Experts have today warned that there is an overarching problem of rent in the capital. This problem applies to both visitors and residents, and may well risk peaking the capital’s potential.
There is an on-going macro-struggle between the capitalist class, bent on increasing the rate of capital accumulation subject to the maintenance of social stability and the status quo, on the one hand, and the middle stratum and the working class, on the other hand, striving to improve or maintain the standard of their living and working conditions.
The totality of these interactions, and the objective and subjective ways in which individuals or corporate bodies plugged into them, broadly determined their motivations and aspirations, their differential abilities to satisfy these goals in the land and housing markets, and either directly or indirectly determined the structure of these markets. With these parameters set, though constantly evolving, the ‘rules of the game’ defined as it were the autonomous economic and political actions of these individuals and corporate bodies in the land and housing markets, mediated by the various forms of tenure relations, gave London its social and spatial structure.
In the previous chapter, the overall outcomes of London’s developmental process were seen to be basically functional from the point of view of the capitalist class. It was even argued that the extreme hardship which the working class had to endure as a result of these developments was a necessary, if unfortunate, aspect of this stage of capitalist economic development. Overcrowded and unsanitary working-class slums might have comprised a housing problem in the minds and consciences of the middle-stratum reformers, but it cannot be argued that these slum conditions per se were problematic from the point of view of the capitalist class and the socio-economic system which served their class interest.
It was quite the opposite: the slums, if kept under control, were part of the foundation of their prosperity. But societies and cities do not develop in such a smooth progression. Contradictions and conflicts, which are the nuts and bolts of the evolutionary process, eventually reach a point of climax whence continued development along traditional lines becomes highly problematic, if not impossible. London’s growth in the 19th century was no exception. A crisis point was reached in the 1980’s when it became obvious that the existing laws and rules which governed the process of urban development and the attitudes towards that process had to be changed in order to maintain the social stability upon which continued economic development was based. At the heart of this crisis of London’s development was the fact that the evolutionary process of the preceeding fifty years increasingly frustrated the realization in the residential sphere, of a sixth pressure, which was a central feature of the relationship between classes generally satisfied in the workplace
These problems were variously blamed on the ‘demoralized’ slum dwellers, greedy absentee landlords, ‘market forces,’ and/or inefficient local government administrations. Few people saw them as structural outcomes of the capitalist economic system. Consequently, while they may have represented ‘thorns in the side’ of the system, they did not constitute a crisis. At least not until the 1980’s, when the system’s failure to satisfy the residential aspirations of the relatively well-organized skilled workers brought the perpetual housing problems of the working class into political focus as outcomes of the struggle between the capitalist and working classes and as such began to pose a threat to continued social stability. In the previous chapter we saw that a large proportion of skilled workers, who comprised the ‘labour aristocracy,’ were forced, by the necessities of their occupations and the lack of cheap, convenient suburban transportation, to live close to their workplaces in central London. Consequently, members of this ‘privileged’ stratum of the working class were forced to compete for housing in the same spatially confined centralarea housing market as the rest of the working class. The pressure for accommodation constantly rose as the area available for residential use diminished under the onslaught of commercial, railway and street improvement schemes.
The constantly rising rents imposed considerable hardship on the artisans and skilled workers. Though they maintained a wage differential from unskilled workers, most had to pay much higher rents for the larger 2 or 3-room flats (apartments) which were important symbols of their higher status. However, in times of depression the majority were forced to move to smaller flats or to sublet space to lower-status workers. This was especially so during the 1980’s, the mid-point of the ‘great depression’ of the late 19th century. In consequence, an increasingly large proportion of the ‘labour aristocracy’ was forced to forego the prospect of living in a flat of their own and/or of renting two or more rooms.