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

Snakes and ladders

This is one game which has been going on too long and too fruitlessly for the people who have been forced to play it. The housing problem which we know today came in with capitalism and has defied over a century’s efforts to reform it out of existence. The working class are still lost among the Snakes and Ladders, still bemused by the measures which, the politicians assure them, will improve the housing situation but which turn out to have no effect on the problem. The ladders are few and what there are of them are short and rickety. The snakes are many and they are long and slippery and venomous. The promised land—the square marked “Home” is as far away as ever.


That black thing which we now call the Housing Problem was born in the intense transformation of this country during the Industrial Revolution. The break up of the agricultural communities forced the farm workers into the towns, where the greedy factories were demanding human labour. These people had to have somewhere to live, even if this was a secondary consideration to their ability to produce a profit for their employers. As they were only workers, there was no especial need to provide them with adequate washing and sanitary facilities; no need either to give them an excess of living space and fresh air. So the men who had lately spent their days in the wind and the sun were stacked away, when their stint in the factories was done, into cellars, into the back-to-backs, and into the court houses. In their book The Bleak Age the Hammonds record this description of such homes in Manchester in the 1840’s:


They are built back to back; without ventilation or drainage; and, like a honeycomb, every particle of space is occupied. Double rows of these house form courts, with, perhaps, a pump at one end and a privy at the other, common to the occupants of about twenty houses.


For the capitalist class, the Industrial Revolution was no time for thinking about anything other than making money. Few of them were farseeing enough to realise that bad housing was a false economy, because it could spread disease the cost of which could wipe out a lot of the profit to be made from the pale, emaciated wretches who lived like vermin in the squalid homes of the expanding industrial towns.


A cholera epidemic in 1832 highlighted this fact and in 1851 came the first Public Acts dealing with housing—The Common Lodging Houses Act and The Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act. These were thus the first of the many ladders to be propped up for the working class and, typically, they turned out to be snakes after all. The Acts gave local authorities certain powers which were supposed to enable them to combat the housing problem, but these powers were hardly used—for the good, sound, capitalist reason that the cost of doing so was prohibitive. Since then there have been any number of other Acts dealing with housing. Sometimes the Statute Book has become so choked with legislation that another Act has been needed to clear up the mess and to consolidate the existing measures. Nowadays the term “The Housing Acts” is taken to refer to no less than thirteen separate Acts and to other closely related legislation such as the Town and Country Planning Acts.


Hardly a trick has been left untried. All manner of financial juggling has been authorised, many kinds of inducements have been offered to housing authorities to build. The ladders have all proved to be snakes. The 1923 Housing Act, which was Neville Chamberlain’s brainchild, was supposed to encourage private building for sale, so that the buyers would leave their “intermediate” houses to be hungrily occupied by people from the slums. Chamberlain and his experts forgot, however, that the majority of people under capitalism have to live within the limits of their wage. In 1923 there were so many unemployed, and wages were so low, that very few workers could afford the deposit on a house, even though it was only a few pounds. The whole idea of the Act quickly collapsed. In 1924 they had another go. The Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of that year provided for Exchequer grants for houses to let. The capitalist class themselves dismantled that ladder; in 1932 the Ray Committee on Local Expenditure recommended the abolition of all Exchequer aid for housing other than that for rehousing slum dwellers because the economics of the thing did not justify government aid. This recommendation was put into effect by the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of 1933.


So it has gone on through the years. One government after another has produced its plausible schemes to tackle the problem once and for all, but every one has failed. In November, 1960, Mr. Henry Brooke, who was then Minister of Housing, apparently decided that the problem was not, after all, one of building houses so much as putting baths into the houses which did not have them. Admitting that in England and Wales there were three million houses which were “far from ideal,” he announced: “The battle for a bath in every home has begun.” But before Mr. Brooke could let off his first cannon he had lost his job as Minister of Housing to Dr. Charles Hill. Dr. Hill had the bright idea of going to have a look at the slums himself, but almost as soon as he had come back he, too, was removed from the job and replaced by yet somebody else who was going to clear up the mess—Sir Keith Joseph. Sir Keith also went to visit the slums, and the slums—in the shape of some homeless members of the working class—came to visit him, giving the press some fetching pictures of Sir Keith’s wife smiling bravely as she admitted several scruffy children to her posh home. Then the new Minister had an inspiration. He would speed up slum clearance! He even went so far as to mention Cable Street, Stepney, as one place which could do with some attention. Everybody was amazed; here was obviously a Minister of Housing who knew a slum when he saw one.


This is typical of the floundering which has accompanied this past century of reform, some of it administered by wordy politicians who have climbed to high office after notching up a dismal record on housing. And what has been the result of it all, up to the present? You can take your pick from the facts and figures which clamour for attention. In 1954 there were officially 850,000 houses in England and Wales which were condemned as unfit; this figure is a wild understatement, because it only took account of the slums which local authorities thought they could clear, instead of those which they thought should be cleared. And faster than any slums are pulled down, others take their place. In July last year Dr. Lichfield, an urban economist who had just left the Ministry of Housing, said that over twenty-three per cent. of our houses were built before 1875 and that even if the present rate of slum clearance were doubled there would still be a million of them left in 1982.


Capitalist politicians are fond of telling us that the housing problem springs from a physical difficulty of building enough homes for those who want them. It is nothing of the kind. Rich people simply do not have housing difficulties; these are reserved exclusively for the working class, who must budget for their housing, just like the other essentials of living, against a restricted wage packet. And that is something which no reform of capitalism can alter.


It is true that the majority of workers do not live in what are officially classified as slums. Even so, the poverty of their lives is reflected in their homes. We all know what an average three-up-two-down working class house, perhaps the pride of its occupant’s life, is like. We know how cramped are the rooms, how the doors don’t fit, how the draughts whistle around in the winter, how poor are the materials of which the place is built. Yet officially these people have no housing problem. They are off the list.


The fact is that, however many reforms batter themselves against it, the problem of housing will remain for the working class and all of them will be afflicted by it. As long as capitalism lasts none of them can escape it. After all, the first rule of Snakes and Ladders is that it is a game for any number of players.