1960s >> 1962 >> no-694-june-1962

Editorial: If Words Could Build Houses

Last month saw yet another debate in Parliament on the housing problem—the fourth in three months. If words could build houses we would now all be living in splendour.
Labourites, Tories, Liberals—all went over the same well-worked ground. There were the usual graphic descriptions of the state of housing at the present time; the usual statistics about the number of slums and of people on waiting lists; the usual recriminations between the Labourites and Tories over what they had and had not done; the usual high-sounding promises of what was intended for the future.
In ten, twenty, fifty years time—as long as capitalism lasts—they will be telling the same tale and making the same promises, just as they have been doing for the past hundred years and more.
“There are about five million houses in the country at present which are over sixty years old,” said one Labour M.P. “ There are the same number without a bath,” said another, telling us as well that I.T.V.’s Coronation Street was named, not after George V’s coronation, but Queen Victoria’s way back in 1837, and that in Salford they had just got round to pulling down Waterloo Place, built in 1815 to commemorate Wellington’s victory over Napoleon.
In the realm of statistics, we were told that in Oldham one house in four was unfit to live in; that in Liverpool there are 88,000 houses beyond any prospect of repair; that in Birmingham 50,000 families are on the waiting list for houses for which the average waiting time is eight years; that in the country as a whole there are more than a million houses reckoned to be unfit for habitation and that this may well be an under-estimate. Figures galore for those who like them.
Then the recriminations. The Labourites went through their well-thumbed list of Tory deficiencies, countered for the Tories by Dr. Hill with the usual devastating account of the housing record of the Labour Party when they were in office. The Labour speakers had been reproaching the Tories for building only 300,000 houses a year, he said, but they had conveniently forgotten that when they were in power they had only once built more than 200,000 in a year. During the same period, he reminded them, the Labour Government built schools at only half the present rate, constructed hardly any roads, provided no hospitals, and made no effort at all to tackle the slums. He went on to quote several of their past statements which must have made those Labourites present squirm in their seats. “We shall build four or five million houses and knock down any amount of slums and rebuild our country in a very quick time”; “We will get the houses as we got the guns, by planning and control ”; “ Labour will organise a new approach to housing and organise the industry as a national service ” were some of his choicer examples.
After the old Labour promises, came new Tory ones. “This is a social disease which we have to cure and which we intend to cure “ The Government intend to see that every family has its home, and a decent home, that is the pledge.” If words could build houses, indeed!
Way back in 1872, Frederick Engels wrote three articles, later made into a little book called The Housing Question. An extract from it appears on our front page this month. In his book, Engels was concerned to show that the reformists of his day could never, and would never, solve the housing problem.
Would he find anything fundamentally changed if he was to come back today?

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