Homelessness: Rachmanism returns

As homelessness figures have risen yet again, Mitch Mitchell looks at the history of housing in the UK the post-war period. 

March against evictions, Stratford London E15, September 2015. Photo: Steve Eason

According to figures published in the press last month, homelessness and rough sleeping figures have shot up in 2018 across Britain and particularly in London, and they show no sign of diminishing in 2019. These figures do not usually take into account those living on friends’ sofas or floors or in cars, or, if lucky, camper vans. 

To understand this, it is perhaps necessary to delve into recent history. After World War Two, there was a severe housing shortage all across the country. Some of the reasons were obvious; bombing during the conflict being the main one.

The Attlee Labour government which was elected after the war was pledged to end the awful conditions in the slums which had existed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So they began a massive programme of house-building and creating council housing at reasonable rents and with total security of tenure.

As a short term measure, they developed what were known as ‘prefabs’ which were intended to last for about 15 years or so. In effect, many of these lasted a lot longer and there are still some in use.

Labour lost power in 1951, but the incoming Tory government continued the policy of house building and rehousing those in inadequate properties. In fact, both parties used to vie with each other as to who had built the most homes.

The 1960s brought about the era of tower blocks, especially after Labour regained power in 1964. However, two events put a brake on this. The Ronan Point disaster when a gas explosion caused a block to partially collapse and various scandals emerged highlighting local authority architects, builders and planners who had conspired to use sub standard materials in the developments, thus pocketing the difference in money saved. Several people were jailed, most notably an architect called John Poulson and a councillor from the North East named T. Dan Smith.

Peter Rachman (1919-62) became a byword for intimidating tenants. Photo via wikipedia

When the Wilson government of 1964 was elected, one of their manifesto promises had been to rid the country of ‘Rachmanism’. A notorious slum landlord named Peter Rachman let properties at, for the times, extortionate rents and used a strong arm team of thugs to evict people who lived in flats where he found he could get higher rent from new tenants. Rachman received the most publicity for this, but there were many others behaving in a similar manner.


All of this led to the government bringing in many controls to help tenants. They introduced rent officers who would inspect properties and control how much rents could rise by, if at all. Also, it became illegal for estate agents to charge prospective tenants for their services, fees only were to be levied on landlords. Deposits called for were moderate and generally affordable and had to be kept by the agent in separate accounts which were not to accrue interest.

The Heath government of 1970 continued with these controls, but ushered in a mini boom in home ownership. Mortgages from banks were very rare and were normally reserved for commercial properties. People generally had to be savers with a building society and to show that they were regular savers before the branch manager would accede to their request for a loan. Generally, the most a building society would lend was 95%.

Local authorities also gave mortgages of up to 100% of their valuation of the property. People without building society accounts or access to large deposits would often turn to their local council for help.

Things continued like this until the Thatcher coterie of the 1980s got their hands on power. Thatcher felt that the controls on private rented properties were too restrictive and too weighted in favour of tenants, so she and her coven set about breaking down the rights given to people.

On 1 January 1989, the short term contract was introduced. This meant that instead of people being able to rent for an indefinite period, limits of, usually, 6 months or 1 year were placed on tenancies. At the end of that defined period, landlords were free to raise rent, evict, sell the property. If a tenant wanted to negotiate to stay on, the landlord could either offer a new fixed term agreement or revert to what became known as a ‘month on, month off’ tenancy. This meant, in effect, that if the landlord wished to have vacant possession, only 28 days notice need be given.

During the Thatcher era of the 1980s, rough sleeping became much more common. It was not unusual to see people sheltering in salvaged cardboard boxes on ran soaked streets, especially in London. Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the USA were devotees of Hayek and Milton Freedman, both gurus of what is now called neoliberalism, but at the time was referred to as laissez-faire. Part of this economic doctrine led to many firms either closing completely or shedding staff and unemployment rose steeply.

In fact, in order to massage the unemployment figures, the Tories changed they way joblessness was counted 17 times and it still came out at over 3 million. Doctors were encouraged to sign people off as sick, so they wouldn’t appear in the unemployment records. Also, the figures failed to take account of the people for whom employment was either impossible or extremely difficult, for example mothers at home or someone caring for a sick relative.

In more recent times, it seems as though we have returned to the bad old days of Rachman. Landlords often perpetrate what have been called ‘revenge evictions’. These are where a tenant in a usually substandard accommodation has either complained about something or asked for something to be fixed.

Instead, the landlord evicts them, often waiting until they are out and then changing the locks. The tenant is then beset by further problems of getting their belongings back. Agents frequently withhold deposits, usually on the flimsiest of excuses which means the tenant may well not be able to afford to apply for a new property.

Thatcher’s sell off of council housing resulted in a shortage, largely because instead of allowing local authorities to reinvest money received in new homes, they were forced by law to hold the money on deposit. The Thatcher regime also forced housing associations to charge higher rents by telling them they could only charge no less than 80% of the average rent for their particular area.

Also, housing associations changed their ethos. At one time, they were set up to cater for specific professions. Thus there were the Teachers’ HA, Nurses HA, etc. Only a few catered more broadly to people. Then the Tory government insisted that they become all encompassing and, where they could, replace councils as providers of social housing.

In areas where property was selling for vast sums, such as the Notting Hill area of London, many councils shed much of their stock onto the private market, which again led to shortages.

Before Thatcher destroyed it, the old GLC (Greater London Council) under Ken Livingstone enacted a rule that any housing developments must have a proportion of the properties built earmarked for affordable rents. Unfortunately, the developers worked out very crafty ways of getting around this and so little was actually achieved.

Every year, I volunteer at a day centre run by Crisis at Christmas. This year, I noticed that the demographic had changed quite a bit. Several guests were people in low paid work who just could not afford London’s sky high rents and have been hit by the savage cuts to housing benefit. Many were sofa surfing or relying on the few hostel places available.

Also, there are quite a few Eastern Europeans on the streets. Several of them have been exploited by gang masters, put to work in areas like fruit and veg picking or packing and then just turfed out when the season of whatever they are working on ends.

In fact, foreign homeless people are in a doubly bad situation. All people on the streets are vulnerable, but some of the charities set up to help the homeless collude with the Home Office to facilitate deportations. I find this repugnant.

Of course, cuts to mental health provision have a part to play. Ex-service people suffering from PTSD, drug users and alcoholics are all part of the mass labelled homeless. Add to that people who have just left imprisonment, often for trivial offences, and cannot find re-employment because of their criminal record.

Health of rough sleepers is usually poor. They exist on food usually handed out by well meaning people, but a poor diet can, and usually does, lead to health problems. One guest at Crisis once said to me: ‘People mean well, but I am really fed up with sandwiches.’

At the mercy of the elements, many people, people who have lives, identities and families die of the cold or illnesses contracted by frequently being wet through. Vile people attack them. Just recently, two men were sleeping in a tent which was set on fire. One man died having received 100% burns and the other is in a coma. Both were Eastern European.

The situation now is such that a sea change is required to begin to help. First, society must see rough sleepers and other homeless people as people with varying degrees of need. Spending constraints must be removed from local authorities so that building can go ahead, full steam.

Also, local authorities must be given powers to requisition some of the over 630,000 empty properties around Britain and make them habitable for people. In some cases, these places are empty because the owner died intestate and there are queries about who now owns them, but in many cases they are deliberately unused in order to make someone money when prices increase. And, of course, when a property is not lived in, only a tiny fraction of council tax is due (it used to be free of tax).

Land banking must also be stopped. This is where people buy up swathes of land and do nothing with them, preventing building from taking place.

In order to protect tenants, all letting agents must be properly registered. At present, the law allows anyone to set up and many people have lost money and homes because of very dodgy practices by some.

To me, one mark of a civilised society is that everyone has the right to a home with warmth, light, facilities and to suit all levels of income. I look forward to a future where socialism can bring this about.


  1. on homelessness the Housing first Strategy may make things worse,in Glasgow services for homeless people slashed, good supported accommodation and tenancy/addiction support in jeopardy.Importing Nordic models with strong welfare state/social housing may not work in Tory inspired austerity Disunited ‘King’dom?


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