Recently, well not so recently, 16 February 2006 to be exact, members of the ‘left’ wing of the parliamentary Labour Party set up a meeting to coordinate a seminar-cum-conference on housing. Held in Committee Room 6 at the House of Commons, practically nobody turned up, not even its organiser Jeremy Corbyn, though to be fair Corbyn sent his good wishes and apologies (he had to watch his son play football) and he did promise to speak at the main event. In Corbyn’s absence, the meeting focused on what the seminar/conference should consist of. One suggestion, immediately taken up and applauded, was the showing of Ken Loach’s film Cathy Come Home.
For readers too young to remember this 1960s docuflick, it’s about as relevant as re-reading Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s contributions to the Housing Select Committees of the 1890s (and not half as entertaining). Although invariably billed as a documentary about the homeless, Cathy Come Home was made specifically to address a particular early 1960s ’housing evil’ that has now so completely disappeared it has turned into its exact opposite.
Housing allocation criteria – a history
At the time Cathy Come Home was made, all councils operated a housing list policy for allocations. Applicants for council housing put their names down on the waiting list in their local area and only in their local area, and they waited, and waited and waited. In the fullness of time, their names would get to the top of the list and they would be offered a council home. Relative housing need (except for allocating the right number of bedrooms) did not come into the equation.
At a time when councils were fully committed to building council housing, the system worked perhaps as well as systems can work in bourgeois society. Moving up the list, however, could be very slow, and sometimes people suddenly had very urgent housing needs that the waiting list system did not address at all. The situation illustrated in Cathy Come Home was one of sudden urgent homelessness, which the local council solved not by housing Cathy and her husband (it wasn’t their turn on the list) but by taking their children from them and putting them into care.
One doesn’t need to be a communist to see that that ripping families apart and putting kids into care was one of the more vicious bourgeois solutions to Cathy and her husband’s housing problem, and, soon after Cathy Come Home was aired, central government changed the law and instructed councils to take housing need into account in any future allocations (‘need’ to be worked out by a complicated and variable points system).
For quite a few years, an applicant on the list would hardly notice the change. Housing applicants still went on the waiting list and, as council housing was still being built and Mrs Thatcher’s sell-offs were still in the future, the de facto difference between an exclusively waiting list-based allocation system and a needs-based allocation system simply meant that, although urgent needs-based Cathy Come Home-type cases got housed ‘ahead of the queue’, in the main, the waiting list queue kept moving and, sooner or later, everybody on the waiting list would get the offer of a flat or house. In those far off halcyon days, the complaint was often about quality and size, not total non-availability.
Then Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 with the joint policies of selling off council housing and curtailing new build. The waiting list slowed almost to a stop, and what housing there was all began to be allocated on a more and more complicated points-based ‘needs’ system. This had the effect of fuelling racism. It is not clear whether the policy was meant to fuel racism or whether this was an unanticipated benefit to the bourgeoisie (which as part of its overall strategy of dividing the working class likes to have it both ways, fuelling racism while denouncing it at the same time).
For those of you who don’t quite get it, the reason a ‘needs-based’ housing allocations policy fuelled racism was because it appeared to give benefits to immigrants above the indigenous population (immigrants, being newcomers, were more likely to be homeless, or housed in really atrocious private housing, and culturally many had larger families and had serious overcrowding problems above and beyond those of the established population).
And as housing associations came into existence, nearly all dedicated to helping a group with a special need, there can be no doubt that, whatever the theory, in practice a needs-based policy has worked against the white working class without special problems, so much so that at the grassroots, many no longer see housing as a class issue, but as a special interest issue, which doesn’t affect them because they are ‘ordinary’, while, in London especially, most white working-class young couples don’t even think about applying for council housing, but buy a house instead, even though the only affordable places on working-class incomes can be as much as a couple of hours’ commute to London and back each day (the case of the London fireman living in Leicester being yet another head to the hydra of the housing problem).
Bourgeois ‘solutions’ to the housing crisis are illusory
What do the bourgeois parties offer by way of solution to any aspect of the housing hydra?
The Labour Party’s solution is to talk about building a lot of tacky, tiny, overpriced shoeboxes on the Kent floodplain (oh and to pull down a pile of two up and two downs and replace them with posh houses the dispossessed won’t be able to afford).
The Tory Party’s solution is to build a few expensive houses on the Green Belt near good golf courses and handy for the M4.
The Lib Dems’ solution is to build a few environmentally friendly houses somewhere or other.
The Green Party’s solution is to reduce the need for housing by encouraging wolves, bears and other ferocious animals to come back and eat people, because, to these mad Malthusians, ‘people are the problem’.
The BNP’s solution is to send all the immigrants ‘home’ (slight problem if you are second generation and your parents come from two separate countries, but they are working overtime on that one).
Looking at these various ‘solutions’ to the housing problem, it is easy to see why a good many working-class people are actually attracted to the BNP solution: If only everything thing was like it was before, and we could all leave our back doors open when we popped round next door to borrow a cup of sugar and talk about the preparation for the next royal wedding street party …
Luckily, there is also a CPGB-ML solution. And it’s easy and simple to remember too. Lots more houses. New ones built, old ones renovated, mansions divided up into sensible-sized, attractive units. No need for a waiting list or divisive ‘needs’ policy of allocations, because there’ll be plenty for everyone.