Sam Burgum suggests that the post-war housing crisis has some lessons for tackling the housing and empty homes crisis we face today 

Reprioritising Property: Use Before Ownership

A combination of the blitz, reduced housebuilding, the return of 3.5m ex-servicemen and a baby boom, exacerbated the already dire housing conditions in many UK cities after WW2.

In response, groups such as the Vigilantes in Brighton, as well as the 40,000 families that squatted empty military bases and 1000 people who squatted luxury flats at the Duchess of Bedford House, decided to prioritise putting empty properties back into use, arguing that the “ownership of a property was a secondary consideration to the fact that it is empty.”[1]

At the time, this ‘requisitioning by the people’ was celebrated as a continuation of ‘blitz spirit’, including the Nottingham Post[2] who pointed out that “empty houses constitute a provocation to desperate, homeless workers… we call on the Government to legalise the position by requisitioning all properties taken over by the squatters and thus fulfil their election pledge to house the people.”

 Put under pressure by the squatters, Churchill[3] and Minister for Health, Henry Willink[4], as well as Atlee and Bevan who followed[5], advocated the extension of wartime requisitioning powers into peacetime to bring empty homes back into use and address the housing crisis.

There is a precedent, in other words, for challenging the default position of placing ownership rights over property use. And yet, only half an hour walk north from Duchess of Bedford house, leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn was quickly shut down when he suggested using long-term empty flats in North Kensington to house survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

For Corbyn, like Churchill and Atlee, “in an emergency you have to bring all assets to the table in order to deal with the crisis”[6] and yet Theresa May’s government simply responded: “we don't support proposals to seize private property”.[7]

During the post-war housing crisis, it was at least recognised that if the market was left to alleviate the crisis “only the most-wealthy would get consideration.”[8] Yet the UK government today have turned completely to the market to address the housing crisis, putting their faith (and investing their own money) into supply and demand, which has only seen skyrocketing land values, land-banking, speculation, and the overbuilding of luxury flats. The legal protection of private ownership is counter-productive if extended to people who purposefully keep homes empty. In this context, it is time that we reprioritised our approach to property. It is time we took inspiration from the past to challenge this directly.

Samuel Burgum, Birmingham City University - find Sam on Twitter @sjburgum


[1] Don Watson. (2016, p101). Squatting in Britain 1945-1955. Merlin Press.

[2] Nottingham Evening Post (1946Tuesday 17 September.

[3] One of the final acts of Churchill’s wartime coalition was “to prevent any further lawless action” by extending requisitioning powers into peacetime and “bring back into use for the accommodation of homeless families any available empty houses” (CM(45)15 (1945) Cabinet Conclusions).

[4] Minister of Health, Sir Henry Willink (1945): “It seems to me essential that in ‘a period of national emergency’ the houses should in other cases be used to meet the greatest need and this can only be determined by the responsible Local Authority” (Requisitioning of Unoccupied Houses: Memorandum by the Minister of Health.” Memorandum, CP(45)79, Cabinet Office, 13 July.

[5] According to cabinet minutes, the Great Sunday Squat (September 1946) put pressure on the government to reconsider “the low priority given, in de-requisitioning, to flats normally let at high rentals” (CM(46)82 (1946) “Cabinet Conclusions.” ) and an additional 6000 empty properties were requisitioned for temporary housing over the next year.

[6] Hope C (2017Jeremy Corbyn calls on supporters to “occupy” empty homes to help victims of Grenfell fire tragedyThe Telegraph 18 June.

[7] Independent (2017Grenfell Tower fire: Theresa May snubs Jeremy Corbyn's call to seize private properties to house high‐rise victims. 19 June.

[8] Don Watson. (2016). Squatting in Britain 1945-1955. Merlin Press. p106.