Are council houses necessary ?

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 16, 2018

RECENTLY, IN MANCHESTER, A GROUP OF COUNCIL HOUSE TENANTS demonstrated against the proposal by the local authority to increase rents and to meet the rising cost of repairs, etc. The Manchester tenants rebellion follows that of Glasgow tenants, where, according to a recent edition of The Economist, rents had remained static for years, in spite of rising costs and an increasing deficit between costs and rents actually paid. The last stage in the Manchester battle shows the local Labour Party in a very bad light. While admitting by their actions that these increases were necessary, they have passed a motion ensuring that any tenants who cannot pay the increase will have it paid out of the rates—not everybody’s rates—only the rates of these people who are not fortunate enough to be council house tenants.

As an anarchist myself, and also as a student of economics and sociology, I feel it is time that someone should try and clear the air on this issue of local authority housing to enable us to see just what we are dealing with, and what we are not dealing with, for whenever I see articles or letters on “Housing” in this country I always get the impression that the writers are either very naive or very dishonest.

First, however, we must try and sketch in something of the historical background. Also we must constantly keep reminding ourselves that we are not living in an anarchist, nor a socialist, society, but a “free” capitalist society, and any discussion on a social and economic situation must be strongly related towards society as a whole, with a view to assessing correctly the historical truth of one’s findings, rather than the ideological truth based upon one’s political ideals, and such aspects of history as will support these, otherwise all one will get will be a largely unworkable set of political slogans, rather than, what we as anarchists really want, a well-thought-out blueprint for future actions, or trends of actions, to meet situations as they arise. I agree in advance with critics that it is very nice to have big-hearted moral ideas of what should, and we hope, will happen, but I would prefer to know just what I am dealing with, as my time is rather valuable and I don’t like wasting it.

Once upon a time, as they say, everyone was supposed to own their own house, or have some kind of housing adequate to the relevance of his needs. This may not have been always entirely true, but it is, in left-wing circles, usually held to be true (ideologically?). With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the decline of cottage industry because of centralisation in factories, etc., new problems arose. It was necessary for workers to live relatively near their work and many left their country villages and settled in the new industrial towns, many of which were without adequate governmental or social controls to prevent abuses of urbanisation. Consequently the building of houses and streets was largely unplanned. Houses were usually very badly built, often with no facilities for drainage and washing. This led to disease and very low standards of physical well-being in the industrial population.

As time went on the view of the Establishment was ameliorated somewhat from the stern utilitarian view that people were poor and ill-housed because of their own fault. It was realised that it was necessary for a local or central government authority to take a lead, and frankly, had they not, as in Russia, etc., a revolutionary situation would have been created. It was therefore decided, to a certain extent, that our towns and cities must be replanned, and as a first step, all the old disease-ridden jerry-built slums must be pulled down, and their occupants be rehoused in cheap local-authority-owned houses, until such time as they were financially able to obtain adequate private accommodation. It was also realised that certain people in the lower income groups, by virtue of their low wages, lack of ability and education, or physical handicaps, would never in our present economic set-up, obtain adequate housing, not only for themselves but their families, unless some outside body catered for them. Hence council houses—houses of poor design and inferior aspect, yet capable of providing “adequately” for the needs of the poor, but with no frills, and definitely inferior to most private houses.

This was the picture until quite recent times, but at the conclusion of the Second World War, a third aspect came to the fore: need. There were a large number of people who, due to factors beyond their control, needed houses, and in many cases were prepared to buy them, but had no chance of obtaining them because of the post-war shortage—augmented, it is true by the effects of the bombing. It was necessary therefore, for the state, through its agent, the local authority, to step in and finance an adequate building programme. As building materials were in short supply and it was thought that economies would be made by centralisation of the building programme, private building was restricted, often by a quota system. All this got rather mixed up with political ideology. Many deterministic socialists felt that any ownership of private property was morally wrong, and as such the view was put forward that it was, in this country at least, a human right, to live in a council house, in fact some seemed to put forward the view that to live any other way was wrong and anti-socialist, etc. Yet the curious fact remained that, while the new ideas were accepted, the old idea that council house tenants were really the deserving poor, and as such, local authority housing should be subsidised, also remained. In fact both had been incorporated in the same ideology, yet are they consistent? Every man in this country is not a poor man, in fact many council house dwellers I have met claim to be taking in over £50 a week, if both wife and elder children are working. Not all, I admit, but many. The idea that tenants should remain only so long as they need to get more adequate private accommodation seems to have been forgotten, many tenants now come from families who have lived in council houses for three generations. Rather than look for better accommodation they seem to demand that council houses should be as good as, or better than, many private houses—outside as well as internal lavatories, fixed refrigerators, and other electrical fittings being the rule rather than the exception in many council houses. Also they feel that they should have all the social services provided on their doorstep, though in many cases these are not provided for the residents on private housing estates. When a number of local authorities recently suggested to their fixed tenants, that they would be willing to sell them their property, without deposit, at amounts in many cases, not greater than the rents already charged, they were surprised at the very poor response.

The thing that seems to me is, if we are going to have local authority housing for all, as an alternative to private housing, then the tenants cannot expect to be subsidised by the rest of the community. If on the other hand, we are going to have local authority housing for the physically or socially handicapped, then these can be subsidised—but by the whole community—not excluding the affluent council house tenants; but if we are to have both then it must be acknowledged, and all the tenants that are able, must pay the economic rent—in fact, if, as some socialists wish, everybody must soon be housed in council houses, since all private houses will be nationalised, if the subsidy was not paid by all, where exactly would it come from?

I now have an alternative scheme to suggest, and that is that housing estates or precincts should be organised upon a communal basis, both privately-owned and communally owned, houses, and these could well, as they are at present, be separated. Each should be, as far as possible, a face-to-face community, responsible for its own affairs, and for providing, or at least paying for, its own social or community services. It should be entirely self-supporting and not dependant, as at present, upon a periodical hand-out or redistribution of social capital, once it had flogged its own to death. Where the property is all communally owned, the community as a whole should be responsible for all rents (i.e. bills for repairs, interest on and return of capital borrowed from a central credit-giving fund), rates (i.e. bills for community and social services, e.g. school and welfare services) and social insurance, this to be not only insurance against accident, old age, unemployment, etc., but against harm to community property and capital due to this (i.e. the rest of the community not to suffer a financial loss due to inability of an individual to meet rents, rates, etc.).

You might well criticise this by saying that some communities would have better facilities, social, education, etc. than others. This is true, but one feels that if a person wants something badly enough he should be willing to pay if he can. At present we have the situation in reverse. Many people are getting a far larger share of the national cake, in the name of egalitarianism, yet being unwilling to pay for it—a “means test” in council house rents is apparently wrong, though not so in income tax, death duties, and for some people super-tax. It seems to me that this is inconsistent especially as there are still large numbers of people who are in real need of more adequate housing which could be more quickly made available by “squeezing out” by a means test the more affluent tenants who can easily afford to buy or rent private housing, which is not really so expensive as one might imagine, and with an increase in demand might well become cheaper. I have always understood that one of the great means of preventing social injustice was to treat each case on its merits—why is subsidised local authority housing exempted from this?