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Editorial: The Housing Problem

This month we publish another special issue of the Socialist Standard. As many of our readers will know, we do this from time to time when we wish to deal more fully with a topic of current importance. Sometimes our subject is what we might call a “perennial” feature of capitalism, something that is linked with and indissoluble from it—like war. At other times we have concentrated our attention on particular, perhaps passing, features or events—such as Africa or the Common Market.

In this issue we give our special consideration to a topic that many people are inclined to dismiss, rather surprisingly, as something new, something temporary, something that will soon be coped with and disposed of. We speak of the housing problem.

Yet the harsh fact is that the problem of housing, far from being a temporary inconvenience or a passing hardship, is a problem as old as capitalism itself and one that will remain unresolved as long as capitalism lasts.

Over ninety years ago, Frederick Engels was writing about housing. In a pamphlet called The Housing Question he exposed the pretensions of the reformers of his day to be able to solve the problem, and the hopes of their successors to do anything better, so long as capitalism lasted. What is the situation now, almost a century later?

Many of the houses that in Engels’ day had already been standing for thirty, forty, even fifty years, are still standing now. I.T.V.’s Coronation Street was named, not after George VI’s coronation in 1937, nor George V’s in 1910, nor yet after Edward VII’s in 1901, but after Queen Victoria’s in 1837. And in Salford, which Engels knew well, they have only just got round to pulling down Waterloo Place, built in 1815 and named to commemorate the victory over Napoleon.

Today, there are more than one million houses in this country, probably worse than those in Coronation Street, reckoned to be unfit for habitation. Be that as it may, people still inhabit them and many will do so for a long time yet. And so low are the standards that “qualify” a house for this category that even one million is certainly an underestimate. In Liverpool alone there are 88,000 houses beyond any prospect of repair; in Birmingham 50,000 families are on the waiting list for houses for which the average waiting time is eight years; in Oldham it has been estimated that the staggering proportion of one house in four is unfit to live in. And in London, where the situation is perhaps the most acute of all, the families of the homeless are forced to walk the streets.

The political parties of capitalism all profess to be concerned with the problem, of course, just as they have been doing since Engels’ time. They engage in mutual recrimination about it, just as they have always done. The Labour Party reproach the Tories for building only 300,000 houses a year; the Tories retort that while the Labour Party was in office the annual housebuilding rate only once exceeded 200,000.

We are treated, it goes without saying, to all the usual promises of what each party intends to do if elected next time. In 1945, before they became the Government, the Labour Party boasted “We shall build four or five million houses and knock down any amount of slums”. Said the former Conservative housing minister only last year, “The Government intend to see that, every family has its home, and a decent home, that is the pledge”. Switch the promises, or the parties saying them, or the times when they were said, it does not matter very much. The game goes on much the same.

Frederick Engels, we have no doubt, would find it all rather familiar. Certainly familiar enough to be able to say, as he did over 90 years ago and with just as much relevance and justification, "The so-called housing shortage, which plays such a great role in the press nowadays, does not consist in the fact, that the working class generally lives in bad, overcrowded and unhealthy dwellings. This shortage is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modem proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it. In order to make an end of this housing shortage there is only one means; to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class”.

Would he find anything about the present housing problem to cause him to change even one word of this statement?

He would not. Capitalism is the real problem we must deal with. It was then. It is now.