1960s >> 1963 >> no-705-may-1963

Midlands and the North, Slumdom

If you want a fair idea of the blight inflicted on men’s lives by early industrial capitalism, travel through England to the Midlands and the North, and take a good look at the housing there. In this region are the towns which were the classic homes of slumdom, with their mean and narrow streets, row upon huddled row of wretched little back-to-back hovels, where dampness, rat infestation and tuberculosis were rife. Here it was that men, women, and children, lived out their pitifully short and broken lives, slept from sheer exhaustion in the few hours respite from the hell of the mills, mines and factories. The capitalists, the mine and mill owners, the iron masters and others, also had homes near to their property, but not among the slums, of course.


Take a good look we said. No need to hurry about it. Any time in the next twenty, thirty or forty years will do, or even longer. These slums have been there for many many years and if we read the signs aright, will still be there when our grandchildren are growing old. The government, local authorities, and various experts who have written on the subject at least agree on one thing, that the slums in this region are just about the worst in England. It is said that this part of the country plus South Wales, contains more than half the 850,000 houses declared unfit in England and Wales in 1955. Housing Minister Sir Keith Joseph has admitted that the North of England has a far greater concentration of slums than anywhere in London. Dr. Hill, his predecessor, was a bit more specific. A few months earlier, he had pinpointed Liverpool as about the worst case in the country.


Certainly, if we go by the last official figures declared by local authorities and published as a White Paper in 1955, Liverpool does qualify for Dr. Hill’s dishonourable distinction. Over 88,000 (about 43 per cent.) of its 204,000 dwellings were then unfit for habitation. Manchester came a very close second with some 68,000 unfit out of 208,000—about 32 per cent. But one thing to remember about these figures, indeed the whole of the 1955 estimates is that they are probably conservative. They were in fact based on what local councils thought they could clear in the next few years, not what they thought should be cleared. In any case, there was not (and still is not) any nationally agreed standards by which obsolescence is judged. It is said that Liverpool went the whole hog and reported all of her known slums whereas some towns did not even bother to make a return to the Minister.


So these estimates have come under fire many times since 1955 and it is generally agreed that they are unrealistic. The true position is probably much worse— perhaps we shall never really know just how bad. Even those incurable optimists and promise breakers, the government of the day, have had to admit that “ . . . in about fifty areas, chiefly in the North and Midlands, the task of slum clearance will be a long job ” (White Paper Housing in England and Wales, February, 1962). A long job indeed! By the end of 1960, Manchester had managed to clear 7,737 and Liverpool 5,331. Birmingham had cleared 6,950 out of 50,250. At this rate, it will take between 50 and 100 years just to remove the existing slums.


But there is another factor—a constantly recurring one—which is like a thorn in the flesh of the town councils of this and every other region. Dilapidation. If it were just a question of pulling down the hovels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it might be a long job, but with perseverance the end would at least be in sight eventually, though probably not in our lifetime. But, of course, capitalism simply does not work that way. It makes a mockery of the planners’ efforts. As Gavin Lyall pointed out in the Sunday Times of 23/4/61:


   Slums are not a static thing. Every year, an average of 150,000 houses in the country become 100 years old. Against this, about 60,000 are demolished every year. At the present rate of progress . . . there are children not yet born who will be bringing up their own children in some of the houses of the northern cities, which even today are recognised as slums.


Of course, the thing to remember is that it is workers and their families who occupy these grim holes now, and who will do so in the far off future visualised by Mr. Lyall and others. Let Dr. E. Sigsworth, Economic History Lecturer at Leeds University, tell you the reason. Addressing a conference on slum clearance at Bradford this year he said that “most people living in slums could not afford to pay an economic rent, let alone buy a house through a building society ” (Guardian, 11/3/63). So there it is in a nutshell, and we are back to the problem behind the problem—the sheer inability of some workers to afford anywhere better to live than broken-down hovels.


This unpleasant fact will no doubt have been noted by the various planners and reformers groping for an answer to the muddle, but we can take a bet that its deeper implications will have escaped them. For them it is not just a question of pulling down slums, but their replacement with low cost houses for workers to rent. They miss the point that therein lies the foundation of future slumdom, for cutting costs means cutting standards. For example, the average floor area of new three bedroomed council houses in England and Wales declined from 1,050 sq. ft. in 1951 to 901 sq. ft. in 1958. Dr. Sigsworth advocates subsidised local authority housing but clearly this is no answer. Local authority housing has been subsidised to some extent or another for the best part of a century. According to the 1961 interim report of the Rowntree Trust Housing Study, about three million council houses have been built since the first world war, “with the aid of subsidies and sixty-year loans.” But the housing problem weighs as oppressively as ever.


An indication of the obsession with costs which affects building just like any other industry under capitalism, can be gained from the recent report that Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are negotiating to form a consortium to make possible the mass production of building materials, the standardisation of fittings and equipment, and cheaper bulk buying (our italics).


One of the reasons that “overspill” development is preferred to high density town building is because the cost to the government is very much less. J. B. Cuillingworth estimated in 1960 that the subsidy cost of 500,000 high flats on a central site would be about £34 millions a year compared with £12 millions for the same number of dwellings in a new or expanded town (Housing Needs and Planning Policy, p. 173).


So the more we look at the problem of the Midlands and the North, the more we see that it is really the same problem as elsewhere, only more acute. The older industrial areas of this region are the worst off and even the most optimistic forecaster dares not hope for an improvement in his lifetime. There are the added complication of industrial decline, the slow but stubborn growth of unemployment, and the subsequent drift of population southwards in search of work.


It is in fact a familiar story of capitalism. There will be a familiar ring too, about the news that houses were much more difficult to sell in 1962 than for some years past, despite a freer supply of mortgages and average prices in the North being only about half those in London. This was certainly not because people’s housing needs were met—we know that is not true. But then capitalism does not exist for such purpose anyway. Its prime aim is the satisfaction of a market, whether in housing or anything else.


Eddie Critchfield