Social housing – council housing in plain terms in earlier years – has transformed countless lives over the decades. For some a safety net, for others a springboard, for nearly all a decent home, council housing has met the basic human need for shelter for millions for whom the free market has failed.
The recognition of our duty as a community to ensure good quality and affordable housing for all emerged in the late nineteenth century. Industrialisation and urbanisation created slums that offended the Victorian social conscience. An increasingly organised working class demanded reform. And there was recognition too that housing conditions which stunted individual lives weakened the nation as a whole. A case for council housing grew that was moral, political and economic.
Before 1914 it was Conservative governments which were responsible for the most significant housing legislation. These acts permitted (rather than required) local councils to build and their overall impact was small. But local authorities of all political colours up and down the country took up the baton. Tory Liverpool built the first council housing. Liberal Manchester and Sheffield also built on a large scale in the pre-war era. Conservative Richmond, spurred by a Liberal activist, built the first council housing in the London area and, most famously, the Progressive-controlled London County Council was responsible for the first and some of the finest council estates in the country.
And then comes war and it’s war which somehow combines to show both our capacity to destroy and our duty to build. The promise of ‘homes for heroes’ made in 1919 was only partially fulfilled but over 1.1m council homes were built before the next conflagration.
In 1945, the popular determination to win not only the war but to ‘win the peace’ was redoubled. Labour’s 1949 Housing Act spelled out the intention that council housing would be for general needs – neither confined to the affluent working class as it had tended to be in its early years or a ‘ghetto’ for the poorer ‘slum’ working class as it had increasingly become in the thirties. The housing minister Aneurin Bevan wanted to:
introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the…labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of a citizen…to see the living tapestry of a mixed community.
That vision was fulfilled in part in the new towns such as Stevenage but the general duty to house the population well was taken up in large numbers by both major parties. It was the Conservative Party which proclaimed in 1951 that:
Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by overcrowded homes. Therefore a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence.
The new minister of housing, Harold Macmillan, saw the Conservative target of 300,000 houses a year exceeded in 1953 – a post-war peak; over 200,000 of the new homes were social rented.
In 1963 Macmillan, now prime minister, pledged to build 350,000 houses a year. Labour entered office in 1964 promising to build 400,000. By 1969, some 900,000 new local authority homes had been provided.
We know well enough the mistakes that were made in this drive to build – with system-building and badly-designed high-rise – and hard lessons have been learnt. But it’s important to remember what was achieved, measured in the most vital way – not by numbers but by the lived experience of millions.
Back in the 1930s, Manchester’s Wythenshawe Estate had been described as:
the world of the future – a world where men and women workers shall be decently housed and served, where the health and safety of little children are of paramount importance, and where work and leisure may be enjoyed to the full.
For Berthold Lubetkin, the architect of Finsbury’s Spa Green Estate and Bethnal Green’s Cranbrook Estate, his designs and the social revolution they represented were part of ‘the struggle for a better tomorrow’.
For those that moved into these new homes, it was ‘like moving into heaven’ – a resident of the Churchill Gardens Estate in Westminster. Or as early tenants of the Aylesbury Estate – the reviled Aylesbury Estate! – in Southwark, remember, ‘coming to the new estate for most of us at that time was like Shangri-La’, ‘we thought we was moving into Buckingham Palace’.
And communities formed which, even as times grew harder, took pride in their homes and neighbourhoods. As a long-time resident of Park Hill, Sheffield, states: ‘I lived there most of my life. No-one who didn’t live there can say anything bad about it at all. We all stuck together and looked after each other’.
And then we lost our way. Council housing became – to use the jargon – ‘residualised’. A proper duty to house the most vulnerable and disadvantaged (enshrined in Labour’s 1977 Homeless Persons Act) combined catastrophically with the new Conservative ideology of the eighties which sold off existing council stock and banned the construction of new.
In 1981 councils and housing associations owned 5.2m rented homes in England. By 2012 the number had fallen to 4m. The rationing of social housing which has followed has led to a new – but still mixed and complex – reality for council housing and, more dangerously, altered perceptions among parts of the media which have caused tenants, quite wrongly and cruelly, to be caricatured and demonised.
At present, new social housing is being built at unprecedentedly low rates while private house-building has stagnated. This imbalance between supply and demand has led to our current housing crisis – a situation in which:
- 1.3m households are paying more than 35 per cent of their household income in housing costs
- The housing benefit bill has risen from £1.1bn in 1970/71 to £24.6bn today
- In London, the rent of a three-bed home in the current government’s so-called ‘affordable homes programme’ – the sorry charade which has replaced any meaningful commitment to providing homes for the less well-off – stands at £191 a week.
Meanwhile we spend just £1.2bn on new ‘affordable’ housing.
But this is not an elegy for a lost world but a call to action for values and priorities for which we must fight once more.
The moral, political and economic case for a large and vibrant social housing sector is as strong now as it has ever been. And you will find that case made with forensic skill and proper passion in the new cross-party Campaign for Social Housing. As it states, ‘Nothing is more important than secure, affordable housing as a bedrock for stable families and neighbourhoods’. In this, social housing must once again play a vital role:
Social rented housing has a proud and noble record of providing affordable and decent homes for millions of people. It rescued millions of people from appalling housing conditions and allowed them to lead dignified and useful lives. It created stable and successful communities throughout the country and helped to keep the housing benefit bill low. Social rented housing was created because the market had failed to provide decent, affordable housing for working people. The market is still not working, as evidenced by the greatest housing crisis in almost a century.
It’s time to make the case for a major expansion of social rented housing and to protect existing social housing.
It’s time to say enough is enough. We need a genuinely affordable, flourishing and fair social housing sector.
Please support SHOUT (Social Housing under Threat) and the Campaign for Social Housing.
Much of the data and analysis above is drawn from SHOUT’s Affordable, Flourishing, Fair. A Manifesto to Save and Extend Social Rented Housing – an essential read for anyone concerned with housing.
For more information on SHOUT, please visit: www.facebook.com/pages/SHOUT-The-Campaign-for-Social-Housing/584137758345466
And follow them on Twitter @4socialhousing
Visit Council Homes Chat too – a recently formed group dedicated to ‘busting myths about council housing by providing a platform for people’s stories and experiences’ – and follow them on Twitter @Councilhomechat.
Other references above are drawn from earlier posts in my blog, an historical record of the work of local government and our municipal pioneers in building a better world – in housing, health, education and much else – and a reminder that we too can do better.