The City of Lincoln offers an interesting case study of the early drive to build affordable housing for working people. Back then this was almost universally understood to be, of necessity, council housing, and the drive to build came – admittedly with political flavouring and different degrees of intensity – from all parties. There was also significant influence from local pressure groups, generally not radical in politics but sharing a common belief in the duty of the local state to house those in need. The manifestos of nearly all major political parties in the last election show how far we have come from those heady days.
That pressure began before the First World War. A Public Welfare Committee and composed of ‘clergy and ministers of several denominations, laymen of various political beliefs, and ladies with experience amongst poorer citizens’ was formed in Lincoln in 1912. (1) Convinced of the need of ‘building and the wise employment of the Town Planning Act by the City Authorities’, it lobbied first the Council and then, having achieved no satisfactory response, the Local Government Board.
This prompted a letter from the LGB to Lincoln enquiring of their plans which was sufficient, in January 1913, to provoke the Council to form a Housing and Town Planning Committee. Elections later that year which returned Lincoln’s first Labour councillor, RA Taylor (he became the city’s first Labour MP in 1924), added to the pressure.
In December 1913, 60 acres was purchased in ‘Uphill Lincoln’ on the escarpment north of the River Witham. A public enquiry followed with contending petitions – one of 600 signatures presented by the local Trades and Labour Council in favour of council housing; another, from local builders and property owners of 366 signatures, against. (2)
The Council’s view was presented by the Town Clerk, Mr Bagshaw: ‘If private enterprise did not meet the need then he thought the Corporation was satisfied that it was their duty to provide the houses themselves’. Even this qualified approval was tempered by what he noted as the ‘considerable reluctance of the Council…to embark on a scheme of that sort’
In August 1914 – inauspicious timing – a government loan was approved. The war put paid to the plans but, revived and dusted off, they would form the basis of Lincoln’s major housing scheme after the First World War.
In the meantime, the war itself added to the demand to build in Lincoln, not a sleepy cathedral city but an important engineering and munitions centre. Again, an unlikely coalition of forces would combine to press for action.
In 1917 (in response to the Local Government Board circular requesting councils to detail post-war building plans), the Council reported a permanent increase of population of 5000 and the need for at least 1500 new homes. The local Labour movement and the city’s Employers’ Association jointly pressed for urgent action and delegates from each were seconded to a new Housing Advisory Committee formed by the City Council.
By October 1918, the Council had been persuaded:
subject to satisfactory financial arrangements being made with the Government, [to] undertake, as the necessity arises, to provide adequate housing accommodation for the working class population of the city.
This was an unwittingly radical position perhaps but one which marks the temper of the times. Opposition Conservatives were left complaining about ‘the pressure brought by the Independent Labour Party in collusion with one of the large works’. (This was Ruston and Hornsby whose director, Colonel JS Ruston would play a leading role in another housing initiative we’ll examine later.)
This pressure persuaded the Ministry of Munitions to agree to the construction of 300 houses on the Wragby Road land previously purchased by the Council. In the end, the 196 houses built were not completed until 1920 and were later sold to a property company and then on to sitting tenants. The whole scheme proved highly controversial. There were complaints about poor workmanship and high rents – at between 11s 6d and 12s exclusive of rates they were beyond the reach of most working men – which led to a six-month rent strike in 1921. (3)
They were to form, nevertheless, the anchor for the Council’s larger and more successful scheme on the remaining land: what became the St Giles’ Estate, designed by the City’s newly appointed architectural assistant Alfred Hill. The Council built 234 homes under the generous 1919 Housing Act. These ‘Addison houses’, in short terraces or semi-detached along parts of Wragby Road and Chaucer Drive, are distinguished by their Arts and Crafts detailing, rendering and generous plots. (The Estate also features an Addison Drive in commemoration of this most ambitious of interwar Housing ministers.)
Later phases, built as economy measures kicked in, are plainer and have smaller gardens but the Estate as a whole is an archetypal garden suburb of the interwar period, marked by its ‘softly geometrical road network’ and cul-de-sacs, quadrangles and circus. (4) Wide verges and now mature trees, small greens and corner setbacks complete the ensemble. Some original privet hedges survive to mark the plot boundaries.
A 1933 plan of the Estate showed plots for 1302 houses, some already built, some projected. Prefabricated bungalows in the mid-1940s and later infill would complete the Estate. (5)
To see the full flowering of Arts and Crafts principles, we can go the smaller Swanpool Estate to the south of the city. In the end, only 113 houses were built of the 2200 originally projected when Colonel Ruston formed the Swanpool Cooperative Housing Association in 1919. The Society’s committee comprised working men and employers and other ‘representative gentlemen’ and stipulated that all tenants were to be shareholders with an unusually low minimum stake of £5.
Despite (or perhaps because of) these high ideals, the finances of the scheme – widely praised in the contemporary town planning press and still an attractive locale – were never viable and it was wound up to a limited company and its properties gradually sold to existing tenants in 1925.
It’s hard (to me at least) not to see a case made here for the necessity of state action and one that was reinforced by the Council’s increasing reliance on direct labour for its own building programme. The Council, in predominantly Conservative hands, until 1933 had been alarmed by the construction shortfalls of the privately contracted Ministry of Munitions scheme and increasingly frustrated by the high costs and perceived obstructiveness of the local Master Builders’ Association.
In 1924, assured by the City Engineer that the Council could build cheaper and better itself, ten houses, then 50, were built by direct labour. Under Labour control from 1933 to 1937, the Council would use direct labour more widely – in 1935, the City’s 1000th house built by direct labour was opened.
The other, growing theme of interwar housing is that of slum clearance and here again Lincoln took an innovative role and, once more, external pressure played a significant part. Lincoln had many slums in its central district but the Council’s good intentions to clear them and rehouse their tenants were thwarted by council house rents unaffordable to the displaced.
The members of the Newlands Congregational Church felt the problem was ‘a matter for unified effort by all Christian people’. A public meeting, ‘attended by every local notable’ according to Owen Hartley, was called in June 1928 and a Voluntary Slum Clearance Committee formed which promised to provide a £70 grant for every Council home built to replace slum housing. This would bring rents down, it was reckoned, to a highly affordable 6s 6d inclusive of rates.
Some £5320 were raised and 76 houses built under the aegis of the scheme – a surplus being donated to provide new furniture to those being moved. It was a modest beginning but one that placed Lincoln at the forefront of early attempts to solve the problem of slum housing.
Those efforts were to falter in the early thirties as more conservative voices – who believed slum clearance was ‘a vicious attack on property owners’ and direct labour a ‘dice loaded against contractors’ – on the Council grew stronger. To Labour alderman JW Rayment, this faction ‘thought that economy could be effected by spending no money and providing no work and that someone would bring prosperity to the country’.
This early critic of austerity would find his position strengthened by the determination of central government to tackle the slum problem from 1930 and his party’s growing strength on the Council. The City’s Skellingthorpe Estate was begun in 1929. A small slum clearance scheme – demolishing just 32 houses – was pushed through in 1932 but by 1937, 454 homes in the city’s most notorious slum area, the Drapery, had been cleared.
In broad outline, the city offers a representative view of the principal dynamics of interwar housing policy and priorities. It demonstrates too the broad – and largely cross-party – consensus which recognised (more or less willingly) the vital role of the state in providing housing.
Lincoln is distinct in what Hartley describes as the ‘political style of the city’: ‘civic decorum and a strong moralistic flavour’ infused with ‘mild progressivism’. And unusual in the influence wielded by outside, often religiously motivated, pressure groups.
Then the practical, economic and moral case for public housing seemed obvious to a wide cross-section of opinion; nowadays – apparently – less so but perhaps that reflects a too craven acceptance of the market and its iron laws by our politicians, many of whom should know better.
(1) From the Lincoln Leader, 12 October 1912 quoted in Owen Hartley, Housing Policy in Four Lincolnshire Towns, 1919-1959, University of Oxford PhD 1969. Other detail and quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.
(2) Sally Scott, ‘The Early Days of Planning’ in Dennis R Mills (ed), Twentieth Century Lincolnshire, History of Lincolnshire Committee, Lincoln (1989)
(3) Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 17 May 1927, vol 206 cc994-5994
(4) City of Lincoln Council, Lincoln Townscape Assessment: St. Giles Inherited Character Area Statement (September 2008)
(5) Andrew JH Jackson, ‘Twentieth-Century Residential Development: the St Giles’ Estate’ in Andrew Walker (ed), Uphill Lincoln II: the North-Eastern Suburbs