The question of housing is a question of socialism By Gavin Jackson

13 February 2014 — Socialist Appeal

The complete irrationality of the capitalist ‘freemarket’ knows both tragedy and farce. On 17th January a group of young women, most if not all of whom are mothers, protested at the Labour-controlled Newham council to demand decent housing. At present they live with their children in ‘temporary’ accommodation, a run down hostel called Focus E15, where some of the woman have lived for several years, and can either tolerate the mould, rubbish and their fellow ‘lodgers’ – that is the rats and mice – or demand change.

With a social housing waiting list with approximately 5 millions names on it, thousands more homeless on any given night, and many more homes overcrowded, this is one more example of capitalism’s inability to meet the basic needs of huge numbers of people. There is plenty of demand for homes, but the supply of new-builds will only come when a handsome profit can be made!

One of the women living in Focus E15, Jasmin Stone said, “The smell is disgusting and it is really, really hard to live there. We try and stay out all day.” As if this wasn’t bad enough, the tenants have been given notice to quit, that is an eviction order, by East Thames Housing Association. It doesn’t take much to guess, if there was anywhere else to go the tenants would have gladly left these filthy conditions some time ago. The almost complete lack of social housing available across London means the tenants, who have expressed a wish to take work if it was offered, may be forced to move out of London entirely, as far as Birmingham, Hastings or a city in the North. This would of course separate them from their families, leaving them without affordable childcare options and unable to take up work that is to say trapped in poverty conditions and reliant on the last remaining scraps of welfare support.

At the occupation of the East Thames HA showroom and the Newham Council building one of the mothers made their simple demands clear:

“Stop making people homeless. Stop making kids miss school. It’s not fair. You get to go home to your nice homes, while people here are struggling. People are here crying (they were – a woman in the office was crying, because she was homeless and trying to sort that out). They’re stressed, depressed. It’s not right. You’ve got a place here where you’re meant to help people. You’re meant to help
people. You’re not helping people.”

This is the same Labour dominated Newham Council which forked out £111 million to buy and refurbish a new council building in 2010 (including £1,800 on designer light fittings). Once they had spent the money the councillors found they had completely bungled an effort to cut the operating costs of the council, and have to keep on the 26 other buildings they had moved out of. Yet they seem unable to complete the far simpler task of finding the money to provide decent social housing!

In the bourgeois district of London around one third of the multimillion pound mansions in North London’s exclusive ‘The Bishop’s Avenue’, have been abandoned by their owners, according to the Guardian (31/1/14). On a street ranked the second most expensive in Britain, approximately £350 million worth of property has stood empty, some for over two decades. In all around 120 bedrooms in total are not being used, and have not been for what is now almost a generation. More than a little money would be made if a ‘bedroom tax’ was applied to these palaces!

The Guardian report states:

“Exclusive access to now derelict properties has revealed that their condition is so poor in some cases that water streams down ballroom walls, ferns grow out of floors strewn with rubble from collapsed ceilings, and pigeon and owl skeletons lie scattered across rotting carpets.

“Yet, despite the properties falling into serious disrepair, it is likely that the Saudi owners of the portfolio made a significant profit from the £73m sale. The records available show that one of the mansions was worth only £1.125m in 1988.

“…..Another resident from Iran, who asked not to be named, said: “95% of the people who live here don’t actually live here. It is a terrible place to live really””

As if this were not bad enough, there are two golf courses and two sets of tennis courts within walking distance of Bishops Avenue while the proletarian districts are crowded, filthy and almost horizon to horizon cement and steel.

This is the chaos of private property and the free market. In one part of London, young women and their children are being evicted from the squalid tenements which they have had no choice but to live in, whilst in another part of London the bourgeoisie of Britain and elsewhere leave their semi-palaces (built by the working class!) as homes for the birds!

The attitude of the capitalists can be summed up by the man who has overseen deals for 130 of the homes on Bishops Avenue, Trevor Abrahmsohn:

“Once you end people’s right to buy something and do as they please with it you have a police state,” he said. “One of the things people love about this country is its freedom and liberal views. You can’t start affecting what people do with their assets. That is sacrosanct.”

For these people, private property is holy; sacred so much so they would rather see these buildings left to ruin rather than ensure living, breathing human beings have clean and dignified accommodation. Furthermore, there are a few thousand unemployed construction workers who would gladly take a wage to restore these buildings!

Of course, this is not a problem isolated to London. Across Britain 710,000 properties are empty, according the same Guardian report, and yet 113,260 people approached their local council in England as homeless last year. Meanwhile, new home construction provided 125,000 new homes last year compared to a demand for 232,000 new homes to avoid more households becoming homeless, and is at it’s lowest level since the 1920’s.

What this shows is on the one hand capitalist production cannot even meet demand just to stand still, on the other private property stands in the way of the provision of housing to those who need it. From the perspective of providing for basic human needs, capitalism is a disaster.

The Bedroom Tax

The question of housing is far too urgent and prominent to be ignored even by the Tories – even arch Tory Boris Johnson toes a ‘populist’ line on the question where possible. Amongst the measures in the austerity programme of the Tory government is a policy set to tear apart working class communities, and drive human beings into the street or into the arms of the slum landlords. The Bedroom Tax, a Tory sledgehammer against a reform of the past, threatens to break up social housing on a broad scale, bankrupt housing associations and drive thousands of working class tenants into the hovels of rack-renting housing barons.

This, of course, is not the line given in the inky rags of the capitalist press. When these men and women are not bribing the top brass at Scotland Yard, or dribbling over the latest addition to the parasitic Windsor clan, they kick dust into eyes, spread slanders, lies and rumours dragged from the gutter. All to defend the line of the government – that millionaire cabinet acting in their
own capitalist interests, as well as those of the degenerate British bourgeoisie in general.

Published in the more sober mouthpiece of the Tory’s social base, The Telegraph, Iain Duncan Smith delivered the party line on the ‘Bedroom Tax’. This hatchet man of the Tory government had this to say:

“Our social housing stock is squeezed and we need to use it better. That means we need to put an end to the unfair situation where the taxpayer is subsidising people to have homes, paid for by the state, with spare rooms they do not need. This is effectively a spare room subsidy. Britain can not afford it and nor can the taxpayer. And from April this will end.” (Telegraph, 7.3.13)

What could seem more reasonable? There is a shortage of housing and many in need, so we must use it better! Out with these slackers and layabouts hoarding bedrooms the rest of us could be using!

But what is the truth under the Tory program? When Elizabeth Windsor and her family own vast swathes of property, including Buckingham Palace which alone has over 240 bedrooms, should we not share a few of those out amongst those who are in desperate need?

Or what of the second homes of Members of Parliament? It would mean laying a hand on a few of the crooks sitting in Westminster who have set themselves up a tidy profit on the expenses racket, renting their homes to each other and claiming the cost on expenses – but if you want to make omelettes…

Sun Tzu teaches us that all warfare is based on deception, and this no less true in the class war than any other. Duncan Smith’s words could not be more of a distortion. An analysis carried out by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations found that Housing Benefit going to private tenants – that is to say, a benefit which already subsidises the profits of the capitalists – was drained into the pockets of private landlords and the banks has increased by 153% in the last decade, compared to 21% for the social sector in the same period. In fact, 40% of housing benefit flows into the coffers of private sector landlords, despite being no more than a third of the housing benefit caseload.

Is it any surprise, then, a small number of the British rent-seekers have risen on the basis of farming social housing tenants, collecting together ex-social housing through the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme, piling in tenants to the ceiling, then rack-renting every last penny of Housing Benefit out of them.

The bureaucracy in Whitehall, London – the unaccountable but real executive power of the British state – isn’t hindered by any question of accountability to the masses for its’ actions and its’ crimes during elections. It can afford to be quite frank about the real aims of the ‘bedroom tax’.

Helpfully, they made public an ‘impact assessment’ ( demonstrating quite clearly their priorities. In the words of the Tory Coalition:

“In order to contain growing Housing Benefit expenditure; encourage mobility within the social rented sector; strengthen work incentives and make better use of available social housing, the Government intends to introduce size criteria for working age Housing Benefit claimants living in the social rented sector.”

Their intentions seem clear: cut the deficit, squeeze the workers. According to their own figures, of the 3.3 million social housing tenants, only 670,000 are ‘underoccupying’. The ‘tax’ will cut on average £14 per week from housing benefits for those with ‘spare rooms’ – the expectation is that those who cannot make up the shortfall by working longer hours will move to smaller homes in either the social or private sector (where benefit recipients are not paid for empty rooms), or will take in a lodger. The latter, however, is a dead end. Even if they can obtain the landlords permission, and there is sufficient space to be able to take in another adult (without mentioning those who have children in the household), benefit regulations will then reclaim everything but the first £20 from the first tenant’s benefits! What little is recovered one hand is taken by the other.

Moving to ‘more appropriate’ accommodation is not an option either. The Guardian (8.3.13) cites the National Housing Federation when it reports that there are 180,000 social housing tenants underoccupying two-bedroom homes in England, and less than 70,000 one-bedroom properties available to move into. The same Guardian piece cites Iain Sim, Chief Executive of Coast and County Housing in Teesside, who reports:

“the housing benefit bill for his local authority, Redcar and Cleveland, will actually rise by almost half a million pounds annually, as a severe shortage of one-bedroom social housing properties in the area will force residents into more expensive private renting.

“There are currently 1,800 Coast and County Housing tenants classed as underoccupying, 760 of whom are sole occupiers. But the housing association has only two one-bed properties available to let. If those 1,800 tenants were to find housing in the private sector, where rent is considerably higher, “the housing benefits bill in Redcar and Cleveland alone would rise by £450,000.”

There is already a crisis level shortage of housing, with 5 million on the waiting list. New households are forming at two-to-three times the rate of new house construction and families of four, five and six or more members are left to rot on the decade long waiting lists in houses intended for families of half their size, or the filthy conditions of temporary housing like that found
in Focus E15.

It is said in some Labour Party and trade union circles that the Tories are being incredibly shortsighted, even idiotic, by introducing an austerity measure which will increase costs. It is true, these PR men for the finance and oil industries, Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, are not only political pygmies compared with the historic leaders of the British bourgeois Disraeli, Pitt, Gladstone etc. They are a reflection of the degenerate and parasitic nature of the British bourgeoisie today.

At present one of the few points of support in society for the capitalist class is the labour bureaucracy. Beyond this they must balance gingerly on the now decimated, petit bourgeois section of society, concentrated in the shires and the Tory ‘hang em, flog em’ brigade. The village shopkeeper mentality of the Tory base has been infected with the vulture-opportunism of the slum landlord. The policy of privatising masses of social housing stock in the 80’s and 90’s stirred the once stagnant waters of the ‘professionals’ and other petit bourgeois types, who now act as landlord intermediaries for finance capital, collecting rents from the most exploited sections of the working class to pay off mortgages held with the big banks – mortgages used to buy up tracts of council housing under ‘right-to-buy’.

The bedroom tax is therefore a measure which, if it will not bring down the deficit, it will drive up profits! That, in the last analysis, is the Alpha and the Omega of the capitalist system.

It is, therefore, not enough to take a view of what is right or wrong from a perspective of ‘responsibly’ or competently managing capitalism through the bourgeois state. The Tories, and their counterparts in Whitehall, are not only acting as managers of British capitalism in general, but also act as individual capitalists with their own narrow, sectional interests as well. According to the Financial Times (7.10.12) of 305 Tory MPs, 83 were private landlords. The bedroom tax is set to redirect ever more of the flow of housing benefit money to their own pockets, and those of the banks. That these individual interests come into conflict and even contradicts what seems rational for capitalism on the whole – that is reducing the state deficit, and bringing down the level of government debt – is simply a further expression of the impasse of capitalism in crisis.

This new austerity measure can only mean another slide back to the crowded slums of the 20’s and 30’s. Parents of children with special care needs will be driven out of homes which they have spent years and their life savings adapting to the specific needs of their children. There are already instances of three generations of a family being forced to live together in the same home, siblings will be pressed into sharing rooms too small for one child or adolescent to use.

The urgent question of housing and accommodation is becoming worse through the crisis, where wages have stagnated or declined but the cost of rent has increased by around 35%, and the massive cuts to the welfare state which go along with it. Labour councillors worth their salt should be refusing to implement the ‘bedroom tax’ and working with those tenants organisations which have emerged to organise rent strikes to force the government to repeal the legislation – their Labour counterparts in parliament must also commit to the immediate repeal of the legislation in the elections of 2015.

Land reform

Unlike the classical bourgeois revolution in France, the English bourgeois revolution carried out under Cromwell’s leadership, was ultimately unable to carry out the sweeping land reform seen under the French republicans, over a century later. The existing English feudal aristocracy was, instead, progressively hammered into a bourgeois form, forced to adopt capitalist methods and property relations. Through this process they were for the most able to both hold onto and expand the vast tracts of land under their control.

The race-hate rag, ‘The Daily Mail’, reported (10/11/10) that more than half the land of Britain (around 69% according to the New Statesman 29/3/12, though around a third of land ownership is anonymous) was the property of 0.6% of the population or approximately 36,000 people. The Daily Mail report went so far as to estimate the vast majority was owned by a hardcore of 1,200 of the British bourgeoisie, whether from the nouveau-riche or old aristocracy. Also known as ‘the cousinhood’, these feudal vestiges enforce their rule, alongside the industrial and finance bourgeoisie, through their political arm the House of Lords, the courts and the Monarchy, with Elizabeth Windsor at the head. Only Spain – which lived through decades of Francoist rule in the interests of the big landlords and the church – has a more unequal distribution of land ownership, with 0.2% of the population owning 70% of the land.

Amongst the biggest landowners are the Duke of Buccleuch, Richard Scott, who owns 240,000 acres worth £800 million to £1 billion (as a point of comparison London covers almost 390,000 acres). The Duke of Cornwall, aka Prince Charles, who owns 133,602 acres worth £11.2 billion, and Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster who owns 133,100 acres worth £6 billion (including large sections of London including property in Mayfair, Belgrave and Pimlico). As if there were not enough land in private hands, the 2.5 million acres of the Forestry Commission will be parcelled off to private owners.

The liberal New Statesman (26/3/12) goes much further than the Mail. In 2012, the Statesman reported:

“The UK is 60 million acres in size, of which 41 million are designated “agricultural” land, 15 million are “natural wast age” (forests, rivers, mountains and so on) and owned by institutions such as the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence, and four million are the “urban plot”, the densely congested land on which most of the 62 million people of these islands live. In sum, 69 per cent of the acreage of Britain is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. More pertinently, 158,000 families own 41 million acres of land, while 24 million families live on the four million acres of the urban plot.”

It is difficult to articulate any better the stark contrast between the super rich bourgeoisie and the urban petit-bourgeoisie and proletarian population. The vast majority of the population of Britain live on 10% of the land. In fact, given we share this portion of the land with the factories, offices, schools, hospitals, rail networks and road systems where we work in or travel on, the proportion of land the workers must use to build housing upon is far less. Moreover, around three quarters of the urban plot is in fact ‘natural’ or greenspace parks, sports pitches, rivers, cemeteries, lakes etc.

Alongside this, the burden of land taxes worth £50 billion a year are placed on the shoulders of businesses (business rates, etc.) and private homes (council tax, etc.) on the urban plot all the while the owners of 42 million hectares of agricultural land receive £3.5-5 billion in state subsidies! In fact, this subsidy received through the EU Common Agricultural Policy, which is 40% (55 billion Euros) of the EU budget levies £245 a year on average from every household in the UK, and puts it in the pocket of the billionaire aristocracy, all for keeping farm land idle. That is to say they are paid for doing absolutely nothing!

The New Statesman (19/9/12) investigated these subsidies and found the wealthiest families in Britain are in receipt of billions of pounds in state benefits. The report stated:

“A Freedom of Information request by the New Statesman to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reveals that the largest landowners received millions of pounds in taxpayer subsidy last year. The Duke of Westminster, a multibillionaire, was paid £748,716 for his ownership of Grosvenor Farms, the Earl of Plymouth £675,085, the Duke of Buccleuch £260,273, the Duke of Devonshire £251,729 and the Duke of Atholl £231,188 for his Blair Castle estate. It was also a lucrative year for the Windsors. The Queen received £415,817 for the Royal Farms and £314,811 for the Duchy of Lancaster, while Prince Charles was paid £127,868 for the Duchy of Cornwall. Similarly well-remunerated was Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who received £273,905 for his 2,000 acre Glympton Estate in Oxfordshire, allegedly purchased with proceeds of the 1985 al Yamamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia. The largest individual UK beneficiary is Sir Richard Sutton, who was paid £1.7m for his Settled Estates, the 6,500 acre property near Newbury that he inherited with his baron etcy in 1981, despite net assets of £136.5m.”

Not only the wealthy billionaires at home and abroad but also big business and education; state and infrastructure contractor, Serco, receives £2.7 million a year, Severn Trent Water receives almost £780,000 per year, while the elite Harrow School (which charges over £30,000 in fees per year) received £4,622 and Eton College pocketed £3,294. We cannot sum it up better than the New Statesman did, it is “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor(!)”

This concentration of land ownership, and the restricted space used for building homes, expresses itself in both the market cost of renting or building new homes (7080% of the cost of a new home is soaked up buying land) and the size of homes. In the UK the average floor space of a new build home is 76 square metres. Compare this to 97 square metres in Spain, 113 in France, 137 in Denmark and 214 in the USA. By monopolising the land, the price is driven up forcing up the cost of mortgages and rent – directly benefiting the capitalists of the finance sector, who are entirely intertwined with the old aristocracy.

In London, the pressure on land (and the profiteering of the landlords) has become so severe that there are examples of garages and sheds being rented out as ‘studios’ or ‘bedsits’. This is to say, the interests of the tiny minority in society their wealth, capital and property in vast swathes of land stand in direct contradiction with the needs for decent shelter and housing for 99% of the population. Only by ending capitalism and private property can we even begin to transform this situation.

Socialist revolution

In order to solve the problem of housing for the working class in Britain, it is necessary to turn back to our heritage of peasant insurrection of the Great Rising of 1381, of the Levellers and the Diggers in the 17th Century – the work of the these revolutionary movements is yet to be completed, that is the redistribution of land amongst the masses.

In order to resolve the problem of housing, a plan for the construction of millions of homes will need to be carried out, as part of a democratically planned economy. This will require a socialist government to nationalise every inch of land held by ‘the cousinhood’ and sweep away every last vestige of their political power – the courts, the House of Lords, the Monarchy along with all of their idiotic titles; this will provide more than enough land to raise entire cities from nothing, as well as lifting the burden of taxation from the labouring masses.

In the first days of the revolution, the empty homes of the billionaires and tax exiles, the large hotel chains, must be seized and put to use to provide shelter to the homeless, those in temporary or unsuitable accommodation and to relieve the burden of overcrowding in general.

The construction firms and supporting industries (producing cement, steel, brick, insulation, etc. etc) must be nationalised to provide the material, planning and administrative needs of housing construction. The banks and finance houses must be seized in whole to provide the capital necessary for the work at hand. This will also provide the option to write off the private debt of the working class, by seizing the profits hidden away in the capitalist’s bank accounts.

By sharing out the work, without loss of pay, we can reduce the working week for all to 35, then 30, then under 25 hours a week in extremely short order. In turn this will give workers the time, in every city, town and village, to be directly involved in the democratic process of planning and deciding what will be built, and where – whether as improvements and extensions of existing urban developments, or as entirely new towns and cities.

The possibilities of applying carbon neutral and ‘green’ technology will be enormous and utilised to the full. Elected councils of workers representatives from the labour movement, local communities, and industry will direct thousands of previously unemployed workers, organised and directed in ‘armies of labour’, to build millions of homes in a short space of time.

For any of this to be possible, we must prepare now. The European revolution will sweep across the Channel, and the Marxists in Britain must be trained and educated beforehand. The revolution in Britain will not wait, and in order for it to succeed we must prepare now to break the political and economic power of the financial and industrial capitalists, and their ‘cousins’ in the modern aristocracy. This means preparing the forces of Marxism – join us in this struggle for the socialist revolution!

So that the working class can live in humane conditions, with good quality housing, capitalism must burn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.