THIS week Christians took a long and searching look at Britain's housing, perhaps the biggest social problem now facing the country. Then they asked themselves what could they do about it?
The examination was made by about 200 Christians of all denominations in London's East End.
Overcrowding, slums, lack of basic amenities, mass immigrations, breeding grounds for divorce, delinquency and other social evils . . this is the picture of Stepney's, and indeed Britain's housing problem which boasts (if that is the word) one million slum houses and another two million beyond repair.
Led by socialist M.P.s George Thomas (West Cardiff), Toni Driberg (Barking) and Maurice Foley (West Bromwich) under the chairmanship of journalist, Douglas Hyde, the gathering recognised the problem as immense but far from being insoluble.
As Peter Shore, the Stepney M.P., pointed out, Britain could provide more houses if it got its priorities right. Israel, which is building 700,000 homes annually, is a nation where only 7 per cent of the people own cars. Britain is hard put to build 300,000 units a year—and here 40 per cent of the people own cars.
Or as another speaker from the floor asked—why does the nation have such a large brick surplus when the housing need is so great? Or why is it easier to obtain H.P. finance for a car or washing machine than a mortgage? Why is the housing loan rate always going up. Why? . . . why? . . why?
But first, what of Stepney? It is unlike the New Towns of say. Harlow and Basildon which are being built on virgin land. It is a New Town going up—and the operative word is UP on a site which is as old as London itself.
For centuries the East End has been the refuge for the persecuted, the oppressed and the deprived. When the slave trade became illegal coloured people settled there. Chinese settled there. The Jews escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe settled there. The Huguenots found refuge in its multi-racial community. The Irish families escaping the famines of the 1840s came across the channel and often walked to Stepney and Aldgate from Liverpool and Bristol.
In recent years there has been a big influx of Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Maltese and Cypriots. All through the centuries the East End has been a test-ground for racial tolerance.
Although infamous for its crime, it has an equal claim to racial tolerance. good humour and sheer good neighbourliness. No one will forget that in 1936 the Irish, Jews and the English were united to a man in stopping Mosley and his fascists marching through the East End.
Today Stepney has 30,000 housing units, approximately half of which are new flats or houses. The conditions in the other half is appallingly primitive without hot water (sometimes even water), sewerage and lifts. This last problem is felt by the aged. who arc being moved, often reluctantly, to new accommodation where there are no hazardous stairs.
Are these old homes, which are virtually slums, contributing to social digressions? They are, but as Methodist. George Thomas told the meeting, not always. Many fine people have been brought up in slums. just as there have been many juvenile delinquents bred in the most modern of houses.
Mr. Thomas, who is Joint Under-Secretary to the Home Office, admits that delinquency is rife, but is reluctant to peg it only onto the housing problem.
Convictions for juvenile offences are running at something like a thousand a week now. Back in 1938 they were less than 500. Although they have more than doubled, the population in the same period has gone up only 11 per cent.
Mr. Thomas believes the rate will continue to climb while society's attitude seems to be "get the money somehow . . how you get it is no one's business". Until society places stress on honesty and integrity. he feels the effects of better housing won't show up significantly.
But then again there is no denying that poor housing does lead to social problems. Overcrowding causes frayed nerves, anger and bitterness. 'Ihe toll is mental illness. Where there is overcrowding the husband escapes to the pub for solace. The children escape to coffee bars and clubs to be free of parental chiding. Noise--the meeting was told —contributes to this tension and anxiety.
But delinquency comes to its peak not in late teens, as many suspect, but in the year before a child leaves school. Statistics show that the high a number of offences are committed by children aged 14. When the school leaving age is raised to 16, sociologists suspect 15 will be the peak age. And teenagers are both often the victims and the cause of this noise problem.
What of the new houses which are fitted with modern bathrooms, central heating and lifts? Are they successful'? Yes, they make for more harmonious living, but they are virtually restricted to people who have to be rehoused.
Migrants from other parts of England into London have a poor "points rating" on Councils' housing lists. Council housing is virtually closed to them. As it is too, to newly married couples who have to either seek small flats or buy a home.
Even if they manage to save the deposit. credit restrictions often prevent them from obtaining a mortgage because the bread-winner is not earning more than £25 per week.
The established families take over the new homes ("as indeed they are entitled to" a speaker said.) The young families move and the community becomes unbalanced. It lacks a leavening of young people in the "old towns" like Stepney or a leavening of old people in some of the "new towns" established to take London's overspill.
But over-riding this problem of imbalance is that of "colour". Now Christians, surely more than anyone else, said one speaker, don't want to bring race into the housing problem. But it has to be admitted that the immigration from the West Indies has aggravated a problem which already existed.
Christian charity is tested to the last drop when a coloured
family moves into a very substandard building, which eventually comes into a local authority redevelopment plan. Because they have to be rehoused the coloured family moves into new Council accommodation before old established residents who, rather than live in "primitive" conditions, have chosen to pay for rented accommodation and more or less lost their "points rating" on a Cciuncil list.
What then can Christians do about solving the housing problem in practical terms? The lesson of the "Good Samaritan", the meeting agreed, showed that they have a duty to do something.
First, they can pressure their M.P.s to concentrate on giving priority to social needs, rather than defence. Last year the Government spent more than £2,000 million on defence —an expenditure which even the pro-defence pundits say was too costly for what Britain got back.
It can pressure the Government and financial institutions to get their priorities right about finance. Houses first. Television and cars later.
They can help educate people to save and plan to buy their own homes through Christian Housing Societies, or for that matter any kind of reputable society.
They can be more tolerant to their neighbour in their existing housing conditions. They can join with local authorities in making sure that all available accommodation is being used and not abused.
Too often rows of betting shops, launderettes, etc. have empty flats over them because of insurance regulations and local government by-laws.
But even with all these things Christians can do. they must realise (the meeting agreed) as the community as a whole must realise, a house is NOT A HOME. For people to develop to their full maturity as good citizens they need much more than just a home. They need a sense of community and fellowship which comes with neighbourliness, friendship, and churchgoing.