- Created: Wednesday, 16 April 2014 11:30
- Written by Jane Bennett
‘The side streets running from the High Street are as densely populated as a rabbit warren. The little, two-storied houses in Sophia Street, owned by worthy Councillor Bussy, vie with each other in their decay. Some of the passage doors are open, and one can look right into the little yards behind. Walk through and see the broken fences, the sunken paving in which deep pools collect, the row of closets, with the doors half broken away from long exposure, overmuch handling, and many years’ lack of paint. From these hovels the poor people are overflowing into the streets, in spite of the drizzling rain and the sticky black mud under foot; they must have air. Two women are sadly condoling together. She with the strange, stunned look murmurs: “My two sons were killed within a month.” The Labour Party election posters are still on the walls, appealing to her to “Vote for the men and women who gave” her “victory.” Where is her victory?’
Sylvia Pankhurst on housing in the East End of London, 1918
Even a cursory examination of the provision of housing for working class people in Britain over the last 100 years reveals the essential features of the crisis-ridden capitalist system. Overcrowding, high rents and poor standards were the hallmarks in 1918, and in today’s so-called ‘housing crisis’ they are the main features still. As this government systematically destroys welfare provision in Britain, not only to solve its economic crisis, but also to set the terms of its brutal class domination over the poorest and most vulnerable, housing has become the principal battleground for class war. Every so-called welfare ‘reform’ threatens the standard of living of working class people and through this the well-being and security of working class families. Housing is fundamental. JANE BENNETT reports.
The conditions in which working class people are forced to live are principally of interest to the ruling class only in so far as they have an impact on their profits. The slums of 1918 were good enough to house the workers and the poor, but the world was rapidly changing. Some argue that the end of the First World War awoke the realisation that better conditions for the working class were needed to ensure a healthy army to fight wars. In fact, the working class had been deemed healthy enough to die in the trenches in their hundreds of thousands, but a much more serious threat to capitalist rule had emerged with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. This was the real incentive for Prime Minister Lloyd George’s famous call for ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ at the end of the war. With the threat of social unrest looming, the ruling class was prepared to take some interest in the health and welfare of the workers; decent housing and pensions, funded by the renewed drive for super-profits from imperialist expansion, were aimed at averting strikes and revolution.
The promises did not last for long. Government pledges to build 500,000 new homes were rapidly diminished with the onset of crisis and recession. Following the defeat of the General Strike in 1926, the ruling class could revert to its normal conduct. For millions unemployment meant homelessness, hunger, poverty, insecurity and the rigours of the means-test which forced them to sell their few sticks of furniture and adopt the meagre lifestyle that the ruling class deemed fitting for their class.
It was only after the Second World War that the provision of decent housing for the working class once again became a serious issue for government. In 1945 the Tories, led by Churchill, claimed that housing was not a problem as a ‘highly developed house-building machine’ would rapidly solve the shortage of housing: 350,000 houses per year had been built from 1933 to 1939, they argued, as a result of ‘unfettered private enterprise’. The reality was rather different. The 1930s housing boom had been founded on the general economic slump: building houses became profitable with low wages and low cost materials. The beneficiaries were not, however, the working class, except for some highly-paid workers in the South East and some parts of the Midlands where new industries offset the effects of the depression. The vast majority of houses were for sale. It is estimated that only 1 in 15 new houses in this period was to clear slums or relieve overcrowding.
By the end of the war, Britain faced an unparalleled housing crisis. One third of the housing stock had been damaged by the war, and most of the rest were in a state of disrepair. What is more, the ruling class dreaded the same nightmare of social unrest as it had feared at the end of the First World War. The spectre of Communism had grown with the Soviet Union’s leading role in defeating Nazism, and millions of conscripted workers would be returning to a Britain on its economic knees. The result was a landslide victory at the polls for a Labour government committed to reform, pledging to eradicate the five ‘Giant Evils’ in society (squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease) that had been identified by the Beveridge Report in 1942. A welfare state was promised that would care for British people ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
Only a major threat to the future existence of British capitalism could have brought about the introduction of such welfare measures. Housing, health and education were at the crux of the reforms. Local authorities were given new powers to build houses for working class people for rent. From the 1950s to the end of the 1970s councils built almost 130,000 houses a year, rehousing millions of people from slums and overcrowded private-sector rented properties. After initial bursts of enthusiasm for designed estates, the economic realities of providing cheap, low-quality housing resurfaced; nevertheless, in the meantime, millions benefited from indoor lavatories, running water, heating and light.
It was the end of the post-war boom and the onset of the capitalist crisis which, once again, put an end to largesse and the illusion of decent housing for all. At the 1979 general election, faced with ‘the deepest economic crisis for 40 years’, Margaret Thatcher promised two important housing reforms: the reduction of the mortgage rate and the statutory right for tenants to buy council houses, both promises aimed at a middle class ‘property owning democracy’.
In 1938, 10% of the population lived in local authority housing; in 1961 this had grown to 26%; and by 1979 it was more than 40%. The result of right to buy is that only 12% now live in council housing, with a further 6% renting from housing associations and co-operatives. Between 1980 and 1996 2.2 million homes were sold off – a massive privatisation of a public asset. The key to Thatcher’s strategy was that none of the money raised could be used to reinvest in building council houses – the majority would have to rely on the private sector. Council housing was renamed ‘social housing’ in recognition of the fact that only the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society would be eligible. It is the consequences of the right to buy legislation that underpin today’s housing crisis.
The right to buy policy was accompanied by other reforms. The Parker Morris space standards (1961) for council housing were dropped, with the long-term result that Britain’s new housing is the most cramped in Europe. Housing Associations that have acquired 2.5 million homes are run as private property companies, paying their chief executives fat wages and pensions. While they have to maintain the council housing that they inherited at fair rents, they have been free to speculate by building houses for sale or rent at market rates on land which formerly surrounded council estates, and any other land they can acquire.
The shape of things to come was clearly indicated by the biggest local government scandal of all time in the shape of Westminster Council, led by that other grocer’s daughter, Tesco heiress, Dame Shirley Porter in the 1980s. Admirer of Thatcher’s methods, leader of Westminster Tory council Porter and her colleagues adopted a gerrymandering strategy to ensure that the Conservatives remained in power. Under the secret ‘Building Stable Communities’ policy, council housing was earmarked for commercial sale in wards most likely to change hands to Labour in the next election. Another vital part of ‘Building Stable Communities’ was the removal of homeless voters out of the borough completely.
Over time Westminster Council found it more and more difficult to move homeless people to other boroughs, so the logic of the policy required the removal of homeless people from marginal to safe Conservative wards. In 1989 over 100 homeless families were removed to safe wards, into two tower blocks containing dangerous asbestos, scheduled for demolition. Many of the flats had had their heating and plumbing destroyed by the council to prevent their use by squatters. One former homeless refuge was sold off at a discounted price to private developers and converted into private flats.*
The significance of the scandal is not just their conduct at the time, but the fact that Westminster council continued to exert political pressure to change Conservative Party housing policy throughout the 1990s. The council carried on deporting homeless families to distant boroughs where housing was cheaper. In a document entitled ‘Homelessness: a shopping list for early change’ (Independent on Sunday, 16 January 1994) Westminster Tories advocated a clampdown on the rights of the homeless to be put on council housing lists and recommended that the government should make it harder for ‘young single mothers, battered wives, immigrants and the mentally ill’ to obtain council housing.
Today, it appears that Westminster Tories won the argument all round. Neither Labour nor Tory governments have intervened in the last decade to build decent housing when private developers were failing to build. Not only has the right to buy policy, claimed by David Cameron at last year’s Tory Party conference as Thatcher’s most successful policy, decimated the number of homes available for the poorest and most vulnerable, but also working class families in all types of housing are being squeezed unmercifully.
Former Tory housing minister Grant Shapps promised that for every council home sold, a replacement would be built. Deputy Prime Minister Clegg has since repeated the same claim. It is a lie: under Shapps nearly 11,000 homes were sold but only 1,660 built. Westminster council has sold 66 homes since 2010 and built none. London Labour boroughs like Southwark have been busy selling off large council estates, like the Heygate estate, to the private sector for development and are replacing very few as social housing. Between 1998 and 2011, 880 new council homes were completed in London, compared to 85,254 sold.
A report to the Greater London Assembly, Right to buy becomes buy to let (January 2014), shows that at least 36% of homes in London purchased under the right to buy policy are now in the hands of private landlords, and the proportion is higher in the poorest boroughs. Many of these tenants will be paying much higher, unregulated rents, often to unscrupulous landlords, and will be claiming housing benefit.
Many families who would previously have lived in a council house or flat are now forced to rent in the private sector. The shortage of housing encourages higher rents, poorer conditions, overcrowding and rogue landlords. Housing squalor is becoming the norm in many areas where the poor are forced to live. In the London borough of Newham, 40% of privately rented properties have ‘Category 1’ hazards. Thousands of families are living in worse conditions paying higher rents funded by housing benefit. The soaring housing benefits bill is being paid to private landlords. Meanwhile the government holds poor and vulnerable families to blame and has introduced caps on benefits and local housing allowances which are forcing tenants to move out of central London. In Westminster the average weekly rent in the private sector is £573.92. The benefits cap of £500 per week will fulfil Westminster Tories’ dreams, driving the poorest and most vulnerable out of the borough.
The pressure of soaring numbers on council waiting lists has been solved, not by providing decent housing, but by altering the rules. As a result of the Localism Act 2011, councils can now impose new conditions for joining the list. Hammersmith’s waiting list has fallen from 8,171 to 768 in the space of a year; Warrington’s from 12,091 to 3,173. Homeless people given temporary, often sub-standard, accommodation are now being barred from joining the housing list altogether. There has been a ten-fold increase in the number of homeless families being re-housed out of London, often far away from families and support networks. The attempts to force the Focus E15 mothers out of London are a notable example of this trend (see p3).
Since 1 April 2013, the bedroom tax, which slashes the housing benefit of council tenants who are deemed to have spare bedrooms, has forced thousands of families into debt and insecurity. The average debt of those hit by welfare benefit changes is now £3,000 and many are having to cut back on heating and eating in order to survive, with no realistic prospect of ever being debt-free. Edinburgh Council is denying emergency hardship payments to tenants affected by the bedroom tax if they spend too much on ‘non-essential items’. Tenants are being advised to first cut back on ‘luxuries’ such as television, phone packages, cigarettes and alcohol instead of being awarded the discretionary housing payments intended as a safety-net for poor families. Some councils, most notably Tory-led Wandsworth, have returned part (£544,783) of their allocation of funds to the Treasury claiming that it is surplus to requirements – the poor will get no help.
The government is imposing new, so-called ‘affordable’ rent levels for new housing developments and so-called affordable prices for houses sold in the private sector. In reality, the affordable rents set at 80% of market rents are not affordable at all for low-paid workers and poor families; saving enough for a deposit to buy is out of the question. There are plans to bring social housing rents, currently about 40-50% of market rents, up to the ‘affordable’ level, along with changes to tenancy rights.
The current coalition government has introduced further discounts for right to buy, following a fall in sales. Tenants can now get a £75,000 discount (£100,000 in London) resulting in a new rush to buy council houses. This measure will further intensify the housing crisis for poor people.
No one should be under any illusions that the housing crisis will improve if the economy improves. On the contrary, Chancellor Osborne has promised a further £25bn of cuts, primarily from the welfare budget. High on the list is cutting housing benefit altogether for anyone under 25 and further changes to security of tenure for social housing tenants. Already private landlords are refusing to house anyone receiving housing benefit, and lettings agents are imposing racist bans, so the prospects for housing the working class are likely to become more crisis ridden not less.
Nor should you expect a real improvement in the unlikely event that the Labour Party wins the next election. Many of the welfare reforms introduced by this government were hatched under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were in power. The degradation and barbarity of the ruling class’s austerity measures are only remarkable to the extent that they have failed to bring about any opposition. In fact, as the history of housing for the working class in Britain shows us, the only thing that will really change the prospect for decent housing for the working class is a serious threat to the capitalist system itself. As Sylvia Pankhurst said in 1918:
‘One of the election cries of the Lloyd George Coalition was Housing Reform, but with what unsurmountable obstacles are those tinkering reformers faced who are unprepared to abolish the Capitalist system.’
* Simultaneously three cemeteries, three lodges, one flat, a crematorium and over 12 acres of prime development land were sold to developers for a total of 85 pence. Porter and her deputy leader were caught, and surcharged £27 million, later reduced in a deal to £12 million. Porter claimed to have assets of only £300,000, having transferred large sums to secret trusts and family members. She returned to London in 2006 from exile in Israel, buying a Mayfair flat for £1.5 million.
Further reading: see also the following articles from FRFI available at www.revolutionarycommunist.org:
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014