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Editorial: Millions of working people are in need of housing security

ANYONE who owns a piece of land, whether they are the aristocratic seigneur of uncounted acres of Scottish grouse moor or the proletarian occupants of a terraced cottage in an abandoned pit village, is in possession of stolen property.

But everyone should have the basic right to a secure home.

The factor that intervenes to negate this human right is the centuries-old system of landownership in Britain which is the foundation of our sclerotic class system, the basis of the whole superstructure of wealth creation and its appropriation by a privileged elite of owners.

We can think of the English civil war — perhaps we should define it more precisely as an early English class war — as a failed attempt to assert the principle that the land is our common property. 

The English made a good start in toppling the king and thus putting the frighteners on the privileged classes. 

The downside was that when the more egalitarian and revolutionary among the common people tried to carry the revolution forward towards a reassertion of common rights, the privileged took fright.

One consequence of the French Revolution — which followed our pioneering example in chopping off the head of their king, but went a bit further in making the republic secure — is that every French commune has the right to acquire any property on its territory that comes up for sale.

This is one of the demands put forward by that admirable organisation, the Acorn tenants’ union.

Its specific contribution to this is the proposal that if landlords choose to sell their properties, the local authority or community-led housing projects should have first refusal. 

Any homes bought by the local authority should be converted into council homes, with the tenant remaining in situ if they wish to. This will prevent eviction of tenants and increase council housing stock.

The Covid-19 crisis has brought to a head the deepening housing crisis in Britain. Because both the furlough scheme and, more immediately, the temporary interdict on evictions are due to end as Chancellor Rishi Sunak manoeuvres to reimpose traditional Tory austerity economic thinking, the question of housing security and affordable rents has become an urgent issue in the minds of millions.

There is a whole catalogue of policies which Labour could, and should, put at the centre of a nationwide campaign to extend to millions of working people a sense of security and an affordable and decent place to live.

There is nothing in socialism that is incompatible with the ownership of a house. 

Socialist Germany, for example, had a higher incidence of private ownership than did capitalist Germany. It is the land on which houses stand that rightfully belongs to us all.

For today, limits on the power of landlords to evict should be maintained and security of tenure protected by an end to “no fault” evictions. 

Rents should be determined not by market pressures but by legally enforceable limits in line with local income levels.

Rent gobbles up the biggest part of wages and one in four renters live in poverty, with more than half the families with children in private rented accommodation living below the poverty line.

The answer in the short term is regulation and rent controls. Regulation raises standards and imposes better behaviour on both landlords and tenants. 

Rent controls will restructure the housing market and, coupled with a massive increase in council housebuilding, could make a world of difference.

And if we dare to think of returning the land to its natural condition as our common property, this would be the foundation of housing security for all and the end of privilege – the goal our forebears dreamed of.


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