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Fighting to keep a roof over our heads

This article is over 16 years, 11 months old
There is a housing crisis in Britain. Kelly Hilditch looks at past campaigns that show how ordinary people have fought for decent homes
Issue 1956
1946: squatting the luxury Duchess of Bedford flats in Kensington
1946: squatting the luxury Duchess of Bedford flats in Kensington

One million children in Britain live in poor quality housing. Council house building has practically ceased and millions of people are too poor to buy a home. Millions more live in fear of a rise in interest rates that will make their mortgage unpayable. New Labour has no solution to the crisis except sell-offs and privatisation. But past struggles show how we can fight back.

1946 — The squatters’ movement

The end of the Second World War saw the demobilisation of 3.5 million men and women. Many of them returned home to find their families living in intolerable conditions.

Before the war millions had lived in homes that were damp and lacking basic facilities. Since then bombing had destroyed 500,000 homes in Britain and damaged many more.

People had voted overwhelmingly for a Labour government that promised to end the poverty, bad health and bad housing that working people had to endure.

But its policies around housing did not produce the required results. The building of new homes was slow and materials were scarce. Although there were many empty properties in London, Tory councils refused to requisition them to house people.

So little had changed a year after the war that people began housing themselves.

In July 1946 a number of families took over two of the country’s many vacant army camps in Scunthorpe.

James Fielding was a father of four and was one of the many who took over the camp. He said, “Due to desperation I decided to take over one of these huts. I found that several of the huts had straw in them and that evidently sheep had wandered in.

“And I felt if it was right for animals it was more than right for homeless human beings.” Within a month 45,000 people had moved into empty camps around the country.

In many of the camps, squatters’ committees were formed to organise repairs and try to get the local council to provide services such as water.

The campaign for decent housing also took place in Britain’s major cities.

In London the Communist Party (CP) focused its campaign on the Tory-run councils of Marylebone, Kensington and Westminster — where many properties were kept empty while their owners looked for suitable buyers.

In September 1946 the CP asked its members to find empty properties for people who were homeless or living in bad conditions to squat.

Barney Lewis, a member of the CP, remembers, “I was out the army after six and a half years, and my wife and I were living in digs.

“My oldest brother David came round and said, ‘There’s a squat taking place, but its unusual and you might get arrested.’ We didn’t mind that at all.

“We felt during our whole political life that we were always on the border of breaking the law. Whenever you went on a demonstration the police weren’t there to help you or to guide you. You were looked upon as enemies of the state.”

The first target in Kensington was the luxury Duchess of Bedford flats, which had been commandeered by the government during the war. Despite a waiting list of 4,000 families, the Tory council had given it back to its owners, Prudential Assurance, for private rental at high prices.

Squatters housed 100 families in the block, and then moved on to neighbouring empty properties.

Jack Gaster, a CP member and a councillor, said, “They were let in until it was found that the place was full, and then another place was found not very far away.

“Within two days we’d taken over flats in Marylebone, Abbey Lodge, Regents Park — these were filled up. Then there was furore. Originally the press was very sympathetic but within two days the word had got round from the government that this must be stopped.”

The news of the occupations meant that people all over London approached CP branches wanting to be housed.

But within 24 hours the government issued a statement denouncing the squatters and the CP.

Writs were served on five of the Duchess of Bedford squatters. Four Communist councillors and one of the squatters were arrested and charged with “conspiracy to direct and incite trespass”.

Barney Lewis, who was involved in the campaign, said, “It was very friendly when we first got there. The public was very good to us, they brought us in food and titbits and so on. But after two or three days the papers completely turned.”

Nine days after the occupation had begun, a judge issued possession orders against the squatters. It was announced that no action would be taken against those who left voluntarily. The squatters decided after long discussions to leave.

A public statement said, “We came in together and we have decided to go out together, confident that we have achieved our purpose. Those who were ignorant now know, and those who knew and ignored are shamed into a sense of urgency that London’s homeless shall be rehoused.

“We will continue to fight for housing to be treated as a military operation and for all local authorities to bring a fresh urgency to the problem, never resting until property interests and the black market have been completely prevented from standing in the way of decent homes for London people.”

Arrangements were made for the squatters to be rehoused in temporary accommodation — with priority being given to those with children. Eventually everyone was offered accommodation.

The five men arrested were all found guilty, but the judge, perhaps not wanting to provoke further action, merely bound them over to keep the peace for the next two years.

These, and other revolts against the lack of housing, laid the basis for increasing the presuure on successive governments to force them to build a large number of council houses after the Second World War.

1960 — St Pancras rent strikes

On 4 January 1960 over 2,000 council tenants in the central London borough of St Pancras went on partial rent strike.

The Tory government’s housing minister had proposed that councils should fix rents “at such a level that many tenants would actually find it cheaper to move out and buy their own houses”, forcing them into the private market.

In St Pancras tenants’ associations came together against this. They made the decision that only a few rent arrears cases should go to court, as it would be easier to defend a small group. So the majority of the arrears were paid and in May 1960 the court cases began and three eviction orders were handed out.

One tenant settled with the council, but Don Cook, Arthur Rowe and their families faced eviction in August. Local tenants rallied to their defence. Barricades went up around their homes at Kennistoun House and Silverdale.

Dave Burn wrote in his pamphlet, St Pancras and the Rents, “Preparations were made at Kennistoun House for a bell to be rung and rockets fired if the bailiffs arrived on the scene. On hearing or seeing the warning, workers all over the borough were prepared to down tools and rush to the assistance of the two beleaguered tenants.

“On Monday 29 August railwaymen of Camden Number 2 branch of the NUR union held a two-hour token strike, council workers who struck on the next two days went to man the picket lines, and local firemen stated that they would not be involved in any attempt at eviction.

“There were regular marches and demonstrations throughout the borough, to which local unions sent delegations.

“On the evening of 21 September — the evening before the eviction — a demonstration of about 500 tenants took place outside St Pancras Town Hall, as a housing committee was being held inside.

“The police had already banned demonstrations outside the town hall. Now they cleared the area and violently manhandled demonstrators. Eleven people were arrested and the crowd, which included young children, was charged twice by mounted police.

“Around 5am of the morning of 22 September, bailiffs, supported by about 800 police, attacked both Silverdale and Kennistoun House.

“At Kennistoun House the pickets put up a two-hour defence against the bailiffs and the police. Oil was poured over them as they tried to get up the stairs to the entrance to Don Cook’s flat on the top floor.

“Over at Silverdale the police and bailiffs used similar tactics. Large cordons of police kept the tenants from defending Arthur Rowe while a group of bailiffs and police carried out the eviction.

“Arthur Rowe and his son held out for about an hour, but eventually bailiffs smashed a hole in a four and a half inch brick wall to get in.

“At Kennistoun House the fighting went on well into the day. The police cordons stayed around the flats all day.

“The march from the meeting at Kennistoun House down to St Pancras Town Hall in the evening saw a crowd over 14,000 strong make their way down Euston Road.”

The police attacked the protest. The demonstration turned into a riot. The next day the home secretary banned all public processions.

After these hard-fought evictions the council began sending bailiffs around the estates to intimidate tenants and their families, threatening to seize their possessions if they did not pay their arrears. Many families paid up the rent they had withheld in solidarity with Don Cook and Arthur Rowe.

In May 1962 Labour won control of the council. The new leader of the council, Charles Ratchford, announced, “The differential rent scheme will be abolished. That was the issue on which the electorate voted us into power.”

Don Cook and Arthur Rowe were put at the top of the housing list and the new housing chairman promised a new deal for the tenants. But no change to the rent scheme came about.

The campaign had been let down by Labour, but it was a striking demonstration of the power and strength that tenants have when they act collectively.

1972 — Kirkby

THE TORY government of the early 1970s under Edward Heath introduced the Housing Finance Act, which aimed to raise local authority and private rents.

The Tories wanted to make slightly better off council tenants provide the funds for the rebates for those who were less well off and to get rid of government subsidies for council housing.

It became law in the summer of 1972, with sanctions and penalties in place for those councils who refused to implement the rent increases.

Throughout the country people organised against the rent increases and tenants associations were formed to organise rent strikes and protests.

The campaign fitted into the radical political scene of the early 1970s which saw huge militant strikes across industries against the bosses and the Tory government.

One of the longest running and best organised housing groups was Merseyside’s Kirkby Unfair Rents Coordinating Committee.

Tenants on the massive Tower Hill estate adopted the tactic of total rent and rate strike. It was carried out by several hundred tenants for over a year.

A group of workers from the Birds Eye frozen food factory in Kirkby took a day off to attend a rent demonstration in Liverpool. Management suspended 24 of them and two shop stewards were fired.

Kirkby tenants mounted a massive picket at the factory gates, involving mainly women and children. They succeeded in stopping production and forcing Birds Eye to reinstate the workers.

When the first eviction notices came through to a few tenants, hundreds of people blocked the main road next to the estate during rush hour. Seven tenants were jailed before the dispute was over.

Willie Black was involved in the campaign against the rent increases in Edinburgh at the same time. He said, “I lived in Pilton, and still do. There was real social deprivation in these kind of areas. The Tories were clearly trying to push up rent to make money out of the poor.

“People began to resist. It was a community based campaign, we could see that people were fighting all through Britain — it was a real attack on the working class.

“Pilton is a massive working class estate. There were around 40,000 people living here at the time — mainly in council houses. We began to organise, tenants’ associations were set up that organised big meetings that called on people not to pay the rent increase.

“Loads of people put up ‘I’m not paying’ posters in their windows.

“I was a young trade unionist at the time and it taught me a lot about ways of organising and campaigning. Each block elected a steward to make sure people knew what was going on.

“You couldn’t just have one big meeting and expect everyone to turn up — you had to take the meeting to them. So we had roving street meetings. You would call a meeting on a street or a square.

“People would lean out of their windows to hear the latest news, or meet on the balconies. That way we would hold ten or more similar meetings through different parts of the estate in one day.

“We were constantly under the threat of eviction. But no eviction notices were served in Pilton.”

The national campaign meant that the Labour government elected in 1974 had to abolish the Tory rent scheme.

We can do it again today

Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government began selling off council housing in the 1980s. The money from the sales did not go towards building more council homes — instead the building of council properties all but stopped.

The expectation in the media and society is that people should own their own home. But with house prices soaring, this is something that is near impossible for many working families.

The current housing crisis has two crucial parts—the lack of council houses being built to rent, and the selling off of the housing stock that is still owned by local authorities.

The government is only offering financial assistance to local authorities who privatise their housing stock through stock transfer, private finance initiatives or arms length management organisations (Almos).

Many local authorities are pushing these measures through in order to meet the 2010 decent homes standard.

Stock transfers have led to increased rents and evictions.

Finding places to rehouse homeless people becomes increasingly difficult, since housing associations are not obliged to house them and local authorities are no longer able to offer permanent accommodation.

The only way to solve the housing crisis facing millions of people is to stop the sell-off of council housing and to embark upon an emergency programme to build hundreds of thousands of new council homes.

1972: Kirkby rent strikers picket Walton jail to back imprisoned campaigners
1972: Kirkby rent strikers picket Walton jail to back imprisoned campaigners

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