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International Socialism, Autumn 1965


Editorial 1

The Englishman’s Castle


From International Socialism, No.22, Autumn 1965, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The City Press thinks that public spending, particularly local authority debts, lies at the root of the sterling crisis. But ‘new developments give confidence that Mr Wilson is at all costs determined to maintain the value of the pound ... From the national point of view it is a good thing that the Socialist government is in office’.

We all know the problems – they are the stock in trade of any politician in opposition. Three and a half million houses lacking basic amenities; four million houses over 80 years old; land prices up over 40 per cent in five years; interest payments amounting to more than half the cost of a new house; housing construction standards falling. If pre-World War I houses are to be cleared in the next 20 years, as well as other needs (road clearance, increased households etc), we need 475,000 houses built every year. Actual figures have been oscillating round the 300,000 mark. Labour was going to tackle all this with great urgency:

‘We shall go ahead with a sustained programme to provide more houses at prices that ordinary people can afford. Labour will: Introduce a policy of lower interest rates for housing. This policy of specially favourable rates will apply both to intending owner-occupiers and to local authorities ... Accelerate slum clearance ... Labour will also increase the building of new houses, both for rent and for sale ... we regard 400,000 as a reasonable target...’ (Election Manifesto).

But Mr Wilson is ‘at all costs determined to uphold the value of the pound’. Money for local authorities has been getting tighter and dearer. Loans falling due for repayment after six months and more were only being renewed on a day-to-day basis. Then came Callaghan’s ‘Little Budget’ and local authorities were told to keep down their expenditure and reduce the volume of mortgage loans to their average over the last three years. The Greater London Council, Camden, St Albans and dozens of other authorities have put an immediate end to home loans. Building Societies, which by higher rates have attracted back some of the money which local authorities had been borrowing, envisage raising their charges yet again in the autumn. The Estates Gazette thinks that ‘no-one should contemplate buying a house unless he has saved at least £500’.

Harried on all sides the authorities are turning on the council tenants. Council tenants already pay on average more than either controlled or uncontrolled private tenants (medians of £65, £40 and £56 respectively), they pay on average higher rents than private tenants in proportion to the rateable value of their houses, and their rents have been rising faster. Many of them have paid several times over for their homes – but someone must bear the burden of the vast costs of buying land and putting up new buildings, and paying the interest on both these costs. The GLC is raising its rents by an average of nine shillings over the next three years and introducing a ‘social aid scheme’ (i.e. differential rents). Southwark Council (Labour) is introducing rent increases of up to one pound (with differential rebates), and ten Labour councillors walked out of the meeting in protest when this was announced. The leader of the council who proposed the move was as a consequence forced to resign the chairmanship of Bermondsey Labour Party. Yet, as he said, ‘My party came here with a promise to build 7,000 more dwellings in five years. We can’t build without paying for them’. In Brent-wood (Essex), 500 council tenants met and passed a vote of no confidence in their council, after the third rent rise in 17 months (these are just a few examples, culled – except for the GLC – from one week’s press).

It is beginning to appear now as if the Rent Act will have only a marginal effect and only on the worst excesses – for the Minister is coming round to the view that a ‘fair rent’ is that which is normally being paid in an area (as opposed to that currently being asked for vacant properties).

‘The objective is at any rate, far less distasteful than what might have been assumed before the election ... It is difficult to believe that if really fair rents are fixed ... something like 300,000 tenants will have their rents reduced, as suggested by one Government spokesman’ (Estates Gazette).

Rents go up, mortgages go up. Council and owner-occupied houses are both squeezed; private lettings get only a marginal relief in rent and no significant new constructions are to be undertaken. In the first quarter of this year, the total figures for dwellings built were some 7,000 up on the same quarter last year. In the second quarter, the increase was only 2,000 on the parallel quarter. With the introduction of the latest squeeze it seems doubtful if even last year’s total of houses built will be reached by the end of 1965.

Housing was Labour’s centrepiece offering to the electorate, and it meshed with a deep feehng of frustration amongst people – popular support is theoretically overwhelming if the Government had chosen to make housing the centrepiece of its administrative policies as it was of its electoral programme. It chose, by contrast, to accept the City’s interpretation of the ‘possible’; it became, for The Economist, ‘Lord Cromer’s Poodle’ – City profits, profits on industrial activity, expenditure on services designed to help industry, to keep out immigrants or improve the police, and, above all, the futility of defence: all these came before housing in the list of priorities. The Labour leadership traded on popular frustration with, what seems now, cynical carelessness – anything was possible so long as the vote rolled in. Yet what it offered, it was not prepared even to try for – it has been shifted out of its promises with an ease hardly comprehensible, given the ordinary mythology of democratic pledges. All it has offered is the cry of ‘Wolf’, used by every Tory Government to escape doing anything which did not contribute to private profit. Wilson did not ‘fail’ because it is clear he did not try.

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