Squatters and the Housing Problem
The plight of the homeless has once again made headline news in the daily press with the occupation of a block of luxury flats in London. It should come as no surprise to anyone that one of the oldest problems of capitalism, that of providing cheap accommodation for the working class, is still as acute as it ever was, after 120 years of various reforms and measures introduced by a succession of Tory, Liberal, and Labour governments.
The number of people involved in the ‘squat-ins’ now going on is extremely small compared with the number of homeless people who occupied empty camps under the control of the War Ministry just after the Second World War. One estimate put the number of squatters then involved at about 45,000. Of course conditions after the war were exceptional, as is to be expected when the warring national capitalist classes of the world have blasted one another’s cities by aerial bombardment. Nevertheless no member of the British capitalist class whose home had been bombed ever had to move into an unoccupied army camp. This was something suffered only by the working class.
On October 11, 1946, statistics given by Aneurin Bevan revealed that 1,038 camps in England and Wales were occupied by 39,535 people. On Sept. 5 G. Buchanan, the then Under-Secretary of State, gave figures showing that in Scotland squatters numbered about 1,300 families comprising 4,000 people. Squatting on a considerable scale also took place in Northern Ireland.
Not all of the properties occupied by the squatters were army camps. Like their present-day counterparts, who took over the block of luxury flats in Snaresbrook, London, they showed impeccable taste by installing themselves in such residences as a 17-room vicarage in Shropshire, a 17th-century 40-room house owned by Vesta Tilley, a house in Finsbury owned by the Marquis of Northampton, and Litley Court, Hereford. A number of high-class properties in London were also taken over. Then, as now, the only reason for the properties being allowed to remain empty was that there were no buyers able or willing to pay the price demanded. Housing, like everything under capitalism, is produced for sale to realise profit or to be rented for the highest amount obtainable.
In 1946 Kensington and Marylebone had thousands of empty flats and houses, while their combined housing lists totalled 7,367. A similar situation prevails today in the same boroughs, especially in the Notting Hill area, with blocks of luxury flats virtually nestling side-by-side with crumbling tenements, large numbers of which are awaiting demolition, whose residents have been compelled by high rates and rents to seek accommodation elsewhere.
The policy of the majority of councils just after the war with regard to squatters is in sharp contrast with that of councils today, which is to evict them as quickly as possible from any property they occupy. In 1946 squatters were actually encouraged in their actions by councils, Scunthorpe acting first by taking over three army camps, after making prior arrangements with the Ministry of Health. Some councils failed to get Ministerial consent to take over camps, while some councils, like Reading, resisted the squatters from the start, cutting off electricity and threatening to remove their names from the housing list.
Twenty-three years after what must surely have been the biggest ‘squat-in’ of all time, the homeless are still with us and are still resorting to the same desperate measures to get a roof over their heads. In the Greater London area alone there are 170,000 families on the housing list and about 9,000 people in local authority hostels. The story is the same for the rest of the country, the acuteness of the problem varying from place to place, so much so that the claim of Kenneth Robinson, Minister of Planning and Land, that there would be a surplus of one million houses by 1973 sounds pretty hollow when it is realised that of a total of 17½ million dwellings in England three million (17 per cent) are irredeemable slums . . .
Even a bigger allocation of houses will not remove all today’s slums by 1990, let alone 1975. Yet a target of 500,000 houses per year, if sustained throughout the early 1970s, will demand three times the present rate of slum clearance (Economist, October 14, 1967). Changes in the classification of housing could enlarge this estimate of the number of slums, making an even bigger problem of rehousing.
The Socialist Party supports the efforts of workers to improve their housing conditions under capitalism — even by squatting. But socialists also point out that there is no solution to the housing problem inside capitalism, and even if the agitation of those who support the squatters succeeds for the families they are now trying to help, future generations will still face the same misery and hardship of homelessness. Only in a society in which production is carried on solely to satisfy human wants, without anyone having to worry about where next week’s rent or next month’s mortgage repayment is coming from, will the housing problem find a solution.