The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on UK housing policy: how do we rebuild the foundations of the ‘wobbly pillar’?

Colin Clark, Vikki McCall*, Steve Rolfe , Peter Matthews, Andrew Wallace , Grace Manyika, Steve Iafrati, Moira Munro

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Housing policy has often been regarded as a ‘wobbly pillar’ of the welfare state, described also as ‘special’, ‘awkward’ ‘peculiar’ and indeed ‘a sore thumb’ (Torgersen, 1987). This is due to housing being both in the realms of the welfare state but also a commodity linked to tenure (e.g. home-ownership, social or private renting), wealth and market value. The place of housing within social policy is therefore complex due to its disjointed position between the public and private realms and the intractability of some housing challenges to policy solutions. However, Malpass (2003, 2008) challenges the idea of the ‘wobbly pillar’ and argues that housing as a ‘cornerstone’ due to the assets, investment, infrastructure and goods and services that the housing sector supports. This paper considers the extent to which the impact of the COVID-19 crisis reveals the ‘wobbly’ and more solid foundations of UK housing policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put ‘the home’ and neighbourhoods into the spotlight and refocused the significance of housing - both as a safe and unsafe space (Gurney, 2020). This paper aims to outline and offer a positioning paper on the impact of COVID-19 on several high-level housing-related topics, including financialisaton, welfare reform, health, homelessness and consider housing inequality. Through this analysis, both negative and positive impacts of COVID-19 are explored within the English, Scottish and Welsh housing sectors. Key COVID-19 housing-related policy responses are then examined in the context of emerging evidence that the pandemic is reinforcing inequalities in housing.

The first section of the paper considers financialization, housing market failure and the inequalities in accessing, maintaining and living well in a house (Blakeley 2019; Jacobs and Manzi, 2020). Blakeley (2020) highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate these issues, where the UK is ‘sleepwalking’ into a new financial and homelessness crisis around housing.

The second section considers the wider picture in light of welfare reform, as after experiencing a recession far exceeding the ‘great recession’ of 2008, the government now finds itself with record levels of debt of over £2tn, equivalent to over 100% of GDP and 13% higher than the EU average (ONS, 2021). A growth in unemployment has resulted in reduced tax income for the government and increased social security expenditure (HM Treasury, 2021). Additionally, furlough payments and the Universal Credit uplift signified a new territory for a government committed to small government and welfare retrenchment, though these measures are relatively short-term interventions.

The third section considers homelessness as one of the most pressing housing challenges due to the sheer extent of homelessness and housing precarity across the country (e.g. Fitzpatrick et al 2021). Within the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness policy and intervention included some of the quickest and most impactful changes to have been introduced. Innovative interventions are highlighted and compared across Scotland, England and Wales.

The fourth section of the paper considers the health impacts at individual household and neighbourhood level, as poor-quality homes have also contributed to virus spread during the pandemic (Centre for Ageing Better 2019) and the link between housing and health is of increasing concern as the ‘home’ and community become more centred in virus control. “Home” has become both a place of refuge and safety, and for many, a place of greater risk and danger. Over four million people live in homes that do not meet the UK Government’s minimum definition of a ‘decent home’ (MHCLG 2019) with a high degree of over-crowding (MHCLG, 2019). Insufficient floorspace, dangerously cladded tower blocks, polluted urban districts, inadequate public spaces are just some of the characteristics of typical housing landscapes in the UK that helped further unnerve and destabilise locked-down populations in highly variable ways (Gurney, 2021).

All these issues together have an unequal impact on different groups and this paper considers the role of the COVID-19 pandemic on increasing the existing inequalities within the UK housing sector. When the pandemic hit the UK, viral loads were unevenly spread across housing tenures and built environments and there were disparities in access to green space, whilst gross inequalities in housing quality and tenure security reinforced the marginalisation of some social groups and their susceptibility to evictions, isolation, mental health crises, violence and financial stress (Health Foundation, 2020; National Housing Federation, 2020). Given the central role of housing assets to household economies in the UK, the pandemic is said to have actually worsened already unpalatable wealth inequalities (Birch, 2021) and this is considered further in the final section of the paper.

The complexity of the housing sector and its role in UK social policy is further challenged by the ‘spatial nuance’ of housing policy and policy divergence throughout the UK (McKee et al., 2017). Devolution around housing policy has been challenged by the negotiation of powers and the impact of UK welfare reform (Gibb, 2015) alongside the messy and contested realities of governing housing in local contexts (McKee, 2011). Despite this complexity, housing is becoming more significant to the welfare state (Malpass, 2008) and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic further highlights the importance of housing policy from moving to a ‘wobbly pillar’ to a cornerstone of social policy delivery.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSocial Policy Review 34
Subtitle of host publicationAnalysis and Debate in Social Policy, 2022
EditorsAndy Jolly, Ruggero Cefalo, Marco Pomati
Place of PublicationBristol
PublisherPolicy Press
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9781447366553
ISBN (Print)9781447365792
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2022

Publication series

NameSocial Policy Review
PublisherPolicy Press


  • housing
  • social policy
  • homeless
  • Covid 19


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