Edinburgh: Working Class Housing

How many boxes of shortbread have caught the customer’s eye with a gaudy picture of Edinburgh Castle? And very nice, too: they would not sell much shortbread by showing Edinburgh’s slums, although there are enough of them.

Yes, Edinburgh has a slum problem, just like any other great city. Panorama went there a few months back, showing up the damp and rotting houses around Arthur Street, where the workers pay rent to live with the rats and broken sewer pipes.

And like a lot of other places, Edinburgh also has dwellings which are not classified as slums, but which are not much better; it has its prefabs. These, as the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch said recently, are ” . . . the relics of the immediate post-war housing crisis . . . ” which are ” . . . still with us, although when they were built they were intended to be only temporary makeshifts.”

Are the prefabs likely to come down soon? The Edinburgh City Council Housing Committee has said that, because the process of removing them is long, and because alternative housing has to be promised for the tenants before the sites can be cleared and new dwellings erected, the prefabs will be with us for some time yet.

Let nobody be deceived that as the slums come down new housing is bound to take their place. Sometimes the land on which they were built has what is called a high site value. In narrow Kirkgate and the surrounding streets a lot of tenements, some of which have been standing for a century or more, have been demolished. No new houses have gone up on the site; instead, a whiskey bond store is being built there and Woolworths are putting up another of their red and gold shops.

What is to the point in all this is that the working class, although they build the beautiful mansions and palaces, can only afford to live in the slum, or the prefab, or the council house, or the little semi-detached. And why is this? Simply because the workers have only one method of getting their living by selling their energies and skills to the capitalist class. These workers own little more than their ability to work. The great cities of Scotland are not theirs, nor are the Lochs and Highlands which they sing about. Sad Irish lads may dream of the Lakes of Killarney, but they are owned by an American capitalist, just as the song said they never could be. Proud Cockneys own nothing of London Town. The working class of the world, in fact, own no country, no city, no land—most of them do not even own the place where they live.

No use to approach that problem with just another slum clearance scheme. It needs a world in which society’s first concern is for the security and happiness of the human race.

The prefabs were supposed to be temporary, but they have been temporary too long. In a way, that applies to capitalism as well.

David Lamond

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