Labour’s Futile Housing Reform

Labour’s promise to take over all privately rented accommodation in London is a confession of the failure of its previous policies of rent control and improvement grams to solve the housing problem. And it too will fail.

Rent control had eventually led to housing conditions getting worse. Many landlords neglected to maintain their houses properly since the low rents they received didn’t make it worth their while. Faced with this problem the last Labour government came to accept the Tories’ policy of allowing rents to rise to enable landlords to make bigger profits. True, they did introduce a measure of re-control of rents. But this very same Act set up the now notorious “fair rents” machinery which the Tories had merely to extend to council tenants. It wasn’t long before people were complaining that this was benefiting landlords more than tenants — but then it had to if landlords were to make more profit.

Then in 1969 Labour introduced another Housing Act whose effect has nearly been as disastrous as what labour politicians used to call the “wicked Tory Rent Act” of 1957. This Act extended the so-called fair rents formula to some previously controlled tenancies, but it also provided for local councils to make “improvement grants” to landlords. The intention no doubt was that the sitting tenants would benefit in terms of better housing, even if they did have to pay more rent. But it has not worked like this at all. Property companies have bought houses off smaller landlords, obtained a grant to convert them into flats — and then let them off at much higher rents. Far from the sitting tenants’ benefiting they have had to find alternative accommodation. Whole communities of lower-paid workers, as in parts of Islington, have been driven out of their traditional homes by these “improvement” grants, swelling the number of homeless and aggravating the housing shortage.

The whole business illustrates the futility of piecemeal reform as a solution to the housing problem. It proves the soundness of the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s contention that the housing problem can never be solved as long as capitalism lasts. What is required is a complete change in the basis of society which will bring the means of production into common ownership under the democratic control of all the people. Only on this basis can production be planned with a view to satisfying people’s needs. Housing would then be no problem. The resources, human and material, to build enough decent homes for everybody have long been in existence. In Socialism there will be no class privileges or profit motive to prevent them being used to do this, as there is under capitalism.

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