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Social Housing Provision Changes Since 1980

Changes in the Organisation and Provision of Social Housing Since 1980


Did the Housing Act of 1980, which granted tenants the “right to buy” council property, along with other housing policy geared towards a neo-liberal attitude to economics and the housing market, such as the stock transfer from local authorities to housing associations, the direct payment of housing benefit into tenants accounts and rent increases due to deregulation eventually lead to increased social polarisation between rich and poor and, in particular, homelessness in urban environments? If so, how did this happen and what were the implications of this policy on the present housing climate?

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Introduction to Problem

The Housing Act of 1980 was a flagship policy by the newly elected Conservative government. It allowed five million tenants the right to buy their council house from the local authority at a reduced rate. This “opportunity” to buy was extended further in years to come, and was used primarily as a means to reduce the amount of council owned housing in favour of a number of other economic models more conducive to the right wing Conservative party ideology. The central principles of the “right to buy” policy, intended to reduce the amount of publicly owned housing stock, was eventually extended to include initiatives for councils to “voluntarily” give up their hold on their housing property. This included the allowance of private landlord ownership, the selling of council property though “voluntary transfers”, and also continued into present Blairite policy with the “Arms Length Management Association”. While the 1980 Housing Act provided revenue for run down council estates and their tenants, and also allowed working-class tenants an opportunity to get onto the property ladder, it also contributed to fuelling a growing minority of underclass citizens, who were deprived of the council housing stock on which they were previously reliant, and were subsequently forced into a cycle of unemployment and homelessness. Although housing stock was overinflated in comparison to other capitalist countries in the 1980s, and the Housing Act was initially beneficial in many ways to the owner of the housing association. Other policies that directly affected housing stock also reflected this trend towards neo-liberalism and a policy of equal responsibility, whether the citizen was rich or poor. These policies include the stock transfer from local authorities to housing associations, rent increases due to the deregulation of the housing sector and the payment of housing benefit directly into a tenants bank account rather than to the landlord. This resulted in an increase in homelessness and social polarisation between the rich and poor.

Literature Review

A great deal of literature has been written on how Thatcherism has affected British housing and the effects that this had on the development of homelessness. “The British Political Process: An Introduction” (Wright, 2000, pp. 30-3), along with Jean Conway’s “Housing Policy” (2000) offer a good general overview of the policies forwarded and their effects this had on the power of local councils, as well as an analysis of their motivations for instigating these privatisation policies. Wright includes some details on how the Housing Acts tended to profit smaller, richer rural councils to the detrement of poorer communities, and both books go into detail about the 1988 and 1989 Housing Acts, the latter of which forced council rents up, which meant that they were unable to fund any major repairs or new building on their housing stock. Anne Power (1993) in “Hovels to High Rise” stresses that the “right to buy” polarised the market because it left behind those who aspired to buying their council house, but couldn’t afford it. Similarly, Andy Thornley (1992) in “The Crisis of London” comments that, despite the intentions for “right to buy” to raise revenues to fund the regeneration of squalid and neglected housing estates, very little money was actually raised to reinvest in council housing because of the restrictions in place on capital receipts (p. 15). This, coupled with the deregulation of the private rented sector of the housing market in the Housing Act of 1988, led to a substantial increase of the price of rental accommodation and an increased inability for people on lower incomes to pay their housing associated costs (pp. 10-24). Tim Blackman (1995) in “Urban Policy in Practice” also comments that because the better parts of Britain’s publicly owned housing stock has been sold off, many of Britain’s remaining council estates have effectively become “welfare ghettos” (p. 153), and rife with drugs, poverty and squalid housing.

Keith Dowding and Desmond King’s “Rooflessness in London” (Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 28, 2000) focuses on the difficulty of getting a coherent study of homelessness because of the ambiguity of the terminology “homelessness” which, in British law, excludes almost everybody. They argue the problem with the term “intentionally homeless”, a term used in the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. This concept of “intentionally homeless” is used to varying degree of exactitude by different councils. Johnston Birchall (1992) comments how this varies wildly from council to council (p. 142). David Robertson (1998, p. 14) comments how this judicial discretion is often used to deliberately introduce ambiguity into policy and law, allowing for councils to absolve their obligation to house the homeless. Alison Ravetz (2001, p. 199-204) argues further that the “extreme right” agenda of Conservative policy combined with the 1977 Housing Act, which changed the way housing was allocated based on “priority”, ensured that the priority homeless began to usurp ordinary council house waiting lists. Paradoxically, because these people were in themselves labelled as a “priority” for councils, potential tenants would become homeless simply in order to qualify for housing. As the number of publicly owned council houses decreased, this increased the numbers of homeless people in Britain at the time. Loveland (1995) in “Housing Homeless Persons” argues that the “right to buy” also degraded the remaining housing stock, as the properties sold tended to be in more desirable areas, and also, even at a discounted rate, only the more affluent tenants could afford to buy (p. 35). MacEwan (1991) in “Housing, Race and Law” mentions that the incidence of building society repossessions increased in districts responsible for Housing (Homeless Persons) provisions from 218 in 1979 to 748 in 1987, half of which were former council houses bought under the “right to buy”. The effects of the various Housing Acts passed by the Conservative Government on the elusive statistic of “homelessness” is variable. Tim Blackman in “Urban Policy in Practice” comments on the GNI (Generalised Needs Index), which is used to assist councils in allocating funds to housing stock (p. 97).


The problem of homelessness in Britain is twofold. First, it has been very difficult to statistically measure homelessness. Many homeless people are disillusioned and unaware of their rights to apply for housing. Also, the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act uses the problematic statement of “intentionally homeless” which can be used in many different guises. Thus, this study of the effects of homelessness in Britain will have to take this into account, and the wildly varying statistics on homelessness testify this difficulty. However, it is safe to assume that the housing policy has led to an increased number of homeless people in Britain. This dissertation will look at the existing literature on homelessness in the 1980s, of which a great deal has been written. Secondly, the problem with homelessness and the underclass in general is that they occupy a class on the fringes of society and therefore, are not easily put into traditional catgories of class or structure. In order to eschew these difficulties with information presently available, it may be apt to conduct an independent study of homelessness, via the means of a questionnaire. This could either target the “street homeless”, the advantage of this method being that the questionnaire would be more quickly implemented, or else a random cross-section of society. The advantages of this method would be that it would take into account the innate “elusiveness” of the homeless section of society.


Thatcherism and right wing policy has led to a minorty of “underclass” people. Due to the strict enforcement of Thatcherite and neo-liberal housing policy that has degraded council housing stock, deregulated private sector rental markets and sold off much of the higher quality housing stock and led to a “ghettoisation” of many more run-down council estates, especially in urban areas of Britain. This dissertation will look primarily at the effects this has on generating an underclass of homelessness. The implications of this study will be to chart how the implementation of right wing housing policy has generated and exacerbated the continued dependency of the underclass.


Birchall, J., Housing Policy in the 1990s, (London: Routledge, 2000)

Blackman, T., Urban Theory in Practice, (London: Routledge, 1995)

Burrows, R., Please, N., & Quilgars, D., Homelessness and Social Policy, (London: Routledge, 1997)

Conway, J., Housing Policy, (London: Gildredge, 2000)

Dowding, K., & King, D., “Rooflessness in London” from Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 28, 2000

Loveland, I., Housing Homeless Persons: Administrative Law and the Administrative Process, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

MacEwan, M., Housing, Race and Law, (London: Routledge, 1991)

Ravetz, A., Council Housing and Culture, (London: Routledge, 2001)

Robertson, D., Judicial Discretion in the House of Lords, (London: Clarendon Press, 1990)

Thornley, A., The Crisis of London, (London: Routledge, 1992)

Wright, T., The British Political Process, (London: Routledge, 2000)

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