Housing and Helplessness

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 29, 2017

THE DEVASTATING WORDS AT THE HEAD OF THIS PAGE are the opening paragraphs of Mr. Alderson's new Penguin book on housing. The subject has so many aspects that we could easily devote an issue of ANARCHY to each of them: the plight of the homeless in London — living in the LCC's reception centres in conditions which are deliberately degraded in case others should be tempted to join them:1 the workings of the Rent Act, and the way in which houses which used to be let at working-class rents are now being sold at middle-class freehold prices; land speculation and the boom in office-building and in speculative housing for sale together with the decline in building for rent by local authorities; the farce of slum-clearance and the absurd promises made by a succession of Housing Ministers;2 the fact that a quarter of a million people in this country now live in caravans; the technical backwardness of the house-building industry;3 the lowering of housing standards since the hopeful post-war years, to the extent that a government committee declared last year that the ordinary house built today by local authority or speculative developer is obsolete before it is dry.4

But the aspect of the housing question which we want to stress is the absence of choice, initiative and freedom, which the ordinary family have in the most elementary and universal human task of finding somewhere to live. The number of houses rented privately is steadily diminishing, and virtually no new house building is for rent. Thus, apart from the horrors of furnished rooms and subletting, there are virtually only two possible ways in which the British family can gain possession of a house or flat: the breadwinner can become an owner-occupier if he has the kind of job and income which will enable him to borrow money on mortgage from a building society, or if they are lucky and have the appropriate disabilities, and have been on the Council's list for ages, they can become local authority tenants.

The Economic Council for Europe's analysis European Housing Trends and Policies in 1960 showed that houses completed in the United Kingdom in that year could be classified thus: Municipal housing 42.2%, Private unaided building (mostly for owner-occupation) 56.3%, Other (i.e., Housing Associations) 1.5%.
Here are some comparable figures for other countries. Sweden: State and local authorities 31.1.%, Co-operatives 29.5%, Owner-occupiers 22.2 %, Other private development 17.2 %. West Germany: Public authorities 2.4%, Housing associations and co-operatives 26.1 %, Private individuals 63.9%, Private housing companies 4.1%, Other 3.5%. Czechoslovakia: State 58.6%, Co-operatives 11.6%, Enterprises 6.4%, Private persons, aided 6.5%, Private persons, unaided 17.0%.

Lewis Waddilove, in his recent PEP report, points out that a range of choice as limited as that in Britain is found only in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Rumania. The advantages of housing associations or co-operatives, which at present provide an infinitesimal proportion of housing in this country are so obvious compared with the two available alternatives, that we thought it essential, in attempting to look at housing from an anarchist point of view, to include an account of them.

But what is an anarchist point of view? Anarchists are, by definition, opponents of the principle of authority, and as a consequence espouse that of autonomy and free association. If we are powerless over housing it is because we have surrendered our power over everything else, and the first thing we must do is to assert our own initiative. That is why the first two articles in this issue of ANARCHY are on topics which might seem remote from the question of housing. Ian Nairn in his article "Do It Yourself" discusses the manifestation of free and voluntary initiative in two fields where private and state capital has moved out for economic reasons — the rehabilitation of a canal which has been allowed to fall derelict, and the operation of unlucrative branch lines — and draws some general conclusions. Douglas Stuckey in his article on the miners of Brora discusses the application of the same principle to daily work — an exemplar of the syndicalist principle of workers' control (readers who want to pursue this topic further should get copies of ANARCHY 2). Housing, although it is a basic essential of life, is also "uneconomic" in the sense that there are more profitable investments for private capital, and, in the eyes of the State, higher priorities for public capital. Until we change the whole structure of our society we are always going to have a housing "problem". But are there means of exerting pressure meanwhile, to force at least an alleviation? This is the question that our account of tIre post-war "squatters' movement" raises. John Morris in a recent article in Peace News on "Civil Disobedience 1962" points out that "the history of the last ten or fifteen years abounds with small local gains, safer road crossings, local amenities, housing improvements, won by what we should now call civil disobedience demonstrations." Can the techniques of civil disobedience and direct action enforce some changes in social priorities in housing? We can only find out by trying them.

The article on the squatters contains a little anarchist fable which is worth thinking about. In citing a contemporary account of the difference, six months later, between the "unofficial" squatters, the people who had the initiative to seize an army camp, and the "official" ones, their neighbours who were moved in by the local authority after the seizure of the camp had been officially recognised, it mentions that only the unofficial squatters "had set to work with a will, improvising partitions, running up curtains, distempering, painting and using initiative."

This brings us to a point which we raised in ANARCHY 4: "One quarter of the population of England and Wales live in the three-and-a-quarter million dwellings owned by local authorities. But is there one municipal housing estate in this country in which the tenants have any control over and any responsibility for the administration of their estate, their physical environment?" The point we were trying to make has since been made explicit in Mr. Waddilove's PEP Report on Housing Associations. Citing the experience of Norway, he says:
"A pre-war municipal estate near Oslo was transferred over a period from the ownership of the local authority to the ownership of associations of the tenants themselves. It had been one of the most difficult problems to the local authority; its standards were low, its appearance unpleasant, and there was great resistance to increases in rents to a reasonable level. A series of meetings patiently arranged by the housing manager ultimately resulted in the acceptance by the tenants of membership in co-operatives which, on favourable terms, took over the ownership of the property from the local authority. Today it is transformed. The members have cared for their own property and by corporate action have ensured that others have done so in a way that they failed to do when it was in public ownership; they have charged themselves 'fees for occupation' higher than the rents proposed by the municipality at which they protested so vigorously. This experience so impressed the authority that it decided in principle to transfer all its post-war estates similarly to the ownership of tenant co-operatives and to base its housing policy on this principle."
When are we going to get even the first glimmerings of this kind of freedom and responsibility in this country?

1. See Homeless! (Solidarity Pamphlet No 12; 8d. by post from E. Morse, 68 Hill Farm, Whipsnade, nr. Dunstable, Beds.
2. See But Nothing Happens, by Ralph Samuel, James Kincaid & Elizabeth Slater (New Left Review, January-April, 1962).
3. See Are the Architects to Blame? by Colin Ward (The Twentieth Century, Summer, 1962).
4. See Homes for Today and Tomorrow (Ministry of Housing and Local Government, HMSO, 1961).