The Dursley Housing Scheme, 1912, Part II: ‘No Better Housing Scheme’



I’m very pleased to host this second post by Chas Townley, a follow-up to his article last week which looked at the background to Dursley’s pre-war housing scheme. Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control; authority in Gloucestershire. He is currently chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing.  He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision.

Returning to Dursley and our 38 first houses, the decision to investigate providing housing started in January 1912 as a result of a circular letter from the Government which offered meetings with officials to assist the council. They also had information from Cirencester Urban District Council, which was already seeking to build houses with rents of 4 shillings a week. Dursley Rural District Council (RDC) members considered this to be far too much rent for ‘the workmen they were concerned about in the area’ – as the rents of those to be evicted from their closed hovels had very low rents. (1)

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The plaque marking the opening of the new scheme in Lower Poole Road

Despite such early negativity discussions proceeded and a news report of the Dursley Annual Parish Meeting addressed by Mr Sidney Bloodworth, Chairman of the Dursley Parochial Committee (DPC) and Vice-Chairman of the RDC presented a narrative on why they were looking to build council housing.

It is worth explaining the membership of the DPC which was a Dursley RDC committee consisting of all parish councillors and any RDC members representing the Parish of Dursley. I have come across this form of committee in several researches and it appears to have been a normal method of delegating purely local matters for action. Sadly, as they appear to have operated on an ad hoc basis their records have rarely made it into the official archives. In this case my account is based on occasional newspaper reports.

Bloodworth reports the dilemma that the RDC faced following the Housing and Planning act which ‘demanded the closing of houses which were declared unfit for human habitation’ and that the District Council ‘wanted to be assured that there was somewhere else for them to go’. It is stated that the condemned houses were let at a shilling or 1 shilling and 6d per week (5p to 7.5p). It was admitted that it was impossible to build at anything like that rental ‘without being a burden on the rates’.

They had approached the owner of a site on the Uley Road and ended up conducting discussions with Mr Vizard through his drawing room window overlooking the site with him posing the question pointing at the land ‘Now, if this was your house would you like to sell that field?’ Consequently, he was not prepared to sell at any price. The idea of compulsorily purchasing the site had been gone into but it transpired that compensation would have had to be paid for the devaluation in the house overlooking the site.  Another site was now under consideration and it was hoped to reach agreement with the two owners but it would be necessary to remove a rubbish tip.

Ashton Lister

Sir Ashton Lister, Managing Director of R A Lister & Co and later Liberal MP for Stroud, 1918-1922

An argument against funding the housing was advanced suggesting that the ‘firm that imported the labour which overcrowded the town should provide the dwellings and the Parochial Committee should ask them.’ Counter-arguments claimed that workers should not have to live in houses provided by their employer.

Later in the debate Sir Ashton Lister spoke on behalf of the engineering firm stating they were not the only employer in the town and that ‘if the town did not think the building would be in the interest of the town, then they should not endorse the scheme’. In the discussion he commented that the firm had erected 64 houses and bought 20. Lister also believed there was a need for a further 50 houses in the town.

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Houses in the completed scheme on Upper Poole Road

Despite the passion and heat of the debate the meeting was brought to a close with a unanimous decision to request the DPC to prepare a scheme. (2)

By July an Inspector from the Local Government Board visited the town and was accompanied by a large group of local councillors and inspected some housing sites, the preferred site in two separate ownerships of a Mrs Poole and Bristol Corporation – hence the scheme being in Upper Poole Road.

Modern map Dursley from Know Your place mapping subject to OS copyright sites highlighted

This contemporary map shows the two sites eventually chosen for the scheme.

Agreement had been reached with Mrs Poole but Bristol Corporation were reported to want a ‘ridiculously high value’ on their land. The inspector was shown a variety of other sites including the garden of the workhouse. The report concludes by noting ‘the opinion of the Inspector was that there were two possible sites to choose from’ which are understood to be the Upper Poole Road site and the land they could not purchase at any price. (3)

It now transpired from an enquiry from a member of the House of Lords that the compulsory purchase powers could not be used to obtain the land from Bristol Corporation and John Burns had written that the Rural District Council had been advised to consider a smaller scheme or a slightly different site. (4)

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Lower Poole Road

Later than month, a press report referring to the DPC as the Dursley Housing Committee noted that they wanted to persevere with the Poole Cottages scheme and would enter further negotiations with Bristol Corporation. It is suspected that these were fruitless and the scheme was designed to fit the land available, but ironically four or five years later Bristol flogged off the whole of their Dursley land holdings by auction. (5)

It was reported in November 1912 that 150 architects had applied for particulars of the design competition. The rent was not to exceed 4 shillings and 6d (22.5p) and the accommodation was specified as being one living room, three bedrooms, kitchen, scullery with bath and also larder, etc. (6)

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Upper Poole Road

Later in the month Arthur Probyn, a 46 year-old architect and surveyor from Gloucester, was announced as the winner. It transpired later that his was one of 40 designs submitted. (7)  From newspaper reports, Probyn undertook works for various organisations mainly in Gloucester including the Gloucester Cooperative Society, the Gloucester Royal Infirmary (at their original Southgate Street premises) and he was one of seven architects engaged on the Tuffley housing scheme in 1920. He was also architect for a school hall for Dursley Tabernacle completed in 1914 and perhaps this scheme meant he was a known quantity. (8)

When it came to the official Board of Health loan sanction inquiry held in March 1913 before the same Inspector who had considered the appropriateness of the site chosen there were no formal objectors. However, Mr Loxton, a member of the Rural District Council who had provided critical challenge to the project, explained some of the deficiencies that had been considered to exist in the scheme including whether the site was sufficient for the number of houses and whether the scheme could be built within the estimated costs.

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Upper Poole Road

When the tenders came in in August 1913, all of the tenders exceeded the original estimates. As is often the case, the cheapest from S Williams & Sons of Bristol at £7030 did not represent good value as it excluded the cost of roads and drains. W J B Halls Gloucester £8050 was the next lowest with the highest of seven including being nearly £10,000. One bid had been from Lister & Co, suggesting they had their own building team. It is interesting to note that the actual tender costs all appeared in the newspaper, transparency indeed! Even with Halls’ tender the consequence was to increase both the loan for the scheme and the proposed rent from 4s 6d to as high as 6 shillings.

Given the high level of democracy attached to the scheme, a parish meeting was held to ascertain the views of ratepayers and this is reported at length in the Gloucester Journal. Much of the debate focused on the rental costs with, for example, Arthur Shand arguing that the ‘rent was too high for the working man of Dursley’ and Mr A S Adams suggesting ‘the council would be catering for an entirely different class of people to that which was originally intended’. There were some voices that the Council should abandon the scheme.

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Upper Poole Road

The result was that the DPC was asked to go away and find a way to build the houses for rents of 4s 6d, which was way off the original concern felt by Council members back in January 1912 – perhaps showing that the council by inclusion had taken the community with them. It is notable that, despite the contentious nature of the meeting, it was unanimous in thanking DPC ‘for their labours on behalf of the working men of the town’. (9)

In the face of community protest, which wanted low rents, local industrialist Sir Ashton Lister, owner of an expanding engineering factory and later a Liberal MP, dipped his hand in his pocket and gave £500 on condition rents were 5 shillings a week. (10)  Was this an act of ‘charity’ that his Party in Parliament condemned or enlightened self-interest – perhaps the latter as he had already supported the provision of housing by his company.  Consequently, when the matter came before the fortnightly meeting of the District Council, it was agreed to make application for an increased loan of £7852 to enable the housing scheme to be built. (11)

The contract which was let to Halls of Gloucester provided for the first block of four houses to be completed by 31 January 1914 and then two houses to be handed over every two weeks until the scheme was completed. An attempt was made to invite John Burns MP, President of the Local Government Board, to inaugurate the housing scheme but he advised the Council he was unable to attend. (12)

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Upper Poole Road

If you do your maths that means the last two were due to be handed over on 26 September 1914 but completion of the scheme wasn’t reported until January 1915, suggesting that there were some delay in completing the scheme. The newspaper columnist was able to report, ‘It has been stated on good authority that no better housing scheme has been formulated under the Housing and Planning Act anywhere in the country.’ (13)

To be frank, as the 38 houses had been shoehorned into the available land with 28 on one site between Upper Poole Road and Lower Poole Road and the remaining ten a short distance further up Upper Poole Road, it was not an adventurous design. It does not have the smart landscaping of later developments like the Circle in Uplands Stroud but this collection of eight terraces of four houses along with three pairs of semis, all built in very solid red brick, was a well-designed scheme with large windows to provide plenty of light.

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An early post-war scheme, built in the 1920s. The Circle, Uplands Stroud. The Gloucestershire and England cricketer Jack Russell learned to play the game on the green.

As such it is perhaps a story of opportunity and chance that Dursley was one of a handful of Districts in Gloucestershire to have built council housing before the war. In fairness, the actual numbers built were pretty small but it is important to recognise the widespread way in which councils of all complexions had started to develop the aspiration that they could respond to local needs by increasing the supply of homes for the working class.

I’m not such a curmudgeon that I don’t think we shouldn’t celebrate Lloyd George’s Homes Fit for Heroes or the sea change achieved by Addison’s 1919 Act. But we also need to celebrate the heavy lifting of John Burns and the pre-war campaigners that created the environment in which building local democratically-controlled council housing was accepted as the obvious policy choice for a post-war Government to encourage.

Chas Townley (


(1) Gloucestershire Chronicle, 6 January 1912

(2) ‘The Housing Question in Dursley’, Gloucester Journal, 16 March 1912, p3 

(3) ‘Dursley: The Housing Question’, Gloucester Citizen, 24 July 1912, p3 

(4) ‘Dursley Housing Scheme Local Government Board’s Suggestion’, Gloucester Citizen, 8 August 1912,  p5  

(5) ‘Dursley: Dursley District Council’, Gloucestershire Chronicle, 31 August 1912′  p2 

(6) ‘General News: Dursley Housing Scheme’, Gloucestershire Echo, 5 November 1912, p3 

(7) Gloucester Journal, 1 February 1913,  p11

(8) ‘Gloucester’s New Houses: Some Rapidly Nearing Completion’, Gloucestershire Chronicle, 4 September 1920, p6. Also Cheltenham Chronicle, 8 July 1914

(9) ‘Dursley Housing Scheme Parishioners Disapprove’, Gloucester Journal, 23 August 1913, p11 

(10) ‘Timely Gift of Sir A Lister Dursley Housing Scheme Rescued’, Cheltenham Chronicle, 6 September 1913, p7 

(11)’Dursley Guardians and District Council’, Gloucester Journal, 6 September 1913, p11 and also ‘Sir A Lister and Dursley Housing’, Evesham Standard & West Midland Observer, 27 September 1913, p6 

(12) Gloucester Journal, 21 February 1914, p10

(13) Berkeley Vale Gleanings: Dursley Housing Scheme’, Cheltenham Chronicle, 9 January 1915, p3  


The Dursley Housing Scheme, 1912, Part I: Housing Reform before the First World War



I’m delighted to host this article by Chas Townley which is not only a fascinating account of some early council housing in Dursley, Gloucestershire but a significant contribution to the debate around the significance of a pre-war spurt in council house construction pre-dating the 1919 Housing Act. This first post examines the background to the scheme; the follow-up will examine the scheme in detail.

Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control’ authority in Gloucestershire. He is currently chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing.  He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision.

I have the privilege to be Chair of Housing at Stroud District Council which this year has been a housing provider for 105 years, despite still only being 45 years old!  This arises from the construction of 38 working class cottages by Dursley Rural District Council, one of seven pre-1974 rural and urban districts which served our patch. (1)

While it remains a housing provider the council has not built at scale since schemes were planned in the late 1970s, although we have delivered a programme of new council homes over the last five or six years, mainly to replace defective housing or utilise sites in Council ownership. We aspire to more but this isn’t the place to write about the future.

gloucestershire, dursley market town, old photo

Dursley at around the time of the First World War

As a local historian, I am presently trying to piece together the motives that drove at least four of our predecessors to actively contemplate housing schemes in their areas in the Edwardian era. In addition to the Dursley scheme, two other sites at Wotton-under-Edge and Stroud had been purchased already and active discussions were taking place elsewhere, before the skids were put on further progress by the chaos of war in August 1914.

While at first glance the Stroud District is very much a rural area with stunning landscapes in the Cotswolds and the world-renowned Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands on the Severn Estuary, it has an industrial heritage to compete with places like Ironbridge or the Black Country. Maybe I’m just a little biased but we have a fantastic industrial heritage story.


The Budding lawnmower patent © Museum in the Park, Stroud (2972/2)

Near Stroud, Edwin Budding invented the lawnmower, developed from machinery in the cloth industry. If that wasn’t enough, he also gave us the adjustable spanner; What good toolbox is without one of those?

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Two coopers outside the Lister Churn works © Museum in the Park, Stroud (1975.131)

In the south of the District, the growth of Dursley had been greatly influenced by the development of RA Lister and Co as a major engineering company famed for its diesel engines which started life as an agricultural implements company in 1867. Sadly what little remains – not even based in Dursley – is a minuscule reminder of the past successes of its enterprise and innovation.

Much of the industry was linked to the woollen industry and our council offices are a converted mill – as is the headquarters of Renishaw, a world leading engineering and scientific company. The last remaining cloth firm, once famed for its scarlet for military uniforms, remains in production producing vibrant yellow and green for tennis and snooker.


And perhaps it is worth remembering that the industrialisation of the weaving industry was the start of a long tradition of active trade unions defending the rights and working conditions of employees.

Collectivism also extended to strong support for the Cooperative movement and some towns and villages at one time boasted 50 percent participation. The main society in the area, the Cainscross and Ebley, in addition to renting out cottages also supported home ownership. Fifty loans had been granted, mostly in the Dursley area, perhaps indicating this was an area with enormous housing demand, but this activity was small fry – the neighbouring Gloucester society claimed to have given out 700 loans! (2)

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Bramwell Hudson, photographed in 1912 as General Manager of the Cainscross and Ebley Cooperative Society

The links of industrialists to our predecessor councils are well known but it is worth remembering that our councils represented all shades of opinion – as they do today. Bramwell Hudson, the inspirational general manager of the Coop for much of the early years began his sixteen-year stint as Chairman of Stroud RDC on his retirement from the Coop in 1928.


Margaret Hills, photographed as a suffragist speaker and campaigner in Manchester, 1909

And, of course, we find amongst the women on our councils Margaret Hills, who learnt her political craft in the suffrage movement. She too was inspirational and could hold a packed Manchester Free Trade Hall audience in the palm of her hand. As Stroud UDC Chair of Housing, she developed housing for older people back in the early 1930s.

While this article is relatively early thoughts on our predecessors’ initiative, I am convinced they were responding to a housing crisis which is probably of as great an impact as we face today; Gloucestershire’s inspirational community action was not some isolated action but part of a national response to a growing crisis. For example, in the 1917 debate about whether Gloucester City should support an initial 200 dwelling post-war scheme, in response to Government requests, Councillor Fielding (a partner in the now lamented Fielding and Platt Company) highlighted a successful housing scheme undertaken by Hereford City Council. (3)

The Government Minister who created the impetus for action was John Burns, a trade unionist who served as President of the Local Government Board from 1905 until 1914 when he was moved to another Ministry. As a pacifist, he inevitably resigned from Government on Britain entering the Great War and never again played an active part in national politics.

John Burns Wikimedia Commons

John Burns MP, President of the Local Government Board, c1911

Burns’ influence on housing policy and the wider ‘activist’ role for local government before the Great War is underrated. In part, this is because he did not make the transition to the Labour Party and remained as a radical in the Liberal Party. On the other hand, there are significant anti-Semitic character flaws which do not make for comfortable reading today.

In the period before Burns there had been considerable complacency about poor housing conditions. When Rider Haggard (Yes, he of King Solomon’s Mines) visited Gloucestershire as part of national agricultural survey in 1901, he interviewed Dr Martin, the Medical Officer of Health for a combined area covering three councils in the Stroud area. Haggard reported that: (4)

The cottages were fair with good gardens, and there were few cases of overcrowding; still he had been obliged to condemn some of them.

Martin’s own Medical Officer of Health reports for this period are similar in tone with a degree of blame on tenants for poor conditions. (5)

Burns, through the Housing and Planning Act 1909 (which our Dr Martin had claimed ‘was one of the most important public health Acts of recent years’), instigated systematic inspection of housing conditions in the whole area of each District. This had been actively opposed by one of the local government associations of the day and one of Dr Martin’s employers, Stroud Rural District Council, joined the campaign to oppose this as they thought it was an unneeded imposition on the council and there was nothing to see here.

Municipal Housing John Burns Signature

The personal interest in housing reform of John Burns is illustrated by this signed copy of an influential book of the time.

Systematic inspection had instant results. In Bristol over 1000 unfit properties were found in the first year, many were improved but 110 were closed, an astonishing increase on the average of just twenty in previous years. Perhaps, a lesson from history as to why we need to rediscover the zeal for high levels of inspections of housing standards? (6)

While it is difficult to be certain of the numbers in Gloucestershire rural districts the language used in annual reports of the Medical Officers of Health significantly changed to one of heightened concern with poor housing conditions and a failing housing market, with carefully crafted polite encouragements to members to act, usually based on external evidence. (7)

Such appointments were precarious before one of Burns’ reforms as they served at the (dis)pleasure of the council, often relying on annual reappointment. In Gloucestershire one such victim was Dr Thomas Bond who was sacked by Sodbury Rural District Council in 1905. He retained the confidence of other employers and had the temerity to write about his grievous injustice publicly. His cause was taken up nationally and eventually he was reinstated following Government action. (8)

Within Stroud area there is also strong evidence of political campaigns by Liberals, Conservatives and the relatively new Labour and Trades Council to advocate for council housing in the period from 1910 onwards rising with intensity to copy Dursley and also Cirencester. (9)

In the Stroud Rural District, under pressure of campaigning, surveys had identified an urgent need for additional lower cost housing in five of seventeen parishes. In the case of the village of Minchinhampton, the cause was blamed on the number of properties owned by ‘weekenders’ who then remodelled cottage properties to their needs – apparently at the expense of local manual workers. The impact of second homes remains of concern today across many rural areas like the Cotswolds. (10)

An odd feature of Rural Districts was the allocation of some costs as ‘special expenses’ rated on specific areas of the District – usually but not always a whole parish. This approach resulted in cost shunting the risk of deficits on specific housing schemes to relatively small groups of ratepayers. Consequently, schemes were limited to parishes that were prepared to meet the additional rate costs.

Frank Gwynne Evans, was the Stroud Constituency Liberal prospective parliamentary candidate for the impending 1915 General Election (which never took place due to the war). As a member of Stroud RDC and he argued that if the cost was spread across the district the amount would be ‘infinitesimal and would be repaid in short time by the relief of the poor rate, chronic rheumatism and consumption’. Such arguments as this for collective sharing of costs led to the creation of the Housing Revenue Account as the blessing and curse that we enjoy today.

On a national scale the support for council housing led to several attempts to provide better finance systems, including a recognition for the need for government grants to local authorities, rather than permissions to borrow on the security of the rates.

There are of course interesting modern ironies of positions then taken.  The debate on the Housing of the Working Classes Bill 1912, a private member’s bill sponsored by a Conservative MP, advocated subsidised rents, national grants, transfer of functions to county councils and a significant degree of central control. It was opposed in debate by a succession of Liberals who derided subsidies as ‘charity rents’. In one case a member arguing they would ‘destroy private enterprise altogether’. There were also references of returning to the dependency created by the old poor law some eighty years before. (11)

Some of the Conservative MPs argued that the level of new council housing building was too low to replace the houses lost under the compulsory inspection of housing conditions. In part this appears to be part of a strategy to question the justification of focusing on increasing standards at a time of housing shortage as well as trying to embarrass the Liberal Government for their failure to meet needs.

The relatively small number of Labour members described as occupying seats ‘below the gangway’ – which has been the traditional home of minor parties for generations – supported municipal housing with a passion and perhaps an ideological zeal. George Lansbury in his contribution stated ‘quite cheerfully I shall go into the [Tory] Lobby in support of the second reading.’ And, of course, the reason there are no female voices in this debate is that women were still fighting to be admitted to our legislature.

That bill, like so many private members’ bills even today, suffered the indignity of not making progress as the Liberal Government of the day refused to support a money bill, leading to its demise. A question I know not how to answer is whether, if progress had been made, would the Griffith-Boscawen Act have been a notable housing act? Perhaps it was bound to fail?

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A taster for next week’s post: some of Dursley’s completed housing on Lower Poole Road

Next week’s post, however, will examine the successful scheme commenced in Dursley before the First World War.

Chas Townley (


(1) These are the Urban Districts of Stroud and Nailsworth and the Rural Districts of Stroud and Dursley and parts of the Thornbury and Gloucester Rural Districts. Additionally, a 1991 boundary review transferred Hillesley and Tresham formerly in in the Sodbury Rural District from the Northavon District to Stroud.

(2) Unpublished research by Chas Townley on Cainscross and Ebley Cooperative Society based on society records at Gloucestershire Archives (D2754/2)

(3) ‘Gloucester City Council: The Housing Question’, Gloucester Journal, 29 September 1917 p7. This proposal eventually became the original scheme of 200 post-war homes built in Tuffley in the south of Gloucester. 

(4) Rider Haggard, Rural England: Being an account of agricultural and social researches carried out in the years 1901 & 1902 (Longmans, London 1902)

(5) See for example Dr H Martin, MOH Annual Report to Stroud UDC 1909 where he considers the condition of working class housing is generally good and notes “but of necessity in so large a town a certain number of houses are in an unsatisfactory state owing to neglect on the part of either the owners or the occupiers”. Wellcome Archive

(6) Dr DS Davies, Bristol City Council, Medical Officer of Health Annual Report 1912. Available online at the Wellcome Library

(7) Dr O Andrews,  Medical Officer of Health Annual Report 1913West Gloucestershire United Districts Housing and Planning Conference Report p14. Online at Welcome Library

(8) Dr Bond, letter concerning Chipping Sodbury Council and Dr Bond

(9) Petition to Stroud RDC by Stroud Trades and Labour Council reported in ‘Housing Problem in Stroud District Special Committee’s Report’, Cheltenham Echo, 24 April 1914, p3. Also Stroud  Conservative Workingmen’s Debating Society considered a paper on building council housing at one of their regular meetings in 1913.

(10) ‘Housing Problem in Stroud District  Special Committee’s Report’, Cheltenham Echo 24 April 1914, p3 

(11) Housing of the Working Classes Bill Second Reading Debate, Hansard Vol 35 Col 1414-1494, 15 March 1912. 


The Woodchurch Estate, Birkenhead II: ‘Not a mere assemblage of houses’


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Last week’s post looked at the controversy surrounding rival plans – one a more traditional cottage suburb submitted by Borough Engineer Bertie Robinson, the other an ostensibly more visionary re-imagining of community life proposed by the architect Sir Charles Reilly – for Birkenhead’s Woodchurch Estate.  The former had been preferred by the Conservative majority on the Council and they had appointed the Liverpool architect Herbert James Rowse to ‘to draw up designs for the houses to be erected on the estate’. (1)

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This plaque is placed at the main entrance to the estate on the side wall of a house on Ackers Road

To general surprise, Rowse, perhaps unwilling to work within the confines of a scheme suggested by the Borough Engineer, perhaps seeking some third way compromise, returned to the drawing board and, in January 1945, submitted an entirely new scheme.  Labour pressed for reconsideration of Reilly’s plans but in March 1945, the Council – dividing again on party lines – endorsed those of Rowse. Building of the estate, after a twenty-year gestation, finally began in 1946.

Woodchurch Plan Architecture and Building News 1950

Rowse’s 1945 plan from Architecture and Building News, 1950

Whilst he eschewed the social engineering proposed by Reilly, Rowse’s own proposals reflected the spirit and ambition of the time: (2)

The Woodchurch Estate is not a mere assemblage of houses placed on a plot ground in the maximum possible density and monotonous regularity of layout and pattern, after the manner of the vast unplanned and uncontrolled suburban development of the inter-war years: it is the architectural setting of a fully developed sociological conception of a community of people living within a defined neighbourhood, having a conscious identity of its own and equipped for the maximum possibilities of the full intercourse of such a community. The comprehensive character of this project makes it of outstanding interest.

For Rowse, the fulfilment of these promises lay in the layout, facilities and housing forms of his new estate.

The overall plan was ‘developed on the basis of the natural topographical features of the site’ with:

Every effort … made in the planning of the Estate to provide prospects of the attractive rural surroundings from every possible point and to allow the maximum amount of rural character to permeate the estate by means of planted green closes, forecourts, quadrangles, recreation spaces and allotment gardens.

Broad parkways divided the estate whilst a central square provided ‘for the social life of the community’ with shops, baths and assembly hall, community centre, cinema, library and clinic:

In contrast to the familiar monotony of streets or their suburban counterpart, the estate will present varied internal prospects of groupings of terraces and small blocks amidst trees and green spaces, having the general character of a contemporary version of the traditional English village scene.

For the 2500 houses of the estate, Rowse proposed brick of ‘good, common quality’ with ‘architectural interest … achieved by the application of lime-wash, pigmented in a range of quiet tones of yellow, blue, pink and grey, alternating with white’.  His interest extended to their interiors – those of the first homes completed being ‘decorated in warm ivory shade on the walls and a pale shade of blue on the ceilings’.  Criticism of this colour scheme led to a uniform white being applied externally by the early 1950s.

Woodchurch image 1 Architecture and Building News 1947

Woodchurch image 2 Architecture and Building News 1947

Rowse’s illustrations of Woodchurch housing from Architecture and Building News, 1950

The estate’s early housing reflects Rowse’s ambitions though, on a cold January day such as when I visited, those broad parkways can seem rather bleak.

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Shops on Hoole Road © Rept0n1x and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Rowse’s supervision of the scheme was superseded by that of new Borough Architect TA Brittain in 1952 who, in Pevsner’s astringent words, ‘continued building to inferior standards of design’.  The volume dislikes the estate’s early neo-Georgian-style shopfronts but reserves its greatest disdain for the Hoole Road shops, once planned as a centrepiece of Rowse’s central parkway. (3)

Woodchurch house 2 Architecture and Building News 1950

This early image closely resembles the 1000th house on the estate, opened in 1953

The estate’s 1000th home, no. 84 Common Field Road, was officially opened by local MP Percy Collick in 1953 – a gabled, tile-hung, arts and crafts-inspired design, clearly a legacy of Rowse’s tenure.

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Early photographs of the estate

Later housing was plainer but the biggest departure from Rowse’s founding vision were the two 14-storey tower blocks – Grasswood Gardens and Ferny Brow Gardens – built in 1960 on New Hey Road; the architect, ironically was HJ Rowse. (4)  By the end of the decade, three 14-storey blocks were added, built by Wimpey – Leamington, Lynmouth and Lucerne Gardens, at the Upton end of the estate.

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Leamington, Lynmouth and Lucerne Gardens, photographed in 1987 from the Tower Block website

Typically, for all the preceding rhetoric, even the most basic community facilities were slow to appear: the first shops in 1953, a health clinic in 1954, and the first local library (at first housed in the new secondary modern school) in 1959. A community centre followed in 1965.

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St Michael and All Angels, January 2019

Church congregations met in private houses or local halls until the Methodist church opened in 1958 and the Roman Catholic St Michaels and All Angels in 1965. The latter was worth waiting for, at least with an impressive modernist design (by Richard O’Mahony), planned liturgically – in Vatican II style – to focus attention on the central altar and – in landscape terms – to provide a fitting climax to New Hey and Home Farm Roads.


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Home Farm Road, January 2019

All this, however, was some way away from the promises of Rowse, let alone Reilly, and that post-war vision of planned community.  Later academic studies of the estate allow us to examine the community which did emerge. They present a mixed picture, both reflecting and challenging standard interpretations.

The new residents were predominantly young families. A points system determined priority, favouring ex-servicemen, established residency and size of family. Additional points were awarded to those living in unfit accommodation. They were also judged by their ability to pay the rent though this was often a struggle: an average rent for a three-bed home amounted to £1.40 whilst local wages ranged from £3.50 for an unskilled male worker to £5 and above for semi-skilled and skilled workers. In the struggle to make ends meets, cookers were often bought from the Gas Board and furniture from Sturla’s department store on the ‘never-never’ (hire purchase). (5)

Woodchurch Ganney Meadows Road (3)

Ganney Meadows Road, January 2019

In support of the Wilmott and Young narrative of ‘missing mum’ (or, more academically, missing inner-city matrilocal kinship networks), there were the many young women who trekked back on an almost daily basis from this peripheral estate to their parents. Some walked, some struggled with their Silver Cross prams (‘normally second-hand, mind’) on an inadequate bus service. One young mother with school-age children cycled to the Mount Estate – where her parents now lived – every day at 10am, having got up at 6am to clean the house and prepare evening meals. (5)

But there were others pleased to place some distance between themselves and family:

One male interviewee explained how he and his wife were glad to get away from his mother-in-law because ‘she was jealous of my wife’ and he described how the friction caused by the situation had put a strain on other family relationships.

As for community – or, more properly, neighbourliness – that was found informally, often in the revival of established friendships:

There was a knock at the door. When I went to the door there was [name] standin’ there with a tray an’ a pot of tea. We just couldn’t believe it when we saw each other’s faces. We’d lived in adjacent roads up near Bidston, had been good friends … childhood friends for many years … before the war an’ she was my next-door neighbour! I couldn’t believe it, it was like bein’ with family

Given that many people moved to Woodchurch at the same time from similar areas of central Birkenhead, these connections are not surprising, and, in due course, family links might also be resurrected as parents or siblings also moved to the estate.

SN Woodchurch Home Farm Road (2)

Home Farm Road, January 2019

The much vaunted ‘spirit of a New Britain’ (discussed in last week’s post) seems absent but perhaps lived on in attenuated form:

It wasn’t just the fact that we were all from Birkenhead, we’d all been through more or less the same experiences … been in the same kind of housing … lost loved ones or our homes during the war. We were just glad to be alive an’ we weren’t goin’ to shut the door on a neighbour who needed a hand … where we came from it wasn’t the done thing.

But few came to look on the community centre as a centre of social life, still less civic engagement as had been hoped by post-war planners: a ‘number of the interviewees recalled that they only went there for Bingo “on a Tuesday night” or “when someone was havin’ a “do”.

In the end, ‘community’ developed very largely without the benign assistance of planners and politicians and, with hindsight, the would-be social engineering of the latter, however idealistic in motive, appears mechanistic in practice.  Real lives were led domestically, within the interstices of home, family and friendship, with little reference to formal institutions and with little desire to think or act more politically or civically.

SN Woodchurch New Hey Road (6)

New Hey Road, January 2019

Meanwhile, older traditions of heavy-handed council paternalism lived on – though typically enforced by women housing  officers raised on the Octavia Hill tradition.  Miss Crook was clearly the local exemplar:

I mean, everyone I’ve spoken to about it remembers the way she used to check the beds – the sheets, the blankets an’ that – she’d run her fingers over surfaces to check for dust, an’ the look on her face if she found any! It was like ‘Not dusted today then, dear?’ … Well, she did congratulate me on the standard of cleanliness, but by the time she’d finished doin’ her rounds I was ready to explode. But we just had to put up an’ shut up. Y’didn’t argue with authority at that time.

Respectability and responsible tenancy were thus rigorously policed in these early years.

For all that, Woodchurch, in some eyes, developed a bad reputation.  As early as 1952, a local newspaper article was headlined ‘Vandalism Sweeps Woodchurch Estate. £500 damage to bulldozer’. (The combination of many young children living on what were, in effect, huge building sites made such reports quite common across the country, in fact.)

SN Woodchurch Home Farm Road (7)

Home Farm Road, January 2019

But as estates, such as Woodchurch, grew older, perceptions of them changed.  Press reports of crime on the estate in 1969 led the police to come to its defence: ‘The incidence of crime and disturbances on the estate is no more serious than in several other areas of the town … isolated incidents had been taken out of context’. (7)

By the 1980s, however, as unemployment and, in particular, youth unemployment rocketed, there were real problems.  Woodchurch (and even more notoriously, Birkenhead’s Ford Estate) became known as centres of heroin addiction: by 1983, it was claimed nine percent of 16-24 year-olds on the estates were taking the drug. ‘Woodyboy’ recalls the era: (8)

By the time my year finished our ‘O’ levels at Woody High in ’83 we well and truly knew what was going on around us. It seemed like everyone’s big brother or sister was a smackhead. They were the kids we remembered from primary school who were only a few years older. We knew kids in our year that had tried mushies or were into glue, but this was a whole different ball game.

The estate also became associated with wider problems of gang violence and antisocial behaviour.

SN Woodchurch Hoole Road

Three ages of housing with Brackendale House to the rear, January 2019

From this time, there have been concerted efforts to raise the estate.  In Birkenhead, tower blocks were seen as one cause of this new social malaise and the new Borough of Wirral (formed in 1974) had been the first in Europe to demolish some of its blocks – beginning with the central Oak and Eldon Gardens towers in 1979. On the Woodchurch Estate, the two New Hey Road blocks were converted to housing for elderly people and renamed in 1984.  Now, only one – Brackendale – remains.  Leamington, Lynmouth and Lucerne Gardens have also been demolished.

Today, the worst social problems of Woodchurch are over and, to this outsider, the estate looked generally well-maintained and cared for, and attractive in its older parts where Rowse’s vision was more fully implemented.  It’s a council estate which means in modern Britain it houses disproportionately a poorer population and unemployment levels remain high. Four areas of the estate are among the ten percent most deprived in the country. (9)

There are some who would blame council housing for that. For me, it’s a manifestation of what has been done to council housing and its community.  Whilst the Woodchurch Estate itself was one small part of the ‘New Britain’ to emerge after 1945, a wider element of that promise was full employment and reduced inequality. That is a promise betrayed and we have asked council estates and their residents to carry the burden of that betrayal.

SN Woodchurch Ganney Meadows Road (1)

Ganney Meadows Road, January 2019

One early resident of the estate recalls it:

as being as good as any private housing … people didn’t realise it was a council estate … it was peaceful too in the early days. It was a good place to live and a good place to bring up the children.

That, I’m sure, remains true for many today.


Kenn Taylor, who was raised on the estate, has also written interestingly on its history and significance in The Memory of a Hope.

(1) Margaret H Taylor, ‘Creating a Municipal Gemeinschaft? Disputations of Community’, Manchester Metropolitan University MPhil, 2013.

(2) HJ Rowse, ‘Woodchurch estate, Birkenhead; Architect: H. J. Rowse’, Architect and Building News, October 14, 1950. The quotations which follow are drawn from this source.

(3) Nikolaus Pevsner, Edward Hubbard, Cheshire (1978)

(4) Tower Block (University of Edinburgh), Woodchurch: Contract 23

(5) Taylor, ‘Creating a Municipal Gemeinschaft’

(6) As argued in Young and Wilmott,  Family and Kinship in East London (1957). Woodchurch analysis drawn from Lilian Potter, ‘National Tensions in the Post War Planning of Local Authority Housing and ‘The Woodchurch Controversy’, University of Liverpool PhD, 1998. The quotations and later detail are drawn from Taylor, as is the following quotation.

(7) ‘Police Speak Up For Woodchurch Estate’, Liverpool Echo, 23 July 1969

(8) SevenStreets, ‘Smack City: Thirty Years of Hurt’ (ND, c2013). The statistic is drawn from the article; the testimony from comments below.

(9) Wirral Council Public Health Intelligence Team, Indices of Multiple Deprivation for Wirral 2015 (November 2015)

The Woodchurch Estate, Birkenhead I: ‘Repercussions over the Empire’



If you’re not from Merseyside, you probably haven’t heard of Birkenhead’s Woodchurch Estate but in 1944 it featured in a Picture Post article which, it was claimed, ‘had repercussions over the Empire’. (1)  That might have been an exaggeration but for a time conflicting ideas around the estate’s design dominated not only local politics but generated fierce debate in wider planning and political circles.  This post examines that controversy.

First, some background because there had been little previously to suggest that Birkenhead would merit such prominence in housing policy.  Unlike its neighbour Liverpool (which had built the first council housing in the country and pursued grandiose housing schemes in the interwar period), Birkenhead’s housing efforts had been modest.

It had grown as a docks and shipbuilding town from the early nineteenth century; from around 200 inhabitants in 1820 to 77,435 when incorporated as a borough in 1877.  Eleven years later and 22,000 inhabitants larger, it became a County Borough.

Dock Cottages

The Dock Cottages

That rapid growth had created appalling housing conditions for Birkenhead’s working-class population. The Queen’s Buildings (better known locally as the ‘Dock Cottages’ or just the ‘Blocks’), constructed in 1846 and financed by the major local employer John Laird, had been one early effort to ameliorate such conditions – 350 dwellings in four-storey blocks; built to the ‘Scotch’ plan (Laird hailed from Greenock) and claimed to be the first multi-storey tenements in England. Despite their compact design and dense layout, the flats themselves – equipped with a cold-water supply, gas burner, two iron bedsteads and a WC – were advanced for their day.

Gilbrook Estate proposal 1917 2

The 1917 plans for the Gilbrook Estate

The later council, for its part, proceeded more cautiously, clearing some 388 unfit houses but building just 18 cottages and 88 tenements to replace them by 1910. (2)  Its first major housebuilding scheme – the Gilbrook Estate in Prenton, north Birkenhead – was planned in 1917 but completed, to modified design, after the war.  The Council also purchased and renovated the Dock Cottages to let as council housing in the 1920s.

SN Gilbrook Vaughan Street (1)

Vaughan Street, Gilbrook Estate, January 2019. (It was snowing!)

SN Gilbrook Arkle Road

Arkle Road, Gilbrook Estate, January 2019

The ideological preferences of the Conservative-controlled council –  or perhaps an early version of the current preference for ‘mixed communities’ – were shown by the development of the Tranmere Hall Estate in the 1920s where, unusually, 400 of the homes were built for sale, available for purchase from the Council under the advantageous terms offered by the Small Dwellings Act.

When it came to the purchase of an area of farmland in the centre of the Wirral peninsula beyond the then boundaries of the Borough – what would become the Woodchurch Estate – in 1926, the Council was even more ambitious. There was a suggestion that the area could be developed along Garden City lines (though without self-governance) with land sold to developers on a leasehold basis and revenues accruing to the local authority.  Meanwhile, the Council approached one of the most prominent architects and planners of the day, TH Mawson, a lecturer at Liverpool’s prestigious School of Civic Design, elected president of the Town Planning Institute in 1923.

Mawson’s first recommendations were made in 1927; a more complete illustrated and typewritten report in 1929. He promised: (3)

a scheme that shall be of benefit … to posterity – aesthetically, hygienically, practically and in every way … the nicest and most tasteful of its kind in the Kingdom.

It was a plan explicitly referencing the arts and crafts ideals of William Morris and Raymond Unwin and the principles of the 1918 Tudor Walters Report.  Mawson talked of wide grass verges and tree-lined streets, even the ‘somewhat unusual step’ of planting roses instead of trees along some of the best streets. As to the housing itself, it reflected the usual reality of a ‘mixed community’ – large houses for the wealthy, lesser versions for the middle class, and small, terraced homes (at council rent) for the working class though he suggested the latter be built around ‘little town squares’ to avoid monotony.

I could write more but the formal adoption of Mawson’s plans was deferred and then, at some point in the mid-1930s, quietly abandoned. That controversy I teased you with is yet to come though the ideas raised here around ‘community’ would be central to later discussion.

Elsewhere, planning continued.  By 1939, land for what became the Mount Estate in Prenton had been purchased and Borough Engineer Bertie Robinson drew up plans for a garden suburb of some 502 homes.  War would delay their implementation but the Corporation had built around 4500 council homes by the outbreak of war in 1939.

Birkenhead suffered heavily from that war; 2079 houses were destroyed by bombing and 26,000 seriously damaged. Some 3464 people lost their lives.  But planning for better tomorrow began early. In 1944, Bertie Robinson unveiled new plans for the Woodchurch Estate. At around the same time, the Council appointed Professor Charles Reilly as a planning consultant with a brief to produce an outline plan for post-war Birkenhead as a whole. Reilly had been Professor of Architecture at the University of Liverpool from 1904 to his retirement in 1933; a charismatic figure, better known as an influential educator than as practitioner.

Woodchurch Estate plan

Robinson’s 1944 plan for the Estate

Robinson published details of his scheme in The Builder in November 1944. He first described the site in the Fender Valley: 457 acres of which the large municipally-owned Arrowe Park, containing golf course, bowling greens and football pitches, would be retained and the ‘attractive suburb’ of Upton conserved. So far as the residential areas were concerned, he proposed ‘a garden city for the purpose of housing on the basis of a neighbourhood unit’. (4)

Woodchurch model Builder 1944

A model of Robinson’s Woodchurch proposals from The Builder

In terms of layout, he planned two 100-foot boulevards in the form of a cross in a central square – these had given, he claimed, ‘the scheme the title of the “Green Cross”’ – and a 60-foot boulevard from which the estate’s service roads would radiate. These should be laid out on ‘attractive lines with grass verges, shrubs, trees and gradual curves’.  There would be little encouragement to traffic ‘other than that serving the estate itself’.

The estate as a whole was conceived as containing 2540 homes, serving a population of around 10,800 – a range of two, three, four and five-bedroom houses ‘suitable for north or south aspect’ built in ‘blocks of two, up to terraces of eight’ and set back to ‘varying building lines’.

With a central and two subsidiary shopping areas and provision for 156 shops in all, a public hall and community centre, 22.5 acres of allotments, ten schools and a ‘Young People’s College’, and plentiful open space, it was an ambitious and considered scheme which reflected contemporary planning ideas around community-focused design to improve on the widely criticised form and character of the interwar cottage suburbs.

SN Sir-Charles-Herbert-Reilly Howard Coster 1943

Sir Charles Reilly, a 1943 portrait by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Enter Reilly. He described: (5)

not liking very much the look of this layout which was on ordinary garden suburb lines … I suggested to the Borough Engineer that we should make a new layout plan together.

Less emolliently, in an article in the left-wing journal Tribune, he called Robinson’s scheme ‘a damn bad plan’. When Robinson rejected his offer to collaborate, Reilly, in his own words, ‘explained the ideas I thought would be welcomed everywhere and told him he would make his name by it if he did’.

Details of Three Greens and Adjacent Toads, Reilly Plan

Reilly’s Greens, as envisaged in Wolfe, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life 

Reilly’s uninvited intervention and the spat, at least on Reilly’s side, which developed then became a much larger controversy. In essence, as they were further developed, Reilly’s alternative plans contained one big idea – the greens around which housing would be grouped.  He explained them in an April 1944 report in the Birkenhead News:

The motives of the scheme are the English Village Green and the small squares of the country town, where children can play and neighbours see one another and retain the friendliness of the little streets and slums. With pairs of semi-detached houses on the curved roads of the Garden Suburb type of plan this friendliness … turns to suburban snobbishness through not seeing and knowing one’s neighbours. The houses look away from one another and the people too.

Later, he expanded his attack on suburbia:

Why was there such a contempt with novelists for suburbia? It was because it bred a narrowness of outlook, in which the team spirit was not developed.  It lacked the intellectual development which came from sharpening one’s wits … allowing everyone to play with his own toy castle had produced an anti-social spirit.

In this, Reilly, of course, reflected much of the inverted snobbery directed towards the suburbs then and now.

He also articulated an architect’s disdain for tradespeople as represented here by the poor Borough Engineer:

Without being in any way personal, as an architect, I feel the layout of houses for human habitation is not in the first place an engineer’s job. The engineer’s training in steel construction in drains and such like inhuman things does not fit him for it. It is not humane enough. The architect however, is always thinking in terms of human lives. He, I suggest, should do the planning and the engineer keep him straight on the mechanical side.

Robinson kept his own counsel through all this though he had written thoughtfully – admittedly in measured bureaucratic tones – on housing in an article for a professional journal in 1936. (5)

However, beyond the interpersonal disputes, there were planning ideas. Reilly himself described his concept for communal greens as ‘a semi-new planning principle’. It owed much to Unwin’s quadrangles and had similarities to the bowling greens of nearby Port Sunlight.  His general critique of suburbia and, in particular, the Corporation suburbia of peripheral council estates, was certainly highly topical and gained traction from the publication in May 1944 of the government-sponsored Dudley Report on the Design of Dwellings which was similarly critical.

And beyond the planning talk, there was politics – a politics writ large by wartime conditions and post-war aspirations. At its simplest, this was party politics, and in Birkenhead the debate over the contending plans split along purely political lines.  The ruling Conservative Party favoured Robinson’s scheme and the insurgent Labour opposition favoured and campaigned powerfully for what had now become known as the Reilly Plan.

Here, it elided easily with the wider issue of housing shortage; by July 1945, there were 2300 on Birkenhead’s council housing waiting list and, it was said, 150 fresh applications weekly. The debate over Woodchurch was, crudely, a useful local wedge issue.

Central area, Reilly Plan

Central area as depicted in Wolfe, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life 

But it was much more than this. It spoke too to what was really a unique moment in British history – a time when passionate debate around a new, more modern and better Britain to emerge in peacetime conditions dominated.  Speaking at the annual Labour Conference in December 1944, Harold Laski declared that ‘for Socialists the war was each day more fully an ideological war’. The sacrifice it demanded of those who fought: (7)

can be justified in one way only. It will be justified by the degree in which the Socialist commonwealth becomes the inheritance of the civilisation we are seeking to reshape.

That conference went on to pass a resolution that ‘the community basis of town planning, as illustrated by Professor Sir Charles Reilly’s plan for Woodchurch estate, Birkenhead, would best serve post-war housing needs’.

In the Picture Post article referred to, Caradoc Williams, secretary of Birkenhead Trades Council, declared his own support for the Reilly Plan with the spirit, if not the rhetoric, of Laski:

I believe it is in accordance with the community spirit developed during the war. Public opinion here wants a progressive plan. After all, the men out there are fighting for decent homes, not only for houses.

Mary Mercer, a former Labour councillor, saw ‘a spirit in the Reilly Plan … the spirit of the New Britain’. Birkenhead Tories less so.

For Councillor Guy Williams:

The whole idea of Professor Reilly’s Plan is to foster community spirit. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. But if a man doesn’t feel community-minded, he should thank God for a 5-ft hedge around his house.

For Lawrence Wolfe, who must have read this article, there could not have been a clearer expression of the ‘isolationist way of life’ he believed so damaging to the British psyche and society. It was Wolfe who, in 1945, most passionately advocated The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life (as his book was titled). (8)

For him, it was a panacea to all psychological and social ills. The book provides a greatly expanded and highly prescriptive exposition of Reilly’s plans including the proposal that the Community Centre provide ‘a Restaurant and Meals Service’, supplying meals in large containers to nursery schools and ‘in small thermos containers’ to individuals. Wolfe went on to address contemporary concerns about the birth rate and sexual behaviour: ‘Under the Reilly Plan early marriage is easy and normal’; ‘sexual immorality outside marriage also diminishes’; venereal disease declines; and the birth rate would rise.

Single green with cricket match in progress, Reilly Plan

‘Single green with cricket match in progress’ from Wolfe, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life 

Wolfe went on, at his most fanciful, to evoke not only a New Britain but a Merry England:

In the village green world dancing is not confined to special times and places. People dance when they feel like it – and they often do. Impromptu merry-making would look crazy in the middle of an isolationist street; on the green it looks perfectly natural and the passer-by, far from being tolerantly amused or even scandalised, is more likely to join in.

Reilly’s introduction to the book rather disarmingly notes:

the many implications [Wolfe] has found in the plan which, I confess, I did not fully see when I drew it … he, I am glad to say, discerns many further advantages in what I thought was merely a natural expression of neighbourliness.

The reality is that this was very much Wolfe’s vision, the Reilly Plan his chosen vehicle, but the 71-year-old Reilly, ever the keen publicist of his own ideas and role, was happy to go along with it.

For all the storm and stress, the Council – dividing on party lines – had endorsed Robinson’s scheme in February 1944. A proposal from Labour leader Charles McVey for an inquiry into the rival proposals was defeated in July.

That, however, was not quite the end of the Reilly Greens. The idea was taken up enthusiastically, with Reilly’s active participation, in the Black Country boroughs of Bilston and Dudley. Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, no less, commended it in his major speech introducing the second reading of the New Towns Bill in May 1946: ‘the experiment was about to be tried in Bilston…and he would watch it with interest’. (9)  In the end, the concept was applied in much diluted form. (10)  Reilly himself died in February 1948.

Back in Birkenhead, in March 1945, the Council approved final plans for the Woodchurch Estate – not Reilly’s, nor Robinson’s, but new proposals drawn up by the Liverpool architect Herbert J Rowse.  Next week’s post examines this story and the longer story of the Woodchurch Estate that emerged from this extraordinary episode.


(1) Maurice Edelman, ‘Planning Post-War Britain: the Example of Birkenhead’, Picture Post, 8 July 1944

(2) William Thompson, Municipal Housing in England and Wales (1910)

(3) Margaret H Taylor, ‘Creating a Municipal Gemeinschaft? Disputations of Community’, Manchester Metropolitan University MPhil, 2013. Following detail is also drawn from this source.

(4) B Robinson, ‘Woodchurch estate, Birkenhead; Planner: B. Robinson, Borough Engineer’, The Builder, November 24, 1944

(5) Quoted in Lilian Potter, ‘National Tensions in the Post War Planning of Local Authority Housing and ‘The Woodchurch Controversy’, University of Liverpool PhD, 1998. The following quotation is drawn from the same source.

(6) B Robinson, ‘Some Snags in Housing Schemes’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol 57, no 1, 1936

(7) ‘Labour Policy’, The Times, December 12 1944

(8) Lawrence Woolf, The Reilly Plan: a New Way of Life (Nicholson and Watson, 1945). The author’s name is a nom-de-plume and, despite speculation, very little is known about him.

(9) ‘House of Commons’ The Times , May 9 1946

(10) This episode is discussed fully in Peter J. Larkham, New suburbs and UK post-war reconstruction: the fate of Charles Reilly’s “greens”, Birmingham: University of Central England, School of Planning and Housing, 2004,  and in Peter Richmond, Marketing Modernisms: The Architectural and Cultural Consequence of Sir Charles Reilly, University of Liverpool PhD, 1997.

Book Review: Stewart and Lynch, Environmental Health and Housing: Issues for Public Health

Jill Stewart and Zena Lynch, Environmental Health and Housing: Issues for Public Health (Second edition), Routledge, 2018

Environmental health policy is far from my area of expertise but I know a lot more now and this wide-ranging and comprehensive book has convinced me of the vital role it plays – or can play when fully resourced and effectively implemented – in securing decent housing for all. In fact, environmental health practitioners might just be the unsung heroes of the housing sector.

Book cover2

As Jill Stewart and Zena Lynch argue:

Housing is a key social and economic determinant of health, perhaps the most important for the multiple roles it can play both in security and as part of anti-poverty strategies.

That might seem obvious if a little bureaucratic. For me, a strength of their approach is its emphasis on housing as home:

somewhere to feel safe, secure, do mundane day-to-day things; have access to school, health and healthcare services; as well as social services; somewhere to develop socially, change, and have a level of wellbeing and quality of life across the life course.

It reminds me of the words of the late Doreen Massey, the geographer and social scientist, at a housing conference some years ago: her upbringing on the Wythenshawe Estate in Manchester didn’t create dependency, she argued, it provided security – the foundation we all need to live healthy and fulfilled lives.

02_ Ch2_Fig 2.4 Sanitary Inspector’s Notebook

Illustration from William Henry Tucker’s Inspector of Nuisance notebook, Cardiff, dated 1899 onward. Permission to copy given by Dr Hugh Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Public Health

I know Jill Stewart as a passionate and knowledgeable advocate of decent housing for all – the same, I’m sure, is true of Zena Lynch too who I don’t know personally – and I’m pleased to say she has been a contributor to this blog.  Her first post charted the rise of the environmental health profession from the humble Inspector of Nuisances to the latter-day Sanitary Inspectors before the First World War.

SN Addison

Addison Close, Northwood, LB Hillingdon © Jill Stewart

A second, fittingly in this centenary year, focused on interwar sanitary reform in the wake of Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act.  That breadth of background is found throughout this book but is highlighted in interesting and well-illustrated sections providing a brief history of housing (with a strong focus on social housing) and guidance on how to assess the age of dwellings.  Jill’s photographs provide an excellent context to each and the book as a whole is unusually well-illustrated for an academic work.

SN Roupell Street 1830s

Roupell Street, Lambeth, dating from the 1830s © Jill Stewart

All this provides background to the far more extended and increasingly pressurised role of environmental health professionals today outlined so clearly and fully in the book.

An opening chapter ‘Why environmental health?’ covering the range of environmental health interventions is followed by one more specifically for practitioners in the field on ‘Gathering Evidence’. Chapter 4, ‘Legislation for Healthier and Safer Housing’ is an important guide to current law. This, despite (or perhaps because of) contemporary housing problems, has been usefully strengthened in recent years.  (A quick shout-out here to Karen Buck MP whose Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act, extending that basic requirement to all private landlords, was passed in December 2018.)  Chapter 5 ‘Working More Effectively Together’ focuses on implementation and strategy.

04_Ch4_fig4.11.1 copy

A bed in a shed © Russell Moffatt

One powerful feature of the book is its range of case studies – drawn from both academic sources and practitioners in the field, sometimes a combination of the two – charting not only the variety of problems dealt with but positive strategies to tackle them.  These range from hoarding to public funerals, from ‘beds in sheds’ to the particular issues affecting gypsies and travellers and those living on houseboats.

It’s no surprise, overall, that the issue of homelessness features strongly. Statutory homelessness – requiring councils to provide accommodation – applies only to those in ‘priority need’.  Stewart and Lynch report a Shelter estimate that 150 families are made homeless in Britain each day. Elsewhere Shelter estimate that homelessness (understood as affecting all those in, at best, temporary and insecure accommodation in addition to perhaps 4000 rough sleepers) affects some 277,000 nightly. (1)

This is not a polemical or campaigning work but the authors don’t shy from the obvious conclusion:

The main problem is, of course, lack of affordable housing. Home ownership has fallen and private renting has risen, and the ending of a private rented tenancy is now the biggest cause of homelessness.

SN General disrepair

External disrepair © Jill Stewart

Government figures suggest that almost one in three cases of statutory homelessness result from the termination of a private tenancy, a symptom of the tenure’s insecurity since the 1988 Housing Act introduced assured shorthold tenancies (usually of a six to twelve months’ fixed term) and ‘no fault’ evictions. The 2002 Homelessness Act ‘requires local authorities to have a strategy to reduce homelessness and put better services in place for homeless people’. With little social housing stock available (some 1.15 million households are on waiting lists) and stretched resources, this, with the best will in the world, has become increasingly difficult for councils.

Stewart and Lynch report a 60 percent increase in homeless families being placed in temporary accommodation between 2011 and 2017.  And only this month, the Guardian reported that London councils – where pressure on housing is highest – had paid private landlords £14m in sweeteners simply to persuade them to accept homeless families. (2)

SN Basement Flat

Basement flat, Margate © Jill Stewart

This brings us to the Private Rental Sector (PRS) which naturally occupies a large part of the work of environmental health professionals and this book.  The authors provide the context for this: there are 945,000 more households with children living in the PRS now than in 2005. Private tenants pay an average 35 percent of their income on rents, compared to 18 percent for mortgagors and 29 percent for social renters.   What they get for this (apart from insecurity of tenure) is in many cases some of the oldest housing stock in the country – 34 percent of the PRS dates from before the First World War.  It’s estimated therefore that 28 percent of privately rented homes fail to meet Decent Homes Standards (compared to 13 percent in the social rented sector and 18 percent of privately-owned homes.)  The welter of statistics confirms that far too often the PRS does not provide secure, decent and affordable accommodation.

04_Ch4_fig4.1_HMO external

Housing in Multiple Occupation © Jill Stewart

In the new paperback edition, the book is reasonably priced but it will remain primarily a book for the specialist – an essential book for environmental health students and professionals (a virtual one-stop shop for so much of the broad field they must understand and practise) and a useful one for many others in the housing sector including local councillors.  I recommend it to anyone interested in housing law and policy and the many social issues raised by our highly dysfunctional housing market. And, if you don’t buy your own copy, I hope you’ll find it on the shelves of your local library.

For further publication and purchase details, please visit the Routledge website


(1) Shelter Commission on the Future of Social Housing, A Vision for the Future (2019)

(2) Robert Booth, ‘London councils pay landlords £14m in “incentives” to house homeless people’, The Guardian, 25 March 2019

Book Review: ‘The Town of Tomorrow: 50 Years of Thamesmead’

The Town of Tomorrow: 50 Years of Thamesmead (Here Press, 2019)

At times, Thamesmead must have seemed less like the ‘Town of Tomorrow’ than the ‘Land that Time Forgot’.  It’s been a chequered story to say the least and it’s one that’s lent itself easily to the usual tropes of planner overreach and misplaced architectural ambition. But Thamesmead, in its latest iteration since 2014 under the stewardship of Peabody, lives on. Perhaps, with Crossrail looming and a DLR connection mooted, some of those earlier promises will be more fully fulfilled though typically, as is now the way, in less visionary form.

HP19-01So it’s time to celebrate Thamesmead and we’re fortunate to have a newly published book which does that in a positive though clear-eyed way. The Town of Tomorrow: 50 Years of Thamesmead is, above all, a superb pictorial record of its past and present – of the ideals and plans which formed it, the buildings and landscapes which shaped it, and the people who have lived it.

John Grindrod’s introduction lays out the broad outline of its history with typical panache.  The eyes of the London County Council first looked eastwards towards the Erith Marshes in the early 1960s after their ambitious plans for a New Town at Hook in rural Hampshire were thwarted. Ted Hollamby’s vision of a series of ‘platform villages’ was abandoned as too costly and impracticable but the new Greater London Council (GLC) formed in 1965, seeking to fulfil its strategic housing mandate and aided by Government plans to redevelop abandoned Ministry of Defence land such as the Woolwich Arsenal site, returned to the concept.


SN HP19-25

SN HP19-26

Images from ‘Woolwich-Erith: A Riverside Project’, (GLC, 1966) © London Metropolitan Archives

‘Woolwich-Erith: a Riverside Project’ was born in 1966 – a plan, in conjunction with the Boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley, to create a new town of some 60,000 people on 1300 acres of largely unused land lying on the southern back of the Thames.  Water was one of its defining features – Robert Rigg, the GLC planner, had been influenced by Scandinavian schemes built around the presence of water and how, in Grindrod’s words, that ‘helped create an atmosphere of calm and wellbeing’.


Construction of towers on Southmere Lake, 1970 © London Metropolitan Archives

More practically, the risk of flooding demanded unusual means to keep people safe and dry – towers raised on stilts, deck-access homes and high-level walkways dotted around the artificial lakes which would ensure proper drainage. But the conceptual genius of the scheme was to make virtue of necessity. If separation of cars and people was a contemporary planning mantra, there was in Thamesmead, as Grindrod describes:

a more Venetian approach, with bridges and paths floating above what might at any moment become canals and overspill from the river.

The architects’ impressions featured in the book capture a ‘Cool Britannia’ in its first, sixties’, iteration and with a heavily Continental slant:

It was pure south of France, white concrete buildings shining in the warm blue waters, reflected alongside yachts, bikinis and polo necks.  The ambition for Thamesmead would bring the lifestyle of the European jetset – the kind of world portrayed in art house movies and racy novels – and combine it with the more functional aims of creating much needed council housing.

The prosaic minutes of the GLC’s Thamesmead Committee in 1967 record the latter – the ‘central objective of the development [was] to provide housing, and in so doing, create a reservoir of housing for decanting population from the hard-pressed inner area’ in an era when slum clearance was in full spate.


Detail of model showing Coralline Walk (front) and Yarnton Way (left), 1967 © London Metropolitan Archives

The long spinal terraced ziggurats of Coralline Walk and Binsey Walk and adjacent thirteen-storey tower blocks were the first fruits of this approach; system-built and ‘as modular and groovy as any Habitat stackable moulded plastic furniture of the day’.


The southern end of Coralline Walk, viewed from Lensbury Way, 1969 © London Metropolitan Archives

The first residents, Joan and Terence Gooch and their two children, moved into 64 Coralline Walk in July 1968 – the sole residents for six months at a time when the new ‘stark white modernist homes were marooned in a wasteland of mud, puddles, concrete and construction equipment’.


Children’s playground and the Lakeside Health Centre, Tavy Bridge, 1973  © Bexley Local Studies & Archive Centre

The first school opened in 1968. The health centre – a wonderful modernist building built at Tavy Bridge over one of the artificial lakes and sadly demolished in 2008 – opened in 1970; the first shops amazingly not till 1971.  By 1974, the population stood at around 12,000.


Crossing Eastern Way (A2016), via the ‘A’ Bridge, built 1973, c1979. Photography © George Plemper

Philip Samuel – one of a number of residents who tell of their own experience in the book – moved to Thamesmead in 1975 with his family at the age of eight:

We lived on Maran Way. I could ride my bike for miles without ever touching the ground. I felt like I was in a Judge Dredd futuristic paradise. It was a good place to be a kid. There was so much nature and wide-open space. In the spring, there would be grass fights, in the summer there’d be water fights, autumn would be mud bombs and winter would be snow balls.


Thamesmead: A Place in London’s Future. Fold-out leaflet, published by the GLC, 1982. © London Metropolitan Archives

Salianne Heaton, who arrived the following year, has similar memories:

Thamesmead was like a giant playground. You never had to cross any roads, everywhere had flyovers. We used to play knock and run in the squares in the middle of the housing estate.

Generally, looking back as adults, people remember a close-knit community – as Robert Dyer recalls ‘everybody knew everybody back then so, if you did anything bad, someone would tell your mum’.

Of course, nostalgia and selection plays its own part in these perhaps unusually affectionate remembrances but it’s vitally important to allow people to tell their own stories which, all too often are at odds with dominant media narratives.


Aerial photograph of Area 1 looking north with Southmere Lake (top), 1971
© Bexley Local Studies & Archive Centre

One unwitting element in the latter was Stanley Kubrick’s filming of Clockwork Orange in Thamesmead in 1971. Grindrod points out that Kubrick had intended its ‘formal beauty, lakes and crisp white architecture’ to serve as counterpoint to the film’s scenes of sudden violence, making them ‘even more shocking and incongruous’.  In practice, it was the myth of Thamesmead as some kind of futuristic dystopia which became dominant. (1)

Still, there’s no doubt there were real hardships and difficulties for these early pioneers. The great failing, apart from that slow development of infrastructure which is all too common in major schemes, was the failure to provide the new township with the quick and efficient transport links its population required.

And then it was failed by a changed politics and faltering ambition. Thamesmead’s projected population was downgraded from 60,000 to 45,000; by the end of the 1970s no more than 400 new homes were being completed annually and by 1982, the population stood at 20,000, around half the initially projected figure.


Manordene Road, off Crossway, Area 5, looking north-east along the waterway that runs from Moat Gardens to Tump 39 and the Thamesmead Ecology Study Area, 1982
© London Metropolitan Archives

System-building and modernist design were abandoned and conventional brick build – admittedly the new vernacular was often more to popular taste – became pre-eminent. This also, no doubt, sat more comfortably with a desire to promote ‘mixed communities’ and owner occupation – a 40 percent target was set for the latter in 1978 and 96 tenants had bought their formerly council-rented homes by 1979, well before Margaret Thatcher’s implantation of Right to Buy.  (At present, around 40 percent of homes are social rented.)

The aesthetic shift was facilitated by the raising of the Thames riverbank in 1974 which alleviated flood risks and enabled ground floor construction but it spoke more broadly to a loss of the more audacious hopes which had initially inspired the project.

TD_thamesmead_R03F01 001

Hill View Drive, Area 7, viewed from Gallions Hill, 2018.
Photography © Tara Darby

Thatcher’s politically-motivated abolition of the GLC in 1986 seemed merely confirmation of the retreat of social democracy. Thamesmead Town Ltd, a not-for-profit private company, took over the project from the GLC until it split in the later 1990s into three components – the Gallions Housing Association managing housing stock, Trust Thamesmead supporting community development, and Tilfen Land, a commercial property developer.

The demolition of some of the original town’s signature landmarks (including the health centre) and the unimaginative replacements and newbuild which followed resulted, according to a typically caustic Owen Hatherley, in a ‘straggling half-demolished mess of crap spec housing, wasteland and forlorn Brutalist fragments’. (2)


Vision for Silvermere Lake, Thamesmead Waterfront, 2018
© LDS Architects

Now, since all three of those bodies were absorbed by Peabody in January 2014, a new and more exciting vision is being proclaimed once more: ‘20,000 new homes, thousands of new jobs, plus new leisure, cultural and commercial facilities’ alongside ‘immediate improvements needed in areas such as pedestrian routes, play facilities, lighting and local amenities’. Ultimately, Peabody say, ‘our plan for Thamesmead is simple – to create an amazing place that people love to work in, to visit, and of course, call home.’ (3)

Well, you can’t argue with that, can you?  It will, however, be important to see how the promised mix of ‘affordable’ (80 percent market rate) and genuinely affordable social rented homes works out and here we may be less optimistic.


Sheniz Bayraktar (née Mehmet) with her brothers at a celebration of The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in South Thamesmead, 1977
Photography © George Plemper

The book, edited by Peter Chadwick and Ben Weaver with contemporary photography and interviews by Tara Darby, is a great introduction to Thamesmead, and John Grindrod provides a sensitive and eloquent account of its planning and architectural evolution. It’s good to see residents’ memories and experiences also featured strongly. For many people, the 193 colour and black and white illustrations (I’ve included a small representative selection of these in this post), which tell so much of its story so powerfully, will suffice to capture both the bold vision of its inception and more troubled maturity.

Further information on the book and purchase details are available here on the Here Press website


(1) The article by Inez de Coo for Failed Architecture, ‘Ultraviolence in Representation: The Enduring Myth of the Thamesmead Estate’, offers an excellent account of how Kubrick’s film and later depictions have adversely shaped attitudes towards Thamesmead.

(2) Owen Hatherley, ‘Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past at Thamesmead’, Architects’ Journal, 8 April 2015 (subscription required)

(3) Quoted from the Thamesmead Now website, Thamesmead: the Plan.


‘Health is greater than history’: an introduction to Edinburgh’s social housing, 1890-1945


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I’m delighted to include this expert and informative post by Steven Robb. Steven is Deputy Head of Casework for Historic Environment Scotland.  With qualifications in building surveying and urban conservation, he has a particular interest in early and interwar social housing in Edinburgh, and how new housing was incorporated within the historic city.

Throughout the latter nineteenth century Edinburgh’s population expanded greatly.  Although some new working-class housing was provided within the inner suburbs (1), many of the poorest still occupied badly converted tenements in the overcrowded medieval Old Town and Southside.

Although historically uncommon in England, most working-class urban Scots (and many of the middle classes) lived in tenements.   Unlike the numerous small rooms of the terraced house, tenements often had large rooms, but for the poor there were fewer of them, including many one-room houses or ‘single-ends’.

1890 Act housing

In the early 1890s council housing for the poor was promoted by a Liberal City Councillor, John MacPherson, a churchgoer and temperance hotel owner.  At a time when a hundred families in the city actually lived underground (in vaults), MacPherson railed against the ‘thirty or forty thousand people’ living in one-room houses.

In 1893 the city instituted a major Sanitary Improvement (or slum clearance) scheme under the provisions of the 1890 Housing Act.  It involved both sensitive ‘conservative surgery’ of historic buildings in the Old Town by proto-town planner Sir Patrick Geddes (2) and small reconstruction and new-build schemes by the Burgh Engineer, John Cooper.

Cooper’s new housing was often a sanitised version of the traditional tenement, utilising deck-access balconies for light and ventilation.  He designed a new street layout in Stockbridge and several projects around the Old Town, one of the earliest being High School Yards (1896-7).  Here, two sandstone (3) tenements containing thirty-two small flats, costing £200 each were built, unusually with shops underneath.

The Council’s housing developments were, at least partly, responsible for significant improvements in health.   In the High School Yards area alone, infant mortality figures fell from a horrific 247 to 39 per 1000 in only a decade and, between 1892 and 1910, death rates fell from 53.7 to 12.4 per 1000.

High School Yards 1

High School Yards 2

One of the first developments was High School Yards in the overcrowded Old Town.  Two linked Scots Baronial five-storey sandstone tenements with rear deck access balconies.

1919 Act housing

Despite compensation payments costing almost as much as the new housing itself, the Council provided around 750 houses before the War.

Output increased significantly following the 1919 Housing Act with its generous State subsidies.  In the following decades there would be reconstruction and infill schemes in the historic city, and new housing on peripheral greenfield sites or underused suburban land. (4)  Initially, housing was either ‘general needs’, or improvement (slum clearance) housing at lower rents.

The Council were quick of the mark, with City Architect James A Williamson’s Chesser scheme prepared before the Act had passed.  He primarily used the flatted block, a peculiarly Scottish hybrid between cottage and tenement consisting of four flats under a hipped roof.  Two ground floor flats were entered from front gardens with upper flats accessed from the sides or central close.   Their relative scale allowed them to address the lower density layouts advocated by the garden city movement.

The mini-tenement 1

The mini-tenement 2

The mini-tenement.  A flatted block, designed by Campbell in the early 1920s. This form, used throughout Scotland, were also known as ‘cottage flats’ or commonly as a ‘four in a block’.  The central door is an open close to the upper flats. Images courtesy of Edinburgh City Archives.

Besides Chesser, in April 1919, the Council had held a competition for private architects for four housing sites, two of which progressed in 1920.

The Wardie scheme, planned by architects AK Robertson & TA Swan, was carried out according to garden city principles.  It largely contained cottages and flatted blocks within geometric tree-lined streets with grass verges and cul-de-sacs.  Rendered concrete blocks were used instead of bricks to save costs.

The second development was Willowbrae /Abercorn, by Fairlie, Reid & Forbes. It successfully mixed tenements, flatted blocks and cottages together in a meandering characterful plan using brick, roughcast and solid stone walling.

The housing was high-quality and well-designed but had been both expensive to build and to rent.  It also didn’t cater for the poorest in society, this not being an intention of the Act.

Post-1919 Act Housing

Edinburgh built around thirteen hundred 1919 Act houses, but high costs resulted in the State withdrawing its provisions and building ceased until after the 1923 and 1924 Acts.

However, the new Acts encouraged standardisation and prefabrication to lower costs, with design or material extravagances met by Councils not the State.   In Edinburgh, this immediately resulted in cottages being phased out, less bedrooms and plainer, cheaper finishes.

In June 1919 the Burgh Engineer, Adam Horsburgh Campbell (1862-1947), was hurriedly appointed Director of Housing to take forward the city’s programme. This prompted criticism from Scotland’s premier architect Sir R. Rowand Anderson who considered the role should have gone to an architect.(5)   However, his concerns were misplaced as Campbell was a skilled designer with previous experience building social housing in London.(6)

Rather than wait for new housing to be built, Campbell immediately began to subdivide vacant townhouses in the New Town and recondition Old Town tenements, at half the price of new-build.   Sadly, later subsidies prioritised demolition and new-build, rather than reconstruction. (7)

Campbell quickly realised Edinburgh’s housing problems would only be served by higher densities and returned to tenements, officially discouraged but not forbidden.  In October 1923, he designed a new three-storey example for Leith, followed by a cheaper standard tenement which could (almost) be built to garden city layouts or linked into terraces.  He also designed two standard patterns of ‘four in a block’ housing for peripheral estates.

Campbell focussed on cost-cutting and delivery by whatever means, including, in 1925, the experimental use of Dutch Korrelbeton (no-fine-aggregate) concrete which was cheaper than brick and required only semi-skilled labour.   He also sanctioned outsourcing, approving 1000 Duo-Slab concrete and brick houses from the private contractor, WM Airey of Leeds.  With his engineering eye, he also trialled flat-roofs, timber and steel construction and reintroduced deck-access balconies to some tenements.

Standard tenement 1

Standard tenement 2

Standard tenement and a first floor plan.  Living rooms were 13ft6” by 14ft3½”.  Finished floor to ceiling heights were 8ft 6”.  Figs in circles are square footage. Images courtesy of Edinburgh City Archives.

Ebenezer MacRae

Campbell provided around 4500 houses (built or planned) but worked himself ill with his two jobs, and 16 hour days.  On medical advice he refused a two-year extension as Housing Director alone and retired early in June 1926.   Anderson finally got his way when Edinburgh’s recently-appointed City Architect, Ebenezer James MacRae (1881-1951), absorbed the additional housing role.

Politically, the same year MacRae took charge, Labour first emerged as a force in the city, and to counter this, Edinburgh developed a loose anti-socialist coalition of Tories and Liberals termed the ‘Moderates’ then ‘Progressives’.  Although proficient at slum clearance housing, they would be lukewarm in supporting general-needs housing, considering this was the role of the private sector.  Despite railing against public spending they were content to directly loan or subsidise private builders who constructed over 11,000 houses for rent or owner-occupation between the wars, continuing support even after beneficial subsidies were removed.(8) This position was vindicated by central Government who withdrew general needs subsidies between 1933 and 1935, the focus moving solely to slum clearance and overcrowding, addressing the very poorest in society.

In post, MacRae immediately cancelled Campbell’s experimentation, returning to traditional masonry construction with pitched slate roofs.  His direct control of housing was music to the ears of Edinburgh’s trade unions who had opposed Campbell’s involvement of the private sector, semi-skilled labour and moves away from separate-trades tendering.

Whitson Crescent

Whitson Crescent (1932)   MacRae’s first feature crescent, showing brick before and after roughcast.  Note the horizontal stone banding at first floor level. Image courtesy of Edinburgh City Archives.

Like Councillor MacPherson, MacRae was a religious man, the son and grandson of Free Church of Scotland ministers.  He had a charitable view of humanity and a strong desire to provide the best housing possible to help tenants better themselves.  His horror of overcrowding gave him a healthy zeal for daylighting.

Although subsidies favoured brick, covered in roughcast for Scotland’s climate,(9) in the historic city MacRae made a special effort to build ‘in keeping with surrounding buildings’ and, where possible, built solid stone walls for frontages and visible gables.

The Pleasance

The Pleasance (1934-8)  Solid stone tenements and shops.  Differences in building planes, storey heights and tall chimney stacks add interest to the composition.

Where Campbell and MacRae may have differed on their rehousing methods; Campbell favouring quick fixes against MacRae’s concentration on quality, both shared a desire to see tenants housed near their workplaces.  MacRae also saw tenements as the answer but his use of denser developments, even on peripheral sites, sometimes failed.  At Niddrie Mains, a slum clearance estate on the very edge of Edinburgh, 2000 houses were built, entirely with three-storey tenements together with (literally) a handful of shops and other amenities.(10) It never really prospered, but Prestonfield, built at the same time, did, perhaps because it had a careful mix of tenements and flatted blocks, and was nearer workplaces and established communities?

Niddrie Mains

The rear of a Niddrie Mains (Craigmillar) tenement prior to demolition.  Traditionally built, they would have been simple to refurbish, but the area’s bad reputation led to around 2000 houses being demolished without public consultation.

The Department of Health were still wary of subsidising tenements, especially those over three storeys, and several schemes were delayed or had to be redesigned.  However, MacRae persevered, and in the year ending 1936 had delivered over 1100 houses, 88 percent of which were within tenements.

MacRae’s team first used Campbell’s standard pattern housing for peripheral work, including his flatted blocks, which MacRae saw as a compromised ‘English’ solution.

However, in the early 1930s he expanded his repertoire, introducing new designs and layouts with some influence from Europe, the fruits of his numerous continental trips.  These culminated in his influential role in the Highton delegation, which led to the Report on Working Class Housing on the Continent in 1935.

However much MacRae may have admired the planning and ambition of contemporary European housing, he disliked the austerity of international modernism and found fault with their flat roofs and cantilevered balconies.  He considered four-storeys high enough and found the ‘Germanic’ communalisation of services and amenities unsuitable for Edinburgh.

The Report on Continental Housing, together with the 1935 Scottish Architectural Advisory Committee Report, did, however, lead to change.  MacRae shared the Report’s desire for less-drab layouts and better architecture, together with enhanced community facilities.

He designed several higher-density perimeter blocks set around communal courts at the Pleasance (1934) and Craigmillar (1936).  Where space didn’t permit such layouts he planned linear street-facing blocks.  Architecturally, they were enhanced by changing storey heights, building planes, and canted corners, bays and staircase-towers.   As centrepieces to new estates, he introduced feature crescents at Saughton (1932), Granton (1935), Craigmillar (1936) and Warriston (1936).   A subtle touch was the introduction of horizontal stone banding at first floor level, likely sourced from Vienna or Berlin. (11)

Royston Mains Crescent

Royston Mains Crescent (1935)  The only inter-war Council housing built in facing brick, a direct result of the Highton Report. It followed the 1935 Housing Act’s desire for two-storey 4 apartment (3 bedroom) family houses and utilised MacRae’s signature banding at first floor level.

Gorgie Road

Linear street block on Gorgie Road (1936) enhanced with projecting stone elements and canted bays.  Every ground floor flat had a garden with shared spaces to the rear.

MacRae’s last major developments include Piershill (1938) and West Pilton (1938).   Piershill, arguably his masterpiece, used a near-continuous snake of three and four storey, largely stone, tenements angled to address its south-facing site.  It was European in plan but unashamedly Scottish in design.

Piershill 1

Piershill 2

Piershill (1938): Three and four storey tenements in stone and roughcast, designed in MacRae’s traditionalist Scots style. The south-facing plan showcases MacRae’s love of daylight, and included a few sun balconies for the first (and last) time. Image from Official Architect, September 1941

On the city’s periphery, the plans for West Pilton comprised 2000 houses and proper community facilities, with a giant circus ringed with stone tenements as a centrepiece.  Sadly, war intervened, with timber unattainable and bricklayers lost to defence work.  Work recommenced in 1942 to a greatly diminished specification and much increased cost, but space for promised community facilities was seized for temporary housing.

By the time of his retirement, in 1946, MacRae had delivered around 12,000 houses, as well as important studies on Edinburgh’s historic buildings, a precursor to the listing system.  His departure came just as subsidies for private housing were discontinued and council housing gained the ascendancy (12), but it also saw the end of the authority and power of the City Architect, with the first major post-war housing estate being offered to open competition.


Title: ‘Health is greater than history’; this 1923 quote from Adam H Campbell represents the conflict between providing new housing and the loss of historic buildings in the city during slum clearance.

(1) Including the wonderful ‘colony’ developments of the 1860s onwards by the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company throughout the city.

(2) Steven Robb, ‘Conservative Surgery in Edinburgh’, CONTEXT Magazine (IHBC), July 2017

(3) Many of the developments, in less visible positions were built in brick covered in roughcast, or harling in Scots.  It was a wet-dash render finish normally, and unfortunately, coloured grey to cope with air pollution.

(4) Often old aristocratic estates, hutment ground or, with consequent disquiet, golf courses.

(5) Anderson’s mood likely darkened further when Glasgow appointed a Sanitary Engineer as their Director shortly afterwards.  The City Architect would also have been upset, especially as his Chesser scheme was seen as an exemplar.

(6) Brooks Avenue (1902) in East Ham.  He designed two magnificent Carnegie libraries now both listed.

(7) Over 100 tenement flats were reconditioned under the 1919 Act, with the full costs of works being met.  Although Campbell’s intention was to provide quick cheap housing, many of the tenements were of great historic interest and he essentially saved them by his intervention.

(8) These houses often differed very little from their Council counterparts.

(9) Bare brick wasn’t seen as able to cope with the Scottish climate, and in any case there wasn’t a stock of good bricklayers for facing brick – which was expensive and hard to get hold off.

(10) Niddrie Mains, often referred to as Craigmillar, was demolished in the early 2000s – It is now being rebuilt, ironically, in tenement form.

(11) But possibly closer to home.  An C18th Edinburgh mansion has horizontal banding at first floor.

(12) Two thirds of houses built between 1946 and 1960 were social housing, reversing the inter-war ratio.

Further Reading 

Jim Johnson and Lou Rosenburg, Renewing Old Edinburgh; The enduring legacy of Patrick Geddes (2010)

Lou Rosenburg, Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes (2016)

John Frew, ‘Concrete, Cosmopolitanism and Low-cost House Design: The Short Architectural Career of AH Campbell, 1923-1926’, Architectural Heritage V (1995), p29-38.

Steven Robb, ‘Ebenezer MacRae and Interwar Housing in Edinburgh’, Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, Volume 13 (2017)

Pioneer Cottages, Penshurst: ‘three pairs of pretty dwellings’ UPDATE


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Having recently visited Penshurst, I’m able to include some better images of the original Pioneer Cottages and a little more history and illustration of later developments.

Last week, we looked at the very first rural council housing to be built – in Ixworth, Suffolk.  Its pioneering efforts did little to ease the path of its few successors.  It took five years to build the six council homes built in Penshurst in Kent in 1900.  That achievement was very largely due to the tireless efforts of one of our first women councillors – ‘perhaps the most stubborn woman councillor’ – Miss Jane Escombe. (1)

Penshurst, an early undated postcard

Penshurst, an early undated postcard

Escombe seems an unlikely hero of housing reform.  Born in India in 1839, the daughter of an official of the East India Company, she lived in Penshurst in an all-female household as a lady of independent means.  Still, she was a more radical figure than this conventional façade might suggest.

(c) Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘An Etcher Biting’ by Jane Escombe © Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service

She had been an accomplished artist in her younger years, exhibiting several times at the annual shows of the Royal Academy. (2) And when the 1894 Local Government Act created elected parish councils and rural and urban district councils and permitted women to serve on them, she secured election to the village’s new parish council.

Penshurst was an attractive village and an apparently affluent one, already within commuting distance of London by 1900 when it had a population of around 1600. But Escombe knew it was no rural idyll for many of its poorer citizens.  In one of her first actions as councillor in November 1895, ‘joined by a workman who knew where the shoe pinched’, she called on the parish council to build its own housing under Part III of the 1890 Housing Act which allowed local authorities to build where unfit homes had been condemned. (3)

That motion was rejected and, in any case, the Parish Council had to secure permission from higher authorities.  In the following year, however, backed by local GP Louis Wood, the Parish Council called upon the Sevenoaks Rural District Council to support their demand.  To press the case, the Parish Council conducted a survey of employers and workmen regarding local housing needs. It concluded 20 new houses were needed to accommodate local families without homes of their own.

In response, the District Council first canvassed local landowners on their willingness to build.  As low-rental working-class housing was not – then as now – of interest to profit-driven private enterprise, the response was negative and the Council had, reluctantly, to accept the necessity of council building.  It had first, however, to prove the need by means of a public inquiry.

The March 1897 inquiry also concluded the case proven and the District Council followed the next step of this laborious process by applying for permission to build from Kent County Council.  Four months later, approval was granted but the District Council dragged its heels until – under the continued prompting of Miss Escombe – a joint committee with the Parish Council was formed to forward the process.  Wood and Escombe (its honorary secretary) were members.

Penshurst, an early undated postcard

Penshurst, an early undated postcard

Progress was boosted by the decision of the local vicar to sell three-quarters of an acre of the church’s glebe land on Smarts Hill for £130. Escombe was clear though that good quality and attractive housing was necessary: (4)

Our village is one of the most beautiful in Kent, full of picturesque old buildings and cottages; to build brick boxes with slate lids would have been desecration.

Sixty architects rose to the challenge but, while they reckoned ‘the erection of three pairs of pretty dwellings’ would cost £1140, the lowest builder’s estimate came in at £1729.  Eventually, a lower estimate of £1463 was secured and the Parish Council applied to the Local Government Board for approval of a loan of £1800. After a third enquiry, this was granted but construction delayed until an adequate water supply guaranteed.  A well was sunk and water pump supplied.  In fact, Wood and Escombe went further, securing in 1902 the village’s first piped water supply with a reservoir built by the Parish Council, also at Smarts Hill.

Pioneer Cottages Thompson

Pioneer Cottages Thompson 2

These two images of Pioneer Cottages are taken from William Thompson, Housing Up-To-Date (1907)

Finally, construction began in November 1899 and by December the following year the aptly-named Pioneer Cottages were built and fully occupied.  They contained two ground floor rooms with a separate entrance and hallway and an extension to the rear containing a scullery and washhouse with three bedrooms on the second floor.  At this time, separate earth closets were provided at the back of the houses.

This high-quality accommodation came at a price – a rental of 5s a week which Escombe candidly acknowledged was affordable only to ‘the higher class of workmen’ but she hoped – as was typical among housing reformers of the day – that a trickle-down effect would occur and that ‘they would move into our better cottages and leave theirs at a lower rent to the agricultural labourer’.

Penshurst St John the Baptist (11)

The memorial to Jane Escombe in Penshurst parish church

Escombe’s efforts were rightly celebrated – Sidney Webb himself commending ‘the energy of a lady councillor’ which had secured the Penshurst housing – and she became an acknowledged housing expert and campaigner. (5)  She died, aged 64, in 1905 ‘loved and honoured’, her memorial tablet states, ‘by those to whose welfare she ministered with untiring zeal, sympathy and devotion’.

For all that, her speech at annual conference of the National Union of Women Workers in 1900 marks her as a woman of her time and place: (6)

It behoved women, now that the privilege of serving on public bodies was granted to them, to use that privilege; they had more leisure than fathers, brothers and husbands and ought to work: sanitary matters appealed especially to them and the housing problem was at the root of all sanitary reform. Badly built, badly drained, insanitary houses led to disease, to the spread of infection, and to lessened vitality.  Lessened vitality in its turn tended to the liability to fall an easy prey to disease and the drink habit.  On children, bad housing had the most serious physical, mental and moral effects, and this from a race point of view was most harmful and damaging.

I’m sure the many working women of her day did not enjoy such greater leisure – in fact, they were probably working a double shift – and some of her concerns reflect a typical Victorian preoccupation with working-class morality.  That uncomfortable reference to ‘race’ echoes the pre-1914 discourse of National Efficiency – a eugenicist concern, which united many on the left and right, with the fitness of the British working classes to work and, if necessary, fight in a world perceived (rightly as it happens) as more competitive and threatening.

Pioneer Cottages (1)

Pioneer Cottages (2)

Pioneer Cottages: contemporary images, February 2018

After Jane’s death, her elder sister Anne – in what looks like a local variant of the Octavia Hill method – collected the rents of the cottages for the Parish Council.  She was proud to claim in 1907 that the cottages had been continuously occupied and only six weeks’ rent lost throughout and that only when tenants had changed occupation.


Penshurst Plan Thompson 2

Floor plans of Pioneer Cottages taken from William Thompson, Housing Up-To-Date (1907)

Her only misgiving – a demonstration of an upper-class ignorance of the significance of the parlour kept ‘for best’ in respectable working-class homes – was that: (7)

The tenants mostly live in what we meant for a scullery, but has now become a small living room, the larger room being used only occasionally. Otherwise, the cottages are, I think, satisfactory.

‘We should plan differently now’, she concluded, and that revised plan was presumably implemented in a second scheme of eight cottages let at lower rents built before the war.  The Warren Cottages formed the nucleus of what became a larger interwar council housing scheme at Glebelands.

Penshurst Smart's Hill (1)

Interwar homes on Smarts Hill

Pioneer Cottages (6)

This image shows both the original and later council homes.

In the interim, there was further development on Smarts Hill with what looks like an interwar development of three semi-detached pairs and one short, three-house terrace immediately to the north of Pioneer Cottages towards Penshurst itself. These homes are notable for their tile-hung first floors – a clear homage to the local vernacular and quite a common feature of council housing in the area.


Post-war council housing in Glebelands, Penshurst

At Glebelands, the post-war estate, the homes are the ‘brick boxes’ that Escombe decried but they are attractively laid out amidst spacious gardens.

Penshurst Forge Close (4)

Penshurst Forge Close (2)

Forge Close

The sheltered housing at Forge Close in the village itself is also post-war but thoughtfully designed to fit into its historic surrounds.  There’s a lot of council-built housing for older people in the countryside.  It reflects, presumably, the financial regime operational after 1954 when central government support was limited to slum clearance redevelopment and homes for the elderly as well as the particular needs of country people often dependent on tied housing linked to their employment during their working lives.

All this, of course, is mere history but history has a habit of repeating itself.  In 2014, the Parish Council – one hopes with memories of its illustrious predecessor in mind – conducted a new survey of local housing needs: (8)

High property prices and a predominance of privately owned homes means that some local people are unable to afford a home in the parish of Penshurst. At the time of writing the report the cheapest property available was a 2 bedroom house for £295,000. For a first time buyer to afford to buy this property a deposit of approximately £44,250 is required along with an income of approximately £71,643.

It found 15 households – including 10 in unsuitable privately-rented accommodation, three who were sharing and one in tied housing – who needed some form of social rented housing or shared ownership.

Miss Escombe might be disappointed that such housing needs remained in the village and in such similar circumstances.  Given her enormous efforts to secure suitable affordable accommodation for the less well-off of Penshurst’s people, she would surely oppose the current Government’s intention to extend Right to Buy to housing associations which will further diminish the countryside’s stock of affordable housing. (9)  Sadly, then, this piece of history is as relevant to the continued struggle to house all our people decently as it was over one hundred years ago


(1) As described by Patricia Hollis in Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (1987)

(2) The portrait above was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877 and features Edwin Edwards who had married Jane’s sister in 1852.  It is wrongly attributed on the BBC Your Paintings website to Jane Esmond.

(3) William Walter Crotch, The Cottage Homes of Old England (1908)

(4) Quoted in Moritz Kaufmann, The Housing of the Working Classes and of the Poor (1907)

(5) Sidney Webb, Five Years’ Fruits of the Parish Councils Act, Fabian Society Tract, no. 105 (1901)

(6) ‘National Union of Women Workers Conference at Brighton’, The Courier, 26 October 1900

(7) Quoted in William Thompson, Housing Up-to-Date (1907)

(8) Tessa O’Sullivan (Rural Housing Enabler), Penshurst Housing Needs Survey, October 2014 with the support of Penshurst Parish Council and Sevenoaks District Council

(9) See, for example, Andrew Motion, ‘Forget Shoreditch: It’s our rural villages most at risk from gentrification, Daily Telegraph, 26 October 2015. The Rural Housing Alliance published Affordable Rural Housing: A practical guide for parish councils in December 2014.

Book Review: Catherine Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities. Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities

Catherine Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams and Stark Realities (Bloomsbury, 2018)

I looked at post-Second World War planning in my book, Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing, mainly in the context of housing in which much was achieved.  But there was another side to that idealism which lay in the ambition to rebuild and redesign the centres of Britain’s blitzed cities.  There, as Catherine Flinn painstakingly describes in her important new book, the picture is far less positive.

rebuilding britain's blitzed cities cover image snThe worst phase of German bombing in 1940 and 1941 was reckoned to have destroyed 75,000 shops, 42,000 commercial premises and 25,000 factories. By the end of the war the total cost of destruction was estimated at £1,150m. And the practical, and what some saw as the moral, commitment to rebuild the worst-affected towns and cities in particular began early – as early as 1940 when a Cabinet committee on reconstruction was established.

exeter blitz

The impact of the Blitz is shown dramatically in this photograph of Exeter

In December 1940, Sir John Reith, then Minister of Works and Buildings, presented a paper on the ‘Reconstruction of Town and Country’ to Cabinet. His memo referred to the public attention already directed to the issue:

not just because of opportunities in restoration of damaged property but in the hope of a fresh start in a new spirit of cooperation and with the high objective of a better Britain.

Flinn expertly charts the complex iterations of committees and ministries and legislation that followed but, throughout, the expectation remained that the blitzed cities would receive priority in the post-war era and that their reconstruction would indeed foreshadow and exemplify the new and better Britain to emerge.

Reith’s language was measured when compared to the extravagant heights reached by Thomas Sharp, one of the foremost planners of the day, quoted by Flinn.  In ‘Building Britain: 1941’ (which he billed as ‘Words for Pictures Perhaps A Film Script’ and not published – in the Town Planning Review – till 1952), Sharp proclaimed:

There is so much now to plan for, to prepare for,
A whole shining world is possible.
Is there for the asking if we choose to make it:
Is ours if we will.
We are the shapers of our environment.
We are the makes of our own destiny.
We are the creators of our own happiness.
If truly we desire it we can build
A new and noble world for generous living…

If that was a rhetorical outlier, it was only partly so. When We Build Again, a film commissioned by the Cadburys in Birmingham in 1943 and scripted by Dylan Thomas, declared ‘Nothing is too good for the people’.  And it’s interesting to note that in Britain, a country so often mired in tradition, that such plans were uniformly, in Flinn’s words, ‘modern, optimistic and forward-looking’ – an interesting contrast to Germany and Poland, say, where reconstruction often meant restoration.


Thomas Sharp and his book Town Planning, published in 1940. It sold 250,000 copies – a clear sign of the public interest in post-war reconstruction.

This range of promises of post-war betterment in a variety of forms and media is outlined in Flinn’s second chapter.  It’s hard to disagree with William Holford, another planner and architect, quoted later in the book, that ‘it is true that not only the planners but the Government itself had promised, if not a new heaven, at least a new earth at the end of the war’.

So, if you’re looking at the contemporary British city, you are probably wondering what became of this brave new world. With the significant exceptions of Plymouth (which I’ve written about in previous blog posts) and Coventry, the transformative impact of post-war reconstruction was paltry and often lamented. The rest of the book explains why.

plymouth sn

Corner  of Royal Way and Armada Way, Plymouth city centre – a product of 1943 Plan for the city. © John Boughton

The simple and established answer is that post-war priorities rapidly shifted from physical to economic reconstruction.  The great value of the book is not only to detail the processes by which this occurred but to delineate the myriad other obstacles to post-war rebuilding that facilitated this shift.

Taking that economic focus first, the little-known Investment Programmes Committee established by the Attlee government in 1947 takes centre-stage and, in particular and almost the villain of the piece, its chair, the civil servant FF Turnbull.  Turnbull repeatedly vetoed the building licence allocations that city centre reconstruction required; his widely-accepted rationale (in Flinn’s words) was that:

Resources going to the blitzed cities would necessarily draw on precious needs for industry and other business relating to exports and economic recovery.

Flinn also notes how a governmental ‘insistence on the maintenance of Britain’s world role’ and a ‘tendency to focus on global status diminished some of the discussions on the domestic agenda’.

abercrombie plan new city centre

The Abercrombie Plan’s zonal reimagining of central Hull

On the ground, the ‘overwhelming complexity in preparing and implementing reconstruction in the blitzed cities’ is amply illustrated by her three representative case studies of Hull, Exeter and Liverpool. Both Hull and Exeter had commissioned grand plans for post-war rebuilding, from Sir Patrick Abercrombie and Thomas Sharp respectively.  Liverpool, by contrast, pursued a more in-house process in closer collaboration with interested parties.

For all the differences between the three cities (in terms of history, local economy and political control), common themes stand out. The first and most crucial is the lack of central government support already noted, reflected not only in the issue of allocations (or lack of them) but in the sometimes obstructive, often critical attitude of Ministry officials who believed they knew better than councillors and planners on the ground.

abercrombie osborne street shopping area

The proposals for a new shopping centre envisaged here by Abercrombie around Osbourne Street were scuppered by trader resistance.

Beyond that, issues of existing property ownership and the competing financial interests they represented were uppermost.  In Hull, for example, the Council’s vision was challenged by a rival plan put forward by the city’s Chamber of Trade in 1947. In the end, Flinn concludes ‘the Abercrombie plans were not only controversial but, in practical terms, impossible to implement’.  Her forensic examination of the complex conditions operating in all three cities not only explains why so little was achieved but leaves you a little surprised that anything was built at all.

The final irony is that such reconstruction as did occur was often critically received.  D Rigby Childs, the editor of the Architects’ Journal, writing in 1954, thought that:

With the new permanent buildings one gets the impression that only too frequently the architects have been overwhelmed with frustrations of all kinds, allied with problems of finance, leading to a building which is, at best, humdrum and lifeless.

Rebuilding in Exeter, an historic city and victim of the Baedeker raids in April-May 1942, was described as ‘insipid’ and criticised by local residents.

exeter centre contemporary

A contemporary image of Exeter city centre © John Boughton

For all the subsequent disparagement of post-war rebuilding, it was decidedly not, in John Gold’s words, ‘the product of imposing utopia visions’.  While council officials were able to some extent influence the overall look of new developments, practical issues around finance and rationing played a greater role in what went up. It’s true, however, that the sparse, clean lines of modernist design also sat somewhat uncomfortably with popular taste.

jameson street paragon square sn

Jameson Street and Paragon Place are fruits of Hull’s post-war reconstruction © John Boughton

Flinn sets out, in a broader sense, to examine ‘why cities look the way they do’.  A large part of the answer in this instance, as explained in a later chapter which raises interesting questions for further research, lies in the role of private property developers. Here Ravenseft stands out; a company which began by building a small terrace of shops on a Bristol council estate and then expanded to develop large city centre schemes in Exeter, Hull and other blitzed cities. The firm was initially backed by Harold Samuel of the Land Securities Trust and acquired by that company in 1955. Landsec in its new incarnation is now the largest commercial property development and investment company in the UK.

The lack of financial support from government and the pressing need to replace rates income lost to wartime destruction left local authorities dependent on such economic muscle. The developers themselves, of course, were more interested in lettable space than aesthetics.

sn exeter phoenix

‘Exeter Phoenix’. The sculpture was placed on the original Princesshay shopping centre opened by the then Princess Elizabeth in 1949, subsequently demolished. It’s now on the exterior of the new precinct opened in 2007. © John Boughton

Flinn’s close empirical study provides much more detail, not only with regard to central government policy but also in relation to the local personalities, politics and issues in her three case studies. It is complemented by a range of relevant images – of plans, proposals as well as pre-existing and completed realities.  As such, it is essential reading to anyone interested in post-war reconstruction as well as that larger question as to why our ‘cities look the way they do’.

It’s an academic book and scholars in the field will be grateful for its apparatus of data and references. That means, of course, that it comes at an academic price and is probably out of reach to the general reader.  But it repays study at your local library –  or perhaps we can persuade the publishers to issue a cheaper edition for a wider readership.

Catherine Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams and Stark Realities was published by Bloomsbury on 27 December 2018. (Hardback, ISBN – 9781350067622).  Follow the link for further information. 

Grenfell and the Need for a Tenants’ Voice

This is a reblog of a post which I’ve written for the Housing after Grenfell blog published by the Oxford University Faculty of Law.  Do visit the blog to read a range of posts on  the many issues raised by this awful man-made tragedy. 

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has thrown up many issues but one of the most powerful has been that of the accountability and responsiveness – or lack of them – of its management to the blocks’ residents. Eight months before the disaster, one activist residents’ group accused the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation (in charge of Grenfell) of literally ‘playing with fire’. With horrifying prescience, the Grenfell Action Group contended ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord’. In the aftermath of the fire and as demands for a renewed social housing programme have risen on the political agenda, a broader debate has emerged about the reforms required to ensure that residents’ voices are heard and heeded.

Justice for Grenfell banner

Justice for Grenfell banner affixed to a wall on the Lancaster Estate © John Boughton

Beginning with Grenfell, it is clear that lines of accountability were attenuated and inadequate. Tenant Management Organisations (TMOs) had originally been established under the Conservatives’ 1988 Housing Act that introduced ‘Tenants’ Choice’. This was basically an attempt to transfer council housing stock to housing associations and other approved social landlords. The reform had strong ideological motives – an antipathy in particular to the Labour councils which owned and managed much social housing to this point – but there was also a genuine attempt to devolve management to bodies deemed more accountable and responsive than local authority housing departments considered bureaucratic and sclerotic. TMOs, intended as a grassroots initiative from tenants themselves (after further legislation in 1994, they could represent as few as 25 households) were the purest example of this. The Kensington and Chelsea TMO was an anomaly resulting from the Conservative council’s transfer of its entire housing stock, some 9700 homes, in 1996.

Formally, the new organisation – a limited, non-profit company with a board comprising eight residents, four council-nominated and three independent members – appeared representative but most subsequent accounts suggest residents experienced it as distant and unresponsive: a problem reflecting both its scale and ethos. The Council, meanwhile, which retained ownership of the stock and control of overall housing strategy, has been accused by its own new (post-Grenfell) chief executive, in a criticism accepted by the Council, as behaving like ‘a property developer masquerading as a local authority’.

In the light of the Grenfell tragedy, it’s tempting to see the behaviour of both the TMO and Council as particularly egregious. My fear is that, in many ways, it’s all too typical of what had become the new realities. Those realities encompassed, firstly, as we have seen, the loss of direct democratic control of housing (however imperfect in too many cases); and, secondly, as direct public investment was slashed from the early 1980s, the financialisation of housing in which public housing and land were increasingly seen as assets to be traded. However progressively intended in some cases, the latter has invariably seen social housing stock diminished in favour of properties for sale or let at dishonestly designated ‘affordable’ rents. The new breed of housing associations which have resulted from the many mergers and take-overs within the sector in the same period reflect both these trends – a growing distance and detachment from local and resident interests and a willing embrace of an entrepreneurial role far removed from their founding, philanthropic purposes.

The necessary regeneration of social housing stock and estates has taken place in this context, part-funded by private capital and executed by public-private partnerships and a cost-cutting, profit-driven agenda. Over 60 contractors worked on the regeneration of Grenfell and the Lancaster West Estate – itself a shattering of accountability – and it is claimed £300,000 was saved by substituting cheaper, less fire-resistant cladding for that originally commissioned. Some Grenfell residents believed – perhaps mistakenly but it’s a sign of the distrust existing – the entire regeneration process motivated by a desire to sell off the block.

Ironically, the marginalisation of tenants’ voices had created concern over a decade ago. The Cave Review of Social Housing Regulation, commissioned by the then Labour Government and published in 2007, noted ‘inadequate concern for tenant interests’ and ‘a strong case for regulation to protect tenants’. The Tenants’ Service Authority (TSA) – ‘a regulator that had the rights of consumers at its heart’ in the words of its first chief executive, Peter Marsh – was established the following year as an independent regulator. One early proposal of the TSA was to set up a register detailing whether social housing blocks had up-to-date fire risk assessments. Tenant Voice, created to give social housing tenants a say in national housing policy, followed in 2010.

Conservative MP Grant Shapps

Conservative MP Grant Shapps, formerly the Housing Minister in the early Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Image shared under the CC BY 3.0 license obtained by Wikimedia.

Both these bodies were abolished by Housing Minister Grant Shapps in the early years of the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. This must be seen as part of a wider government assault – what was once chillingly described before Grenfell as a ‘bonfire of red tape’ – on what was judged unnecessary and bureaucratic regulation. Building control was, in effect, handed over to hired guns when the Thatcher government introduced independent inspectors into the sector (previously overseen by local government) in 1984. The Building Research Establishment was part privatised in 1997 by John Major. David Cameron proudly proclaimed a ‘one-in, two-out’ rule for his 2010 Government – for every regulation added, two would be removed. In this context, the failure to outlaw flammable cladding – a deadly problem highlighted by the fire which killed six residents in Lakanal House (a social housing block in Southwark) in 2009 – becomes all too comprehensible.

Shapps passed on the responsibilities of the TSA to a Housing Ombudsman operating under the aegis of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). A ‘serious detriment’ test applied to tenant grievances and a focus on economic regulation ensured that it had little impact or visibility. The survivors’ group, Grenfell United, has stated that it was unaware of the regulator’s existence till after the fire.

In 2017, in a speech to the National Housing Federation after Grenfell, Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid, complained ‘too many people in positions of power saw tenants less as people with families and more as problems that need to be managed’ and promised government would ‘look again at the way tenants are listened to and their concerns acted on’; an apparent condemnation of his own party’s policy since 2010. The Government Green Paper on Social Housing issued in August 2018 made similar promises to empower tenant voices. The Shelter Housing Commission Report published in January 2019, Building for our Future: a Vision for Social Housing, has called for a new social housing regulator with enhanced powers.

As Ed Daffarn, of Grenfell United and a member of the Shelter Commission, has argued:

Social housing is not like choosing a doctor – you can’t just up sticks and move if your housing association gets a low rating. Much more is needed to put power in residents’ hands. We need a new regulation system that will be proactive and fight for residents, with real repercussions for housing associations or councils that fail in their duty.

It seems as if the unconscionable tragedy of Grenfell might, at least, result in a positive move in this direction. Had stronger forms of accountability been in place before Grenfell, had residents’ voices been listened to, it is possible that the fire might have been averted. But a caveat must be added. The residents did not complain about the cladding; they had no reason to believe that flammable cladding would be permitted. If the man-made disaster of Grenfell is not to be repeated, we need both to strengthen tenant representation and ensure that the state itself upholds and imposes its duty of care towards all its citizens, not least those who are often most marginalised.