The Magnetism of Central London

Central London is a magnet which attracted multitudes of workers, especially casual workers. As has been shown, the pressure of this vast population increase was made worse by the diminishing supply of central land caused by railway, street and commercial development. But even if the artisans had vacated their houses for the poor, and the central population remained static, it is doubtful that much improvement would have resulted because the third crucial assumption was false. If the argument stated in Chapter 3 is correct–that the degrading, unsanitary and overcrowded condition of central working-class housing was the result of the social relations between landlord and tenant defined by the ‘sweated’ leasehold system and conditioned by the structural characteristics of the working-class housing market–then there is no reason to believe that the new accommodation would not rapidly deteriorate to the level of its surroundings.


The persistence of 5% or more vacancies in the suburbs during this period while used in support of the ‘levelling up’ theory, was purely academic from the point of view of the central poor. These vacancies existed in a housing sub-market which was beyond their reach and therefore irrelevant to their needs. Indeed, surpluses in the suburbs and crowding in the centre are testimony to the centrality of social relations in the determination of housing quality and distribution. The Cross Act did nothing to alter these fundamental characteristics of the working-class housing process and thus could have little positive impact on their housing problems. The fact that the implementation of the Act proved to be disastrous for the working class was bitter proof of the fallaciousness of the ‘levelling up’ theory.


Under the Act, large areas in which the casual poor were concentrated were the consistent targets for demolition. In most cases, this was tantamount to eviction. One woman, whose family had been displaced a   number of times under this Act and other legislation, understood these facts 1531 only too well: “I came to London twenty-five years ago… and I have never lived in any room more than two years yet. They always say they want to pull the house down to build dwellings for poor people, but…I’ve never got into one yet.” Most workers could not afford the high rents of the new accommodation and even if they could, the time lag between demolition and rebuilding was often so long as to make the new housing irrelevant to the needs of the displaced. They were forced into even more overcrowded dwellings in the surrounding areas, and the increased pressure on the diminished supply of housing forced them to pay higher rents or settle for lower standard houses.


The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the Cross Act entailed financial loss for the authorities charged with implementing it, and therefore for the ratepayers. The power relations of the land market were such that generous compensation clauses were written into the Act, and the Metropolitan Board of Works soon found itself paying far more to buy land   than it received when it resold the land. Compensation was based on rental receipts. This was a direct incentive to landlords to herd as many people into their dwellings as possible, to charge high rents, and to allow their property to deteriorate in the hope of receiving high compensation for an extremely small ‘investment.’


It also encouraged racketeering and fake sales at high prices. Further, the fact that central land had commercial potential, and that the Board had to compensate every interest which might conceivably be injured, increased land acquisition costs. On the other hand, once the building had been demolished and the land was put up for sale, on   condition that as much working-class housing as had previously existed be erected on the site, there were few takers, low offers, and the Board was unable to obtain payment from any interest which had gained in the process. Model dwelling companies were usually the only takers. As a result of the considerable losses sustained by the Board in what amounts to a process of subsidizing property owners, there were long delays between demolition and reconstruction and the Board initiated a political struggle to have its housing 1551 responsibilities reduced


. In 1979, they were permitted to rehouse people elsewhere than in the immediate vicinity, and in 1982 the housing obligation was halved and they were allowed to sell part of the development for commercial purposes. Thus, almost the only people who benefited from the Cross Act were the owners of slum property. As the Royal Commission on the Housing   of the Working Classes put it in 1985: “Rookeries are destroyed, greatly to the sanitary and social benefit of the neighbourhood, but no kind of habitation for the poor has been substituted. This is the extreme instance of everything being sacrificed to the improvement of the property.” (Emphasis added.) As a result, working-class overcrowding was made appreciably worse and rents rose significantly.


In the words of Reverend Andrew Mearns in 1571 1983: “It is notorious that the Artisans’ Dwellings Act has, in some respects, made matters worse for them. Large spaces have been cleared of feverbreeding rookeries to make way for the building of decent habitations, but the rents of these are far beyond the means of the abject poor. They are driven to crowd more closely together in the few stifling places still left to them; and so Dives makes a richer harvest out of their misery, buying up property condemned as unfit for human habitation, and turning it into a gold mine because the poor must have shelter somewhere, even though it be the shelter of a living tomb.”


Indeed, the Act was an important contributory factor to the housing crisis of the 1980’s. Like the earlier palliatives, it served to legitimate, not alleviate working-class housing problems by making it seem as though they were on the way to solution. The optimism surrounding the passage of the Bill, the shifting of responsibility from corrupt vestries to the energetic Metropolitan Board of Works, the improved appearance of the new dwellings and the belief in the validity of the ‘levelling up’ theory, all contributed to the feeling that ‘something was being done’ and therefore the problems would soon be solved. In sum, then, it is clear that the effect of the five major attempts to alleviate working class housing conditions, especially those of the casual poor, from the 1930’s to the 1980’s, was exactly the opposite. The intensity of overcrowding in the centre was increased. It is possible that the housing conditions of some members of the ‘labour aristocracy’ improved slightly. But the situation worsened appreciable for those who needed   improved accommodation most.



In 1983, Lord Salisbury observed that: “Nothing has been done for the housing of this poorest class, whose need is the greatest, and who furnish most of the terrible cases of overcrowding of which we read such deplorable descriptions.” Far from counteracting the developmental process outlines in Chapter 3, which was the fundamental cause of the atrocious working-class housing conditions in general and of the housing crisis of the 1980’s in particular, the five palliatives added appreciably to the pressures on working-class living. On the ideological level, the five approaches, in different ways and to varying degrees, served an important purpose of maintaining the status quo   and legitimating the inherent inequities and oppression which they. sought to mitigate. Their blind adherence to the tenets of classical political economy, in the form of the demoralization paradigm, upheld the efficacy of the basic socio-economic institutions of capitalist society, which were at the root of the problems, and put the blame on the victims instead. Dominant-class London was exonerated from blame. The paradigm eased their minds by reconciling individual freedom, that most cherished of bourgeois values, with the reality of the lack of freedom and control over their lives which [591 was the lot of the working class and accounted for most of their difficulties.


The notion that the poor were free to improve their lives if only they would improve their character was patently false. To borrow a Watergate phrase, the problem definitions, theories and solutions put forward by contemporary housing reformers and legislators–their ideology–represented one big ‘cover-up’ of the underlying causes of working-class housing problems; a ‘cover-up’ which was, however, far more successful than the Watergate caper. The Crisis of the Old Paradigm and the Germs of the New In the context of the East End housing crisis of the 1980’s, the demoralization paradigm became increasingly untenable as a basis for understanding and dealing with working-class housing problems. Indeed, the mere fact that these problems had reached crisis proportions in the public consciousness was a nail in the coffin of the demoralization thesis. It had begun to fail in the fulfillment of its major task–the legitimization of the existence of working-class housing problems. The paradigm, and the ‘solutions’ which it spawned, had done little to change the outcomes of the working-class housing market which were at the root of the crisis.


In fact, the five main palliatives   had been significantly instrumental in exacerbating the problems–they were partly to blame for the housing crisis. By the latter part of the 1980’s, dominant-class London came to feel that there was an urgent need to change the outcomes of the working-class housing market to avert the threat on the maintenance of social stability and the status quo which the crisis represented. The view which blamed housing problems on the demoralized character of the victims was no longer adequate to this crucial task. There was a cogent need for new ideas, new views–for a new paradigm. Fears arose that the ‘residuum’ might corrupt the ‘respectable’ stratum of the working class and/or that the latter, who were relatively well-organized in trade unions, might combine with the relatively disorganized segments of the working class and pose a unified threat to the status quo.


March 26, 2018


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