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Book Review: 'Housing - An Anarchist Approach'

'Housing: An Anarchist Approach', by Colin Ward. (Freedom Press, £1.25)

This is a collection of articles by the former editor of Anarchy, published between 1945 and 1957: some in anarchist journals, others in architects’ and planning publications. They are informative, and the book can be read as a survey of the housing situation in Britain over the past thirty years. None of the problems has dated, of course. Like the motif of Cathy Come Home, which last month was repeated on television ten years after its original showing, they are still crying out as hopelessly as ever.

The difficulty about the book is in its title. “An anarchist approach” implies that other anarchists would take different views, even opposite ones (the cover describes Colin Ward as a well-known authority, which may well have given some anarchists apoplexy). In fact the approach is a liberal-type reformist one, full of suggestions to the Housing Minister, local councils, and architects’ associations. The book ends with an advocacy of “dweller control”. Though earlier chapters enthuse about the squatter movements of 1946 and 1968 as examples of direct action, in a 1974 article the writer expresses doubt whether seizure of housing is a practical thing to advocate:

    "It would certainly save a lot of tedious calculation if we could count on tenant militancy to do the trick, but the possibility, short of a revolutionary situation, is not great. It did not need Clay Cross to demonstrate that in view of the powers of the district auditor and of central government over housing, it needs more than local direct action to win."

The “tenant take-over” advocated comes down, therefore, to self-management under government supervision, or a variation on the principles of the Co-operative Society.

The chapters under the heading “Self Help” give accounts of “cities the poor build” in Latin America, and the shanty-bungalow towns of the Laindon-Pitsea area, in Essex. As Colin Ward says, building regulations and land prices have made sure there won’t be any more of these. He argues that they could provide the guidelines for “a desirable experiment”, helped by the government, to solve the housing problem. Helped by the government, we can guess what it would turn out like. However, these settlements indicate something much more important. If a housing shortage were discovered in Socialist society, it would not constitute a “housing problem”: without the pressures of cost and economic policies, people can create homes and communities anywhere.

As it is, the housing problem in capitalism is neither a shortage nor an architectural poser. It is from first to last an aspect of the poverty problem: huge numbers of the working class are either badly housed or not housed at all because they are workers, their lives’ aspirations bound and gagged by wages. That state of affairs can only be remedied by abolishing the wage-system and establishing Socialism.

Robert Barltrop