17/05/2012 18:32 BST | Updated 17/07/2012 06:12 BST

Do We Still Believe in Decent Housing?

The other day I was talking to the head of a successful housing association. He'd been a chief executive for many years, starting out as one of the wave of young innovators who were going to change the world back in the late 1960s and early seventies.

'When I started working in housing we had an expectation that the housing problem would be solved,' he told me. These were the early days of Shelter, after the screening of Cathy Come Home. There was outrage at the conditions many families had to live in at a time when Britain was booming.

There have been some successes in housing policy since, and a fair few failures. There has been a proliferation of professors, and a merry-go-round of ministers. But the passion and belief are less easy to discover.

What's very easy to find is the glib dismissal of every problem as someone else's fault. The housing market renewal programme, abandoned in the middle by the current government, is constantly cited as an example of the failure of large-scale regeneration programmes. There is much to be learned, as a recent paper from the Building and Social Housing Foundation makes clear: but there were also some important achievements that are now being rubbished.

The government's solution, insofar as it has had one, has been to pull the plug, watch the thing unravel and then bung a few million at the worst areas in the hope that it will paper over the cracks.

Or take housing benefit. Ministers no longer talk about housing benefit as a social good that helps to keep low-paid people in decent conditions: instead they throw up their hands in horror and hope that by restricting the number of bedrooms people can use and capping the rents eligible for benefit payments, incentives will be created to bring down costs and end 'under-occupation'.

For the first time since Shelter was formed in 1966, a government is actively reducing the quality of homes available to the people on the lowest incomes. Where once politicians set out minimum space standards for social housing, they now consider it a scandal if poor people have spare bedrooms.

Access to work and community networks are no longer considered important by many decision-makers. A century ago, Peabody was building homes for poor workers right on the doorstep of Westminster, in estates like Old Pye Street, Abbey Orchard and Horseferry; today, London boroughs like Westminster, Newham and Hammersmith and Fulham are looking to ship the poor or homeless out of the capital.

There may be a few who really believe poor people should be made to suffer for being poor (as if they don't already). More probable is that faced with systems of byzantine complexity, they plump for easy propositions that go down well with voters. Is there a shortage of social housing? Make people live in fewer rooms. Are private landlords milking the housing benefit system? Curb the amount we pay (even if the tenant ends up having to plug the gap, or move hundreds of miles away). Are there too many empty homes? Find someone who's recently presented a TV programme and hand him the job of sorting it out.

The real difficulty is the refusal to acknowledge difficulty. In 1942, when Beveridge identified his five giants of want, ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness, he had no idea how long it would take to defeat them or how hard the journey would be.

Yet the period of post-war reconstruction saw progress on a massive scale in the most unpromising of circumstances. Before rationing had been lifted, we had a national health service, the first national parks had been created and a string of new towns had been announced to replace the ruined homes of our bombed cities.

Now many of the houses built during that period and since need to be replaced; property speculation has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots; and governments in the UK and across Europe are balancing the books at the expense of those who most require support.

As Rebecca Tunstall explained in her inaugural lecture as professor of housing policy at York University, the inequalities persist and are complex. The problems that so outraged and spurred on the founders of Shelter have not been solved, but manifest themselves in different ways.

We have to stop running away from complexity. At the same time we cannot afford to shy away from simplicity.

Housing, like so many other 'wicked issues' facing policymakers, is not an easy problem to solve. The market has failed on numerous counts; the state, too, has abandoned much that it did well and stuck with too much that it did badly.

It is unlikely that this government or the next will get it right. But what all governments can do is determine to do better: to learn from the past and adapt to new situations. The simplicity is about being clear about the objectives. For a while, in the 1940s and 1950s, governments of all political shades managed this.

The housing campaigners of the 1960s, like those before them from Ebenezer Howard to Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree, had clear objectives: better homes for people who were living in unacceptable conditions. It was both a visceral and an ethical response to a complex problem. They believed things could and should be different, and began to take action. Not every action was successful, but the objectives were clear enough: acceptable space standards, affordable accommodation, and comfortable homes that kept their occupants warm and healthy.

What policymakers tend to lack today is the simplicity to make the ethical judgement, clarity about the objectives, and the patience to deal with the complexities of putting that judgement into practice. Many of the survivors of the 1960s still think the battle against poor housing is worth fighting. Will a new generation have the passion and persistence to join them?