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Squalor and Idleness

Wednesday 22 November 2017, 6.00PM

Speaker(s): Professor Roy Sainsbury, Department of Social Policy and Social Work and Professor Nicholas Pleace, Centre for Housing Policy

Five Giants: Then and now

75 years after publication of the Beveridge Report - can the welfare state survive?

Professor Nicholas Pleace, Centre for Housing Policy


Following the Second World War, slum housing conditions were transformed for many lower income households in the UK, and significant progress was made towards breaking the association between income poverty and poor housing conditions. Mass development of social housing made affordable, adequate homes available on a new scale; and squalor, one of the five giant evils identified by Beveridge, was substantially lessened.  Yet the mass development of social housing also brought new problems and challenges. The zeal to end squalor in urban space, expressed in Modernist ideals of the city, saw losses in social cohesion. What had been housing for the workers also sometimes turned into spatial concentrations of relative poverty as the UK began the process of deindustrialisation.   Mass development of social housing had been replaced by disinvestment and mass privatisation within three decades. Legislative change in the late 1970s also shifted the focus of social housing, repurposing the tenure as a safety net for those facing homelessness and housing exclusion. British society has also pushed at the margins of owner occupation, encouraged a resurgence in a relatively unregulated private rented sector, and with changes in the supply and financing of social housing, found itself in a position where unaffordable housing is exacting both a social and economic cost.  

Squalor, one of the five giant evils Beveridge identified, has been greatly lessened since his time, but it has not been defeated and is, in some respects, resurgent. We must recognise this challenge and react correctly, to mend the UK’s broken housing markets, and avoid even a partial return to the deep housing inequalities of the past.

Speaker biography: Nicholas Pleace is Professor of Social Policy at the University of York and Director of the York’s Centre for Housing Policy, which was created in 1990, with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to explore research and policy questions centred on housing and inequality. He has been a member of the European Observatory on Homelessness since 2010, and is a member of the Women’s Homelessness in Europe Network (WHEN), which focuses on gender inequalities and homelessness. 

Professor Roy Sainsbury, Department of Social Policy and Social Work


Beveridge had a lot to say about the giant evil of Idleness, but he didn’t say it in his famous report of 1942, which launched reforms in education, social security, housing and health. Indeed, to make progress in each of these fields Beveridge made the assumption that ‘full employment’ would be achieved in the post-war world, if necessary with state intervention. Beveridge was later to expand his ideas about employment in his book Full Employment in a Free Society in 1944 but by that time he had been somewhat marginalised by the wartime Coalition government who had already published their own employment White Paper earlier that year. But in any case the state did not need to intervene – full employment was effectively reached as a result of post-war reconstruction and the burgeoning consumer culture of the 50s and 60s and sustained until the early 70s.

Fast forward to 2017 and the landscape of the labour market would be unrecognisable to Beveridge – the transformation in women’s employment, the rise in part-time working, the advent of zero hours contracts, the ‘gig’ economy, low pay propped up by the benefit system… and yet the UK has an employment rate at a 40 year high (at 75%) and the lowest unemployment rate (14%) also for 40 years. Would Beveridge approve? Or would he have been more energised about inequality, glass ceilings, rising debt, and child poverty?

In this lecture Roy Sainsbury will ponder these and other questions about the tackling so-called Idleness in 2017 and beyond.

Speaker biography: Roy Sainsbury is Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York and a former Director of the University’s Social Policy Research Unit. In a 30–year research career he has specialised in social security and employment policy issues, particularly as they affect disabled people. 

Other events in this series include:

Location: Ron Cooke Hub auditorium, Campus East

Admission: is by free ticket only. Please book below.

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