Category Archives: Housing crisis

Housing, the 1968 Rent Strike and What We Face Today

Can’t pay your rent? Then we’ll come for your children.

When the Tory-led government announced that social rents should rise to market levels, there was anger but nothing happened. That anger wasn’t channelled; forged into a weapon to attack the government and the local authorities and greedy Housing Associations. Instead, people just rolled over and took it.

When the same thing was proposed by Wilson’s Labour government (a LABOUR GOVERNMENT) in 1968, there was righteous indignation.  But instead of sitting and fuming, people actually did something about it. They organized rent strikes. So far, few people have advocated rent strikes and, as far as I know, I am one of those few.

In London, the Greater London Council (GLC), which was controlled by the Tories (hard to believe but the Tories only liked the GLC when it was run by their fellow travellers), was particularly zealous in implementing the rent increases. I found this article by Ian Macdonald on marxists.org in which he says:

The Greater London Council is Britain’s biggest landlord. There are about 242,000 tenants involved. On 7 December last year, the chairman of the GLC Housing Committee announced the Tories’ new rent scheme. Under the scheme, GLC tenants can expect their rents to increase by 5s in the £ in October 1968, a further 5s in the £ in October 1969, and an extra 4s in 1970. A tenant now paying £4 per week, will be paying £6 16s in 1970, and tenants in some of the newer flats will be paying as much as £10 per week. In addition, lodger charges are to rise, and central heating and car parking will be more expensive.

That is not all. In future, less money is to be spent on repairs, and tenants will have to do their own interior decorating. In this way, the Council hopes to save £850,000 on repairs, and £500,000 on decorating. It also means the sack for some of the Council’s 6,000 electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and other maintenance men.

The GLC have made much of their intended rebate scheme. But the only way to get a rebate will be to go through a means test; no tenant, say the GLC, need disclose his income to the Council unless he is applying for a rebate. In fact, very few of the 240,000 GLC tenants will benefit. Here is an example of a family which will not benefit. The tenant earns £12 per week, and his wife £5. They have a child and a lodger, both over 21, and now pay a rent of £2 16s 8d per week. In 1970, they will pay £4 16s 4d and get no rebate.

You can see this happening right now. All Housing Associations have increased their rents above the rate of inflation and, furthermore, they have duly bowed to the government’s diktats and are letting out properties for market rents. Local authorities, too, have increased their rents. One of those councils is Hammersmith and Fulham – Cameron and Pickles’s favourite council – which has palmed off the management of its stock to Pinnacle and placed income restrictions on those people applying for or living in one of their properties.

Last year Hammersmith & Fulham announced:

Trailblazing Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) Council is to be the first local authority in the country to simultaneously introduce fixed term social housing tenancies and a maximum income cap for people wishing to access the housing register.

The flagship council will be ripping up the social housing rule book from April 2013 when it will introduce a number of radical policies which seek to increase low-cost homeownership, tackle the social and economic divide in the borough and give a far greater priority for council housing to people who are making a community contribution.

H&F, has the fourth highest property prices in the UK and one of the highest proportions of social housing in London as a proportion of total housing, with around 34 per cent social rented.

That compares to a London average of 25 per cent and a West London average of 21.5 per cent. Just over two per cent of the borough’s housing is intermediate.

H&F is also one of the first councils in the country to get back into building homes, after a 30 year absence. These properties are sold at a discounted market rate to those on low to middle incomes who live or work in the borough and might struggle otherwise to get onto the property ladder.

Notice how this article tells us that the council is “trailblazing”. As for its claim that it’s “building homes”, it is building homes but not for those on low incomes.  Last year the council announced  that it would be building 25 new (yes, 25) homes for those foolish enough to buy them. But there’s worse to come in this article:

Those households earning above £40,200 will generally not be eligible to access the housing register. Instead, they will be offered advice on other housing options including joining the Council’s HomeBuy Register.

This new way of working will replace an antiquated and inefficient system that created false hopes and expectations.

The council and the government’s solution to the housing crisis (and let’s face, it is a crisis) is to stimulate a potentially disastrous property bubble. The HomeBuy scheme aims to achieve this, in spite of the council’s denial. Ian Macdonald:

Instead of directly attacking this problem, the GLC and the Government talk rubbish about ‘well-off Council tenants’ being subsidised. In fact, every penny that is contributed to housing out of rates or from the Government goes straight into the pockets of the money lenders, landowners and builders. If this element were removed, Council rents would be cut to less than a quarter of their present levels without anything coming from the ratepayers or the Government.

Who says history doesn’t repeat itself? H&F Council wants to go further and bases its approach on the widely-discredited and evidence free report produced by its former leader, Stephen Greenhalgh and his partner John Moss:

Currently most social housing tenants have the right to stay for life unless the tenancy is brought to an end because of a breach. Once the tenant passes away, the right of succession passes onto a family member even if the housing need of the individual is less than other potential applicants.

The council believes that this does not promote personal aspiration or provide tenants with any incentive to try to move into home-ownership and fails to take into account the fact that a household’s need for social housing may be temporary.

From next year, the council will issue fixed-term tenancies of five years for new social housing lettings. This would be reduced to two years in certain cases.

Existing tenants will be unaffected by the new proposals. New tenancies in sheltered accommodation and for those with special housing or health needs will still be on a secure basis.

Two year tenancies will be issued for those with a history of antisocial behaviour and for those between the ages of 18 to 25.

So what Wilson’s Labour government failed to achieve in 1968 has now been enthusiastically adopted by the Tories. The only real difference between then and now is that the classism is turbo-charged and more blatant than ever.

As for those who doubt the effectiveness of rent strikes, Macdonald writes:

It is true that badly organised or isolated rent strikes are usually defeated. But where the tenants are properly organised and show determination, they have in the past succeeded. In Glasgow in 1915, the strike was completely successful. In 1938-9, there were over 30 strikes in the East End of London demanding cuts in rents. All were successful. In 1939, 50,000 Birmingham municipal tenants defeated a differential rent scheme similar to the present GLC scheme after a 10-week strike. In the 1950s, Luton tenants managed to defeat a similar scheme. The GLC tenants can do the same, but there is no doubt that the battle will be tougher than anything in the past, since the Government’s whole prices and incomes policy is at stake.

The key, as always, is organization. These days, organizing rent strikes may be harder because of Housing Benefit. Yet, these payments have been replaced by something called the ‘Local Housing Allowance’. The Tories also want people on low incomes to pay Council Tax. This is nothing less than a form of economic feudalism, in which the poor, the vulnerable and those earning less than £40,000 are forced into a 21st century version of serfdom.

John Grayson, writing for Inside Housing says:

The campaigning of tenants between 1968 and 1973 had an effect. Many councils began negotiating with tenants’ organisations for the first time. The Association of London Housing Estates drafted the first tenants’ charter in 1970. Three years later Dick Leonard, a Labour MP, introduced (unsuccessfully) the Council Housing (Tenants’ Representation) Bill.

Unfortunately the proto-neoliberal Labour government of Wilson and Callaghan decided to have another stab at crushing council tenants:

Between 1974 and 1979 the Labour government continued a policy of cuts in housing. There were often confrontations with councils and the National Co-ordinating Committee Against Housing Cuts organised a national campaign in 1975. In Liverpool the Tenants’ Co-ordinating Committee emerged as a federation for tenants and rent strikes were organised in protest at the council’s policies. The tenants were excluded from all council meetings.

Rents are increased, people are threatened with having their children taken from them and there’s the Bedroom Tax, another half-baked government idea to ‘solve’ the housing crisis. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that such a draconian measure will do anything other than hammer those who are already being squeezed by a high cost of living and stagnating incomes.

We want homes, not property ladders.

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Filed under 20th century, Conservative Party, Cuts, Government & politics, Hammersmith & Fulham Tories, History, History & Memory, Housing crisis, Labour, Local government, London

Criminalizing homelessness will not solve the housing crisis

Grant ‘Ratboy’ Shapps, friend of the landlord and enemy of the homeless

There has been a housing shortage in Britain since the end of WWII. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the shortage was so acute, that ex-servicemen and their families took to occupying empty buildings. In 1969, the London Street Commune occupied a mansion at 144 Piccadilly to draw attention to the housing shortage.  But the idea of squatting has a much older history, that goes back to the Peasants Revolt in 1381. The Diggers, who were a proto-socialists/anarchists active between 1649 and 1650, also occupied and cultivated waste and common land and encouraged others to pull down the enclosures. But they found themselves persecuted by landowners and many were imprisoned. In the aftermath, the enclosure of common land was accelerated by the passage of further Inclosure Acts, which, by the late 18th Century, had effectively wiped out most of the common land in the country, thus forcing people off the land and into the cities.

British property laws are some of the most arcane in the world and tend to favour the landowner and other moneyed interests. In short, they are a relic of feudalism and, to my knowledge, these property laws have never once been modified. Where else in the world would you find the archaic notion of a leasehold property? We now have shared-ownership schemes which seem to be an extension of the leasehold property but with one difference: you continue to pay rent to a landlord, thus meaning that you will never own the property even if you manage to pay off the mortgage.

This government, like those before it, rather than deal with the housing crisis, prefers to take a sledgehammer to crack a nut and in the process they make people suffer. The new law against squatting criminalizes those who do not have a roof over their head. The Tories, particularly, see squatters purely as criminals. Never mind that rents in the private sector have soared, with landlords raking in massive amounts of money while ignoring the condition of the buildings that  they’re letting out. Council waiting lists are huge and Housing Associations won’t take you unless you’ve been through a local authority first. In short, housing provision in Britain is limited to those who have large salaries and if you don’t have one of those, you’re stuck.

Housing Minister, Grant Shapps,  a man not blessed with a great deal of intellectual talent (like the rest of his party) said on the BBC Website,

For too long, hardworking people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.

No longer will there be so-called ‘squatters’ rights’. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.

Shapps falls back on the well-worn phrase “hardworking people”. It’s as if to suggest that those who squat are not “hardworking”. He uses the word like a magical incantation. In many cases, squatters have actually improved the buildings that they have occupied. But never let the facts get in the way of the narrative, eh Ratboy? Better to fill up our prisons with those whose only crime is to be homeless and then slap them with a £5000 fine, thereby forcing them deeper into penury.

The government continues to lie about the scale of the housing problem. Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt (another rhyming slang) said,

Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said homelessness was at the lowest level for 28 years and the government was spending £400m a year on homelessness and £164m on bringing about 10,000 empty homes back into use.

I’d be interested to know who Blunt arrived at this figure. Furthermore, I have seen no evidence that this government is bringing empty properties “back into use”. I used to know of such a property in Hubert Grove in Clapham North in London. Out of curiosity I decided to track down the landlord, who I discovered was living in Tooting and owned several properties, all of which were in a derelict state. Landlords such as these are the real criminals.

Property in this country has always been subject to civil law. Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act comes into force at midnight, making it an offence to break into a property with the intention of squatting. Nowhere Towers wonders what other civil laws the government wants to convert to criminal laws.

There’s a sympathetic article here by Robert Elms, who was once a squatter. Indeed, I too, have been a squatter and let me tell you, it’s no fun being homeless.

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The affordable housing canard

The NuLab government was always talking about ‘affordable housing’. I took this to mean ‘low cost housing available to buy’. Blair, Brown and the others were loath to talk about social housing; it was as if those two words had become profanities.

Dave Hill nails it on the head in his Guardian blog.  He writes,

Shelter says that government figures show that the average income of households entering into the “shared ownership” form of LCHO in London is over £33,000 a year and those entering the “shared equity” form is approximately £40,000 a year. When you consider that the average individual wage in London is £28,000 a year you begin to get a sense of how high cost these low cost schemes can be, even for people or households with quite good incomes.

The shared ownership scheme that NuLab rolled out has clearly not solved the housing crisis. There is a reason why the last government and this one are wedded to the idea of shared ownership: it provides good looking figures for the nation’s GDP and makes money for the expanded financial sector.

In the 1930’s, the only people who could afford mortgages were the well-off.  The vast majority of working class people rented privately.  Some councils such as Liverpool City Council, built huge estates like Norris Green in the 1930’s to house working class families. My grandparents moved from an overcrowded cottage in West Derby to this new estate.

Social tenants pay rent, they are not a drain on the economy as has been suggested by ignorant Conservative ideologues like Hammersmith & Fulham’s Stephen Greenhalgh.

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Heard the Tory joke about social mobility?

I is biggin' up my estate and my bloods, innit?

Yesterday, David Cameron announced that council homes should not be for life. It’s fine for him to say this, he is the illegitimate descendant of royalty and, like his toff pals in the cabinet,  has never had any need for social housing (or welfare benefits). But the question remains, why force people into buying property when they clearly cannot afford to do so? There is no logic and no sense to this announcement. Why am I not surprised?

Earlier on BBC Breakfast, the Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, attempted to soften his leader’s line by saying “If you live in a council house now, this won’t affect you”. I’m not sure what’s going on here. First Cameron says that the security of tenure will be removed from social housing tenants, then his minister says that it isn’t.

Shapps also said that the government would make it possible for council tenants to swap homes. I hate to burst your bubble, Grant but this already exists and it has existed for some time. I understand he’s talking about a “wider swap choice” but what does he mean by “choice” anyway? Is this a sugar coating?

“That’s why I’m putting tenants in the driving seat, with a new opportunity to see people like them looking to exchange social homes not just in their area but across the country, through a new National Home Swap Scheme.”

Ah, yes…the old canard of devolving power from the centre. So how will this new National Home Swap Scheme differ from those schemes already in place? Offering ‘choice’ of swap schemes will not solve the housing crisis.

Cameron has admitted that there will be a ‘big argument’ (I think that’s an understatement). The Independent notes that,

The “big argument” that the Prime Minister foresaw began almost as soon as he had spoken, with critics pointing out that his government plans to push house building down to its lowest level in almost a century, when there are already 4.5 million on housing waiting lists. Next year, it is expected that fewer than 100,000 new homes will be built, for the first time since 1923, because of cuts in public spending. The National Housing Federation has forecast that the cuts will add 350,000 to the already swollen waiting lists.

A comment on this article reveals some shocking ignorance about council house allocation.

The reality is that people who have just arrived in this country are often pushed to the front of the queue.

Wrong, there is no active policy among local authorities that discriminates foreigners over those who have lived here all their lives.  This kind of myth feeds into the governments opposition to social housing.

A spokesperson for Shelter said,

“We do not believe the big question in housing policy is security of tenure for new tenants. The prime minister has sidestepped the fundamental cause of our housing crisis – the desperate lack of affordable housing supply.”

Quite, the housing shortage is not being addressed. It is being sidestepped, ignored and dismissed.

Nick Clegg, take note: there are rumblings of disquiet in your party, as this blogger argues,

It’s not simply the homeless or those in desperate need of a decent home. Many families will never be able to afford to buy their own home, yet face many years in unsuitable and overcrowded accommodation because of a shortage of affordable homes to rent.

As this blog points out, things would be no better under Labour.

We knew we were in trouble no matter who won the last election.

Another four years of New Labour and the injust and intrusive ‘Big Brother’ state and the continuation of the destruction of the Labour movement, or the toffs of the Conservative party with their sole interest, the propping up of the rich to the detriment of the poor in our society…

This blogger reminds us of where it all started

The Conservatives have always hated this, thinking that tenants in council housing always favour Labour. Thatcher tried to get around this by offering council tenants the right to buy their own homes. And those tenants living in very nice council estates snapped the offer up, but millions of others, living in less desirable housing, did not. Indeed, all Thatcher really achieved was in trapping those at the very bottom of the social housing ladder where they were forever. Because, having sold off the desirable council properties, her government stopped building any new council housing.

Of course the real rationale behind this is to create more Tory voters, this is what Thatcher thought when she introduced Right to Buy. The same blogger notes what Shapps said in defence of this new announcement,

“It is time to consider whether our affordable housing system can be better used and whether one of the benefits would be greater social mobility.”

This is not designed to create social mobility at all. That is a myth and smacks of Orwellian doublespeak but then, I have already identified two recent examples of the Conservative penchant for Orwellian language.

Let’s remind ourselves where the current mood for ending social housing comes from: the Tory-controlled London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Johann Hari writes,

People who took this at face value were startled by the first act of the Conservatives on assuming power – a crackdown on the homeless. They immediately sold off 12 homeless shelters, handing them to large property developers. The horrified charity Crisis was offered premises by the BBC to house the abandoned in a shelter over the Christmas period at least. The council refused permission. They said the homeless were a “law and order issue”, and a shelter would attract undesirables to the area. With this in mind, they changed the rules so that the homeless had to “prove” to a sceptical bureaucracy that they had nowhere else to go – and if they failed, they were turned away.

There is no such thing as ‘caring conservatism’; it is, like so many other slogans, a meaningless coupling of words.

I found this riposte to Hari from Hammersmith & Fulham councillor, Harry Phibbs (Phibbs by name…).

The reduction in the number of homeless hostels reflects anachievement in reducing the numbers in temporary accommodation. This is in line with the “good practice” objective the Government has set for Councils to stop using hostels. Does Hari think families should languish in hostels?

Nonsense, you’ve simply displaced the homeless to neighbouring boroughs by reducing the number of homeless hostels.

Here’s Phibbs in another blog

Would it be politically acceptable to end the security of tenure for Council tenants? The moral case that help should go to those in greatest need is strong. But what of the politics? I think the crucial point is for the changes to apply to new tenancies.

I find it amusing the way in which Tories will talk about ‘morality’ as though they had a monopoly on the word. But, as Nietzsche reminds us, when people talk about morality, they’re referring to their morality (or their own amorality) which they try to will force on others.

Phibbs again,

Hari’s claim that holding polo in Hurlingham Park has been at the expense of facilities there is the opposite of the truth. The deal with the World Polo Association is bringing in £170,000 in revenue to the Council over three years plus projects to improve the park and the opportunity for children from local primary schools to have free tickets to the tournament and attend sessions to learn polo themselves. The Labour councillors have just responded with a lot of ignorant class prejudice but the open minded can see the benefits.

I find the use of the phrase “ignorant class prejudice” ironic given the fact that this government is now engaged in an ideological battle to destroy the working class and remove from them any dignity or self-respect that they have. The desire to forge new model Tory voters out of working class people can only end in catastrophe.

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Filed under Big Society, Government & politics, Housing crisis

The Welsh Assembly government suspends Right to Buy

The Welsh Assembly government has followed the Scottish Executive’s lead and suspended the Right to Buy buy council homes. However it is unlikely that England will follow suit.

Right to Buy (RTB) was a key plank in the Conservative Election manifesto of 1979 and was introduced by the Thatcher government in the form of the Housing Act of 1980. RTB led to the sale of hundreds of thousands of council homes, none of which were replaced. Local authorities were prohibited from spending capital receipts on building new homes. This policy is directly responsible for the housing crisis that we are witnessing today.

This blogger recognizes the hidden financial cost of RTB but also warns that

…this change in policy might be a little too late since many local authorities have already undertaken (or plan to undertake) housing stock transfers to other agencies. In 1980, there were around 300,000 homes in council ownership, now, that is down to around 156,000. Thus the impact of the policy might not be as great as desired.

Inside Housing, on the other hand is pleased and tells us that this legislation will apply to areas of “high housing need”. Though it comes as no surprise to learn that the Westminster government was against this. I think we know why.

In London, as in the rest of England, there is a huge housing shortage. But the government appears to have set its face against building new social housing here, which it wrongly blames for all manner of social ills.  But wouldn’t a program of house-building benefit the economy in the long term? Pity the government doesn’t see it that way.

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