Friday, 18 January 2019

Great Britain: Once again and endlessly “The Housing Question”

To start with

In his text The Housing Question (originally published in the form of articles in 1872 and republished as a pamphlet in 1887), Friedrich Engels wrote: “Whence then comes the housing shortage? How did it arise? [… It] is a necessary product of the bourgeois social order; that it cannot fail to be present in a society in which the great masses of the workers are exclusively dependent upon wages, that is to say, on the sum of foodstuffs necessary for their existence and for the propagation of their kind; in which improvements of the existing machinery continually throw masses of workers out of employment; in which violent and regularly recurring industrial vacillations determine on the one hand the existence of a large reserve army of unemployed workers, and on the other hand drive large masses of the workers temporarily unemployed onto the streets; in which the workers are crowded together in masses in the big towns, at a quicker rate than dwellings come into existence for them under existing conditions; in which, therefore, there must always be tenants even for the most infamous pigsties; and in which finally the house owner in his capacity as capitalist has not only the right, but, in view of the competition, to a certain extent also the duty of ruthlessly making as much out of his property in house rent as he possibly can. In such a society the housing shortage is no accident; it is a necessary institution and it can be abolished together with all its effects on health, etc., only if the whole social order from which it springs is fundamentally refashioned. That, however, bourgeois socialism dare not know. It dare not explain the housing shortage from the existing conditions. And therefore nothing remains for it but to explain the housing shortage by means of moral phrases as the result of the baseness of human beings, as the result of original sin, so to speak” 1.

 

The quotation serves well to bring into focus what we shall try to demonstrate in the rest of this article concerning the housing situation in Great Britain, taking up again and developing two articles that appeared on these pages in 2015 and again in 20162. In the former, we wrote: “London and other medium-to-large scale cities, especially their city centres, may seem like so many open-air building yards (excavations, cranes, scaffolding for horrible constructions issuing from the nightmares of some richly paid superstar architect: building yards nonetheless subject to the peaks and dips of the market, with long pauses and sudden accelerations). But the reality hidden behind (or beneath?) them is quite different. As has been happening for a good century and a half now, in Great Britain as elsewhere, the housing issue is once again cropping up: the other face of land rent, building speculation by capital in its perennial, breathless search for oxygen...”. We recalled the unceasing rise in house prices, the increase in the number of families that “prefer” private rental (but with a rent that is always on the rise) to buying their own house, an estimate of the 250 thousand new houses a year needed to meet the needs of the British population (whilst only half of them are actually built), the state of neglect of a large part of public housing with its deterioration and lack of maintenance, the huge rise in the numbers of the homeless… And on the subject of homelessness, we concluded the second article as follows: “Meanwhile, the situation of the homeless is becoming more and more of a tragedy, in particular that of the weaker and more vulnerable sectors, such as single mothers and children. […] the numbers of new ‘social rent’ apartments financed by the Government continue to dwindle, dropping to fewer than 10 thousand last year, or 70% fewer than five years previously (The Observer, 18/9/2016); at the same time, the rents in ‘affordable rent’ apartments have gone up and the combination of the two ‘phenomena’ is producing authentic ghettoization by age ranges, with over-50-year-olds gradually being pushed out towards the suburbs or to rural areas and the younger generation struggling to get by in houses where the rents are constantly on the rise (+5,2% compared to 2015, right up to record figures of around 900 pounds sterling a month, in England and Wales: The Guardian, 9/9/201 6). Then there is the truly dramatic situation of families obliged to live in ‘temporary accommodation’: in London alone 52 thousand family units, it appears, with a total of 90 thousand children: family units mostly consisting of single and/or pregnant mothers […].. The guidelines here indicate that no family unit should be housed for more than six months in this ‘temporary accommodation’ (often commissioned by the municipalities from private people with no scruples, with the foreseeable consequences resulting from overcrowding, poor hygiene and little or no maintenance, etc.). The reality is quite different, particularly in large cities like London, where it can be seen that over half of these family units remain for periods of up to two years. The consequences are easy to imagine!”. And has the situation changed?

Yes: for the worse and dramatically.

The fire at Grenfell Tower, London: mass murder, class murder

On the night between 13th and 14th June 2017 a fire broke out on the third floor of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower, in a neighbourhood consisting wholly of social housing, made up of other, similar high-rise buildings at the heart of the rich borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In just thirty minutes the whole tower (129 apartments) had become one monstruous bonfire. 71 people burned or suffocated to death – men, women, children, old people. This is the official figure but in all probability it has been underestimated: it appears, in fact, that the building was also inhabited by numerous unregistered immigrants. On glancing through the official list of victims, the names speak for themselves: only eight refer to British or European origins3

The building, dating from the early 1970s and fitted with lifts (not to be used in case of fire) and a single, central staircase, was managed on behalf of the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council by a mixed association of Kensington and Chelsea tenants, heads of local government and independent figures, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the largest association of this type in Great Britain, which manages something like 10 thousand social housing units in this neighbourhood alone. Which, however! is a luxury area of wealth and large mansions, next to and surrounding black spots of extreme poverty4: the social composition of the association is therefore easy to imagine… For the purpose of contrasting the KCTMO, a grassroots organization in the lower class neighbourhood, the Grenfell Action Group, was set up and ever since 2013 had been accusing the KCTMO of being a “mini-Mafia”, criticising the conditions of the entire neighbourhood and even declaring that: “only an incident that results of serious loss of life”, such as a fire in one of the tower blocks, might perhaps be dramatic enough to lead to a change5. The grassroots organization’s position was also due to the fact that, between 2012 and 2016, restructuring work had been carried out on the building and, because of the way it was done and the materials used, had worried and perplexed the tenants and the Action Group itself, which had spoken up on several occasions. It is not our intention to go at length into the features of the restructuring work done on the building: suffice it to mention that, in order to improve its appearance (i.e. so as not to be an eyesore in the eyes of the rich residents living only a few hundred yards away) the tower block had been coated with panels made of highly inflammable material and that alternative designs with a view to limiting the damage in case of fire had been turned down because they were … too costly 6.

The 320 family nucleuses (including over 200 children) that survived but lost everything are at present “guests” in hotels – and probably candidates for a life on the streets in the future 7. Today a tremendous blackened trunk, still towering over the gleaming mansions of wealthy London, Grenfell Tower remains to tell us that where the law of profit rules, human life must take second place and can be sacrificed 8.

But the mass and class murder at Grenfell Tower risks making us forget all the rest: not only the conditions of dozens or hundreds of similar tower blocks, built from second-rate materials with scarce or hurried (or no!) maintenance work and therefore providing a “standard of living” that is easy to imagine, but also the “normal” conditions of most of Great Britain’s proletariat with regard to the immediate need for a place to live.

A brief look backwards …

At this point a brief look back to the past must be taken, to help put the question into focus. Around the mid 1970s (the dating is important: these are the years in which the post-war period of capital expansion comes to an end and the crisis of over-production of goods and capitals explodes), on the one hand a significant, progressive slowdown in the building of new houses by local councils occurs in Great Britain (first and foremost of social housing): from half the number of new houses built in 1970 to a miserable 1.25% in the year 2015-16 9; and on the other hand a series of profound changes in legislation relating to the housing sector take place. Starting from the Housing Act of 1980, associated with Thatcher, (the so-called “Right-to-Buy Act”, which made it possible to buy a house and claim strong tax incentives), the rush to purchase/sell social housing, initially managed in the boroughs by the local councils, saw no end: by 1987 over a million had been sold. The law also contained measures that made it into a real trap: for example, the local councils were not authorized to spend more than 25% of the income from sales on restoring or extending the housing they managed or on carrying out the necessary maintenance on those they continued to own. In addition the gates were thrown open to a massive influx of speculative capital and private businesses at all levels, with the chains of contracting and subcontracting (in all fields: from building to maintenance, etc.) that we are all well aware of. The short- and long-term effects can easily be imagined. With the fall of the Tory government, the next Labour government (Blair’s!) blithely continued the same policy of deregulation and growth of the private sector, with the development of an authentic building lobby, later setting up the Tenant Management Organisations (TMO) previously mentioned.

This is not all, of course, demonstrating that every aspect of “life” in the capitalist mode of production is closely connected. Indeed, it is evident that when the proletariat is transformed into small house owners, the effect is not only to relieve the public authorities (the State and, bit by bit, all its various parts) of unproductive expenses, but also – and from the point of view of the class struggle, particularly – to put this proletariat in a position where it can be blackmailed, i.e. transforming it into “obedient citizens”, respectful of the law, passive towards the State and the authorities, individually involved in meeting “home expenses” (and very often strangled by them), with loans obtained from banks to make the purchase bringing all their attendant problems. To sum up, it becomes one more anti-proletarian weapon wheeled onto the battlefield with the effect of dividing proletarians, intimidating them and making them cautious and passive towards the needs of any class struggle: how can they waste hours and days of work on strikes, when they have a mortgage to pay off? How can they clash with the State and its accomplices, if they need an immaculate criminal record? What is to happen if the company they work for fires them or relocates or lays off workers? Etc, etc. It must not be forgotten that the policy of providing “incentives for house purchases” (with all its ideological and material implications) takes place simultaneously with the rise in proletarian battles in Great Britain which, after so many generous episodes (the battles by the workers, in particular the immigrants, at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories, lasting two years between 1976 and 1978, to quote one example), culminated in the huge miners’ strike of 1984-85, widely controlled by the Unions and fiercely repressed by the State: once again the carrot (an illusion) and the stick (a reality).

and a look all around

A little before the end of 2017, on one of the numerous building yards dismembering entire areas of London that had attracted building speculation, towered the building company’s slogan: “We’re helping to solve the housing crisis by creating 100,000 new homes. Because homes matter”. Even admitting that these 100 000 homes see the light of day, no proletarian could ever afford one, even if s/he wanted to. And that slogan, compared to the living conditions in London and Great Britain in general, sounds like authentic and cynical mockery.

Let’s stick to some official figures (from “Local Government Inform” of 16/6/2017). In London alone, the number of flats belonging to local councils and discreetly termed not decent, i.e. not up to inhabitable standards, touches on 40 thousand; in the whole of England (excluding Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the figure doubles. Anyone can do the sums, reckoning family units of two-three-four people and coming to a conclusion on their living conditions… As to the condition of homelessness (which ranges from those sleeping out on the street to those in temporary accomodation which, as we have seen, is more or less definitive and a prelude to … the streets), the figures are just as striking. A report published in August 2017 by the Heriot Watt University of Edinburgh 10 lists a series of “conditions” defined core homelessness, which are useful to remember because they reveal just how tragic the situation is: rough sleeping; sleeping in tents, cars, public transport; squatting (unlicensed, insecure; unsuitable non-residential accomodation, e.g., ‘beds in sheds’); hostel residents; users of night/winter shelters; DV victims in Refuge; unsuitable temporary accomodation (bed and breakfast accomodation, hotels, etc.); ‘sofa surfing’ (staying with others - not family - on short-term/insecure basis/wanting to move, in crowded conditions: students not included). 160 thousand people throughout Great Britain found themselves in one of these situations in 2016, with a 33.4% rise compared to 2011. And the number is forecast to increase! These are official figures which thus (due to the evident difficulty of monitoring the situation) are in all probability lower than the real ones: indeed in a second report, drawn up by the charitable organization Shelter, the number even doubles, emphasizing what is defined hidden homelessness, the condition in which those who have no home wander from one place to another. This is a scenario that, despite having its explosive centre in London, is spreading increasingly to the rest of the country: in Manchester one person out of 154 is homeless; in Bristol one out of 170 11. It is a scenario reminiscent of the industrial revolution – one described by Engels so significantly in The Condition of the Working Class in England, published over one hundred and fifty years ago…

What are the answers to the “question”?

Added to other problematic issues (unemployment, erosion of salaries, the progressive dismantling of the national health service, etc.), the “housing question” contributes to creating a potentially explosive social situation in Great Britain – Brexit or not. There is no lack of organizations taking action to tackle it: for example, the Radical Housing Network based in London lists 27 different local bodies that are active in the city on this terrain 12; and similar bodies have grown up and are spreading in other cities. But on the one hand there is not yet any real, general, coordinated movement, as partly existed in the ‘70s when the crisis had begin to hit hard: and this shows what a burning defeat had come in successive years and decades. On the other hand, localism (always the ‘bete noire’ of the English – and not only English - working-class movement) makes these attempts to respond to the attacks of Capital weak and ineffective in the long term. It is not merely a question of geographical localism: it is the tendency to circumscribe problems, isolating one from the other, that must be fought and overcome. The prospect we are working for, in contact with the class wherever our forces make this possible, is a return to the scene of militant territorial organisms, which will take on the task of dealing with all aspects of the proletarian condition: from working conditions to the housing question, from gas and electricity bills to public transport, from the organization of the unemployed to the defence of proletarians and the proletarian struggle from attacks by the bourgeois State’s legal and illegal gangs, and so on. We know quite well that these territorial organisms will not result from plans drawn up around a table and it is not the task of the revolutionary party to create them out of nothing: they will (they must) be the result of a whole series of battles by proletarians to defend themselves from the attack of Capital. The task of the revolutionary party is to spread the “slogan”, revealing to the more aware proletarian avant-gardes the absolute need for them and linking them to the widest possible protest against the misdeeds of a mode of production that has outlived its time, spreading bloodshed and destruction in its death throes, and that must therefore be overcome, to be replaced at last by a classless society.

January 2018

 

2 “Something Is Rotten in the UNited Kingdom. Notes on the Social Situation”, The Internationalist, n.3/June 2016; “The Rot Is Growing in the United Kingdom”, The Internationalist, n.4/Summer 2017.

3 The Guardian, 17/11/2017.

4 The Guardian, 13/11/2017: “A damning report on inequality in Kensington and Chelsea has highlighted the close proximity of extreme wealth and poverty in the area around Grenfell Tower, revealing that in some parts of the borough average incomes can ‘drop 10 times as you cross a street’”.

5 Cfr. Doug Thorpe, “Public Housing After Grenfell”, in Transform. A Journal of the Radical Left, n.3/2017. It must be remembered that similar tragedies occurred in the past: for instance, in May 1968, an entire corner of another tower (Ronan Point, 21 floors, in East London) crumbled after a gas explosion on a fourth-floor flat, causing four deaths and several injured: the ensuing enquire revealed that severe structural deficiencies might have caused the building’s collapse, even only in presence of strong winds! (cfr. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronan_Point). A series of other enquiries revealed structural weaknesses in several council-house buildings in London: some of them were subsequently pulled down. It seems, however, that the possibility of a fire was never taken into account. More recently, in July 2009, another tower caught faire in Camberwell (London), causing six deaths and twenty injuries, and similar “disasters” took place in Liverpool, Stevenage, Irvine…

6 Cfr. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grenfell_Tower_fire. Similar panels are installed in at least 200 towers in Great Britain.

7 Another dreadful consequence of the catastrophe is the succession of attemped suicides among the survivors, in the following months: at least some twenty, of which one resulting in death (source: see footnote 7). Not only deaths and physical injuries, but the psychological ones as well, are the end product of these “disasters” caused by the law of profit and real-estate speculation – in a word, by capitalism.

8 To this end, we like to refer the reader to two of our classic texts, dealing with dwelling conditions under the capitalist mode of production: “Specie umana e crosta terrestre”, Il programma comunista, n.6/1952; “Spazio contro cemento”, Il programma comunista, n.1/1953. Both can be found in our website www.partitocomunistainternazionale.org.

9 All data come from Doug Thorpe’s articled, quoted above.

10Crisis – Homelessness Projections: Core Homelessness in Great Britain - Summary Report”: cfr.

https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/237582/crisis_homelessness_projections_2017.pdf.

11 “The Guardian”, 8/11/2017.

12 Cfr. iThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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