But What Of The New Houses ?
Communities Must Come First
By Our Industrial Correspondent
The reader of the speeches of the bank chairmen this year may have noticed an observation running through them that had nothing to do with banking principles. They remarked on the fact that building activity was likely to be less this year. Similarly, the reader of the government's plans for this parliamentary session may have noticed' that there was nothing about housing. He may also have noticed in their previous manifestoes a great deal of complacency about what they had already done by pressure or assistance to promote housing—on some such scale as 12,000 houses a year.
Having digested these facts and figures he could do himself a lot of good by reading a pamphlet entitled Slums, issued by the Labour party. It is a reprint of articles by H. V. Morton that originally' appeared in the Daily Herald just three years ago. It deals incidentally with the shortage of houses.
MR. MORTON'S ROUSING INVECTIVE
Thus, it notes the fact that in Birmingham, where public and private entet prise between them had built between four and five thousand houses a year for twelve years past, there were at the time of writing 26,000 applicants for houses on the lists of the city housing committee alone. It reports a jest from the Five Towns about a man who was leading a little boy down the road. " 'Hullo,' said a pal, ' taking the kid to school?" No fear,' said the man, `I'm taking him to put his name down for a corporation house'."
But this pamphlet is not so much concerned with the numerical shortage of houses as with the quite distinct scandal of the character Of some of the houses actually lived in—hundreds of thousands of them, and a great proportion officially condemned as unfit for human habitation, in one instance as long ago as 1854!
Mr. Morton writes rousing invective. There are extravagances, perversities and sentimentalities, but it would be a great mistake to dismiss his articles as " merely journalese."
He succeeds without substantial misrepresentation in doing just what he sets out to, and what the facts entitle him to do, namely. to draw a really horrifying picture of slum dwellings and of their frequency in numbers of English towns. (It is good to see that he does not spare Birmingham, where a pretentious and much advertised " shop-window " conceals an almost incredible amount of meanness and sordidness.)
Some Telling Points
He drives home his hideous facts with some fine " platform points." He remarks that in some of the greatest cities of Great Britain thousands of citizens have some of the cheapest and nastiest products of " the filthy 'forties " as their homes, while " the clothes, toys, pictures and general knickknacks of this period are in museun s."
Again, " could there be a greater contrast anywhere than the steel pylons of the national grid scheme . . . as they march through the squalor of Our
tumble-down . . industrial towns?" And, rather surprisingly:—
'4 A greater gulf separates the condition of the comfortable middle-classes and the slum-dweller than those which separated the Saxon serf from the earl. In the old days the serf, no matter how hard his life, was a kind of poor relation, whereas the modern slum-dweller is an outcast."
Finally, in reply to aspersions on the morals of slum-dwellers:— " If morality is to enter the question. I would point to the slum landlords rather than to the people who live in slums."
The Cost of Rebuilding But the beastly physical facts are the real stuff of the pamphlet and those who do not know them at first-hand could do worse than get an introduction to them from it.
As for the remedy the writer quotes with approval a proposal to build a million houses in four years at a cost of 050,000.000—a staggering figure, which staggers less " when we remember that in these times of peace we spend some £600,000,000 annually for past and future wars."
It is certainly not obvious that the slumdwellers would lose more than they gained if the additional £300,000,000 now to be raised for rearming were spent instead on rehousing
Besides, there are other possible ways of financing the cost, among which socialcreditors will reckon their own. But it is not the object of this article to discuss the finances of rehousing. Suppose, for the moment, that that difficulty were met, and consider the houses that would be built with the money.
With a .very few exceptions due to special local conditions, all rehousing schemes for large towns have resorted either to large blocks of flats in the crowded areas or to dormitory estates in the outer suburbs.
The former photograph well and make fine show-pieces for foreign visitors in the Continental and English towns that have built them. As homes for the poor—or for anyone with normal ideas of family life —they have come in for pungent criticism. But the quotation that follows is not taken from anyone who might be dismissed as a fanatical reactionary or irresponsible journalist. It is from The Times's report of a speech by an eminent retired official delivered last November at a public works, roads and transport congress: "He said that he had inspected great numbers of flats all over the Continent and had found no instance in which the people
were satisfied with them. People were not really happy in flats, where they could not lead an individual life. Hats were inconvenient for exercise, and in them people were too much
crowded together. Many continental authorities who had put up flats were now wishing they could pull them down again. The majority of working-class people could never show the same pride in a flat dwelling as in a house
of their own. He was not concerned about the fineness of the town if it did not lead to the happiness of the people."
To this indictment of the blocks may be added the special difficulties they ,present to those with children. the congestion of traffic they cause in the neighbourhood, the distance to be travelled to open spaces or for outdoor games, and the fact that when they do deteriorate or get neglected they make perhaps the most depressing
slums of all. •
The fact is that, as a caustic writer in the current Nineteenth Century remarks, "middle-class enthusiasts"have got the Upper hand in housing reform.
Or Dormitory Estates?
Turn now to the alternative. Here is an indictment of Dagenham by Mr. John Sargent, director of education for Essex, the county in which it lies. He was speaking in Westminster on Janu y 30 last. The quotation is again from The Times's report:
, "The first major problem presented by an
estate of that kind was the proportion which the children of school age bore to the total population. It was only to be expected that it should be abnormally high . . . but it was equally probable that it would also be transient . . .
"The second problem was the remoteness of the. bulk of the working population from the place of their employment . . . The rents were higher than most of the inhabitants had been paying before their removal, and that and the cost of travelling to their occupations had put a strain on the family budget which had depressed the capacity to purchase amusement.
" The feeling of being worse off socially was accentuated by the meagre provision which was made in the original scheme for social and recreational amenities within the estate itself. Although there had been considerable development in the way of shops, cinemas, etc., they were still inferior in quality to those to which the inhabitants had previously had access."
Mr. Sargent went on to point out that the schools and social centres ought by rights to be there before the inhabitants, though in practice this was very difficult to arrange. But the wisest of all his words were those with which he opened:—
" The whole rehousing process is not simply one of building better houses and more of them. but is in fact a very delicate and in some cases dangerous opera tion on the body social, in which almost every branch of government is vitally concerned." •
New Communities Needed Are these quotations intended to obstruct the clearance and replacement of the rotting hovels described by Mr.
Morton? God forbid! They are intended to bring home ,the extent to which the problem is a spiritual one.
Houses are not merely shelters or recep tacles. Houses are for homes and homes are for families and families live their full life only in communities, and communities cannot thrive without roots.
Even' f300,000,000 spent in four years would not solve the housing problem if it built houses, socially speaking, in a vacuum. The logical order, as Mr. Sargent pointed out. is not to build houses somewhere and hope for a community, but to build houses for members of a community.
Even the existing slums are not horrible only because of their physical horrors. They are horrible also as huge shapeless aggregations of human beings with no economic or social status in the place and no common bond except that they or their fathers went to work, when they could get it, in the same factories.
The building of such slums cannot be undone except by creating real communities as well as real houses.