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.