The media are today reporting that thousands of forces personnel will be kicked out of their homes, doubtless by evil bailiffs who will cackle manically whilst they throw poor Tom Atkins onto the street, where he and his family will slowly starve to death in a quasi-Victorian manner, while the MOD gets rid of military housing. As always, reality is far more complex, and seemingly far less worthy of being reported on in any depth.
The situation at present appears to be as follows. The MOD is conducting a root and branch review of the whole of the employment model for the armed forces, which includes how people are managed, the support provided and the way that careers develop. This is designed to inform a lot of the groundwork going into the Force 2020 construct, which is the SDSR aspiration –namely that if the changes laid down in SDSR are seen through, then in 2020 the UK will have a globally deployable armed forces, which are based overwhelmingly in the UK, which offer stability on postings plots and where personnel have very different social expectations of the sort of career that the military will provide.
The driver for this work is the reality that the current employment model and structure is over 40 years old. Since the withdrawal from East of Suez, the armed forces have run what some may see as an almost socialist state, slowly eroded over the years, whereby a new joiner is quickly brought into an all-encompassing society which provides for all their needs, from clothing, to housing, to medical and dental facilities. The model provided for cheap subsidised housing, which acknowledged that in the 1970s people would often move locations regularly, often globally, and that it was impractical to offer wives a career in the same way, reducing earning power for the family. Similarly, the model was built on the social values of the time, where people married far younger than they do today, and often had children in their early twenties and not thirties. This resulted in the provision of housing for soldiers with young families, the growth of the so-called ‘married patch’ and the emergence of a generation of forces personnel who grew up within this world.
Today, the provision of cheap housing to enable a secure family life is still a key part of the forces compensation package. It is possible, as a married member of HM Forces to enjoy a very heavily subsidised package which provides access to accommodation, often of highly varying quality, despite the best efforts to upgrade it over the years. However, what is now occurring is that the MOD is trying to review this, and identify whether this model continues to make sense in the likely future demographic makeup of the forces.
Humphrey has never worked in housing policy, and has seen no statistics, so these comments reflect his personal opinions on the matter, rather than informed observation. That said, several facts appear to be coming clear.
Firstly – the demographics of society are changing. People are marrying later, and having families later on in their careers. Generationally it feels (although he could be completely wrong), that the age for marriage and families for many people appears to have shifted 7-10 years to the right, as people now seek to leave university and spend time in relationships or being single prior to making a more substantial commitment.
Secondly, people are joining HM Forces at a later age, and are joining with different expectations. The days of going into a careers office at 18, completing 22 years and leaving at 40 as a lifetime soldier continue to have a place, but for many people, service in the military is seen as a short – medium career. People join for some reasons, but either stay on, or leave, for very different reasons. It would seem fair to argue that the Military is no longer seen by many in it as a job for life anymore. People will often leave at different stages – for instance, some claim that many people leave at the 9 year marker, which means that the manning profile requiring accommodation is also different.
Thirdly, there is significantly increased social mobility, both practically and personally. This means that unlike in the 1970s, where car ownership was lower, people were less able to fly, and people stayed in a more local area, today, it is far easier to live in one location and easily commute across the country on a weekly basis. The means exist to do this, and it is not (despite petrol prices) prohibitively expensive to do so. The rationale for providing cheap accommodation because people need to move where a unit is based seems to be less of a driver now.
There is also the factor that pay has increased dramatically as well – in the 1970s; the military were considerably lower paid in real terms than they are now. As such, provision of cheap social housing was a key driver to ensure people could afford to stay in – even a low salary still provided a house and accommodation. Today people in the forces are relatively well speaking far better paid. The average salary in the UK seems to fluctuate between £21-£24K per year depending on the various statistics out there. It’s really important to notice that for all ranks of the forces, apart from Private (OR1), the initial salary package exceeds this average. Therefore people in the forces have far more spending power than before, and arguably more spending power than much of society. While home ownership is not guaranteed, it is still a goal which many in HM Forces can realistically aspire to.
Finally people’s wider expectations have changed. Partners of Forces personnel can now aspire to have a career in a way which was not possible before – moving through lots of married quarters may not necessarily be what every partner wants.
This situation then presents a quandary. Should the Forces continue to provide social housing in the same way as before? Humphrey would suggest that the time is right to consider this – after all, people’s social mobility, income and career posting has changed considerably and will continue to change. In 2020 it’s highly likely that all three services will be based around a small number of super garrison or base sites, and that the regular churn of movements between locations every two – three years may well cease. Instead, while there will be exercises and deployments, it’s unlikely that there will be regular moves between fixed locations in the same way as there is at present – particularly not for more junior personnel.
So, relatively static Forces, in which people are not serving full careers, would imply that people could consider alternate living patterns if possible. One point to consider is that someone joining at 18-21 and serving 9-10 years is arguably far less likely to marry or require a service quarter now than in previous years. This means then that the quarter provision needs to be considered for people in their late twenties and early thirties onwards, e.g. most likely to be the SNCO and SO3s and above, rather than junior personnel. There is an argument which would suggest that in your twenties, it would not be unreasonable for the MOD to provide high quality single rooms in the Mess, and that it is up to you as an individual to own / rent a home location as you deem appropriate.
Many people would then leave prior to the point in their lives where marriage occurs, or if they do marry later on, they may marry people with fixed careers and lives which they are reluctant to uproot. Therefore, single accommodation in messes can continue to be provided for people throughout their career, with allowances paid to enable weekly commuting between a fixed home location, and a duty location.
A much smaller number of married quarters could be retained as a housing option for the smaller number of people settling down with children at various points, and this could then be provided for a fixed period of time – e.g. 8-10 years is reportedly being considered, which provides some stability for early family life if required, but equally gives plenty of advance notice that a house needs to be sorted at some stage. Arguably, someone in their late 20s moving into a quarter for 10 years will be practically at the stage of leaving the Forces, or at least considering a second career by the time they’ve been in quarters for 10 years, so it doesn’t seem an unreasonable proposition to make – namely, the MOD will support you for the period when your family is at its youngest, and needs people the most, but that you have to be expected to take a responsibility for sorting housing at some stage.
This is a hugely emotional issue, and will highlight the stark divide between the different generations of service personnel and their attitudes to support. Someone coming up to the conclusion of their 22yr engagement today would have joined in 1990, just as the end of the cold war approached, and the UK began to move from a static, to a far more mobile military posture. It’s only right that these people are looked after as their lives have been built around flexible moves, and access to housing was part of the deal. Someone joining in 2020 though will have come from a totally different generation, one which job changes are a way of life, where marriage is far less likely in their 20s, and in which the armed forces will be static, but in a very different manner, and where weekly commuting to an ideal family location is a real possibility.
Humphreys view is that these changes will take many years to come into force, and it’s unlikely that many of the people serving today will still be in the military to see them come into effect. The New Employment Model changes though represent some extremely exciting thinking – a chance to try to rejig the Armed Forces away from the 1970s model, and towards implementing a model in the 2020 timeframe which reflects the society, values and apparatus that the Forces are intended to defend.
Humphrey has yet to form a personal view on this situation – his own view to a point is that there is a requirement for some form of housing, both to cover those personnel in posts which do require post moves, and also to cover those sent to overseas posts. However, there is equally an opportunity to rejig the forces away from vast isolated council type estates, to putting forces families back among the UK community as a whole. Arguably moving forces families into these estates caused much of the isolation and estrangement from UK society as a whole that occurred in the 1970s onwards. Instead, there could be a chance to invest in good quality barracks accommodation, ensuring that people have a chance to live and work during the working week in a place where mess life is reinvigorated, and where people become part of a team again. At the same time, the MOD seems to be considering taking the view that for many personnel, the location of their private permanent residence is an entirely personal matter.
Doubtless there is much more to be said on this issue.