My father grew up in a middle-class family in Plymouth in the 1930’s. One experience of this era as a child clearly remained with him all his life. His nurse, taking him for his afternoon walk, had asked my grandmother if she could call on her family. My father recalls stopping at the house, but instead of going to the front door, as he expected, they went down the steps to the basement: in fact it was little more than a cellar. In these two semi-underground rooms lived a large family, and their conditions were typical of hundreds of thousands of families at this time.
Roy Hatterley’s immensely readable book ‘Borrowed Time – the Story of Britain between the Wars’ contains a sympathetic picture of one Anglo-Catholic priest who tackled the housing problem in his own parish: his name was Basil Jellicoe.
In 1921 Basil Jellicoe was sent to Somers Town, a parish close to Euston Station in London. He quickly found the slums. They had, he believed, been ‘produced by selfishness, stupidity and sin and only Love Incarnate can put it right. The slums produce something much more terrible than mere discomfiture and discontent. They produce a kind of horrible excommunication, a fiendish plan by the Powers of Evil to keep people from the happiness for which God made them.’
Jellicoe founded the St Pancras Housing Improvement Society, and used his society connections to raise the money to buy eight properties which were then renovated and rented to families. In 1926 more houses were bought up for improvement and fifty-two new flats were built. Jellicoe was something of a showman, and knew how to use the press and media for publicity for his work. There is fascinating newsreel footage of the ‘Solemn Dynamiting of Sydney Street’, complete with immense papier-mache models of cockroaches and bedbugs. Another shows the blessing of the new flats with Bishop Winnington-Ingram liberally splashing everything in sight with holy water! The Society rarely had enough money, and borrowed and built in faith again and again.
It is true that the work received considerable approval, and gave practical expression to Lloyd George’s promise of ‘homes for heroes’ made in the aftermath of the First World War. But the promise was only partially fulfilled, the house-building boom benefited the middle classes disproportionately, and the slums remained largely untouched. In any case, by the 1930’s austerity as the answer to the worldwide slump in trade had become the government’s first priority. Jellicoe was faced with a deeper challenge for many still believed that the poor were “feckless” and that the answer to their condition was to be found in hard work and a more entrepreneurial spirit! Better housing was one of those “benefits” which other people had to pay for: surely better to let the market create wealth which would then trickle down and be of benefit to the lower levels of society.
Nearly a hundred years later there are many echoes of the problems faced by Fr Jellicoe, although outwardly much has changed. The government took over, as it did in many areas of social welfare, after the Second World War, and there was massive re-planning of the housing stock. But the wholesale removal of people to new estates, and especially into the tower blocks of high-rise flats, was a mixed blessing. There was an arrogance on the part of the planners, but there was also a determination by local councils to meet the desperate need for homes in the post-war period. But no-one doubted that the Government was the biggest player in the provision of housing, and that this would be (and should be) rented housing.
Both of these principles were challenged by the Conservative government of the 1980’s under Margaret Thatcher. The ‘property owning democracy’ linked two concepts in people’s minds (thought it is difficult now to see why renting property cannot also be part of democracy) and then added a third factor: which was to have dire effects thirty years later. For this third factor was the notion that property is an ‘investment’ rather than a ‘commodity’. In other words when you buy a house you ‘invest’ your money, and expect, when you sell your house that you will sell it for more than you paid. This is not the case when you buy a car, for example, for it ‘depreciates’ as you use it. For a couple of decades a generation of home-owners were able to buy and sell, making money as they did so, and thus ‘improving’ their lives. Those with some money were now able to buy their council houses, as local councils lost control over the homes which had themselves been built with tax-payers money a generation before! But the net effect was to decrease dramatically the number of homes available to the poorer (and therefore renting) sector of society, as well as concentrating those homes which were still available in the more run-down estates. Thus the downward spiral of these areas became ever more rapid. Unemployment, the break up of the family, the loss of the common currency of ‘respectability’ among the working class, and the problems which became associated with immigration, all added to this toxic mix.
With the recent recession and yet another house-price crisis it might have been expected that the UK would have learnt its lesson. Not a bit of it! House-price inflation is now up to 30% in London, Vince Cable expresses concern, and Lloyds Bank is restricting mortgages in the capital. Underneath all this is a crisis of principle. It is this which the Church must ‘speak out’ on. The Catholic Church has said much on the Common Good, and it is able to speak without the pressure of the middle-class establishment which has too often in recent years set the agenda for our National Church. Here too is something for the Ordinariate in the UK to get its teeth into. It is beginning to find its feet, its liturgy is pretty well settled and can be left to bed in. It has priests and people ‘on the ground’ so to speak, as well as people with good brains and analytical minds. In uniting over social policy, and especially housing, it will ‘punch above its weight’ and be a true challenge to the Church and to society – true to the legacy of a great Anglo-Catholic priest, Fr Basil Jellicoe.