The pursuit of happiness
Ministers are investigating what makes people happy. Worryingly, says Alice Ross, housing doesn’t get a mention.
The way governments measure success is changing: gross domestic product, the traditional measure, is increasingly considered limited, ignoring sustainability and quality of life.
In 2009, a panel led by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz wrote a report for the French government arguing that policy-makers should expand the measure by looking at well-being and quality of life alongside national earnings.
The idea has taken root. Last November, prime minister David Cameron commissioned the Office for National Statistics to come up with ways of measuring happiness and well-being in the UK.
After surveying more than 7,000 people from all walks of life, the ONS published its findings in July. Its report, Measuring well-being: measuring what matters, outlined five areas that people said were key to happiness: health, social and family relationships, financial and job security, the environment and education.
Perhaps worryingly for a project that may feed into national policy-making, the report does not mention housing. The original Stiglitz report, in contrast, underlines the importance of housing in all areas of life.
‘It is clear that the quality of people’s homes is important,’ says Paul Allin, director of the ONS’s measuring national well-being programme. Housing will be included in the detailed plans for measuring well-being which is due to be published in October, he assures. ‘We will be looking at an area of interest called housing and the local environment; we will be seeing that as a building block for national well-being, along with education, health, social care and the economy.’
A happy home
In the meantime, other organisations have been exploring the link between housing and happiness and, proving there is already plenty landlords can do to boost their tenants’ well-being.
Today, think tank the Human City Institute publishes a report, A new deal for tenants, exploring well-being for social tenants. ‘What we have done is to concede that one of the underlying factors around happiness and well-being is inequality - virtually all the studies around well-being show this,’ says HCI director Kevin Gulliver, who wrote the report.
The study highlights ‘tremendous inequality’ in the UK between homeowners, who are accumulating assets, and tenants. In it Mr Gulliver points to an HCI study carried out in Birmingham, which compares homeowners’ well-being with that of social tenants. Even when social tenants had the better homes, they were less happy.
‘Above and beyond the quality of the housing, there’s a satisfaction that comes from the act of ownership,’ he says. ‘There’s an “asset effect”: people who own assets tend to have better life chances and better well-being.’
Assets don’t have to be bricks and mortar: the report proposes allowing social tenants to accumulate assets by creating individual savings accounts that the government and landlords pay into according to how much property values have risen. This would create a mechanism for social tenants to benefit from rising property prices in the long term.
‘This is not just a question about how we enrich individuals who are presently very poor,’ says David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, who wrote the foreword to the report. ‘It’s about how we create a society that’s more comfortable with itself - and we don’t have this at the moment.’
The scheme, to be paid for from the public purse and topped up by landlords and tenants, would cost an estimated £4 billion to set up nationwide. But the report also proposes more affordable measures to improve tenant well-being.
‘Research [by the Independent Commission on Co-operative and Mutual Housing, and a study by the Tenant Services Authority’s national conversation report] has shown that tenants who have some sort of control are happier than those who have no control over their housing,’ says Mr Gulliver.
In practice, this can mean involving residents in decisions about their homes. ‘Where residents are at the heart of decision-making, that leads to better services and better levels of satisfaction,’ says Nigel Long, policy director of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service.
One landlord that recognises the value in giving control to tenants is Watmos, which owns eight tenant-managed estates in Walsall in the west midlands. ‘We believe everybody has a right to have a say in how their estate is governed,’ says chief executive Ursula Barrington. ‘Each estate has a tenant management board made up of residents elected by the tenants. The boards employ staff to deliver services such as day-to-day maintenance and dealing with rent arrears.’
Every estate also has a dedicated space for running events and clubs to foster a sense of community. The result is lower levels of anti-social behaviour and tenant satisfaction levels of more than 95 per cent, according to the housing association’s latest tenant survey. The average in England is 83 per cent. ‘That’s because it’s not just about the quality of the home we are providing - it’s about the community and that sense of being part of something,’ says Ms Barrington.
A core part of the ethos at Watmos is ‘redressing the power balance‚ between tenant and landlord’, Ms Barrington says. ‘It doesn’t matter what your financial status is: we all play a role as equals.’
Whether by involving tenants more, or giving them greater control, improving tenants’ well-being should be a key concern for all social landlords.
‘The role of the landlord is broadening and some have been doing a lot of work around developing work opportunities, apprenticeships and building tenants’ social esteem,’ argues TPAS’s Mr Long. ‘There’s a very strong business case for happiness: it can stop problems from developing in the first place.’
In short, there’s no need to wait for the government to decide what makes us happy.
The secrets of smiling
- In developed countries, societies with a smaller gap between richest and poorest are the happiest
- The division between homeowners and tenants heightens inequality
- Owning assets gives a psychological lift and improves life chances
- Negative perceptions of social housing add to tenants’ lack of well-being
- Having some control over housing makes tenants happier
Source: The Human City Institute’s ‘A new deal for tenants’ report