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International Socialism, December 1969/January 1970


Lionel Sims

The Squatters


From International Socialism (1st series), No.41, December 1969/January 1970, pp.4-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



A year has passed since the launching of the London Squatters Campaign. The significance is in the timing of that first occupation in Snaresbrook, East London. VSC was fast disappearing along with the autumn leaves, starved of any substantial gains or links with the British working class. It was four weeks after the October mobilisation and organised as a self-conscious attempt to overcome the isolation of the new young left by bringing the revolutionary hopes born out of VSC to bear upon the bread and butter issues of working-class reforms. What is more, squatting in 1968-9 appealed to the idealism of the homeless – for the homeless themselves to emulate the token occupations carried out by the socially aware.

For the revolutionary youth squatting transferred militancy from Grosvenor Square and the campus to the slums and the homeless. Squatting seemed everything for everybody. It had the self-reliance of student politics for a start, and was a significant advance on charities such as Shelter which rely on the passivity of the people they claim to represent.

And it did, after all, deal with issues on this side of the globe. In appearance, squatting was the revolutionaries’ ‘key’ to the working-class soul. Two claims were current at the time. First, that squatting was a solution to the housing problem and second, no less, that squatting could provoke mass working-class support of revolutionary proportions. Twelve months from those heady days, the key has yet to turn the lock.

The Housing Problem

The reasons are not so difficult to find, if only because of the intemperance of the claims. Shelter from nature’s elements is a relation between man and nature. In this sense the cave-dwellers’ housing problem is the same as the slum-dwellers’ housing problem insofar as nature has not been organised for human purposes. But the fact that luxury flats and slums can exist side by side is a social barrier to resolving the national problem. The productivity of industry is cramped inside a limited social form. The construction industry in capitalist society is subject to three social factors which ensure the creation of a housing problem.

A house or building is an immobile product, tailor-made to individual requirements and local considerations, and formed from bulky and unmanageable raw materials costly to transport. The difficulty in standardising and mechanising the construction industry necessitates a reliance on versatile labour rather than upon versatile machinery. Even if a labour-saving device appears, it may not be possible to introduce piecemeal for fear of disrupting the continuity of traditional operations which cannot be updated. The industry finds it difficult to absorb inventions built specially for its own purpose. Approximately 95 per cent of Britain’s builders are small, family-run concerns employing fewer than 50 workers. All this would be of little concern if homes were a social priority, but all manner of problems arise from the rigour of the capitalist market.

In 1958 the profit per employee in all manufacturing industry was £437, while for the construction industry alone profit per employee was £231. Therefore, employers in the construction industry received 53 per cent of the profit per employee received by employers in the manufacturing industry. In 1967 the profit per employee in manufacturing had risen to £990, but in construction to only £433, almost 10 per cent below the rate of increase in manufacturing. [1] With stagnating productivity in small parochially-minded units, the construction industry muddles by when the whole economy is doing well, but at the first sign of an economic reverse the industry is swamped by its own shortcomings. In 1961 there were 80 per cent more bankruptcies reported for building and contracting than for the whole of manufacturing industry. [2] In the last 18 months this proportion has increased. [3]

Besides the simple considerations of building costs, which vary very slowly, the rapid increase in non-building and administration costs, and land prices, has largely depended upon the rate of interest.

For a while between the middle fifties and early sixties the concentration of competition for land into the centres of the connurbations, and especially the metropolis, provided a yield for property investors of around 10-12 per cent, while they could borrow money at around 5-6 per cent rate of interest. The yield was regionally computed, but the rate of interest was nationally computed. While they remained out of step phenomenal profits were to be made for those in the right place at the right time. At least 110 people were in just that position to make over a million pounds. Harry Hyams was one of them. The land for Centre Point cost £1.2 million, while construction and interest charges on the loans for buying the land knocked costs up to £5 million. He is asking for a rent on the whole building of about £1,160,000 a year. For a 6½ per cent rate of return, stating the rent at this amount automatically states the value of Centre Point at about £16.7 million. If it stays empty then that is no problem since rising land values promise a future tenant willing to pay a rent which is at the moment exorbitant. A prospective profit of £11.7 million is worth a present stoical calm. [4]

But by the middle-sixties the rising rate of interest ate into the 4-5 per cent margin between the interest on loanable capital and yield on property investments. At the present rate of 10 per cent, interest charges have reduced the property investors’ profit margin down to a spartan 0-2 per cent. This does not mean the end of property speculation but its reappearance in a different form. In 1964 there were 183 property companies quoted on the stock exchange. At the moment there are 143, and the number is expected to fall to 20 large property companies. [5] In their place will be the sadder but much wiser institutions and local authorities who used to loan the funds for developers in the fifties, but who now are taking on developers’ functions. In this they will be far more successful than the many small developers, since their size and expert financial and planning departments can absorb the gossamer-thin difference between yield and interest rates. Most important of all, corporation tax is the stamp of death to property companies which distribute all their profits as dividends. Before 1965 a property company returned £44 out of every £100 profit after income and profits tax. Now with corporation tax as well it returns £30. For an institution such as a life assurance company acting as a developer, for every £100 rental income from their properties £63 is left after corporation tax, and for a pension fund the entire £100 is left unscathed. Just as in the fifties the Harry Hyams of this world diverted fantastic sums of money through prestige building projects and away from investment in working-class housing, so in the near future it will be the man from the Pru who juggles with the millions on the property market. In 1968 insurance companies had nearly £900 million and pension funds nearly £300 million for investment, of which 20 per cent, or £240 million, is for investment in building. Practically all this money will go into offices, shops and factories. [6]

Besides the particular problems of the product in building and the capitalist distortion of investment within the building industry, the third and most significant contradiction arises because the building industry, as part of the total capitalist economy, suffers as part of the depressed consumption fund. In terms of military priorities buildings have very little strategic significance, and in terms of the balance of payment problem homes and hospitals do not even rank consideration. Thus the government cut back in grants to the local authorities which operate mortgage schemes from £191 million in 1965-66 to £55 million for the current financial year. Spending on local authority council housing has been unable to keep up with debt charges. Expenditure on LA housing in England and Wales rose from £350 million in 1963-64 to £541 million in 1967-68, but 76 per cent (£146 million) of this increase did not go on producing houses at all, but to pay for the increase in debt charges. [7] The Treasury is also refusing to grant building companies the priority class for bank loans received by exporting companies. [8] On top of all this, customers to building societies begin contracts for the purchase by mortgage of a property, only to cancel the arrangement on finding the weight of deposit and payments too great for their wage-restrained income to bear. About a half of all provisional deals are discontinued in this way, which was almost unknown a few years ago. Rising administrative costs in a period of contraction for the building industry has been the death knell for many companies.

The social consequences have been disastrous. The total number of houses completed began to fall from 1967 and there is no prospect whatever of house-building picking up to its 1967 level until 1972.

Great Britain


Total Houses


Per Cent Increase
Over Previous Year







1969 (est.)



1970 (est.)



Two hundred thousand houses must be built each year just to ensure that the existing shortage does not increase. Beyond that, while in 1965 there were a straight 3.5 million slums, now there are 1.8 million houses unfit for human habitation and 4.5 million dwellings requiring repair, or lacking one or more of the basic amenities, or both. Yet the slum clearance programme and the number of improvement grants have shown no improvement. In 1968, 90,354 slum houses were cleared, almost exactly the same as in 1967 (90,239) which makes it just another 38 years before the present pool of slums are cleared. Further, the number of improvement grants are actually falling from 121,685 in 1964 to 114,216 in 1968. In the first half of 1969 the figure of 51,927 improvement grants was a 12.5 per cent reduction in the number granted in the first half of 1968. At this latter rate it would take 40 years to renovate the slums the Government consider worth modernising.

The recent freeze on building has hit private building. [9] Mortgage repayments in 1968 on an average-priced new house were £2.17s.0d. a week more than they were in 1964. The average price of a house rose from £3,470 to £4,782 [10] in the same period.

There has been no let-up in the government’s sabotage of the council housing building programme.

England and Wales


LA Housing Revenue Accounts
£ Million





From Rents




From Exchequer




From Rates








Total Income




Despite a rise in local authority housing expenditure of 12.5 per cent there was a 10.3 per cent fall in the number of council houses built between 1967 and 1968. Seventy-four per cent of that increased expenditure on less houses was raised by increasing rents.

The Housing Shortage and the Homeless

Irrespective of the form of tenure, everyone from owner-occupiers to the bedsitting population are part of the housing problem. In 1966, for all households in the UK, housing expenditure constituted 11½ per cent of total expenditure, and for all households in the Greater London area 14½ per cent. By 1968 both proportions had risen 1.2 per cent. However, for those households with a total income below £15 a week, housing expenditure constituted about 20 per cent of household expenditure in 1968 in UK, and above 25 per cent for £20 households in Greater London. [11] In Camden, north-west London, 45 per cent of those earning under £12 a week and 37 per cent of those earning £12-£15 a week and who rent unfurnished accommodation spend over one-third of their net income on rent. [12] Unable to buy their own homes, the waiting lists for a council house are almost as long as the list of Anthony Greenwood’s lies about housing. In London alone the number of families on council waiting lists has increased by 20,000 to nearly 170,000 in just over two years. [13] One wonders how the ‘lucky ones’ who obtain a house will cope if Camden’s example of letting council houses at rents based on rateable value will be followed. The cheapest of these estates now being built would need to be let at rents of over £10 a week to cover the full cost, or over £6.10s.0d. after deducting the Exchequer subsidy. [14]

The Labour Government inherited a housing problem of growing proportions, and gained office with the promise to do battle with the problem and, more concretely, to maintain 500,000 houses completed every year. Between the promise and the reality stands Mr. Greenwood, in a total spin. He has recently had the temerity to claim that by 1973 there will be a surplus of one million houses. He will soon be agreeing, along with Alan Day, ‘that we are still building far too many new houses’. [15]

Instead we are faced with the reality that the building industry cannot build houses! The ‘housing problem’ is a general problem that draws into itself practically all ranks of the population, not only the homeless but those in privately-owned accommodation, council-rented accommodation and privately rented accommodation are part of the housing problem. The homeless are not a part of the population separate from this general problem who can be helped in isolation. They are the extreme expression of the generality. The entire operation of the economy relies on the creation and aggravation of a housing problem. To attack the housing problem but not to attack the wages system which produces it is at best shortsighted and at worst false radicalism. Indeed the reality is pressing so fast towards the theory that even Shelter has had to come out of hiding behind its charitable neutrality to attack the government for its cynical disregard for the homeless.

Squatting and the Homeless

The second claim of the squatters, that squatting can spread beyond its own boundaries and inspire sympathetic ‘direct action’, relies first on the capacity for the homeless to act as a self-conscious group and secondly on them being able to identify themselves with the general interests of the working class. Recent months have shown this not to be possible.

The government’s literal definition put the number of homeless this year at 18,689. Shelter, who realistically include the overcrowded households and those living in houses unfit for human habitation, put the number of homeless at over three million people. [16] The most recent information on the conditions of the homeless, for 1961, describes how before becoming homeless families and individuals endure a period of struggle in first obtaining accommodation in the slum areas and then in attempting to keep up the rent payments. The homeless suffer the low wages and insecurity of unskilled employment. They are caught between the high rents of slum apartments and an end-of-the-queue position for a council house. This is not because of the individual peculiarities of the family, but because of the growing social contradictions in which they are trapped. The average size of families becoming homeless was, in 1961, almost exactly the same as the average size of families who had accommodation. Between 64 per cent and 71 per cent of homeless families had one or two children, while 62.5 per cent of housed families were of the same size. Between 3.5 per cent and 8 per cent of homeless families had five or more children, for housed families 5.2 per cent were of the same size. It is not the individual circumstances of families that make them homeless, but their social general properties, as low wage earners. This does not stop them getting more than their general share of the consequences of the capitalist housing market. Pushed around by landlords and deferentially treated from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to the reception room at the halfway houses, the passage from slum community living to ‘temporary accommodation’ is paved with growing bitterness, estrangement between husband and wife and a pervading sense of hopelessness. [17]

Dilapidated housing, poor employment opportunities, illness, the smell and dirt of the riverside industries, the responsibility of children, and a whole world of ‘reach-me-down services and pawnshops’ – these are the wheels on which men and women are broken. The halfway house and their twilight surrounds have a populace of human dust from which spontaneity and self-reliance is in short supply, but whose very expression leads to official condemnation.

The experience is isolated and does not draw people together. They withdraw into the psychology of self-recrimination. There is no collective opposition to the system by virtue of the situation of homelessness. There are no practical contests or schooling in struggle with the enemy such as is experienced in a strike. Nothing exists to prevent morale and idealism dropping as far as it can go.

But the success of squatting depends upon the assertiveness of the homeless. It is precisely this which is missing. And it is no alternative to build up self-reliance through a programme of realistic and transitional demands until the seizure of empty properties is the conscious step of the homeless themselves. The whole point of the exercise becomes mobility and the ability, or rather hope, to force historical events. It is the theory of short-cut politics. This school of thought has many martyrs to its cause.

The occupation of a property and the protection of a homeless family soon leads to a growing contradiction between the cause of the homeless in general and the squatting family in particular. The idea can spread only through propaganda which draws general interests, socialist politics, but the reality of housing one family can only be gained by making a bargain with the local housing authority. The more socialist agitation during an occupation the less will be the room for manoeuvre with the council, the more immediate reforms are sought the more socialist politics are discarded to appease council opposition. The individual priorities of the squatting family tend to dampen down political commitment so that it becomes a virtue to duck political issues. Why else the hedging slogan ‘Families first, Politics second’?

The best-intentioned wished for the revolutionary hopes borne out of VSC to penetrate and combine with tangible working-class reforms. This, it was hoped, would overcome the problems of student militants, isolated from the proletariat, and of reformism, its theoretical bankruptcy. The wish was for the two negatives to be dispelled and the higher synthesis of revolutionary socialism to emerge. But instead of the vanguard squatting concentrates on the homeless. Instead of politicisation it reduces itself to an emotional appeal. In the process both the approaches of VSC and of reformism are brought together on the different plain of radical reformism instead of being abolished at the moment of their coming together. To the weakest section of the working class is brought the isolation germane to student politics. The peculiar advantages of each, the political consciousness of student militancy and the strength of working class reformism are lost at a greater or lesser speed. The purer the form in which squatting is practised the greater the speed with which these specific laws of squatting operate.

This is considering squatting in itself, isolated from the total movement of conscious and unconscious working-class struggle. This method of analysis is essential, simply because the purists of squatting make their claims in isolation from the general interests of the working class. Yet it is precisely as part of the total movement that squatting has blossomed, first in 1946 in the deserted army camps of the British Isles and just recently in the mass strike movement in Italy. In both cases a crisis of revolutionary proportions was required to inspire and encourage the homeless into activity. Squatting in all cases, whether isolated or as part of the total movement, is a test of the links already made rather than a means of building links. As such it is a demonstration rather than a strategy, an effect rather than a cause. The inability of squatting to take hold of the homeless is in proportion to the ‘failure’ of revolution to take hold of the masses. The real failure would be to consider the first problem as separate from and more urgent than the second.



1. National Income and Expenditure Blue Books for profits, Annual Abstract of Statistics for total employees.

2. Board of Trade, Bankruptcy ... Report for the year 1961, HMSO, 1962, table IV, pp 15-17.

3. ‘The Federation of Registered Housebuilders reports that not only are many small builders going out of business, but so are some employing up to 400 men.’ Peter Kellner, Sunday Times, October 20, 1969.

4. Oliver Marriot, The Property Boom, 1967, p 141.

5. David Gordon, Who gets the profits on property?, Economist, November 8, 1967.

6. Ibid.

7. See Jim Kincaid, International Socialism 35, Winter 1968/9.

8. Peter Kellner, op. cit.

9. That is the only reason for the fury of Mr Walker, Conservative Shadow Minister for Housing at the November 4 debate in Parliament. Not once in the debate was there the promise of reforms for council tenants.

10. Daily Telegraph, November 5, 1969.

11. Family Expenditure Survey, 1966, 1968.

12. Housing in Camden, Reported in Labour Research, No.10, October 1969, p.179.

13. Shelter, Face the Facts, 86 Strand, WC2, p.8.

14. Labour Research, op. cit., p.179.

15. Alan Day, Don’t Pull Down the Slums, The Observer, November 9, 1969.

16. John Greve, London’s Homeless, Occasional Papers on Social Administration, No 10, 1964.

17. Shelter, op. cit., p.17. Also see K. Coates and R. Silburn (eds.), The Morale of the Poor, Dept of Adult Education, Univ of Nottingham, 1968.

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