Social housing used to be a sector at the heart of the battle for social justice, packed with campaigners, pioneers, dreamers and believers. The ideals are as important as ever – but where are the idealists? Saba Salman found out.
In 1976, a 31-year-old housing campaigner called Nick Raynsford became director of SHAC, London's sheltered housing aid centre. Passionate about social causes, he had already worked at the Society for Cooperative Dwellings and joined the Labour party after campaigning against evictions in Fulham, west London.

When Raynsford joined SHAC, homelessness had already dominated the public and political agenda for 10 years thanks to the BBC film Cathy Come Home, the gritty story of a family's descent into homelessness. In the days following the broadcast in 1966, momentum gathered for a national campaign for the homeless – and a week later Shelter was born.

Alongside people such as Raynsford and Coleman was Dickon Robinson, now director of development at the Peabody Trust, who fought in West End community action groups and founded the Soho Housing Association. Shaks Ghosh, now chief executive of Crisis, came to study in the UK from India, where her interest in housing was inspired by the social injustices suffered by New Delhi's homeless.

In the 1980s, the "homes for votes" gerrymandering scandal was exposed through the tireless work of housing enthusiasts such as Westminster Labour councillor Neale Coleman, now London mayor Ken Livingstone's housing adviser.

Even Prince Charles entered the fray, calling for a sea change in housing design and urban planning. He went beyond speechmaking and founded the village of Poundbury in Dorset as the embodiment of his utopian vision for an integrated housing and business development.

Two decades ago, housing was a hotbed of political idealism – a sector occupied by some of the sharpest and most optimistic young sparks in the country. Campaigners were taking up a mantle first seized by 19th-century philanthropists such as Joseph Rowntree, George Peabody and Octavia Hill and later by architectural idealists Le Corbusier and Eric Lyons, who replaced crumbling slums with modern apartments.

The new blood dries up
The young visionaries of the 1970s and 1980s went on to become leading lights in housing, but their idealism has gradually been diluted by realism. Raynsford, for example, would have baulked at stock transfers 20 years ago. What is more, where is the next generation of visionaries – the young idealists of today?

Many housing practitioners who were part of the housing scene two or three decades ago are bemoaning the dearth of idealistic young recruits. "In the housing law field, there's been a drying-up of new blood," says Jan Luba QC, a social welfare law specialist. "It's frustratingly difficult to recruit lawyers to practise in this area of law.

"The idealists were children of the late 1960s and 1970s who were raised in an environment of radicalism and zeal and had a politicised background. Now, sadly, we're finding that the new generation is emerging from university groaning under debt and have to get a well-paid job. Working for the public sector doesn't offer them that."

The notion of choosing a career out of a sense of public duty is laughable to most graduates. A survey by Genesis Housing Group in February revealed that more than seven out of 10 people regarded careers in housing as unattractive.

Not only is working in the housing sector regarded as unappealing as a profession but the concept of social housing itself, once a paragon of the welfare state, has become stigmatised. The debate over replacing the term, led by the National Housing Federation, is proof of the emergence of a more pragmatic approach.

Perhaps the single most important issue to diehard housing idealists – if there are any left – is council housing. Idealists defiantly stick to the notion that social housing is best run by councils. The condition of council housing stock, however, suggests otherwise. Stock transfers have proved the most practical way to solve the problem of poor-quality housing.

To hang on to a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t idealistic – it’s pig-headed 

Alistari Jackson, Shelter Policy Director

Shelter policy director Alistair Jackson says: "You shouldn't confuse being idealistic with simply deciding on a solution and shouting about it in the belief that you've seen the light and this is the only solution to a problem.

"To hang on to a one-size-fits-all approach, like believing that all housing should be council-controlled, isn't idealistic – it's pig-headed. Housing associations can make good landlords and private landlords can provide good accommodation."

Just as idealists such as Raynsford have embraced stock transfers as a practical solution to improving social housing, so Shelter acknowledges the part to be played by the private sector.

The age-old notion that the state alone can provide all the services needed to cope with society's ills has vanished. As public-sector and charitable bodies adopt a more businesslike approach to housing, idealism suffers. Says David Utting of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: "We've still got ideals in terms of what we want to achieve – we're just pragmatic in how to achieve them."

Another factor that has led to the decline in idealism is that, as social researcher Gerard Lemos of Lemos and Crane says: "For many people, life has simply got better. It's not as if people aren't living in terrible conditions, but with the rise in living standards we've simply got less to be idealistic about."

Housing gets real
If the gung-ho attitude that was the hallmark of many housing professionals two or three decades ago is missing from their modern counterparts, it is partly because some battles have already been won. "Back then, it was about building lots of houses," says Christine Whitehead, professor of housing economics at the London School of Economics. "Now it's about really difficult and less tangible issues of management, which it's difficult to be idealistic about."

The greatest danger with idealism, of course, is that it can fail to live up to expectations. Unchecked by reality, the visionary approach can lead only to empty promises. Le Corbusier certainly had optimistic fervour but his concrete high-rise utopias have proved to be a failure.

Today's housing professionals are more cautious. Gerard Lemos sums it up: "The rude hand of reality has affected idealism."

Pragmatism, it would seem, is the new idealism.

Ideals, not idealists
There are few instantly recognisable idealists in housing today, but this does not mean that there are no ideals. The rise of the urban renaissance in recent years and the slow but steady progress in regenerating towns and cities is proof of that.

And there are still grassroots campaigners such as Mark Weeks, national coordinator of the anti-transfer group Defend Council Housing, who in their energy and persistence have a touch of the old-fashioned radical idealist about them.

Who’s who in our line-up of Idealists past and present:

A Charles Dickens: exposed Hard Times in Victorian slums.
B Dickon Robinson: Pioneering prefab at Peabody Trust.
C Alice Coleman: Influential urban planning critic who championed green spaces and houses over flats in the 1980s.
D Karen Buck: Hard-lobbying Labour MP who cut her political teeth in the “homes for votes” scandal.
E Le Corbusier: Prolific 20th-century architect of futuristic high-rise.
F Piercy Connor Architects: Inventors of the micro-flat.
G Joseph Rowntree: Chocolate magnate and philanthropist.
H Nick Raynsford: From radical housing campaigner to pragmatic minister.
I Eric Lyons: Designed the best in post-war housing.
J Chris Holmes: Veteran housing campaigner.
K Mark Weeks: Sends shivers down the spines of council housing departments
L “Red” Ken Livingstone: Affordable housing? Not ‘arf!
M Octavia Hill: 19th-century defender of play space for all.
N Gerald Kaufman: Harold Wilson’s housing minister.
O Aneurin Bevan: Father of the welfare state.
P Lord Beveridge: Father of the father of the welfare state.
Q George Peabody: American financial giant who founded the Peabody Trust in 1863.
R Harold Macmillan: SuperMac! As housing minister in the early fifties, he built 250,000 council houses a year.
S Prince Charles: His Poundbury village in Dorset is held up as the model for high-density living.