The New Housing Question

~ by Mat Thomas

Council Housing has been the only publicly owned and publicly controlled housing system in Britain. It has been necessary to utilise local authority management because such a programme would probably not have viability if centrally organised by the state. Therefore this tried and tested experience merits further consideration.

In times of severe crisis the contradiction between workers and capitalist in the community at large is reflected in the quantity and quality of provision of accommodation. At a time of discussing the capability of Government to represent the rich in private speculation of property or political parties, as a cartel, ill consideration of the needs of the majority, what will be the suggested alternative to them? With property magnates on the one hand (including super rich oligarchs investing in the capital’s housing stock, as lucrative investments), and on the other hand workers being slung out of houses because of “bedroom tax” or hiked up rents and property prices.

The admittance of Labour and Conservatives that they have not resolved the shortage of affordable housing, have not built houses and do not propose to do so in any meaningful way, is a travesty.

Housing is not simply about giving someone a roof and habitation; it is relevant for the economy too. It provides homes for the wealth creators, in particular, the working class. It is also a source of skills dedicated to building, Electricians, Bricklayers, Plasterers and Plumbers. It provides apprenticeships and labouring work. It is a sustainable source of income when it is planned for new builds and repairs. It is the basis of a strong spending power. It is also dependent upon materials manufacture and various raw materials and draws consumer spending on energy, water and furnishings.

Council housing, built by local authorities were the norm for social housing. They were built and operated by local councils to supply and put an end to Victorian, city overcrowding after the industrial revolution. They were supposed to be well-built and secure with reasonable rents. The solution to working class housing and poor tenement property to maintain a local working population was a necessity to sustain capitalism.
The system of landlordism and capitalism, of the 19th and early to mid-twentieth century Britain, predominantly claimed against the product through profit out of exploitation of workers paid wages in manufacture and through rent.

Housing was usually low quality, badly built, damp and housed several large families with no bathroom or toilet facility.

The essence of Conservativist “property owning democracy”, opined by Thatcherites, is that everyone should own their own houses, this was the neo-liberal “solution” of the “housing question” as compared with the 19th century, liberal bourgeois and petty-bourgeois utopia, which would give each of the workers the ownership of their own dwellings. The neo-liberals in reality wanted a privatisation programme that would send public housing social programmes into reverse.

The early capitalist period in the country made a transition from manufacture and small-scale production to large-scale industry. This transition was where the remnants of feudal living set about movement from countryside to town. Acceleration created periods of housing shortages. Masses of rural workers were suddenly drawn into the big towns, which developed into industrial centres.

The building plan of the old towns did not any longer conform to the conditions of the new large-scale industry. New town planning meant traffic; streets were widened and new ones cut through, and railways run through the centre of the town. Just when masses of workers streamed into towns, workers’ dwellings were pulled down on a large scale. Hence the sudden housing shortage for the workers and for the small traders and small businesses, which depended for their custom on the workers.

Housing was thus affected by movement from the countryside and the town. Even modern day society shows the contrast and there are still issues of emigration from country to town. This brings with it community problems concerning lack of affordability for new generations of countryside young people who are forced out. Second homes for the rich, lack of pupils in small community schools, shops and small businesses closed as the villages become empty at certain times of the year.

The question can only be solved when society has been sufficiently transformed for a start to be made towards abolishing the antithesis between town and country, which has been brought to an extreme point by present-day capitalist society.
The press of old was filled with contributions on the “housing question,” and gave rise to all sorts of social quackery.

The modern production methods wiped out the old means of income. Hand labour was replaced by mechanised production in factories. The possession of house and garden was now of much less advantage than the possession of complete freedom of movement to find jobs. No factory worker would have changed places with the rural worker.
Security of tenure in the dwelling-place was a hindrance to the worker and also misfortune for the whole working class, the basis for depression of wages below their normal level, for the whole country.

According to Engels, driving of workers from ‘hearth and home’ was not a thing of despair but became the very first condition for their intellectual emancipation. [The Housing Question]

No wonder that the reactionary big bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, who grew rich were enthusiastic over rural industry and the workers owning their own houses, wanted to hold things back with new domestic industries.

Workers were forced out of the centre of the towns towards the outskirts. Workers’ small dwellings in general, became rare and expensive and often altogether unobtainable. The building industry, which is offered a much better field for speculation by more expensive houses, only exceptionally built workers’ dwellings. [From Engels, ibidem]

Like ground rent, the interest of house mortgage became a form of usury.
What of the 21st Century? The City, particularly London, is the era of manufacturing decline, of parasitical global capitalism. The financial districts predominate commerce; old style working class is pushed out for oligarchs and property speculators and playboys. Essential workers are forced from the capital along with the unemployed or underemployed. Taxed out of existence to give up properties and relocate to the outskirts. New workers in financial sectors are the only faces in town for the working class. Many service workers commuting in and out of the city on expensive trains to serve the lifestyles of the rich in Chelsea and other districts.

The building plans today no longer conform to the conditions, traffic, underground, Crossrail in London to serve banks and financial institutions, streets antiquated and out of kilter, traffic zones, poor bus services and railway station locations with expensive train fares, run into the centre of towns and city districts. Sudden housing shortages for the workers, small traders and small businesses, which depend for their custom on the workers, are all in crisis.

Politicians and media again are giving all kinds of sorts of social quackery and politicians of the Westminster cartel all are shedding crocodile tears over past failures to meet housing demand and big plans for house building. They promise to build in their electioneering propaganda, (anything but Council Houses), they offer budget supplements to assist workers’ savings for mortgages, (deposits and repayments, which are totally unaffordable).

The modern production manufacturing wiped out the old means of income, replaced by finance, banking, service industry, zero hour contracts, day by day jobs, all of which are unstable and unsustainable sources of pay.

The possession of house and garden is now even less of an advantage than the possession of complete freedom of movement to find jobs.

Workers are still forced out of the centre of the towns towards the outskirts. Workers’ small dwellings in general are even rarer and expensive and often altogether unobtainable. The building monopolies, which are offered an even better field for speculation by more expensive houses, still build few workers’ houses.

A population expanding by the free movement of labour, orchestrated by imperialist free movement of capital, migrants from across Britain without work or seeking jobs. Migrants from Europe and afar, free proletarians, free movement of labour, free only to find work.
Council house development began in the late 19th century and peaked in the mid- twentieth century, at which time council housing included many large suburban council estates. Post Second World War housing done cheaply and quickly often had to include prefabricated houses. Later these featured cheap, high-rise, tower blocks. Many of these developments were proven to be inadequate and were destroyed.

Since 1979, the role of council housing has been reduced by the introduction of Right to Buy legislation. The Right to Buy scheme is a policy in Britain, which gives secure tenants of councils and some housing associations the legal right to buy, at a large discount, the home they are living in. There is also a Right to Acquire for assured tenants of housing association homes built with public subsidy after 1997, at a smaller discount. About 1.5m million homes in the UK have been sold in this manner since 1980.

The privatisation process was part of a wider neo-liberal agenda item that involved a change of emphasis to the development of new social housing, by housing associations. Housing associations are supposed to be private, non-profit making organisations that provide low-cost social housing for people in need of a home. Any trading surplus is used to maintain existing housing and to help finance new homes. Although independent they are regulated by the state and commonly receive public funding. They are now the United Kingdom’s major providers of new housing for rent.

In 2010, about 17% of UK households lived in social housing. Approximately 55% of the country’s social housing stock is still owned by local authorities.

The documented history of social housing in Britain starts with almshouses, which were established from the 10th century, to provide a place of residence for “poor, old and distressed folk”. Almshouses are charitable housing provided for those who can no longer work to earn enough to pay rent to live in a particular community.

During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, some factory owners built entire villages for their workers, such as Saltaire (1853), Bournville (1879), Port Sunlight (1888), Stewartby, and Silver End as late as 1925. Utopian Socialist mill owners, like Robert Owen and his model factory in New Lanark, provided decent housing for the community.
The Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890, which encouraged local authorities to improve the housing in their areas. As a consequence London County Council opened the Boundary Estate in 1900, and many local councils began building flats and houses in the early twentieth century.

The First World War in order to gain support for imperialist war and frightened by the working class movement, heeded the poor physical health and condition of many urban recruits to the army and sounded the alarm. This led to the extolling of the clamour for, Homes fit for heroes and in 1919, the Government first told councils to provide housing, and made provision of subsidies, under the Housing Act 1919.
Many houses were built over the next few years in cottage estates. Blocks of flats were also built.

While new council housing had been built, little had been done to resolve the problem of inner-city slums. This was to change with the Housing Act 1930, which required councils to prepare slum clearance plans, and some progress was made before the Second World War intervened.

During the Second World War almost four million British homes were destroyed or damaged, and afterwards there was a major increase in council house construction.
In blitz cities like London and Coventry, which received particularly heavy bombing, the redevelopment schemes were often larger and more radical.

In the immediate post-war years, and well into the 1950s, council house provision was shaped by the New Towns Act 1946 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 of the 1945–51 Labour government.

At the same time this government introduced housing legislation that removed explicit references to housing for the working class and introduced the concept of “general needs” construction (i.e., that council housing should aim to fill the needs for a wide range of society). In particular, Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health and Housing, promoted a vision of new estates where “the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other”.

A three-bedroom semi-detached council house was typically built on a square grid seven yards (21 feet (6.4 m)) on the side, with a maximum density of no more than 12 houses per acre (30 houses per hectare; around 337 m² or 403 sq. yd. per house), meaning that most houses had generous space around them. New towns and many existing towns had countless estates built to this basic model.

In Scotland, tenement living meant that most homes of this period were built in low-rise (3–4) storey blocks of flats.

For many working-class people, this housing model provided their first experience of private indoor toilets, private bathrooms and hot running water. For tenants in England and Wales it also usually provided the first experience of private garden space (usually front and rear).

Towards the end of the 1950s the Conservative Government began to re-direct the building programme back from “general needs” towards inner-city slum clearance.
Tower blocks became the preferred model. During the 1950s and 1960s, the number of high-rise dwellings rose significantly. In 1953, just 23% of public-sector approvals were for flats, with only 3% high-rise (defined as blocks of six stories or more). By 1966, however, high-rise housing accounted for 26% of all homes started.

Central government considered the provision of as much new housing as possible to be a major part of post-war policy, and provided subsidies for local authorities to build such housing.

A number of types of system building proved to have serious flaws, and many flats due to their speed of construction, have suffered problems, especially poor protection from damp and weather ingress, as well as other design defects and poor management. Also, people moving to such estates lost their old social networks and failed to develop new ones.
On 16 May 1968, the problems associated with tower blocks were brought into sharp focus after the partial collapse of Ronan Point, a system-built tower block in Newham, east London, as a consequence of a gas explosion. A similar incident caused significant damage to one side of a block in Manchester.

One of the most ambitious post-war council housing developments, the complex of estates at Broadwater Farm became a national symbol of perceived failures in the council housing system following the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985. Since then, Broadwater Farm has been the focus of an intense regeneration program.

The largest estates in Britain are Wythenshawe in the south of Manchester and Bransholme in the north-east of Hull. Arron Way in Corby was a large estate, although the majority of the housing became derelict and the area is now undergoing regeneration. [Source wiki].

Other large estates across London include Ashburton estate in Putney, Alton Estate in, Roehampton Churchill Gardens in Pimlico, Aylesbury Estate in Walworth, a vast series of estates in Gospel Oak (especially around Queen’s Crescent Market) including the Bacton, Wendling, Lamble Street, Southfleet, Denton, Kiln Place, North Kentish Town and the Ludham and Waxham estates, plus the Ferrier Estate, and the Thamesmead Estate in South-East London. [Source wiki].

There are also numerous large council estates in the West Midlands. These include Castle Vale in Birmingham, Newtown in Birmingham, Low Hill in Wolverhampton, Hateley Heath in West Bromwich. Blakenall Heath in Walsall, Priory Estate in Dudley, Tanhouse in Halesowen, Camp Hill in Nuneaton and Chapel Street Estate in Brierley Hill. [Source wiki].

In Scotland, Glasgow has the highest proportion of social housing. The largest estates include Drumchapel, Easterhouse, Castlemilk and Pollok. In Edinburgh there are several estates on the outskirts of the city, including those at Craigmillar, Wester Hailes and Sighthill. [Source wiki].

Council estates in Greater Manchester included the Hattersley overspill housing estate. [Source wiki]

Wales also has many large council estates. These include Caia Park in Wrexham, Bettws in Newport and Ely in Cardiff. [Source wiki].

There were also many large council estates in Yorkshire. Some pit villages, such as Grimethorpe,are almost entirely composed of original council housing. Estates in Leeds, West Yorkshire include Cross Gates, Lincoln Green, Gipton, Seacroft, and Holton Moor. Bransholme in North East Hull is the largest in Yorkshire. Sheffield boasts the award winning Park Hill (now being redeveloped). [Source wiki].

In Tyneside large council estates include Byker and Walker in Newcastle, Felling in Gateshead and Meadow Well in North Tyneside, the site of violent civil disorder during the early 1990s. A large urban regeneration scheme is also being planned for Scotswood in the West End of Newcastle after decades of urban decay and high crime levels. [Source wiki].

The Red Road flats in Glasgow were once the tallest residential buildings in Europe, but are now earmarked for demolition in local council regeneration plans. Cottingley Towers and Cottingley Heights in Leeds are also particularly notable for their considerable height.
New towns built across Britain in the 20 or so years following the end of the Second World War were predominantly made up of council housing, but many of these have since been further developed to see private housing become the most frequent accommodation. Many commuter towns around London have large areas of council housing.

Council tenants also faced problems of mobility, finding it hard to move from one property to another as their families grew or shrank, or to seek work. Despite the building, there was a constant demand for housing, and “waiting lists” are maintained, with preference being given to those in greatest need. In Birmingham, people accepted as eligible for council housing are allocated points according to need, people then bid for properties and the property goes to the bidder with the highest number of points who wants it. People who fail to get a property can carry on bidding until they are successful. This is like a market but bidding success depends on need rather than financial resources.
The original wave of mass council housing from the early 1920s was among the first generation of houses in the country to feature electricity, running water, bathrooms, indoor toilets and front/rear gardens. However, some council house were still being built with outdoor toilets, attached to the house, until well into the 1930s. Some of the earliest council houses did not feature an actual bathroom; the bath could often be found in the kitchen with a design which allowed it to double as a work surface.

Many of the earlier council houses had a “cottage” design and were built on estates imitating garden city principles, with an open spaced layout that gave a pleasant environment to residents who had previously lived in dilapidated inner-city slums. These new houses had two, three, four or five bedrooms, and generously sized back gardens intended for vegetable growing.

The first tower-block flats in Britain were built during the early 1950s, reaching a peak in the 1960s. Whereas most interwar council houses had been built on completely new estate, it became common in the 1960s to redevelop established areas with new houses, and tower blocks featured prominently in these redevelopments, in most large cities and towns across the United Kingdom.

But these flats quickly became unpopular due to poor insulation and structural defects, with construction of high-rise flats being effectively ended by the 1970s. Tower-block clearance schemes were becoming common by the end of the 1980s, as a result of their dismal condition, unpopularity with tenants and becoming uneconomic to refurbish. The most notable regeneration programme featuring tower blocks was that of the Castle Vale estate in Birmingham, built between 1964 and 1969 to rehouse families from inner city slums in areas like Aston and Nechelles. 32 of the estate’s 34 tower blocks were cleared between 1995 and 2003.

Many of the older interwar council houses have been demolished, mostly due to subsidence or their worsening condition. Much of this regeneration has been concentrated in the West Midlands since the early 1990s. Areas of this type that have been regenerated include Pype Hayes and Stockfield in Birmingham.

Social policy economists, have been critical of the role that council housing plays in attempts to help the poor. One large criticism is that it hurt labour mobility with its system of allocating housing to those in the local area.

After the Second World War, immigrants did not initially qualify for council houses and this led to racial segregation in housing.

Welfare cuts have undermined security of tenure and removal o subsidised rent forces tenants to downsize from family accommodation after their children have moved out.
Mobility of labour as a requirement for labour as a resource has formulated criticism that council estates create a mentality where residents have low aspirations. People dare not give the house up because they might never get another and they need to have and more incentives to work.

Council estates are stereotyped as “problem places” where social difficulties like crime and welfare dependency are expected. They are often labelled as the ‘underclass’.
Council house residents may be stereotyped as an underclass.

With reference to housing layouts, the regeneration of large housing estates should incorporate measures such as diversification of tenure, the creation of smaller community areas, the provision of facilities for the young and proposals to create a more attractive environment, since it has been shown that packages of such measures are successful in reducing crime.

Council housing declined sharply in the Thatcher era, as the Conservative Government encouraged aspiration toward home ownership under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme.
Laws restricted councils’ investment in housing, preventing them subsidising it from local taxes, but more importantly, council tenants were given the “right to buy” in the 1980s Housing Act offering a discount price on their council house. The ‘Right to Buy’ scheme allowed tenants to buy their home with a discount of 33% – 50% off the market value, depending on the time they had lived there.

Councils were prevented from reinvesting the proceeds of these sales in new housing, and the total available stock, particularly of more desirable homes, declined.
Some councils have now transferred their housing stock to not-for-profit housing associations, who are now also the providers of most new public-sector housing.

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