HOUSING CRISIS – HOW DID THINGS GET THIS BAD?
On Friday 10th January 2020 Paul Henley presented an item on the BBC World Service which you can listen to here: The Real Story – Affordable Housing. In it he provided a brilliant overview of housing policy and its implementation in a number of Western European countries and the world generally. This is an ideal basic jargon-free introduction for anybody (like myself) who finds it difficult to see a way through all the complexities and inter-relationships of the different housing issues. A fine piece of journalism from the BBC. This is my very crude and free summary of what he said, with special reference to London and the UK.
With the Industrial Revolution agriculture no longer needed such a large labour force and the new key to exploiting the poor was in the operation of mines and factories, a new source of wealth from a new kind of produce that no longer flowed from fields and livestock but from mines and factories. It became necessary for those who owned these new means of production to concentrate populations in cities for this exploitation to take place. Once again, as in feudal times, workers were given back only a small percentage of the wealth they created in the form of wages – often in tokens minted by the factory owners and exchangable only in the 'company store'.
This was the original incentive to produce cheap high-density housing of sufficiently durable construction that it would not need too much attention and maintenance from the plant owners. The miners' cottages that you can still see in Wales and parts of Northern England are a good example of these. In the larger industrial cities back-to-back terraced housing and tenement blocks were the most economic choice for factory owners, taking up far less space than individual cottages.
From these early forms of worker accommodation the concept of the 'council house' emerged. They remained as large concentrations of identical units, increasingly blocks of flats in ever-higher buildings, and were owned not by the industrialists and certainly not by their occupants but by the city councils, which were elected bodies that notionally had the good of their electorate at heart. In principle the units were offered to the families and individuals in most need of them, and a low controlled rent was charged. If an individual or a family left their council accommodation, for whatever reason, it was passed on to the next most deserving prospective tenant on the list. There was a reasonably good stock of council housing and its occupancy was managed by a body subject to democratic control.
Alongside this there was both a private rental sector and an owner-occupier sector. Until the Housing Act of 1988 rents in the private sector were strictly controlled. However, it was relatively easy for a landlord to evict a tenant, although the required grounds were different at different times, and there was always an appeal procedure of some description. Nevertheless private tenancies were always considered less secure than council tenancies, and often needed to be renewed on a regular basis.
Owning your own house meant that you could not be evicted, although if you were buying it on a mortgage and got into arrears it could be repossessed by the lender, or, less commonly, it could be the subject of a Compulsory Purchase Order to facilitate some Council development scheme. It also gave people the freedom to extend and modify their homes in various ways, subject of course to Planning Permission, but the biggest difference of all was that it provided a way for owners to benefit from the steady rise in house prices which seemed to be as immutable as the law of gravity. A house or a flat was the most amazing investment instrument. Housing became 'commodified'.
The next major event was The Housing Act of 1980, successfully piloted through Parliament by Margaret Thatcher, that gave five million council house tenants in England and Wales the Right to Buy their house from their local authority. She believed in the idea of a 'property-owning democracy', which meant everyone participating in some limited form of capitalism, with the hope that in the fullness of time everybody would become a Tory. In the Housing Act of 1988 her Conservative government removed the second impediment to the complete 'comodification' of housing: rent control.
With local authority housing stock now rapidly diminishing, and a totally free market in private rental accommodation, house prices soared even more fiercely. It became well worthwhile to buy property and leave it empty until prices had gone up sufficiently and then sell it, perhaps to another absentee owner, or to let it out at whatever rent the now unregulated market could stand. We all need somewhere to live, but the financially weak members of society were rapidly priced out of the market. Most notably in London, families that had made up the working class neighbourhoods of various boroughs and districts could no longer afford to live in them. The London Clearances had begun. This is what happens when you take a basic human need like accommodation and turn it into a commodity to be hoarded and traded on the open market. Instead of those quaint notices that used to say things like 'Lodon welcomes careful drivers' we need ones that read 'London welcomes the well-heeled – only'.
On Monday 27th January 2019 we were delighted to have a visit from Tommy Anderon who, having survived for a year on the streets himself after the break-down of his marriage in 2008, now volunteers at the Christian Kitchen at St Michael and All Angels Church, Northcote Road, E17 6PQ and takes a leading part in local campaigns to help homeless people.
Adele, Gudrun, Wayne and David talked to Tommy about the causes of homelessness and what can be done to end it. As well as a general discussion we learned of a planned meeting at the 14th Walthamstow Scouts Group building at 204a Wood Street E17 3NU on Sunday 2nd February at 3 pm, and a rally against homelessness in the town square on Leap Year Day, Saturday 29th February from noon onwards. Tommy is determined to put a massive effort into raising the profile of homelessness and to involve at every stage the homeless people themselves in the greatest possible numbers.
It's encouraging and inspiring to meet somebody like Tommy who is a real down-to-earth 'doer' with a history of making things happen.
Tommy's Kitchen begins (Courtesy of Inter Faith Waltham Forest)
Tommy's Kitchen Christmas meal
Song "Moving On" by Jimmy Aldrige & Sid Goldsmith, from the
superb documentary film Concrete Soldiers UK which you can view on this site.