Part of the populist explanation about London’s housing shortages – the one that boils down to “rich foreign investors are pushing out the poor” – contends that a return to the pre-Thatcher decades when governments of both main parties competed to build the largest number of council homes would do plenty to put things right. But although the right kinds of increased state intervention might help London a lot, giving a really big upward shove to the numbers of social rented homes (council or otherwise) at a time when land is expensive and scarce would not be easy. Neither would it be guaranteed to fix all that is wrong.
Not for the first time I refer you to a book publish in 1977 called London: The Heartless City, complementing a Thames TV programme of the same name. It was written by former Evening Standard reporter David Wilcox, with help from planning law barrister David Richards. At that time, London’s population was tumbling. Why? Not because droves of powerless people were being “pushed out”, but because masses of ordinary Londoners actually wanted to leave the neighbourhoods they lived in. About a third yearned to move to the suburbs, another third dreamed of shipping out to a small town close to the capital and about 15% hoped to live in the country. The unifying theme was a desire to get away from the centre. I doubt if that longing has completely died.
Wilcox recorded that as the capital’s population shrank, its boroughs had been building more than half a million new homes in the three decades after the war and bought and done up many more, while the private sector had supplied a further 200,000. He then wrote:
There is at last the apparent prospect of no housing shortage in London: the number of homes is virtually the same as the number of households. And yet, during the past 12 years, the number of people on council house waiting lists has risen from 152,000 to over 200,000. By the end of 1976, 15,000 families were recognised as homeless. Home ownership is beyond the reach of most people, and renting a flat privately is extremely difficult and expensive.
Doesn’t that all sound familiar? Wilcox went on:
This perplexing paradox, in which there is no housing shortage on the one hand, yet on the other more people than ever seem dissatisfied with their accommodation – or are actually homeless – lies at the heart of London’s housing dilemma. Part of the trouble is that households are made up of varying numbers and ages of people, whose needs, incomes and aspirations differ; just as houses come in many different sizes, locations, conditions and prices. And although the number of people in London has dropped dramatically, the number of households has fallen far less. Families are smaller and more people live alone. Nevertheless, with so much concern on the part of politicians to match home to household, the London housing situation should be improving. Instead, a jumble of legislation, rapid swings of policy and chaotic subsidies have created total confusion and many inequalities.
And where did fault for this housing crisis lie?
Both those who supply housing and those who are looking for it complain that the other side is to blame. Councils say that families on the waiting list are too choosy, and indeed local authorities have been forced to start letting older property on a first-come, first-served basis to any young couples prepared to accept lower standards. Landlords say that tenants have too many rights, and consequently owners are keeping property empty in the hope of selling, rather than letting. Building societies are accused of failing to lend on older property or conversion. An army of 10,000 squatters has decided that direct action is the only way to break the log jam.
So much more council housing was available in those times as a proportion of housing overall. More of it would be welcome now. And yet so many of the problems of the mid-70s sound remarkably similar to today’s.
Copies of London: The Heartless City aren’t plentiful but they are worth every penny.