recently. This is, of course, to simplify.  However…

With best wishes


[2] Ronald, R. 2008. Market-Liberal Homeowner Societies: Questions of Convergance in & around an Anglo-Saxon model? Housing Finance International, March 2008, pp. 21-34.
[3] Gurney, C.  1999. Pride and Prejudice: Discourses of Normalisation in Public and Private Accounts of Home Ownership.  Journal of Housing Studies, Vol. 14. No. 2, 163-183.


Victoria J Brown (PhD researcher) said...

This is icredibly interesting for me as I am researching for a PhD on coastal community resilience in the UK focussing on the east coast of norfolk and yorkshire. I am particularly considering housing tenure and associated relocation and compensation issues as a barrier to resilience and increasing coastal vulnerability. I wonder if you could explain some of your personal experiences on this.

Victoria J Brown

Chris Blunkell said...

Hi Victoria,

Happy to discuss if you'd like to drop me a line at Glafr this is of interest. Chris

Tony Flux said...

Dear Chris,

Your observations regarding the 'Anglo-saxon model are very perceptive.
The difficulty coastal property owners find themselves in is not of their own making I agree. Up to about 20 years ago, very little formal consideration was ever given to the risks from erosion when purchasing a coastal property. if it was 'on the radar', the aassumption was that the Govt or 'the council' would deal with it and in many cases; they did.
Today a purchase would (or should) involve flood and erosion searches on EA websites etc. So it is better in that respect, it is nearer to a 'let the buyer beware' scenario.

Nevertheless, Insurance, Mortage etc constraints now come into play much more significantly and as funding for new defences and MR policies become more common,the liklihood of gaining protection for individual properties will become increasingly rare.

Schemes such as 'roll back /set back' are being explored by some LA's (Norfolk is one) but it is early days and compensation for a householder who loses his property is going to be minimal to non-existent. Insurance companies tend to view flooding as a recoverable loss whereas erosion is an un-recoverable loss and hence uninsurable. Those who now choose to purchase properties in risk zones need to do so on the clear understanding of the above perils.

Tony Flux