1960s >> 1967 >> no-752-april-1967

Finance and Industry: Housing: What is the Problem?

Unlike the other parties, the Socialist Party of Great Britain does not claim to be able to control interest rates or rents or house prices or rates. We make no promises on housing — or on any other issue for that matter — because we know that within the framework of private property society there is no solution to the problem. It would be dishonest and foolish of us to pretend otherwise.

It is easy to make promises, as the other parties do, but to honour them is another matter. Governments, national and local, do not have the control over economic forces they like to think they have. Take the factors affecting the rate of house-building, for instance: the price of land, finance, materials and labour-power, to mention only a few. Only people who are confident they can control all these factors should make claims about how many houses they will build. Otherwise they are just cruel confidence tricksters.

Lets take an example: interest rates. Interest is the price paid for the loan of money. But finance for house buying or building is not the only demand on savings. There are many more, all competing. Thus when, in response to the international situation, the Bank Rate is raised this exerts an upward pressure on all interest rates. It would be a bold man who would claim to be able to control the world economy. Yet this claim is implicit in many of the promises we hear at election times. Such people should heed the fate of Mr. Three Per Cent — George Brown.

How British industry fares on the world market is a most important factor limiting what the British government can do. And we all know that, as a result of the defeats sustained by British industry on the world market, the Labour government has had to shelve its expensive social reform schemes and has had to cut our standard of living — and so also, of course, our already limited liability to afford good housing.

Housing certainly is neglected. But is this really a housing problem? Surely, as far as the production of sound houses for everybody is concerned there is no problem. The materials for this exist together with the architects and building workers. What stands in the way, then? Why, in a world of potential plenty, is a basic human need like shelter so neglected? The answer is simple: most people cannot afford decent housing. And. if people can’t afford comfortable houses, then, in accordance with the laws of the market no such accommodation will he built for them.

No builder is going to put up houses he can’t sell. In stead perhaps the government may step in to provide cheap, utility housing. This problem of how to meet an unprofitable basic need in a society based on profit is one which the other parties have grappled with for decades. Yet still the problem remains. And so do the promises. The Socialist Standard will offer a prize to anyone who can guess which candidate, of which party made this promise at which election: Vote for X “because he is in favour of providing better housing accommodation for the workers at a reasonable rent”.

Our standard of housing, like the whole of our standard of living, is rationed by the size of our wage packet or of our salary cheque. Our wage or salary is a price and. as such, is fixed by the workings of the market. The price of the mental and physical energies which we sell to our employer is fixed, roughly, by what it costs to keep us in efficient working order.

So we’re in a vicious circle: our standard of housing depends on our income and our income depends on what it costs to keep us alive. This is why in housing, as in everything else, we get at best only the minimum comforts. This is how it will be, and must be, as long as the means of production are the property of a few for whom the rest of us must work for a wage or salary.

A sanely organised human community would give priority to meeting its needs of food, clothing and shelter. If production were carried on solely and directly to meet people’s wants then there could be no problem in housing. But production for use is only possible when society controls production. Which demands that the means for producing wealth belong to the whole community.

Our Poverty Exposed
We don’t really need figures to tell us at what level we have to exist despite a world of potential plenty. Yet figures, especially official government statistics, are useful in showing the extent of our lack of means or poverty. The latest annual report of the Board of Inland Revenue (Command 3200, HMSO, 24s) has, for the first time since 1962, a table showing “Estimated Total Net Wealth by Size in Great Britain” compiled from death duty returns. The year is 1965.

So, official statistics show: A mere 12,000 people, each owning over £200,000, own more wealth than 7,298,000 people each with less than £1,000. 84 out of 100 people own less than £5,000 — and all you have to reach this figure is, say, own a house. The remaining 16 own nearly twice as much as these 84 put together.

And, as we saw, in last month’s Socialist Standard, these figures are likely to underestimate the real concentration of ownership of wealth.

On incomes, you only need £2,000 to be assessed for surtax. Yet only 338,000 taxpayers came in this category in the year 1964-65. And for this year the number of “millionaires”, that is, people with an income of over £100,000 a year, increased by 32 over the previous year to 138. If you care to work it out £100,000 is probably more than you will earn in a lifetime.

Adam Buick