From the May 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard
To many a Cockney, London is known, in mixed derision and affection, as the Smoke. It might also be called, less affectionately, the Sprawl. From Hounslow in the West to Enfield in the North, Erith in the East and Epsom in the South, London spreads itself on the map of Southern England. It leap-frogs even beyond these points, into places which were not so long ago the countryside and a hiker's day out. In the Chiltern Hills, for example, the landscape is altering beyond recognition as the trees come down and the houses of the post-war Metro-landers go up in their place.
In this Sprawl live all manner of workers, from the lowest of down-and-outs to white collar men who manage ulcers along with their expense accounts. Here, therefore, are all manner of working class problems, including that of housing.
London has its families whose housing difficulties could not be starker. They are the homeless ones. Usually unskilled, low-paid workers, they often have to start their married lives in the most dubious of lodgings, from which they are easily evicted. Then the problem snowballs, until their family may be forced to split up, with the children going into a Home or being taken by the mother to a local authority hostel while the father rubs along outside. The London County Council runs some of these hostels and they are not inviting places. During the past year the number of families in them reached a record peak; in November, 1962, it stood at 1,008. Since then it has fallen; last month it was just over 800, representing about 3,800 persons. But these figures in fact disguise the real size of the problem, which would be more accurately reflected in the turnover of families in the hostels as opposed to the number in them at any one time. A recent Family Service Unit survey into the housing prospects of low-paid workers was summed up in this way by The Guardian on February 14th last: “In all London there is virtually no accommodation for a family of limited means."
One step—but often only a short one—up from the homeless, are those who live in London's rented homes. Some of these homes are the famous London slums, which characterise areas like Stepney and Brixton and North Kensington. Some others are in more pretentious areas—South Kensington for example—which do not like to think of themselves as part of slumdom. But no other word so aptly fits the piled up, dingy acres of bed-sitters and what are euphemistically termed flatlets. London is full of this sort of place. The 1961 Census showed that a quarter of all households in the County of London occupied one or two rooms and that a half of them occupied three or four rooms.
The Census also revealed something about the condition of the County of London's homes. Over 400,000 are without exclusive access to a hot water tap and over 300,000 are without a bath. It does not take a very powerful imagination to picture what these hundreds of thousands of homes in the centre of the “affluent" South are like.
But the Sprawl is also, of course, the great exponent of the cult of suburbia, where they usually have a bathroom (even if it is a small one) and a hot water tap (even if they have to watch the cost of running it too often). Suburbia, where many workers are proudly buying their houses, is not usually associated with the housing problem. Who can think of slums, standing in Acacia Crescent, with the blossom out on the trees and neat hedges and roses as far as the eye can see?
Yet behind the clematis covered walls the housing problem sits as immovably as it does in Poplar or Deptford. Many workers now buy their houses because that is literally the only way they can get one. And when they have signed the contract for the sale they have committed themselves to a lifetime of paying off a massive loan, sometimes at a crippling rate of interest. This commitment forces them to depend even more than usual upon keeping their job. The suburban mortgagee knows what worry is; the suburbs, in fact, are centres of stress and strain which can almost be sensed behind the pretty curtains. Mortgagees usually have to sign a deed which is full of all sorts of restrictions, designed to keep up the value of the house so that, if they cannot keep up the payments and the property has to be sold the mortgagor stands to lose as little as possible. Living in this sort of home means that the worker has a bathroom and a garden and perhaps one or two other amenities which are pleasant enough in their way. But he has not lost his housing problem.
The thing which is common to all those who struggle in the housing difficulties of London, and elsewhere, is that they get their living by going out to work. This means that everything they need to live— their clothes, their food, their recreation, their homes—is tailored to take account of the limitations of their wage packets. This is what we call poverty and it is what all workers in London, and the rest of the world, have in common. It afflicts the homeless worker and it sits on the shoulder of him who smugly clips his privet in the suburbs.