Could Sweden offer the Labour party pointers for its housing policy?
This week Jeremy Corbyn is due as a keynote speaker in Almedalen, an annual festival during which Sweden’s political class decamps to an island in the Baltic. Ed Miliband made a similar trip to Sweden in 2014, when he said he was roundly impressed by the country’s welfare and housing settlements, but immediately ruled out doing anything similar at home. For a Labour party looking for solutions it can sell, though, has an extremely good one.
The two things that characterise the UK housing market – a plethora of private landlords and unregulated prices with minimal building standards – would be unfamiliar to most Swedes.
Since the 1920s, Sweden has had large-scale co-operative housing that is owned by neither the state nor its residents. HSB, the biggest co-op in Sweden, has 335,000 properties housing near to a million Swedes, more than 10% of the population. The co-op movement began in Sweden as a way of breaking reliance on property held by private landlords, with overpriced and under-maintained homes being the norm for Sweden’s relatively new urban working class. Although Sweden has followed the European pattern from low- to high-rise and back again, what’s remained constant is the way it manages huge swathes of its housing stock.
Another key element is that homes rented in Sweden, either through mutual associations or privately, must conform to a so-called “minimal acceptable standard”. This sets out basic standards of heating and insulation, weather-proofing, kitchen area, water and other utilities, meaning that many of the properties on the rental market in the UK today would simply not pass muster.
Strong housing unions
The socialised housing model used by many Swedes gives a strong position to housing unions, who are able to negotiate and facilitate everything from lower broadband and energy costs to improvements such as balconies, cycle lockers and new washing machines. Rents are also semi-regulated and rent rises can be both challenged and taken to tribunal. Moreover, once you have a rental contract the home is as good as yours. Secure tenancies mean that the piece of mind many pursue in owning a property can be found on the rental market too.
The flipside of this is that council social housing in Sweden is limited to a few very specific groups – the elderly, people with specific mental health or addiction issues, or to newly arrived immigrants. The state has never had a strong hand in building houses themselves, and even the co-operative-owned housing blocks still operate on a commercial basis; profits are used to build more housing. The great council house sell-off that decimated the UK’s affordable housing market could not have taken place in Sweden because the state did not own any council houses in the first place. Where state money does play a role it comes in the form of investment packages to encourage developers to build in areas with acute need.
Like many European countries, though, Sweden still suffers from housing shortages due to huge shifts in its population. Stockholm in particular has had an acute housing shortage, and the rightwing government that ruled Sweden from 2006 to 2014 reduced state support for the development of rental and student housing at a time when more and more people were in need of a place to live in the capital.
Consistently higher standards
Developers, sensing an opportunity, have lobbied intensively for deregulation, allowing them to volume-build houses more cheaply. So far though, the Swedish system has remained remarkably intact, and its mixture of co-operative and regulated private housing has created consistently higher standards than in either the UK or the US. The structure of the system means it is also easier to carry out larger infrastructure projects such as the use of energy-efficient district heating and some pioneering eco-housing projects. One developer, Folkhem, owned by Swedish public pension funds, is currently building pioneering wooden residential blocks using sustainable materials. Such investments show that commercial thinking and the public good can indeed go hand in hand.
Ultimately, the functionality of Swedish housing is based on mutual self interest – renting or living in a communally owned house is popular. It is also better regulated and more protective of tenants than the obligation-free factor system used in Scotland’s tenements (the nearest the UK has to the dense apartment housing of Swedish cities) that attempts to transpose an Anglo-Saxon preoccupation with the integrity of property rights on to the realities of living wall-to-wall with others.
The UK is a million miles from recreating some of the other aspects of the Swedish model, but good mutualised, innovative homes in Britain’s increasingly dense urban centres would be a deliverable election promise with the potential to transform lives, and burst the developers’ bubble. Gunnar Asplund, the Swedish architect who designed many of Sweden’s signature buildings, said of his work, “We have no need for the outgrown forms of old culture merely to sustain our self esteem”. For those in charge of a UK housing policy of brick-volume housing estates and luxury empty luxury blocks it could be sage advice.
Dominic Hinde is the author of
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