This article was originally published at openDemocracy.
Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to requisition empty houses in Kensington in aid of those made homeless by the Grenfell tragedy has been met with somewhat of a backlash.
The Telegraph says that Corbyn’s “land grab” is the first step towards tyranny. Rupert Myers, political correspondent at GQ magazine, says that “the state shouldn’t seize private property backed by the implicit threat of violence”. According to these critics, Corbyn’s proposal would usher in a new era of state coercion, and would violate basic human rights to own property.
This view is not without justification – there are many examples from history where overbearing governments have trampled over property rights with disastrous consequences. But attacking Corbyn’s proposal on the basis that it involves state meddling with property rights is illogical. Because when it comes to property, there is no getting away from state interference.
If I walk into your house and refuse to leave, I will likely be arrested and imprisoned. That is because you have been granted property rights by the state – a set of legal rights over a defined boundary of space, most importantly the right to exclude others from that space. If I refuse to comply with these rights, then the state can deprive me of my liberty through the police and courts.
Private property is always and everywhere backed up by state compulsion and threat of violence. This is true whether the government continues with the status quo, or whether it decides to requisition properties in Kensington. Private property cannot exist without the apparatus of the state to protect and enforce it. This is the basic foundation of modern capitalist economies.
When conservative commentators object to Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to requisition empty properties, it is not because they disagree with state compulsion and threat of violence. What they are really objecting to is the idea that the state should intervene to advance the interests of the poor, rather than to protect the interests of the rich.
Property rights are not, and have never been, neutral or fixed. The rules that govern property rights have varied across the world, and over time, reflecting power and class relations in society.
Even today the ownership of property is not absolute, and a complex set of overlapping rights exist to ensure that society functions well. In most developed countries the state has the power to acquire rights over land without the current owner’s consent, in return for compensation, under so-called compulsory purchase powers.
In the UK these powers emerged in the nineteenth century to prevent individual landowners from blocking the construction of new railways. Without these powers, landowners could hold society to ransom by refusing to sell land for critical infrastructure and development projects. It was recognised that in these instances individual property rights should become secondary to the wider public interest. Thus, the compulsory purchase regime was established because laissez-faire liberalism was failing to meet societal need on its own.
Similarly, during the First and Second World Wars widespread requisitioning of property took place, both for military use and for civilian functions related to the war effort. The government had to pass legislation in order to do this – the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914 and the Emergency Powers Act in 1939. Again, this happened because there was a degree of social acceptance that it was in the wider public interest.
Controversially, local authorities have used, and attempted to use, compulsory purchase powers in order to clear London estates, as part of the process of gentrification. As I write, there is an ongoing debate about whether Southwark council can force the eight remaining leaseholders from the Aylsebury estate. It seems odd that conservative commentators are so loud on the subject of the rights of the owners of unoccupied mansions in Kensington, but so quiet about the property rights of those in working class estates who bought their homes.
And in fact, it’s worth considering how some of these homes came into private ownership in the first place. Because the state doesn’t always exercise its power to transfer property from private hands to public hands – it can also work the other way. In 1980 Margaret Thatcher passed the Housing Act which launched the ‘Right to Buy’ policy. This Act compelled councils – the owners of these homes – to sell them to their occupiers, and forcibly transferred public property into private hands, funded with generous taxpayer subsidies. During Thatcher’s time in office 1.5 million publicly owned houses were privatised in what she described as “one of the most important revolutions of the century”. It was delivered with what Rupert Myers might call “the implicit threat of violence”.
Each of these examples demonstrate that property rights are never absolute, and can be suspended or modified when there is a social acceptance that they are in the public interest. How does this apply to Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to requisition empty housing for the victims of the Grenfell tragedy?
Some have argued that Corbyn’s proposal would represent a breach of human rights regarding ownership of property. Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to own property” and “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property”. But housing and shelter is also regarded as a human right. Article 25 of of the same document states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including housing”. Local authorities also have a legal duty to ensure that suitable accommodation is available for those who are made homeless.
So Corbyn’s proposal presents society with a dilemma: do we uphold the rights of absentee landlords to exclude others from their property, and at the same time deny the victims of the Grenfell tragedy their right to housing? Or do we we uphold the rights of the Grenfell victims to housing, and deny (perhaps temporarily) the rights of absentee landlords to exclude others from their property?
property rights are never absolute, and can be suspended or modified when there is a social acceptance that they are in the public interest
More than anything else, this is a moral question. It is not a question about state coercion. In both cases the state is exercising its power using the threat of violence. Either the state will do this by arresting any homeless person who tries to occupy the luxury Kensington properties – many of which which have sat empty for 15 years – or by denying the property rights of the former owners, through the courts if necessary.
Unsurprisingly, Theresa May has chosen to prioritise the rights of absentee landlords over the rights of the victims of the Grenfell tragedy. Why is this the case? It’s quite simple: the victims of the Grenfell tragedy are mainly poor, working class Londoners. The owners of the Kensington properties are the world’s rich and powerful. The balance of power in British society lies with the latter, and successive governments have set the rules around property rights accordingly. As Adam Smith, often regarded as the forefather of liberal economic thought, wrote 240 years ago:
“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is, in reality, instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have property against those who have none at all”.
Maybe – just maybe – it’s time to change that.