The Briefing Column from the August 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Successive governments have taken it upon themselves to tackle the problem of “sub-standard” accommodation for the working class. In 1868, 1875, 1879 and 1882 local authorities were given powers to deal with insanitary property and in the twentieth century, an official housing shortage has been designated. Pious politicians tell us that decent housing is a basic human requirement, but exactly what constitutes “decent housing” is left open to interpretation. We are bombarded with figures telling us that there has been a change in the pattern of occupancy, from 90 per cent rented accommodation in 1914, to 52 per cent owner occupation in 1974. (In that year 17 per cent of homes were privately rented and 31 per cent publicly rented.) Such figures do not take into account that, according to government figures (Social Trends 9), 33,720 people were homeless in 1976; and even these figures only refer to those registered as such with a local authority.
While there is such homelessness, there is much property standing empty — for the only reason that those who are homeless cannot afford access to it. Such people are the victims of the property society in which human needs are subservient to profit-making. For them the 1975 Housing Rents and Subsidies Act offers little comfort, for they do not have the luxury of a rent to pay. They are homeless because of rent arrears incurred, mortgage default, the fact that a landlord has repossessed the property, the loss of a tied property.
But it does not end there, for the accommodation that is occupied, although fulfilling the basic requirement of shelter, offers little more. According to Peter Townsend’s Poverty in the United Kingdom: a Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living, 22 per cent of accommodation suffers from some form of structural defect. 16 per cent of households have no sole use of a toilet and 3 per cent do not have sole use of a sink or wash basin.
His study also points out that 17 per cent of households do not have sole use of a fixed bath or shower and that 4 per cent do not have sole use of a gas or electric cooker. Governments may pay lip service to the problems of poor housing, but the poverty in which capitalism forces the majority of society’s members to live still allows 44 per cent of households to have only one (or even no) room heated in winter, and for 2 per cent to have no electricity for either power or lights. John Wheatley, the Minister for Health in the 1924 Labour Government, dreamed of a garden city in which the working class might live in council accommodation. But in practice council accommodation has offered no more a solution to housing deprivation than the possibility of “home ownership”. Council housing estates are now graded according to their stress factor and those members of society who have least choice of accommodation are often placed in high stress areas.
Absurdly, the working class are prepared to live in the accommodation that capitalism provides, and even go so far as to invent a mythology whereby they can stand proud in the midst of their squalor. The inhabitants of “high status” suburbs look down on the council estates; the inner cities have been deserted by those climbing the social ladder and those inner cities, once “high status” districts themselves, have become areas of multi-occupancy, with their privately rented furnished and unfurnished accommodation. Rather than seeing a common interest between themselves and the other victims of capitalism, they see each other as threats to the standards of living they have achieved.
The only way we can gauge the actual conditions in which we live is to examine the potential that society can offer. The apologist claims that the standard of living has risen, but that does not mean that our position as members of the working class has changed. The property relationships that exist within capitalism deny the working class access to the potential society is capable of creating, and it is only by recognising this fact that we can begin to understand the extent of the poverty in which all members of the working class exist.