Political battles around council housing in recent years have tended to focus on the products of the post-1945 era, on tower blocks and other highly symbolic architecture. We are still dealing with the fallout from the large-scale implementation of radical construction techniques, suffering the repercussions from the right-to-buy, and witnessing crusades to demolish estates for the crime of not maximising return on potential land value. But July 2019 sees the centenary of the Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act 1919, the birth of large-scale state intervention in housing, which set up the structures by which that whole story has played out.
Local authority housing in the UK has existed since the later years of the nineteenth century, but it was the carnage of the First World War, and the realisation that not only were Britain’s workers in poor physical condition, but were also vulnerable to temptations from the left, that brought concerns about housing to the front of the agenda. Prime Minister David Lloyd George famously fought the 1918 election on the promise of ‘homes fit for heroes’, and commissioned the architect John Tudor Walters to write a report on the state of housing for the working class.
The Tudor Walters report made a series of proposals for how dwellings should be arranged, based upon short terraces and semi-detached houses, with the key recommendation being a minimum of three rooms on the ground floor and three bedrooms above. Informed by the ‘Garden City’ architecture already being developed in the private sector, the intention was to set the parameters for basic housing for generations to come, surpassing regulations that were already in place from previous, largely ameliorative legislation.
To stimulate the production of these houses, the minister of housing, Christopher Addison, put together what would become known as the Addison Act. While the concept of the types of housing that would be created were already in place, the Act put in place two significant innovations. The first was that it obliged local authorities to prepare a plan to provide dwellings for the working class, marking a shift from the idea of workers’ housing as relief to one that was a basic responsibility of the state. The second was a system of financing, involving how loans were to be issued and rents collected, but also involving a sweeping set of compulsory purchase powers to bring the required lands into public ownership.
The results can be seen in places like Becontree in Essex, the London County Council’s most prominent implementation of the Act, today the largest council estate in Britain, consisting of more than 25,000 dwellings. Houses were built according to the Tudor Walters recommendations, entirely low-rise and low density, with front and back gardens, and it has an entirely suburban character to this day. Like many housing estates, it was tied to industry, becoming the residential base for workers in the Dagenham automobile factories. The area has consistently voted Labour, although today it is represented by Margaret Hodge and Jon Cruddas, figures somewhat distant from the post-2015 party, and since deindustrialisation has occasionally seen mobilisation by the far right, with the British National Party returning twelve councillors in 2006.
This highlights one of the stubborn facts about providing workers with housing: that it both supports a base — the reason why David Cameron and George Osborne jibed at Nick Clegg that council housing ‘just creates Labour voters’ — but also blunts antagonism. The Act originated at a time when the spectre of communism was at its most spooky, and an oft-quoted line attributed to the secretary of the Local Government Board regarding the Act stated that ‘The money we are going to spend on housing is an insurance against Bolshevism and revolution’.
Despite various crises that meant the subsidy rates and financing waxed and waned, the initial Act created more than 200,000 homes, and subsequent Acts allowed for the building of more than one million homes before the end of the 1930s, assets owned by local authorities and collecting steady rent streams. The results are not aesthetically remarkable, tending to repetitively similar house types, built at the periphery rather than inner-city locations, and thus dependent on the car, but it wouldn’t be until after the next war that the idea of rethinking the city completely would come about, with councils providing nearly half of the 400,000 units that were built in the peak year of 1968.
Today, local councils are finally beginning to build again, through the relaxation of funding rules and some innovative semi-private initiatives. The opportunities for large redevelopment are sparse, especially as ecological considerations will increasingly force refurbishment over new construction. But there are still lessons to be considered, and the real proof is beyond aesthetics: in bold legislation that can break the private stranglehold over land, and subsidise the creation of good homes which are also public assets, from which we all can benefit.