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The Struggle for Shelter

Class Conflict and Public Housing in Britain

Defend Council Housing
David Matthews is a lecturer in sociology and social policy at Coleg Llandrillo in Wales, and the leader of its degree program in health and social care.

In his 1872 polemic The Housing Question, Frederick Engels articulated with sharp insight the crisis of housing then facing German society. Rapid industrialization and urbanization had driven the German proletariat into overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, becoming victims of burgeoning property values and spiraling rents. Accompanied by an upsurge in the value of land, properties were demolished, including workers’ accommodations, for use for more profitable purposes. The result was a desperate shortage of decent housing available to the working class.1

Nearly a century and a half later, Britain is today afflicted by a similar scarcity of affordable housing. Home ownership is a more distant prospect for the working class than it has been for decades, especially for younger generations, for whom it is now often only an aspirational dream. By 2014, only 9 percent of UK residents aged sixteen to twenty-four owned their own home, along with 35.4 percent of those aged twenty-five to thirty-four—a decline from 36.1 percent and 66.5 percent, respectively, since 1991. Except for those aged sixty-five and above, the last two decades have witnessed a steep fall in homeownership across all age groups.2 A major factor in this shift has been the soaring value of housing, which has gradually displaced the working class from the property market. Save for a few years in the depth of the 2007–09 crisis, the gap between wages and house prices in Britain has steadily widened. In 1996, the average UK property cost little more than twice the average annual salary; by mid-2016 it cost five times the average.3

Labelled “Generation Rent” by the British media, a growing proportion of the population is thus turning to private rental housing. After declining during the 1980s, as more people purchased their own properties, rented housing units began to proliferate in the 1990s. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, their absolute number had doubled.4 For the first time in nearly a century, homeownership in Britain has declined as a proportion of the housing stock.5 The rental housing market offers little refuge from the prohibitive costs of ownership, however: with private rents increasing due to demand, in 2015 rates of eviction were the highest on record.6

The prevailing explanation for this worsening crisis has been the sheer insufficient supply of homes to meet rapidly growing demand. Yet while undoubtedly exacerbating the issue, as Engels firmly argued in relation to Germany, this cannot be considered the primary cause of the housing crisis. There already existed in Germany enough suitable dwellings to alleviate any shortage—if they were utilized rationally, which for Engels involved confiscating them from their wealthy proprietors to house the homeless and desperate members of the working class. The paucity of working-class accommodation, Engels argued, had little to do with a lack of housing stock, but was instead firmly rooted in the operation of capitalism itself, and the exploitation upon which the system hinged. The housing crisis, he argued, was one of “the numerous smaller, secondary evils which result from the present-day capitalist mode of production.”7

Most housing under capitalism is planned, built, and sold by the private sector, under the same social relations of production and exploitation as any other commodity. For its producers, such housing is merely one mode of capital accumulation among many. The value of housing, as determined by the costs of labor, raw materials, land, location, and the availability of finance, is so great that most people are unable to purchase it in one complete transaction. Consequently, they are compelled to acquire a housing unit without outright ownership, either through rent paid to a landlord or mortgage payments to a financial lender.8 A significant and growing minority are unable to enter into this relationship at all, however, lacking sufficient resources to pay market rents, fulfil mortgage obligations, or save enough capital for a deposit. The commodification of housing constitutes the major barrier to its equitable distribution, with construction and allocation determined not by need but by the accumulation of capital.

A radical socialist corrective is thus required, whereby housing is delivered outside the social relations of capitalism. An extensive program of decommodification in the form of public housing is desperately needed in Britain—and in many other nations—that would sponsor collectively provided and owned residences. Here I will review the case for collective provision of housing, and the ways in which class conflict, from both below and above, has historically shaped public housing in Britain. These struggles continue today, as the ravages of neoliberalism have forced public housing once again onto the agenda in the United Kingdom.

Crosland’s Vision

The long-serving Labour MP Anthony Crosland (1918–1977) was a controversial figure on the British left. His inclination toward compromise and incremental reform, along with his skepticism of some basic tenets of classic Labour policy—most notably nationalization of major industries—earned him an enduring reputation for “revisionism.” Whatever the merit of these critiques, Crosland nonetheless developed a persuasive and distinctly socialist understanding of housing, now largely forgotten. Aware of capitalism’s failure to meet the housing needs of all members of society, Crosland was adamant that the state was vital to the provision of shelter.9 With the amelioration of poverty and advancement of equality as the central goals of his socialism, he argued that housing should be as fundamental to the modern welfare state as health, education, and social security. The universal guarantee that all members of society would have a home, Crosland declared, could “not be met by the free play of market forces.”10

With the state committed to redistribution, its housing provision would provide the poorest citizens a standard of living previously available only to the wealthiest. Active government intervention in the construction, ownership, and allocation of housing was imperative for any socialist housing policy. For Crosland, this intervention should take the form of municipal housing, with local governments best placed to understand and meet the housing needs of their communities.11

Insistent that renters should have the same rights of tenure as homeowners, Crosland conceived of municipal housing as the largest source of rented accommodation, with local authorities the main provider of rented housing for all who chose it, regardless of class or status. With the constant threat of rent increases, impersonal and opaque structures of ownership, and the worry that owners could sell their properties and evict residents at any time, private landlordism, Crosland argued, was “not an appropriate form of house-ownership in an advanced society.” In Crosland’s vision, municipal housing would expand not only through the construction of new homes, but also with local governments actively purchasing existing properties on the private market. “What is needed,” he contended, “is a large-scale transfer of the ownership of private rented property; and only the local authorities have the power, resources and experience to achieve it.” Crosland anticipated a gradual shift whereby most residents of private rented housing would eventually become municipal tenants, ultimately causing the private rental market to wither away.12

Collective Housing and Class Struggle

While intended as a socialist alternative to free-market housing, Crosland’s plan was also an affirmation of an existing system. For much of the twentieth century, public housing in Britain, known as council housing, was municipally supplied, to a degree unique even among Western European social democracies.13 While acutely aware of the historical deficiencies of its actual provision—including a lack of funding and tenant democracy, the failure of local governments to intervene in the private rental sector, and the social stigma attached to council tenants—Crosland nevertheless defended a system he considered fundamentally socialist in principle, but not yet able to fulfil its aspirations in practice.

For over a century, municipal housing has been integral to working-class political goals and a central site of class struggle in Britain, and its evolution and structure have reflected the balance of class forces at various points in history. Describing a proletarian section of Manchester in The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels saw “a planless, knotted chaos of houses, more or less on the verge of uninhabitableness, whose unclean interiors fully correspond with their filthy external surroundings.” Public hygiene was abysmal: “privies are so rare that they are either filled up every day, or are too remote for most of the inhabitants to use.” Working-class houses, Engels maintained, were no cleaner than the “pigsties which are here and there to be seen among them.”14 Landlords were not in the least ashamed to rent dwellings in such poor condition to a captive market of workers unable to find or afford anything better.15

In The Housing Question, Engels was unconvinced of the potential for the state to solve the housing crisis, viewing it as an instrument of the capitalist class. However, he wrote on the eve of an evolution in the role of the state in British society. Reflecting a broader shift in the balance of class forces, the late nineteenth century saw an upsurge of collective action and the spread of trade unions, which, combined with an expansion of working-class male suffrage, brought greater representation of labor in local governments. This intensified popular support for municipal socialism, and contributed to a growing recognition among the proletariat that the state could be made to advance their interests. By 1890, the Housing of the Working Classes Act gave local governments the authority to build and construct houses for the first time. Initially only applicable to London, within a few short years it applied throughout Britain.

While undoubtedly a vital victory for the working class, municipal housing in this era grew slowly; most projects remained small and experimental, constrained by the cost of construction and financing, which the central government refused to subsidize. It would take persistent protest and pressure by local trades councils, the Workmen’s National Housing Council, socialist organizations elected to local governments, and existing municipal housing tenants up until the First World War to force Parliament to help fund municipal housing.16

A powerful symbol of this struggle was the Glasgow rent strike of 1915. With the outbreak of war, workers flocked to the city, a center of naval shipbuilding and the munitions industry. To capitalize on this influx of new residents, landlords conspired to raise rents by up to 25 percent.17 In response, for much of that year, thousands of tenants organized to oppose any increases, refusing to pay their rent and physically blocking bailiffs from entering properties. Many industrial workers in the city also took action in solidarity, inspiring similar protests in many other British cities. Though the strike’s initial aim was to defy rent increases—in which it succeeded, with state-imposed rent controls introduced later in 1915—its subtext was the advancement of municipal housing, to combat the exploitation of the working class by landlords. As two participants in the strike asserted: “it is imperative that the State should accept the principle that a proper standard of housing for the people is a national charge.”18

In 1917, a Commission of Inquiry into Industrial Unrest identified poor housing conditions as a significant contributing factor to social disruption among the working class, and called for the mass provision of cheap housing as a necessary remedy.19 Accordingly, to quell further agitation and contain the perceived threat of communism, in the immediate post-war years the Liberal government under Lloyd George introduced almost unlimited subsidies for the construction of municipal homes. Under the slogan “homes fit for heroes,” 170,000 municipal houses were built in just a few years.20 Direct from the rent strikes of the war years, a wave of socialists was elected to Parliament.21 Among them was John Wheatley, a passionate campaigner for working-class housing appointed Minister for Health in the first Labour government in 1924. His namesake achievement, the Wheatley Housing Act, has been described as the “first substantial measure of legislative socialism.”22 The law significantly increased central government subsidies, allowing for the construction of over half a million municipal homes during the following decade and firmly establishing the principle of municipal housing, underpinned by the ideal that such houses should be for all, not just the poorest.

Without doubt the expansion of municipal housing during this era was a victory for the working class.23 From the collective action of working-class labor leaders, politicians, and ordinary citizens, there emerged a distinct form of social housing: collectively owned and built, designed to defend against the predations of private landlords and advance the social reproduction of the working class through community and solidarity.

Collectivism’s Golden Era and Demise

Under the austerity imposed during the 1930s, the construction of municipal homes slowed. However, with the end of the Second World War, the working class of Britain asserted itself to an extent which, at least in electoral terms, has arguably not been seen since. Swept to power on a tide of popular discontent at wartime deprivation, the first majority-Labour government, elected in 1945, initiated what can be considered a golden era of municipal house-building, as part of a broader agenda of welfare reform.24 Given responsibility for housing was the staunchly socialist Aneurin Bevan, best known as the architect of Britain’s National Health Service.

Committed to the principle that municipal housing should be universally available, regardless of social status, Bevan was likewise convinced that only the state could guarantee housing on the needed scale of planning, funding, and construction. Municipal housing expanded rapidly: from the late 1940s through the early 1950s, municipal homes constituted more than three-quarters of all new properties built, and they continued to outnumber private-sector developments in absolute terms until 1958.25 Much of the costs were socialized, with building and slum clearance conducted by local authorities and their employees, and rents reflected the socialized costs of production, rather than market values.26 For a few years, the British housing market came as close to public control as it ever has.

Although private-sector construction began to outpace public projects in the late 1950s, more than 100,000 municipal homes continued to be built every year until 1979.27 By then it was estimated that 42 percent of the population lived in municipal housing.28 Soon after, however, municipal housing became a prime target in the destruction of the postwar social-democratic settlement under Margaret Thatcher and her successors, as new construction declined and thousands of homes were privatized and sold off. In the space of thirty years, the number of newly built municipal homes fell from 110,170 in 1978 to just 630 in 2008.29 Of all aspects of the country’s welfare state, to this day housing remains the greatest victim of the neoliberal assault on collective social provision in Britain.

The attack on municipal housing was instigated by the active promotion of homeownership, with municipal tenants encouraged to purchase their homes for prices far below market value. Under the 1980 Housing Act, depending upon length of tenure, residents were offered discount rates of between 30 and 60 percent of the market value. Although the foundations of this Right to Buy policy were first laid in the early 1950s under a Conservative government, Thatcher and company seized on the program in the 1980s as a means of eroding municipal housing while appearing to empower tenants with the opportunity to own and sell property. As one notable Conservative politician, Michael Heseltine, argued at the time, the purpose of the Housing Act was to champion “the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrocks of a free society.”30 Further, local authorities were sorely limited in their ability to replace houses which had been sold, with strict limits introduced on both private borrowing and central government grants to fund construction. Instead, the management and funding of many municipal housing developments were transferred to private associations, which by 1990 had become the main providers of public housing.

These officially non-profit organizations—many of which have in recent years been reconstituted as overtly for-profit ventures—now fund the construction of most public housing in Britain, through a combination of government subsidies and borrowing. With state subsidies sharply cut under austerity budgets, a wave of mergers and acquisitions is now reshaping the industry, producing “mega” associations that own tens of thousands of houses, with plans to pool their capital and construct thousands more.31 Further, many associations have begun to diversify their operations, building homes only to be sold at market prices, to make up for the shortfall in government funding.

This shift toward private housing associations has coincided with a steep fall in rates of annual provision of new homes. Since 1980, the number has never exceeded 39,000 in any one year, at one point dropping to as few as 13,000. In 2015, provision totaled 34,820 units, which amounted to only a fifth of all new properties built.32 Although constituting a badly needed source of housing, unlike their municipal precursors, these associations can in no way be considered working-class institutions. Structurally opaque and hierarchical, they are private organizations, on whose operation tenants have little, if any, influence. While partially funded by the government, the larger proportion of their budgets is raised through private borrowing and, increasingly, through the issuing of bonds. The result is an emergent oligopoly of regionally dominant associations, at the mercy of the market for much of their finance and more answerable to the needs of private lenders and bondholders than to tenants or their communities.

In Defense of Collective Housing

Under the “New Labour” premiership of Tony Blair, the decimation of municipal housing continued unabated. Local authorities were pressed to dispose of their stock, either by transferring homes to housing associations or by outsourcing their maintenance and operation to private management companies while nominally retaining public ownership. An attempt to begin the complete transfer of municipal housing had been made a decade previously, only to be defeated by working-class mobilization, with tenants demanding the right to vote on the policy. After overwhelmingly voting against the proposal, the government relented. Undeterred, New Labour made a similar plan a central feature of its approach to public housing, with the aim of privatizing 200,000 municipal homes each year.33

To help meet these goals, tenants were offered a deal that many could scarcely refuse. Recognizing that thousands of homes were in desperate need of repair after years of neglect, the government made an ultimatum: funding for restorations would only be available if local authorities transferred their housing to private associations. As before, tenants were allowed to vote on whether to transfer ownership of their estates, but with the clear warning that should they vote no, extra finances would not be forthcoming. After nearly two decades of deteriorating conditions and no other prospect for improvement, it is understandable that by the late 1990s many tenants began to vote in favor, with nearly one million municipal homes transferred to alternative ownership or management in the thirteen years of New Labour government (on top of an estimated half a million sold as part of the Right to Buy policy).34 Nonetheless, the strategy encountered resistance from the start, with a significant movement emerging to both defend and promote municipal housing, a cause that in subsequent years has steadily gained momentum.

Since 1998, despite forceful and well-financed campaigns by local authorities promoting privatization, victories to preserve and expand municipal ownership have been won, with many local opposition groups uniting to establish the national Defend Council Housing (DCH) campaign. The coalition, consisting largely of tenants, trade unionists, and socialists—its founder, Alan Walter, was all three—has emerged as a true grassroots working-class movement. Established to uphold public housing and promote values of collectivism and solidarity, it recognizes the creation and expansion of municipal housing as a major working-class victory, achieved through sustained collective action.35 In the tradition of Wheatley, Bevan, and Crosland, DCH has fought to protect existing municipal homes from privatization, promote collective provision of new housing, and campaign for sustained public investment, as part of the wider drive for a comprehensive welfare state.36 In its actions, campaigns, and public statements, DCH illustrates the exploitation endured by tenants of private housing associations compared to their municipal counterparts, as rents are driven up by marketization and increased borrowing costs.

With the support of the national grouping, local DCH chapters have tapped into a spirit of collectivism among existing municipal housing tenants, effectively coordinating opposition campaigns wherever the threat of privatization has arisen. Publishing literature and organizing community meetings, in many cases activists have successfully argued against stock transfer, encouraging residents to vote for continued municipal ownership. Significant victories have been won in Birmingham, site of one of the largest collections of municipal housing in Britain, where tenants voted to maintain collective ownership of the city’s 63,000 municipal homes; Edinburgh, where 53 percent of council housing residents opposed plans to transfer 23,000 homes to a private association; East London, where five of seven estates in the chronically underfunded Tower Hamlets came out against stock transfer; Swindon, in southwest England, where 72 percent of tenants vehemently rejected the privatization of over 10,000 municipal houses; Swansea, South Wales, where nearly 14,000 homes were saved from transfer; and in the southern coastal cities of Brighton and Hove, where 77 percent voted to maintain municipal ownership of 13,500 homes.

Although transfers to the private sector have continued since the establishment of DCH, the organization has nonetheless been an effective bulwark, slowing and sometimes reversing the neoliberal offensive. Indeed, the last five years there have seen a marked reduction in the number of proposed stock transfers throughout Britain, as more and more local governments have rejected privatization. Arguably, however, the impact of DCH’s tireless campaigns is most evident in the slow but unmistakable revival of municipal house-building. Since the construction of municipal homes hit a historic postwar low of 130 in 2004, the number of new developments has steadily increased, with construction in 2015 (the most recent year for which figures are available) totaling 2,730 units, the most in two decades.37 Though still paltry by midcentury standards, such numbers suggest that the collective action of DCH and other groups has begun to counter neoliberalism’s ideological hostility toward collective provision of housing. In another promising sign, many local authorities have now started buying back houses previously sold under the Right to Buy scheme once they come up for sale on the market.

While the defense and expansion of municipal housing remain fundamental, DCH has grown to become the principle collective voice for all council housing tenants, including those of private housing associations. Thus DCH has fiercely opposed the policy popularly known as the “bedroom tax,” whereby all public housing tenants who receive social security support to pay rent have their entitlements reduced if they are found to be living in accommodations with a spare room. The group has likewise spoken out against plans to expand Right to Buy to housing associations, a plan that would offer no guarantee that any houses sold will be replaced, thus further exacerbating the chronic shortage of affordable housing.

As Engels observed almost a century and a half ago, the free market’s role as the principle provider of housing is the ultimate reason for its inequitable distribution. There exists no genuine “shortage” of housing, but instead a financial barrier to its equal allocation, underpinned by the continuous exploitation of the working class. It is naive to expect any solution for equal distribution to emerge from within the system itself. “A free market,” Crosland argued, “is wholly irrelevant to the most urgent problems.”38 This remains especially true of the housing market, from which a growing mass of the working and even middle classes are effectively excluded. Only the collective provision and ownership of housing, free from the shackles of profit maximization, will guarantee all people the right to secure, comfortable, and affordable homes.

Housing has long been a significant material factor in class struggle in Britain—a fight that continues today. Slowly but surely, communities of tenants and workers have chipped away at the neoliberal agenda that for nearly four decades has sought to destroy public housing. Recent local victories in this fight suggest that for the first time in many years, the collective provision and ownership of housing is a demand to be taken seriously. It is too early yet to predict how far this renewed resistance will go, but it has made clear once more the central place of housing in any socialist vision of an equal and just society.

Notes

  1. Frederick Engels, The Housing Question (1872), available at http://marxists.org.
  2. Office for National Statistics, “Housing and Home Ownership in the UK, 2016,” http:/visual.ons.gov.uk.
  3. House Price Index, April 2016, Nationwide, http://nationwide.co.uk.
  4. Figures calculated from Office for National Statistics, “Housing and Home Ownership.”
  5. Office for National Statistics, “Home Ownership Down and Renting Up for the First Time in a Century, 2015,” http://visual.ons.gov.uk.
  6. Zlata Rodionova, “Renter Eviction Reaches Record High of 43,000 in 2015,” Independent, February 12, 2016.
  7. Engels, The Housing Question.
  8. Norman Ginsburg, Class, Capital and Social Policy (London: Macmillan, 1979), 109.
  9. Anthony Crosland, Towards a Labour Housing Policy (London: Fabian Society, 1971).
  10. Crosland, Towards a Labour Housing Policy, 6.
  11. Anthony Crosland, Socialism Now and Other Essays (London: Cox and Wyman, 1974), 134–38.
  12. Crosland, Socialism Now, 131, 130, 135, 43.
  13. Nevil Johnson, Reshaping the British Constitution (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 42.
  14. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 63–64.
  15. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, 64.
  16. Ginsburg, Class, Capital and Social Policy, 140–41.
  17. David Renton, “Housing: As It Is, and As It Might Be,” International Socialism 134 (2012), http://isj.org.uk.
  18. Sean Damer, “The Clyde Rent War! The Clydebank Rent Strike of the 1920s,” in Michael Lavalette and Gerry Mooney, eds., Class Struggle and Social Welfare, (London: Routledge, 2000), 73.
  19. Norman Ginsburg, “Housing,” in Robert M. Page and Richard Silburn, eds., British Social Welfare in the Twentieth Century (London: Macmillan, 1999), 228.
  20. Ginsburg, Class, Capital and Social Policy, 142.
  21. Sean Damer, “The Clyde Rent War!” 93.
  22. Keith Middlemas, The Clydesiders (London: Hutchinson, 1965), 151.
  23. Ginsburg, Class, Capital and Social Policy, 142.
  24. John Saville, “The Origins of the Welfare State,” in Martin Loney, David Boswell, John Clarke, eds., Social Policy and Social Welfare (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1983), 15.
  25. Calculated from Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Table 241: Permanent Dwellings Completed, by Tenure, United Kingdom, Historical Calendar Year Series, May 25, 2017, http://gov.uk.
  26. Renton, “Housing.”
  27. DCLG, Table 241.
  28. Kath Woodward, Social Sciences (London: Routledge, 2014).
  29. DCLG, Table 241.
  30. Renton, “Housing.”
  31. Colin Wiles, “Once the Biggest Housing Associations Own 90% of Social Homes, Tenants will Lose Out,” Guardian, January 25, 2017.
  32. DCLG, Table 241.
  33. Cathy Davies and Alan Wigfield, Housing: Did It Have to Be Like This? (Nottingham: Spokesman, 2010), 18.
  34. Davies and Wigfield, Housing.
  35. Eileen Short, “Housing: Street Spirit,” Socialist Review 291 (2004), http://socialistreview.org.uk.
  36. Defend Council Housing, “A Manifesto for Council Housing,” March 2010, http://defendcouncilhousing.org.
  37. DCLG, Table 241.
  38. Crosland, Towards a Labour Housing Policy, 6.
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