When I came to consider local government, I began to see how it was in essence the first-line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies – poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment. The battle is not faultlessly conducted, nor are the motives of those who take part in it all righteous or disinterested. But the war is, I believe, worth fighting and this corporate action is at least based upon recognition of one fundamental truth about human nature – we are not only single individuals, each face to face with eternity and our separate spirits; we are members one of another.
The words of Winifred Holtby in 1936.
I started this blog back in January to celebrate the efforts and achievements of our early municipal reformers. I’m taking a break this week but it’s an opportunity to review what’s been covered and, if you’re new to the blog, provide a little tour of what you’ve missed.
There’s been a lot about housing – probably the most important sphere of municipal endeavour and the one with the largest direct impact on the masses of people. The 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act provided the initial breakthrough, seized upon by the London County Council, most famously, in Arts and Crafts-inspired developments at Millbank, Totterdown Fields and the White Hart Lane Estate but also by smaller, progressive councils such as Sheffield in the Flower Estate and Battersea in the Latchmere Estate.
The First World War gave impetus and urgency to the efforts of government to house the people, supported by Housing Acts and financial subsidies of greater or lesser generosity. The fruits of these were seen principally in the massive new ‘garden suburbs’ such as the LCC’s Becontree and Downham and Woolwich’s Page Estate in the London outskirts and Manchester City Council’s Wythenshawe Estate, then seen as ‘the world of the future’.
For most, working people and housing reformers, ‘a cottage home for every family’ remained the ideal, seen most clearly in Bermondsey’s small Wilson Grove Estate. More pragmatic councils in densely settled boroughs embraced tenement building such as that in Aldenham House and Wolcot House, St Pancras.
Housing architecture and thinking were generally conservative but there were some early modernist designs, inspired by Continental example – in the LCC’s Ossulston Estate, for example. Leeds’ massive Quarry Hill scheme was an inner-city product of the first large-scale slum clearance efforts of the 1930s.
War, ‘the locomotive of history’, brought even more radical changes in housing after 1945. The Lansbury Estate in Poplar, for all its proclaimed modernity, was something of a throwback. Blackbird Leys in Oxford was also a postwar estate which echoed earlier suburban developments.
But as ambitions, scale and urgency grew, council housing grew higher and denser. The Spa Green Estate in Finsbury was an early progressive vision of high-rise housing. Park Hill – those ‘streets in the sky’ in Sheffield – represents the trend at its most far-reaching.
Resistance or backlash to high-rise on an industrial scale began in the late sixties, seen initially in Camden Council’s commitment to high-quality, low-rise housing such as that in the Alexandra Estate and Branch Hill and – in a different key – to Newcastle’s commitment to re-created community at Byker.
If housing met one of the most basic human needs, it was understood by municipal reformers as part of a wider environment which they sought to make healthier and more humane.
Bermondsey Borough Council – as in so many things – took the lead here with its vision of beautifying that inner-city borough. Victoria Park in London’s East End is a more typical city park but a great democratic exemplar of what parks can do to improve lives and lift spirits.
Planning on a larger scale was much more a post-Second World War ideal. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 deserves wider notice as a truly progressive but, in the best sense, conservative measure. Planning as a tool of benevolent social engineering has had less impact but Plymouth can be fairly described as our ‘first great welfare state city’.
All such work was in the service of a healthier life for the masses of people. Local government – before the creation of a national health service in 1948 – was in the forefront of direct healthcare provision. We’ve looked at Bermondsey, for whose socialist councillors there was ‘no wealth but life’, Finsbury where nothing was ‘too good for ordinary people’ and Woolwich as examples of the range and scale of this commitment.
Baths and washhouses were less striking – though ambitions could run high as seen in the Ironmonger Row Baths, Finsbury – but important contributors to the amelioration of working-class living conditions. ‘Healthy recreation and personal cleanliness…for the health and well-being of our people’ were not such trivial goals.
If healthcare measures were particularly dedicated to the raising of new generations so, of course, was education – also a scene of municipal pride and endeavour as we’ve noted in the case of the London School Board. Its schools – those ‘sermons in brick’ – were ‘beacons of the future’, harbingers of a ‘wiser, better England’.
With all this proper focus on reforms which not only improved lives but in many cases saved them, a celebration of town halls might seem a distraction but this blog celebrates local government and a reforming, progressive spirit of civic pride and local identity which is sometimes best seen in its great monuments.
Limehouse Town Hall is a modest early example. The Council House in Birmingham is an inspiring ‘bricks and mortar monument to the municipal gospel’ of a progressive middle class. Poplar Town Hall – ‘a worthy workshop for the workers’ welfare’ – was a sign of changing times.
That’s a rather lengthy list but I hope it shows what we owe to local government and how vital that work remains. The blog will continue to commemorate the effort and enterprise of our local councils and municipal reformers – men and women up and down the country who dedicated their lives to elevating the condition of the people.
If you support this endeavour, please continue to read the blog, spread the word and please feel free to contribute your own ideas and your own pet projects to the continuing record.
Let’s celebrate this ‘first-line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies’.