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Homes, houses, units and incidents: the emotions in public policy

From a talk and conversation at Northern PlaceShapers, April 10th 2019

A large part of public policy is concerned with where people live: are there enough houses? Are we maintaining them well enough? Are they secure, affordable and decent? And whose living in them?

We know that housing matters enormously. It’s a huge source of the generational tension we face as a country. It should be an integral part of the infrastructure, enabling growth and mobility. It’s a political hot-button issue. And there’s no shortage of reports and policy recommendations about it. In fact, Housing Report Bingo is a parlour game in many circles, as report after report makes the crystal-clear case: we need more housing for everyone, the current arrangements are broken, there needs to be grater sustained investment. It’s obvious.

And yet we fail to cut through, either with government, or too often with the people who need housing, and those who live in our homes.

Is this another blind spot in public policy? Professionals and board members, ministers and regulators happily talk about supply, and units. We spend millions of pounds and in conferences, round tables and seminars we agonise about the differences between affordable and social and council and private housing. We know all about scheduled repairs, pipelines and managing demand, and we can even talk the language of allocation and support. We dabble happily in the KPIs and the league tables.

But nearly three years after a slogan called Bring Back Control changed the course of British history; we seem to be very poor at identifying why where we live matters so much. For all of us our home is the most precious thing we hold, and our emotions about home are only matched by the love we have for those who are most close to us. Home is the place of intimacy and warmth. It’s the place where our most precious inter actions take place. Its the place we raise our children. The place we go to when we need to feel safe. Its where we are ill and hope to die. It’s a place for times of vulnerability. It’s the place where our memories are born and where they grow. and Home provides our identity and our sense of who we are. Home provides nurture and security. It is in our homes that we most need control.

That’s why things going wrong in a home are so horrific. Its why domestic violence is rightly seen as the most hideous crime – the betrayal of the safety of home. Its why burglary can be so catastrophic and why its occasional dismissal as not really bad because it wasn’t violent, fails to recognise the violation it represents. Its why internal sewage flooding is such a tragedy and why floods and fire still touch our deepest emotions.

Home matters to us.

It’s not a coincidence that moving to a new house ranks up there on the scale of stress with bereavement and divorce.

It’s also why people get so angry when things go wrong. Its why the twitter messages to so many chief executives feel so aggressive. No wonder people are angry – that failing boiler, that damp patch, that botched repair is affecting them in their most important place. It’s not a late train, it’s not an incident or a scheduling issue – its damage to them in the place they need to feel most safe.

Its why people are so angry when their right of quiet enjoyment, so beautifully described in otherwise dull legislation, is threatened, as it so often is.
Public policy is beginning to talk about trauma: its time that housing policy thought about how it causes trauma.

Our home is what we own, regardless of housing tenure. Our home belongs to us in ways that resist metrics and legal title. Housing associations and local authorities may have housing on their balance sheets: but the homes they support are only held in trust for the community – for today’s generation and for ones not yet born.
And if this is true, shouldn’t public policy change too? What would housing policy look like if it recognised the central importance of a home to the people who live in it, and the lack of one to people who are homeless? What would housing management look like?

And perhaps far more importantly, what would our political discussion look like? That might really start a different conversation.