In the run up to the 1964 General Election it became clear that housing was a key concern amongst the electorate. Opinion polls showed, for example, that it consistently figured within the top three issues to be addressed, as problems such as homelessness, unaffordable rents and urban development emerged.1 As such, both Labour and Conservative politicians campaigned vigorously on the issue, but ultimately Labour was seen to have presented the most sensible policies.2 In fact, Labour benefitted significantly from the public’s focus on domestic issues in 1964, since it was deemed to be stronger in this area in comparison to the Conservatives, whereas its position vis-à-vis Foreign affairs was regarded as substantially weaker.3
Given that housing had been one of the core issues contributing to a 1964 Labour victory, it was unsurprising that Harold Wilson – the new Labour Prime Minister – took a particular interest in housing and housing policy. Just one year later, in 1965, Wilson believed that a strong housing policy would restore strength of morale and confidence in the British people as had not been seen since the Second World War.
Just as in the War the idea of a common purpose… had a dynamizing effect, so possibly the launching of a great housing plan could have a similar effect today.4
This belief reveals the extent to which Labour viewed housing as crucial to their success as a government. And yet, when Labour celebrated its first victory in over a decade, Harold Wilson did something that no one expected. Instead of appointing Michael Stewart as Minister of Housing - who had been the Shadow Minister for Housing and Local Government since 1959 - he appointed Richard Crossman to the post. Stewart meanwhile, was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science, the post that had been expected to go to Crossman. The switch was all the more surprising given that Crossman was little informed about Housing and Local Government; he took up his post as Minister in a Department about which he ‘virtually knew nothing’.5
The reasons why Harold Wilson switched Crossman and Stewart, according to Anthony Howard, ‘remain a mystery’.6 However, at the time journalists speculated (naturally) as to why the switch had taken place. The Coventry Evening Telegraph for example, suggested that:
Mr. Crossman’s reputation as a deep political thinker, his ability to master the most complex subjects, which he demonstrated as Shadow Minister of Pensions, and his performance under fire, are doubtless all factors which influenced Mr. Wilson in his choice.7
Whilst The Guardian explained that:
During the campaign the new Government’s proposals for nationalising building land and reintroducing rent controls received a lot of publicity as well as a good deal of support. If Mr. Wilson intends to carry out this controversial programme in spite of his small majority, Mr. Crossman, as a famous fighter of causes, is the right kind of man to do it.8
Both of these newspapers deduced that Wilson had based his decision to switch Crossman and Stewart on the personality traits of the politicians in question, and both papers were confident that Crossman’s argumentative and confrontational skills were what were required to resolve the housing crisis. It may have been precisely because housing was such a core issue during the election campaign, that Harold Wilson judged it best to appoint a strong personality to the post, regardless of Crossman’s lack of expertise about the subject.
The extent to which Crossman enjoyed his position as Minister of Housing is rather ambiguous. On the one hand he repeatedly refers to a sense of isolation and loneliness from the rest of the world - completely cut off from, and ignorant of - current affairs, a feeling which must have come as something of a culture shock to a man who had had a life-long relationship with journalism and who had always been involved in various issues.9 On the other hand, outsiders judged that the appointment had made Crossman look ‘younger, fitter and far happier than many of his Coventry constituents have seen him in recent years’10. Furthermore, when Crossman was appointed Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons in August 1966, he expressed disappointment at having to leave his Ministerial life.11 Nevertheless, the isolation that Crossman felt led him to draw a distinction between being a Minister and being a politician; the two were not – Crossman felt – synonymous.12 As such, on becoming Minister, Crossman renounced his life both as a politician and as a journalist.
Regardless of how Crossman might have felt about his position as a Minister it is clear that he took his job seriously and worked long hours to resolve problems. The content of his diary, Richard Crossman the Diaries of a Cabinet Minister: Volume One Minister of Housing 1964-66, reveals that he was a conscientious Minister who chastised himself when he felt that he could have done better, and who automatically added more to his work load if he felt that additional research would improve the quality of the decisions which he took. At one point, he even described his new post as “the first time I have had a serious job since 1945”.13 Crossman was not only work conscientious but also sensitive to the working lives of those in his Department. In November 1965 for example, he resolved to structure workload more efficiently so that the Civil Service – whom he had no great love for – were not overtaxed.14
Crossman was also a very confident Minister and far from modest. As early as late October 1964 - just a few days after having been appointed Minister of a Department he knew little about - Crossman asserted that he had led and controlled meetings, recording that, ‘I was in the chair – I’m always in the chair, my voice is always listened to – and I had to conduct the meeting’.15
He was not however necessarily popular within his own Department, or even on occasion within the Labour Cabinet, because of his argumentative and difficult nature. Tam Dalyell – Crossman’s Private Parliamentary Secretary and later his biographer – reveals that Crossman believed that, in order to be a successful Minister he had to stand up against almost everybody and become a ‘bully’. To be anything else would condemn a Minister to failure, as he would be ‘squeezed and pounded into subjection’. Whilst Dalyell believes that Crossman’s sometimes aggressive stance in Cabinet ‘did not help the government’,16 Anthony Howard – also one of Crossman’s biographers – argues that the same forthright attitude made Crossman a success within his own Department; ‘Dick had’, Howard opines, ‘established his claim to be a dominant Minister who really ran his own Department’ and this was appreciated by wider public opinion.17 It was not however appreciated by the Civil Service, with whom Crossman had a difficult relationship. Crossman believed that the Civil Service in fact tried to run the Department itself in an almost conspiratorial manner, resistant to the ideas of any new Minister. His relationship with his first Permanent Secretary - Dame Evelyn - was particularly tense, Crossman rapidly describing her as really a ‘tremendous and dominating character’.18 Nevertheless, Crossman purportedly also admitted that it was the responsibility of ministers to stand up to the civil service and not succumb to its influence.19
However, whilst unpopular within Government, Crossman was – according to him - popular outside of it, especially in 1966. This immodest analysis of himself is to some extent justified given the positive tone of the press: ‘The papers say that I am good on television’ Crossman writes, ‘and successful in getting my way in Cabinet, as well as close to the P.M.’20 and that, ‘since September I have forced the pace and carried public opinion with me, particularly in the local authorities. Indeed, the only serious opposition I have had came from my own Commission’.21 Crossman may have felt that Ministerial life was an isolated one, but he nevertheless felt a successful man.
The Housing Drive
‘I am beginning to discover’, writes Crossman, ‘that the name Ministry of Housing and Local Government’ is an extraordinary misnomer. In fact, the Ministry does no house building at all . . . Our Ministry is a Ministry for permissions, regulations, and administrative Ministry’.22 Yet, despite this Labour was set on a housing drive and for the year 1965 Crossman had set himself a target of building ‘150, 000 houses in the public sector (and 250,000 by private building)’.23 Although Labour’s housing drive did meet with some success, the target that Crossman had set for himself was never attained. This was due to various factors. Firstly, Labour came into power at a time of economic difficulty, a feature that affected all of its programs including that of housing.24 Unsurprisingly, one hurdle that therefore had to be overcome was the Treasury, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer – James Callaghan – kept the purse strings tightly controlled. Callaghan refused to fund Crossman’s ambitious scheme, forcing Crossman to reduce the target despite the fact that the Cabinet in general appeared to support the Minister of Housing over the Chancellor.25 Another factor which impeded the housing drive was the inconsistency of the private sector, particularly that of the building societies. Initially, the building societies had agreed to co-operate with Crossman’s scheme, leaving Crossman hopeful - and perhaps a little too optimistic - that ‘400,000 houses will be built in the next twelve months’.26 Eight months later however, (in August 1965), the building societies withdrew their promises, fearing that the agreements they had reached with the government were the first steps towards greater government control over them.27 This meant that whilst the public sector almost attained its 1965 target, the private sector did not.28 Crossman then faced another, but significantly smaller, impediment to his building target and other policies, and that was understaffing in his own Department. Understaffing had significantly held back and frustrated his predecessors, who, up until 1962, had had to make do without a division of statisticians. This led Crossman to exclaim, ‘just imagine, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government didn’t have a statistician before!’29 As staff recruitment remained a problem, Crossman decided to confront it by setting up the Research Advisory Group, an entity which allowed some gaps in knowledge to be filled.30
Given the problems facing the housing drive, Crossman eventually had to announce to the public that the focus should not solely be upon new provision of houses but also upon improving existing housing.31
As well as the housing drive, Crossman focused on a number of other issues including, of course, legislation. When Crossman first became Minister the one key piece of legislation that he was obliged to work on, and pass through Parliament, was a bill that concerned a new Rent Act.32 This he achieved in 1965 and the Act then ‘provided for a form of rent control related to the income of tenants, and judged in each case by local authority Rent officers’.33 In essence, the 1965 Rent Act repealed its Conservative predecessor (the 1957 Rent Act).34 Although the 1965 Act initially met with success, and was welcomed by some as a ‘good piece of legislation’,35 it was later deemed problematical when, as a result, it ‘dried up the supply of rented properties’.36 Contemporary newspapers then criticised it, the Sunday Times for example, reported that ‘its scope was made too wide, and the essential principle at its heart “fair rent” was left too vague’.37 Yet, it was not as unpopular as its predecessor and it was therefore extended and consolidated by later legislation (Rent Acts of 1968, 1974 and 1977). The 1965 Rent Act thus remains the initiator of present day legislation on rents.38
Overall, Crossman’s Department was ‘highly active’ – according to Howard - in the field of legislation.39 As well as the 1965 Rent Act, Crossman oversaw the passing of an anti-Eviction Bill (1964), a Rates Rebate Bill, a Leasehold Enfranchisement Bill (1966), and also the beginnings of a Housing Subsidies Bill, although by the time this last one was passed, Crossman was no longer Minister of Housing and Local Government.40
In addition to the housing drive and legislation, Crossman was also involved in many other issues that fell under his jurisdiction. Issues such as homelessness, slum clearance, the development of historic towns and council housing, the disputes surrounding green belts and the position of caravan travellers and gypsies, were all controversies that he had to give his attention to.
Marie-Astrid Purton, August 2012
19. Niskanen, William, ‘ Bureaucracy: Servant or Master? Lessons from America’, in Robinson, Colin (ed.), The IEA, the LSE, and the Influence of Ideas: Volume 7 The Collected Works of Arthur Seldon, Part II – Prefaces to Hobart Paperbacks, p.244.
35. Tribune Magazine Archive » 24th December 1965 » The Rent Act, 1965 from http://archive.tribunemagazine.co.uk/article/24th-december-1965/9/the-rent-act-1965 Accessed 23/08/2012.
38. ‘House of Lords: Judgements-Regina v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and Another, Exparte Spath Home Limited On 7 December 2000’, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200001/ldjudgmt/jd001207/spath-1.htm accessed 22/08/ 2012, Accessed 23/08/12.