Winchester City Council’s proud record of housebuilding between the wars discussed in last week’s post might surprise some who forget the broad political consensus which has supported local authority housing for much of its life. The drive to rehouse the population decently was even stronger after 1945 and Winchester would go on to build new estates of the highest quality. Moreover, it continued to build council homes even as a wider politics trampled the ideals and suppressed the means which had provided (to quote Theresa May no less) the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’. (1)
Planning for the new Britain began early across the country and Winchester entrusted the design of its post-war housing programme to local architects AET Mort and P Sawyer as early as 1942. Their successors presented plans in 1944 and the first construction works – the laying out of roads and sewers carried out by prisoners of war in an extension to the prewar Stanmore Estate – began as the war officially ended with the surrender of Japan in August 1945. (2)
By 1946, there were 1100 households on the local waiting list for council housing. An immediate response to this national housing crisis had been the programme of temporary prefabricated bungalows intended to last ten years inaugurated in 1944. Of 153,000 erected across the country, 50 were allocated to Winchester – placed in The Valley, Stanmore, aptly named.
For all their Heath Robinson appearance, these were state-of-the-art homes with fitted kitchens and units, valued by most of their residents. Ernie Nunn moved into his prefab – no. 37, The Valley – in 1947:
It was brilliant. We had built-in wardrobes – all you really wanted was a table and chairs; most things were there for you.
Winchester was and remained a major centre of the military but such were the housing needs of the time that the Conservative mayor of the city (Alderman CG Sankey who 17 years earlier had been elected Winchester’s first Labour councillor) protested against the conversion of an American Red Cross Centre on Christchurch Road into offices for the Ministry of Labour and National Service rather than flats, complaining ‘of old Winchester families living “more or less like gypsies”’. (4)
Permanent prefabricated housing was seen as another quick means of providing housing and Winchester – which had experimented with its use in the interwar period but now preferred traditional brick-built construction – erected 50 steel BISF and 50 timber Scottwood houses on the new Stanmore estate. The latter, manufactured locally by the British Power Boat Company in Southampton, were the more unusual with only 1500 built in total.
Turning to the Stanmore Estate and the 624 new homes projected in 1946, the newbuild was built up the hill in what became known as Upper Stanmore to the south of Stanmore Lane. The 1940s’ housing resembles that of earlier Lower Stanmore, redbrick but plainer, cleaner; later housing is recognisably more ‘modern’ in style.
In 1951, just as the Conservatives took office and Harold Macmillan became Housing Minister, the new estate was awarded a Housing Medal and Diploma by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Construction continued but whereas the earlier post-war homes had two toilets (one upstairs, one down), residents moving into the Somers Close, completed in 1959, lamented the fact their new home had just one. This, presumably, marks the shift from Nye Bevan’s expansive vision of high-quality council housing to the more economical ‘People’s Houses’ promoted by Harold Macmillan in the early 1950s.
The most striking aspect of the newer estate is its siting and layout: (5)
The new Stanmore Estate site is hilly, and the layout of roads has been designed to take advantage of the natural shape of the ground to give an effect which will be visually pleasing and at the same time economic in development. Roads have been designed to give interest to the layout and provide a variety of views.
Wavell Way provides a grand sweeping boulevard through the heart of the estate with wide green verges and now mature trees but the estate as a whole with its generous spacing (just 5 to 6 houses per acre) and broad vistas impresses with the imagination and vision applied.
As the new Stanmore housing was taking shape, Winchester embarked on another, even more ambitious development when, in 1948, it purchased land in Weeke Manor to the north-west of the city centre. The new Weeke Estate was projected to comprise some 650 new homes. Here the land was flatter and there was a desire to build at greater density: ‘The layout is therefore of a more formal type, although it is felt that the resulting road pattern avoids monotony and gives interest’. (5)
Some of that interest was provided by the wide dual carriageway, Fromond Road, forming the entrance to the estate and, off it, the semi-circular site allocated to a new church (the church itself, St Barnabas, wouldn’t be opened until 1966):
This will provide an attractive open space and advantage of this has been taken in designing as a background a three-storey terrace block to for what will undoubtedly be the most impressive housing group on the Estate.
Even the lampposts received attention, the City Engineers favouring ‘a square-section tapered column with a post-top mounting lantern of Perspex and alloy’. The roads were initially of concrete, deemed more economical.
Trussell Crescent, the curving three-storeyed flat block is, as planned, the largest housing feature of the estate. Most of the other homes are semi-detached houses with some longer terraces. Most (63 percent) of the homes were three-bed but the 60 one-bed homes, many bungalows for older people, mark the post-war attempt to cater for a wider demographic cross-section of the population. In another sign of the times ‘ample garage accommodation at the ratio of one to every four dwellings’ was planned.
The earliest post-war housing in Stanmore had been (excepting the non-traditional homes) architect-designed. After that the City Engineers took over but they seemed to have maintained reasonable – if simpler – standards. The City Engineer himself, PH Warwick, paid tribute to Alderman Ernest Clifford Townend, chair of the Housing Development Committee from 1941 into the mid-fifties: ‘it is very true indeed to say that the successful issue of the programme is very largely due to his energetic efforts and personal interest’.
From 1939 to 1951, private builders in Winchester had built just 103 new homes for sale; the City Council some 736 for council rent. By 1951, of the city’s 6701 homes, 1678 – 25 percent – were council-rented. This reflects post-war rationing and the priority given to local authority housing but, even as those restrictions were finally withdrawn in 1954 (when private housebuilders were freed from the obligation to secure building licences), the Council’s ambitions to build remained.
Land had been purchased at Winnall for a further 400-500 homes in 1952. A new estate of generally semi-detached homes and curving streets emerged on both sides of Winnall Manor Road. And in 1961, the Council undertook its one foray into (modest) high-rise with the construction of four eight-storey point blocks at the head of Winnall Manor Road, built by Wates, officially opened by the mayor in August 1963.
Thus, with its modestly large peripheral estates and its similarly modest high-rise, Winchester echoes, in microcosm, the housing developments typical across the country in the 1950s. And while the term inner-city Winchester might seem a misnomer, there were the same pressures to clear slum housing. By 1958, it was reported that 533 houses had been declared unfit under the terms of the 1951 Housing Act, most in the central Brooks area. Of 342 houses taken over by the Council, 170 had been vacated and 56 demolished. (The Winchester City Trust was formed in 1957 to oppose these clearances and it’s probably true to say that a later generation would have preserved and rehabilitated the area.) (6)
By 1971, 39 percent of Winchester households rented from the council – a high figure challenging common stereotypes of the city. (7) There were changes in the housing stock too. The prefabricated Monolithic Concrete Homes (described in last week’s post) were finally demolished in the late 1970s, replaced at Bar End by a sheltered housing scheme and low-rise flats and, in Fairdown Close, by new council houses.
A reorganisation of local government in 1974 (the council was amalgamated with the largely Tory Winchester and Droxford Rural District Councils) and, nationally, Margaret Thatcher’s accession to power in 1979 might suggest this story is drawing to a close. In fact, something extraordinary happened. As council housing nationally was sold off and new build virtually halted, Winchester developed around 1000 new social-rent homes from the late 1980s.
A fortuitous combination of factors explains how Winchester was able to buck the trend. The Council fell into No Overall Control in 1987 which left a small but activist Labour group – it comprised at peak just six members of a 54-seat council – holding the balance of power. An exceptionally able and energetic Labour councillor, John Cloyne, became chair of the Housing Committee; Jock Macdonald, a Liberal Democrat, was a supportive vice-chair. (8)
Cloyne was determined to build social housing to address the needs of the 3500 on the Council’s waiting list. The means devised was to channel receipts from Right to Buy sales – otherwise untouchable for housing purposes – to a new Council-controlled private company (Saturn Management No. 1 but more commonly known as SATMAN) where they could be used to support finance council-supported building schemes.
The results were impressive. In the new climate, housing associations (whose homes were exempt from Right to Buy), funded by SATMAN, played a vital role. The Winchester Housing Group (Cloyne became a board member) was established in 1989 and was responsible, for example, for a development of around 150 new homes at Turnpike Down in Winnall and the Octavia Hill scheme in Stanmore. A significant number of new council homes were built directly or acquired through purchase and conversion.
It required determination and imagination to build new social housing in this era and, a few years later, it transpired that the SATMAN scheme – cleared by officers and approved by full council – was illegal. There was no question of individual wrong-doing but Winchester City Council had to pay around £14m back to the Treasury. The legacy of sorely-needed, decent and affordable housing remained, however.
Housing departments haven’t always acted perfectly and, as a housing activist and opposition councillor from the 1970s, Cloyne himself had been highly critical of the council’s repairs service. In office, he improved it and even kept it in-house against government rules on competitive tendering intended to privatise local services. This was significant in the next struggle to retain and develop Winchester’s council housing.
Nationally, the Conservatives wanted council housing transferred to housing associations. Funding rules ensured that there was little that was ‘voluntary’ in so-called Large Scale Voluntary Transfer but they made it an attractive option to some officers and unsympathetic councillors. When a new Director of Housing (with the support of a Tory and Liberal Democrat majority on the council) proposed the transfer of Winchester’s housing, the local Labour Party mobilised in opposition, leafleting every council home in the district. In the ensuing tenant ballot, around 96 percent voted to stay with the Council. A second ballot a few years late produced a majority of around 90 percent.
Alternating since between Conservative and Liberal Democrat control, the Council has rarely matched the level of ambition shown in the late 1980s but it has a record of continued innovation that might be surprising to some. Despite its affluence – in fact, because of it – genuinely affordable social housing is desperately needed in Winchester. As of 2011, only 15 percent of households in the enlarged Winchester City district, lived in social rented homes. Currently, you need an annual income of £60,000 to purchase the cheapest of the city’s housing and £50,000 to rent a decent home – figures that exclude 50 and 40 percent of local households respectively. There are almost 1700 people on the city’s social housing waiting list. (9)
The City Council has recently announced plans to build 1000 new ‘affordable’ homes by 2028 and is planning to set up – déjà vu – a housing company to deliver some of these. (10) The devil may well be in the detail and I hope that direct investment in genuine social rent homes will form a major part of this ambitious programme. It’s unfashionable but it worked. I’ll leave the final word with the estimable local newspaper, the Hampshire Chronicle, and its 2017 editorial endorsement of the sentiments of a local Tory councillor: (10)
What is needed … is a carefully-planned creation of new ‘council’ estates. Winchester has a fine record. Stanmore, Winnall and Weeke were well-designed, with good-sized homes with gardens and, when built, a strong community spirit.
Many people will disagree, saying the city would be under threat. It’s nonsense. Winchester has always evolved. The truth is that for the last 40 years the biggest threat to the city has been the lack of council house building.
My thanks to Patrick Davies and John Cloyne, friends and former colleagues in Winchester Constituency Labour Party, for providing detail and resources to inform and illustrate this post.
(1) Theresa May, PM speech to the National Housing Federation summit,19 September 2018. She was almost certainly quoting Chris Matthews from his book Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses (Nottingham City Homes, 2015)
(2) PH Warwick, ‘House Building in Winchester, 1920-1952’, British Housing and Planning Review, July-August 1952
(3) A Postcard for Stanmore, Ernie Nunn at the prefabs, 1947, YouTube
(4) ‘Offices Instead of Flats Mayor’s Regret’, West Sussex Gazette, 1 August 1946
(5) PH Warwick, ‘House Building in Winchester, 1920-1952’
(6) ‘Winchester Whispers’, Hampshire Telegraph, 10 January 1958
(7) 1971 Census reported in ‘A Vision of Britain through Time: Winchester Housing Data’
(8) Much of following section is drawn from private communication with John Cloyne, 17 June 2019
(9) Winchester City Council, Winnall Flats Consultation Boards 17 July 2018 (pdf)
(10) Michael Seymour, ‘Backing for council’s housing company plans’, Hampshire Chronicle, 1 April 2019
(11) ‘Chronicle Comment: City council leadership on social housing’, Hampshire Chronicle, 12 October 2017.
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Judith Martin said:
This is a terrific piece in a fascinating series. It’s completely right to say the need is great here in Winchester precisely because it’s a rich city. A quick glance at any estate agent’s window will show it’s one untethered from most people’s reality.
I was a very junior Lib Dem councillor in the early 1990s when John Cloyne still headed the housing committee. I’d barely been elected when the axe came down after the housebuilding programme (which had been praised, and I think some units opened, by Michael Heseltine) was deemed illegal. There was an unseemly witchhunt and a couple of good people lost their jobs. So complete was the financial clampdown that departments couldn’t even be sure to hold non-committee meetings as they couldn’t afford to pay for room hire.
By no means all the Lib Dems (I can’t speak for the Tories) supported Large Scale Voluntary Transfer when government wanted to foist it on local authorities. The Tories commissioned consultants (I’m struggling for their name but Blueprint comes to mind) to show how essential it was, with the enthusiastic support of the chief housing officer. I tend to trust people until they demonstrate that I’m entirely wrong, and I’d previously been inclined to think this chap was OK. A friend who had been a UNISON rep in the council disillusioned me. The consultants came up with a transfer price that valued each unit at an average of £14,000. It was perfectly obvious even then that this was absurd, but the chief officer promoted it hard. Happily, as the article says, the Labour councillors in what were the two Labour wards, which contained most of the council housing, managed to get a resounding vote against transfer (with some Lib Dem support).
The most recent outcome of all this is probably the boundary review in 2017-18, under the Tory-led administration, which determined the number of city wards should be reduced from 6 to 5. Strangely, it was one of the two traditional Labour wards that was found to be surplus to requirements. And the other one went down from three councillors, which the other wards all have, to two. Purely on the basis of independent advice, of course. However cash-strapped our various Tory councils, there’s always enough money to pay consultants.