A basic right of citizenship

This week saw the 40th anniversary of the death of Anthony Crosland. He served as a Cabinet Minister in the 1960s and 1970s Labour Governments, including as Foreign Secretary (dying in Office in 1977), President of the Board of Trade, Environment Secretary, and Education Secretary, where he made great strides towards comprehensive education.

Normally regarded as a Gaitskellite revisionist, Crosland’s famous book The Future of Socialism, published in 1956, had a great influence on me when I read it in the 1970s. His central contention was that socialism should be about ‘ends’ not ‘means’; it should not be equated simply with the ownership of the means of production but should be judged by its contribution to ending poverty and improving the lives and prospects of ordinary people through the provision of the high quality public services across the board. His beliefs were put into practice as Education Secretary through his determination to replace Grammar Schools with a system of properly funded local Comprehensives, and as Environment Secretary in the 1974 minority Labour Government when he pursued a progressive housing policy.

Crosland also wrote a seminal Fabian pamphlet in 1971 called ‘Towards a Labour Housing Policy.’ (Herbert Morrison Memorial Lecture, Fabian Tract 410, available in the LSE Digital Library). This pamphlet was hugely influential at the time but it also has many resonances today.

Writing more than a year into the Heath Government, Crosland reflected on the 1964-70 Labour Government’s record – a huge building programme achieved, with increased subsidies that ‘helped keep council rents at reasonable levels’; increased help for new home owners through the Option Mortgage scheme and 100% mortgages, taking home ownership above 50% for the first time; increased help through improvement grants and the 1969 Act’s general improvement area programme; greater security of tenure and fair rents for private tenants under the 1965 Rent Act.

Yet, he argued, these achievements did not mean that Labour had solved the housing problem: far from it, major changes were needed to future housing policy. He referenced homelessness, overcrowding and insecurity; the too-slow action on slum clearance (despite also saying that ‘we have had too much of the bulldozer’); housing subsidies that ‘did not reach down to the poorest families’; and inequity between tenures: home owners received indiscriminate tax relief, council rents were a muddle with inconsistent practice around the country, there was little help with rent for private tenants, and furnished tenants remained outside the Rent Acts.

He started his assessment of future policy needs by stating the duty of government: to make sure needs are met and to tackle poverty and squalor.

‘It must be possible – indeed it is in our view a basic right of citizenship – for every household…. to have a minimum civilised standard of dwelling adequate for a decent comfortable and private household life.’

He then sets the need for government action against the failings of the free market:

‘(Our objectives) will not be met by the free play of market forces. A free market is wholly irrelevant to the most urgent problem, since the homeless and the over crowded are generally poor people who could not conceivably afford the market price of decent housing.’

So we cannot have a market solution to the housing problem. Some part of the building programme must be public: some part of the housing stock must be leased or owned at less than the economic cost: and the government must bear a final responsibility for the overall housing situation.’

So what did he advocate? Here are some of his practical policy proposals:

  • A third force between councils and owner occupation and a less marginal role for housing associations;
  • A strategic role for councils as well as their traditional role of building and managing homes, together with stronger metropolitan and regional planning for new homes;
  • Stronger default powers when councils fail to deliver homes;
  • A reorganisation of finance so that the most hard-pressed areas receive the greatest aid;
  • Greater involvement of community and neighbourhood organisations in the design of urban renewal;
  • Bring housing together with other aspects of urban poverty and deprivation.
  • Resist the Heath government’s plans to increase council rents: Labour should end the relationship between public rents and private rents – ‘there is no analogy here’; low rents essential to keep the pressure off the rebates system, otherwise the rebate scheme will have to cover even those on average earnings; Tory rents will lead to council housing making a profit and subsidising the Exchequer.
  • Welcome the extension of rebates to private tenants, but there should be strict regulations over the fixing of rents and the state of repair. Furnished tenants, excluded from the Tory proposal, should be fully included.
  • Tackle the unfair and indiscriminate subsidy to home owners through mortgage interest tax relief.

It was a strong programme then, and Crosland later went some way towards delivering it during his time as Secretary of State for the Environment. Extraodinarily, it has many echoes now 45 years later. And the fundamentals on which his policy platform was based – government subsidy to ensure many more homes are built, housing costs that were affordable without means testing, linking housing to other policy areas like social services, the economy and the physical environment, and the principle of equitable treatment between tenures – stand the test of time.

As a supposed revisionist in the 1960s and 1970s Crosland would probably be denounced as a leftie now, such is the distance that the political centre has moved in the meantime. But his practical and fair policy proposals, with just a little updating, were sufficiently prescient to guide us now.

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5 Responses to A basic right of citizenship

  1. Pingback: Ambition to Build | Red Brick

  2. Brian Lund says:


    Anthony Crosland’s ‘Towards a Labour Housing Policy’ was published in 1971. Crosland was Secretary of State for the Environment from 1974 to 1976 so we can compare policy rhetoric and policy reality.

    According to Steve Hilditch’s summary, Crosland proposed ‘A strategic role for councils as well as their traditional role of building and managing homes…’ Yes, the 1977 green paper, prepared under Crosland, gave local government a strategic role but not ‘as well as their traditional role of building and managing homes’. Indeed, it clear from Towards a Labour Housing Policy that Crosland viewed the local authority role in housing supply as ‘residual’. In the summary of his views it is stated that Crosland thought ‘some part of the building programme must be public’. The detail in Crosland’ pamphlet reveals that this ‘some part’ was to cater for homeless people and overcrowded households plus households living in slum properties — the traditional Tory ‘sewage’ approach to housing policy (see Macleod, I. (1973 [1954]) ‘Sanitas Sanitatum: “The Condition of the People”’, in I. Fisher (ed) Ian Macleod, London: Andre Deutsch Ltd) and miles away from Bevan’s ‘mixed community’ vision. The 1977 green paper endorsed home ownership as a ‘strong and natural desire which ‘should be met’. Following Crosland’s declaration that ‘the party’s over’, local authority spending was reduced by 10% in volume terms between1974/5 and 1976/7 (See Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1980 Public Expenditure to 1979-80). UK house building by local government declined from 146,000 in 1975 to 86,000 in 1979.

    The 1974 Housing Act certainly boosted the role of housing associations in reconditioning older homes and new build but the Conservatives viewed housing associations as replacements for local government, not additional suppliers. The 1974 Act was filched, lock, stock and smoking barrel, from a 1973 Tory bill and Labour’s attempt to use housing associations to replace private landlords bit the dust in spending cuts.

    In Crosland’s term as Secretary of State for the Environment there were no ‘stronger default powers when councils fail to deliver homes’ but Crosland did act on his declaration that there should be ‘a reorganisation of finance so that the most hard-pressed areas receive the greatest aid’. His amendments to the rate support grant gave an extra £2.7 million to Greater Manchester, £3.3 million to Merseyside, £2.6 million to Tyne and Wear, £400,000 to South Yorkshire, £80,000 to the West Midlands and about £25 million to London.

    Crosland, preserved the tight planning boundaries around the cities and retained the public participation in planning measures recommended by the Skeffington Committee (1969), included in the 1971 Town and Country Planning. These measures unleashed sharp middle class elbows onto the planning system. In 1971 Labour had been lukewarm on public participation in planning; according to Shapely (2014, p viii), ‘Many, including Wilson, felt that only a few interfering members of the middle class, who were hostile to Labour, really wanted participation’ (See Shapely, P. 2014, People and Planning: Report of the Skeffington Committee on Public Participation in Planning, Abingdon: Routledge and Ravetz, A. (1986) The Governance of Space: Town Planning in Modern Society, London: Faber and Faber.

    Sure, ‘housing stress areas’ were intended to ‘bring housing together with other aspects of urban poverty and deprivation’ but they foundered amongst the housing spending cuts implemented by Crosland.

    Crosland may have had an influence in ensuring that Harold Wilson’s council house sales scheme was never published and he certainly halted the Tory move towards linking local authority rents to private landlord ‘fair’ rents. However, in Towards a Labour Housing Policy Towards a Labour Housing Policy, Crosland objected to ultimate ‘fair rent’ levels, stating that local authority rents must be ‘at a level the average families can pay without mass means testing. According to Lipsey’s Corridors of Power (2013), Crosland was considering a scheme to push rents upwards across all sectors with rebates and allowances taking the strain.
    Let’s not get carried away — Crosland was a revisionist.

    Brian Lund, Oldham

  3. Ben Jamin' says:

    The only right of citizenship we are morally entitled to is an equal share from the scarcity value of resources supplied for free by nature.

    Without any other changes to our tax/benefits system a 100% Land Tax (assumed as the equivalent of a flat 3% on the current selling price of housing) would

    A) Reduce the selling price of all immovable propoerty down to its capital only component. Saving new mortgagees about £7000 per year in repayments on average.
    B) Reduce rental incomes to their capital only component.
    C) Give every man, woman and child a Citizens Dividend worth £3000 per year. So a family of four who rents would £12,000 a year better off in their pockets every year
    A family of four living in an averaged priced home would be around £6000 per year better off, plus the reduction in mortage interest of £7000, as above.
    D) Regions outside London and the SE would see their descretionary incomes rise by over £40bn per year.
    E) The market would be able to rationalise our existing housing stock, reducing vacancy and under occupation which have risen steadily over the decades. Owner occupiers currently consume 72 more bedrooms per 100 households than those that rent. Thus a LVT would free up the equivalent of 4.3 million extra 3 bedroom houses.
    More than enough to cover any rises in population for the forseeable future.

  4. Michael Marriott says:

    Err. Since when has being a “leftie” been a reason for being “denounced” (except in the right wing press….)

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