19 MARCH 1965, Page 3

The Grip of Megalopolis

Aswith unemployment between the wars, so with housing and education today. These are the great domestic political themes of the time: and they are confused by prejudice, half-knowledge and irrele- vancies. Thanks to the Milner Holland report, some of the ignorance about the nature of London's housing shortage has now been dispelled. Simultaneously some of the prejudices have been challenged. The flexibility and imaginativeness of the politi- cal response will be quickly put to the test. The report will be debated by the House of Commons on Monday. The Government's Rents Bill will make its appearance a day later.

Mr. Crossman confirmed on Tuesday that his Bill will introduce some new form of rent regulation. The trouble with rent control hitherto is that it has produced disastrous side-effects—notably the steady deterioration of property, and the 'freezing' of households lucky enough to have found controlled accommodation. It bears hardest on the newcomer and the new household. Mr. Crossman's formula will be judged in the light of half a century's depressing experience. At least he recognised that con- trol in itself is no answer to the crisis.

On the central question of meeting the grim insufficiency of houses, a new round of thinking has been started by the Milner Holland report. Mr. Crossman predictably favours more and more council building. Others will take up the report's arguments in favour of tax assistance to the private pro- viders of rented homes. The strong claims of housing associations will be urged. All will be prompted by respectable humani- tarian motives.

But what is most to be hoped is that con- cern with such measures will not obscure the dominating fact that neither one nor all of them can put the London chaos into order. To rely upon them is like relying on a running tap to empty a reservoir. Lon- don's ills cannot be cured solely inside London. Indeed, there is a sense in which palliative acts can have the long-term effect of making the problems worse. The Condon magnet already draws in population in a ceaseless tide even when the housing available is pitifully inadequate. Humanity and efficiency alike point out- side London for the solutions. The South- East Study and the last government's accompanying proposals were published a year ago almost to the day. The object was to achieve a drastic redistribution of popu- lation growth in the South-East. A whole series of new population centres (including several 'major cities') was envisaged. But the plans seem now to have got stuck in the- pipeline. It is in the creation of new mag- • netic pulls, to diminish the intolerable pres- sure upon London, that hope for the future may be seen. These must be exerted not only from undeveloped parts of the South:East, but also from more distant regions which need modernising and revitalising. The horrors of, Rachmanism, as the Milner Hol- land committee observes, are symptoms, not causes. They are symptoms of insup- portable population pressure. Mr. Cross- nail's promise of `swingeing penalties' fol- lows naturally from the report. But the terrible statistics of overcrowding in Lon- don, of squalor and of sheer homelessness, cry out most of all for an easing of that pressure.

The situation can deteriorate very quickly, while remedies of regional planning and employment policy are agonisingly slow to take effect. London needs massive improve- ments concurrently with action to divert pressure elsewhere. The Milner Holland report provides much evidence of the need. To take one striking example, it is an irony that this committee, set up at a time of out- cry against landlords, has sounded a note of alarm at their progressive disappearance from the scene. (Mr. Crossman seems already to have dismissed this politically unpalatable conclusion.) No political party has, the right to smug- ness on this issue. It is regrettable that this inquiry into the dark corners of Megalopolis was not initiated years earlier. A recurring theme in the report is the absence of adequate inforination about the complex, shifting housing situation in London. Prob- lems which have never been fully identified and analysed can never be solved. But this at least was a deeply worth-while study which puts upon politicians a great burden of responsibility. One passage in the report has attracted little attention, yet its urgency is glaring. 'Already,' it says ominously.

`there are signs that the fall in London's population which continued until 1961 has been checked, and may even have been reversed, since the last Census.' The pres- sure is still building up. The grip of Megalopolis is tightening.