Last week’s post looked at Oxford’s interwar council housing programme. Currently, the city is judged Britain’s least affordable city for housing; an average house price of £460,000 is over twelve times local average annual earnings. (1) We’ll come back to Oxford’s present-day housing crisis later in the post but at the end of the Second World War that crisis was a national one. A 1945 White Paper estimated that the country needed 750,000 new homes immediately and some 500,000 to replace existing slums. In Oxford, the council house waiting list stood 5000-strong.
One of the solutions touted for our contemporary housing shortfall is MMC – Modern Methods of Construction. The term is essentially a bit of conscious rebranding as there is certainly nothing new in the idea that prefabrication offers a practical means of building quickly. Back in 1945, one response was a programme of temporary prefabs. Of the 156,623 erected nationally, some 150 were built in Headington and 62 on Lambourne Road in Rose Hill. (2) These boxy but actually rather high-tech bungalows had an expected life-span of ten years – though many were to last much longer.
But there was also a large-scale effort – instigated by the Burt Committee (properly the Interdepartmental Committee on House Construction) as early as 1942 – to build permanent prefabricated homes and these featured heavily in Oxford’s early construction.
The Barton Estate (the site of the Headington prefabs) was begun on a small-scale in 1937 – just 54 council homes added to an existing hamlet of six to eight cottages and two pubs. It took off after 1945, expanding to over 1000 new homes by 1950. A large number of these were permanent prefabs, mostly BISF houses (British Iron and Streel Federation houses: steel-framed with characteristic steel cladding on the upper floor) and Howard houses (named after the civil engineering company that promoted them, of light-steel frame and asbestos cladding). Both were designed by renowned architect and planner Sir Frederick Gibberd.
The rush to build provided an initially unpromising environment documented in a social survey by the sociologist JM Mogey published in 1956 and based on an Oxford Pilot Social Survey begun in 1950: (3)
First impressions of Barton are rarely favourable: areas left in their original state for later erection of public buildings, or for lawns, tennis courts, bowling greens and so on are covered with tough bunchy grasses and criss-crossed with many muddy paths. The place is almost bare of trees: the dominant colour is asbestos grey. The painted doors, the steel upper storeys of houses painted in dull brick-red or pale buff, do little to relieve this grey tint which is picked up and echoed by cement and plaster, by garden posts and by cement roadways.
The photograph used by Mogey in his book seems to illustrate this well (though in this case the houses shown appear to be another form of permanent prefab, the Orlit house, designed by émigré Czech architect Ervin Katona and built of precast reinforced concrete). A less grey-scale photograph might have shown them to better advantage.
Mogey himself acknowledged that ‘second impressions [were] more encouraging’:
Although many house exteriors look drab and neglected, the gardens are on the whole well cultivated … Bright curtains in the windows, flowers in the gardens, a sense of space and freshness begin to counteract the uniformity revealed at first glance.
The thrust of Mogey’s survey, however, was to assess the social impact of the new estate and contrast it with the more traditional and ‘close-knit’ inner-city community of St Ebbes from which at least some of the new residents were drawn.
At first glance, his analysis seems to reflect and reinforce some of the arguments – one might say clichés – that characterised sociological thinking of the day, epitomised in the writing of Willmott and Young in Family and Kinship in East London, published in 1957. (Much of this has been effectively debunked by Jon Lawrence in his recently published book, Me, Me, Me: The Search for Community in Post-war England, reviewed in an earlier post).
New Barton residents lamented that ‘we stay in more than we used to’ and that ‘we never see anyone now, we feel very isolated on the estate’. Mogey himself commented ‘in Barton everything is new and there is no neighbourlihood’ (sic).
But the bigger picture was more complex and, in many ways, more positive, In Barton, there were fewer families ‘in which relations between husband and wife show disagreement’, more families expressed ‘loving attitudes towards their own children’, in more families ‘husband and wife help each routinely in domestic tasks’. The ‘central change’, Mogey concluded, ‘may be interpreted as the emergence on the housing estate of a family-centred society instead of a neighbourhood-centred society’.
But even that conclusion might depend on your definition of ‘neighbourhood’. In Barton far more people belonged to a local voluntary association or trade union, more people reported themselves as having friends, and there was greater acceptance of next-door neighbours (though, in contrast to the romanticised views of community of Willmott and Young, ‘generally people in both estates kept themselves to themselves and were suspicious of people who were too “neighbourly”’). As Stefan Ramsden found in Beverley, what might have been viewed as ‘increasing “privatism”’ was, in fact, ‘a more expansive sociability’.
Forsaking a crude environmental determinism, these findings might say more about the contrast between the type of people that had moved to the new estate and those who had stayed put. One final finding stands out: more people were critical of their homes in Barton than in St Ebbes. That might superficially – and surprisingly – reflect dislike of the new council homes but deeper analysis suggests it reflected greater ambition and expectation on the part of Barton’s residents.
This was an aspirational working class that wanted better for themselves and for their children. Jon Lawrence has argued for this period that ‘for the first time, the vast majority of working people believed that it was their birthright to enjoy a decent standard of living “from cradle to grave”’. That Labour achieved its first majority on Oxford City Council in 1958 might bear this out.
Rose Hill, three miles to the south-east of the city centre, was the second of Oxford’s early post-war estates, begun in 1946 and growing to contain 690 houses on completion. It too contained a significant number of prefabricated homes – Orlit, Howard and the timber-framed Minox houses. Rose Hill’s 153 Orlit houses (designated as defective by the 1984 Housing Defects Act) in council ownership were demolished from 2005. The 131 council-owned BISF houses on the Barton Estate were thoroughly renovated after 2008.
The quest for suitable permanent housing in Oxford was hampered by a lack of available land (much was built upon, around a quarter was liable to flooding) and constrained by the creation in 1956 of the country’s first Green Belt outside London. A 1949 Council report concluded that the only option open to it was to develop sites straddling the boundary or beyond it – between Cowley and Headington; beyond Cowley; towards Garsington; and around Littlemore. (4)
The building of 510 council homes at Wood Farm on the eastern fringe of the city began in 1953. The attraction of prefabricated building remained, however, and many of the houses were of the Laing Easiform type, constructed of in-situ poured concrete. Laing’s 30,000th Easiform house was opened on the Wood Farm Estate in May 1953 by Ernest Marples MP, a junior housing minister, with Sir John Laing and a host of civic dignitaries in attendance.
Planning permission for Oxford’s largest estate, Blackbird Leys (in the far south beyond the ring road), initially projected to contain 2800 homes, was granted in the same year. I’ve written about the estate in a previous post.
As the move towards high-rise took off in the late-1950s, Blackbird Leys would feature the city’s first two tower blocks – two fifteen-storey blocks, completed in 1964. Two more, of similar height, were approved in 1965: Foresters Tower on the Wood Farm Estate and Plowman Tower on the Northway Estate, a predominantly low-rise estate to the north, commenced in 1951.
In general, however, Oxford eschewed high-rise and in 1965 the City anticipated the move towards housing renewal (rather than clearance and new build) that would be formalised in government policy three years later when it scrapped plans to redevelop the inner-city Jericho area. Labour councillor (and sometime chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the mid-1960s), Olive Gibbs, played a leading role. Jericho, apart from featuring in Morse, is now a highly-desirable area for young professionals with two-bed homes selling for upwards of £800,000.
For those, then and now, who couldn’t afford such prices, Oxford continued to build council homes. The 260-home Town Furze Estate, near Wood Farm, and the 150-home Laurels, off London Road on the site of the former Headington Union workhouse, were both initially approved in the late 1950s.
Meanwhile pressures on land were forcing the Council to consider building further afield, in Bicester or Abingdon for example. But the one small scheme to materialise was a joint venture with Bullingdon Rural District District Council in the late 1960s in Berinsfield, seven miles to the south-east of Oxford. Berinsfield, built on a former airbase, claims – with its first new permanent housing begun in 1958 – to be ‘the first English village to be built on virgin land for over two hundred years’. (5)
By 1981, 29 percent of Oxford households lived in social rent housing, 52 percent in owner occupied homes and 16 percent in the private rental sector. By 2011, those figures stood at 21 percent, 47 percent and 28 percent respectively. (The latter figure is now said to have reached 33 percent.) Such has been the effect of Margaret Thatcher’s housing counter-revolution. Beyond the obvious impact of Right to Buy, perhaps the most notable features are the failure of Thatcher’s fantasy of owner occupation for all and the rise of private rental housing.
Many former council homes lost to Right to Buy are now in the private rental sector; nationally the figure is around 40 percent. In Oxford, an estimated one-third of homes on the Gipsy Lane Estate are now Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Visually, this is starkly apparent in the large number of poorly maintained houses and estate’s scrappy overall appearance. A 2014 survey found 13 percent of the city’s private rented homes in a state of disrepair. The Council is currently proposing to extend its licensing scheme for HMO landlords to all 20,000 private rented homes in Oxford with increased powers to fine rogue landlords. (6)
Surprisingly, the City did build some new social rent homes in the 1980s in necessarily small but attractive, high-quality developments designed by the City Architect’s Department: 23 council houses in Laurel Farm Close, 54 in Mattock Close and 29 flats in North Place.
By the new century, it was clear, however, that Oxford’s growth and relative prosperity made newbuild on a far larger scale imperative; a 2011 Council report estimated 28,000 new homes were needed. One outcome has been Barton Park, on the north-eastern edge of the city just across the A40. It’s a mixed development scheme and a public-private partnership (between Oxford City Council and Grosvenor Developments Ltd) as – with local authorities precluded financially from large-scale construction themselves – is the way nowadays. Construction began in May 2015
The scheme’s Design and Access Statement promises ‘a garden suburb designed for the 21st century; a perfect blend of high-quality urban living that is in harmony with its natural surroundings’. Practically, we can be relatively glad – in these straitened times – that 354 of the 885 new homes planned will be let at social rent, owned and managed by Oxford City Housing Limited, the wholly owned private company set up by the Council to deliver its social housing programme. (7)
It’s a far cry from the decisive state action and huge public investment directed towards the post-war housing crisis. As I write, the Conservative government is promoting planning reform as the means to boost housebuilding. In reality, the private sector has an inbuilt reluctance to build at the scale currently required for fear that market prices – and profits – would fall. Oxford’s history reminds us of the sometimes imperfect but overwhelmingly beneficent and necessary role of the local and national state in building homes for all that need them.
It used to be said that you could always tell the council homes sold under Right to Buy as they had been obviously ‘improved’ (often to the detriment of the cohesion and attractiveness of the estate as a whole). That’s true today but the roles are reversed as Oxford illustrates well. Nowadays, it is the council homes which have been improved – properly modernised and renovated – and Right to Buy homes often unmodernised as their owner occupiers or subsequent buy-to-let landlords are unable or unwilling to pay for renovation. With apologies to the residents who live there, Gipsy Lane is by some way the scruffiest ‘council estate’ I’ve seen – mainly because very few of its homes are now in council ownership and large swathes in the hands of private landlords.
Much of the detail on individual estates in Headington is drawn from the well-researched and informative local history website, Headington History and this page on the area’s newer estates.
(1) Lloyds Bank, ‘UK’s most and least affordable cities revealed’, 2 February 2019
(2) Prefab Museum, Map
(3) JM Mogey, Family and Neighbourhood: Two Studies in Oxford (Oxford University Press, 1956)
(4) On land availability, see CJ Day, Modern Oxford: a History of the City from 1771 (Reprinted from the Victoria County History of Oxford by Oxford County Libraries, 1983); on the 1949 proposals, see Alan Crosby, ‘Housing and Urban Renewal: Oxford 1918-1985’ in Kate Tiller and Giles Darkes (eds), An Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire Record Society, ORS vol 67, 2010)
(5) Oxfordshire Villages, Berinsfield
(6) On Gipsy Lane, see Headington Neighbourhood Plan, Character Assessment: 8. Gipsy Lane Estate (ND); on the Council’s policies towards the private rental sector, see Oxford City Council, ‘Biggest Change to Private Rented Accommodation in a Decade’, 20th January 2020
(7) The first quotation is drawn from Mick Jaggard and Bob Price, ‘Active place-making – the Barton Park joint venture’, Town and Country Planning, vol 84, no 6, 2015 June/July; other details from David Lynch, ‘Eight new council houses rented out at Barton Park’, Oxford Daily Mail, 10 June 2020.