Tag Archives: public Housing

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: Post WWI

Final post on Burnett’s A Social History of Housing, looking at everything that happened after WWI (read part 1, part 2, part 3). The  beginning of the great rise of council housing, the welfare state, the building spree, the great sell off and the period of building no more…we are still in that period of course, but now we call it crisis. The new tower blocks that are being built to sell direct to investors in the UK and oversees for either rent or landbanking hardly bear discussion as housing, but I am getting ahead of 1985, way ahead. Better to savour those days when the government saw housing as a human right and worked to provide it.

Still, I confess I have a much deeper delight in earlier periods, I am not sure why. But everyone seems to cram these last decades into the end of their histories…

Council Housing 1918-1939

So, the King was totally on board with social housing in 1919 — not that I care much about what the King things, but it just shows how the consensus was building around the right to a decent, secure home:

While the housing of the working classes has always been a question of the greatest social importance, never has it been so important as now. It is not too much to say that an adequate solution of the housing question is the foundation of all social progress … The first point at which the attack must be delivered is the unhealthy, ugly, overcrowded house in the mean street, which all of us know too well. If a healthy race is to be reared, it can be reared only in healthy homes; if drink and crime are to be successfully combated, decent, sanitary houses must be provided; if ‘unrest’ is to be converted into contentment, the provision of good houses may prove one of the most potent agents in that conversion. (Extract from the King’s Speech to Representatives of the Local Authorities and Societies at Buckingham Palace; The Times, 12 April 1919, p. 220)

So what was going on? The war for one, but above all it had highlighted the depths of poverty existing in the country, and this:

The crucial change was the reluctant recognition that private enterprise would not be able to supply houses of the quantity and quality now demanded at rents which many of the working classes could afford. (220)

This was also an official finding in 1917 of Advisory housing panel chaired by Lord Salisbury. Joesph Rowntree was on the panel, and submitted a memorandum on the topic, ‘which crystallized the new thinking…‘ (220). And thus the Tudor Walters Committee in 1918, formed to help create the standards of post-war local authority housing. Burnett describes it as ‘revolutionary, constituting  a major innovation in social policy and in the future character of working-class life.’

The committee drew on the garden city movement, model towns, and pre-war proposals from the Local Government Board. They recommended a maximum of 12 homes to the acre in towns, eight in the country, a maximum of 70 feet between opposing housing (all of this working to prevent for-profit developers cramming as many flats into a small area as possible. The committee was particularly opposed to the ‘monotony of long, parallel terraces having rear access by back streets and alleys‘. It gave plans for houses of a variety of types suited to need and locality, which had wider frontages with front rooms orientated to sun as well as  gardens (223). They also provided two types, ‘A’ (non-parlour) and ‘B’ (parlour). Which I find ‘funny’, just like the whole parlour controversy — what do working class people want with parlours, they don’t even use them? question. On the one hand I hate the idea of an unused dusty parlour, but yet if people desire them for a sense of home and the ability to have people visit according to their measure of what is required, they should damn well have them.

Gaining acceptance of all this, despite the King, was not so easy of course, but as Swenarton argued, this was the time of Bolshevism and threatened revolution. More on Swenarton later though, I loved his Homes for Heroes.

So the Tudor Walters Committee set a high standard, which became a baseline for others building housing:

Burnett page 227
Burnett p 235

From 1919 local authorities were providing housing, and building cottage estates on the outskirts of town where land was cheaper. This meant moving people out of cities and neighbourhoods — Becontree is the main example in East London (well documented in Young and Wilmott’s brilliant work on Bethnal Green) and Wythenshawe here where I am  but have not as yet visted: Manchester Corporations’ ‘vast satellite garden town‘. (236)

The next big moment in housing? The Wheatley Act (1924):  Rents were to be fixed in relation to the prevailing controlled rents of pre-war houses, so the contribution of the local authorities was fixed at a maximum of £4 10s 0d a house for forty years.

Burnett continues:

Typically, then, the council tenant of the 1920s and early 1930s was a man in a ‘sheltered’ manual job which had not been seriously endangered by the depression, who earned slightly more than the average wage and had a family of two young children. (238)

Although the Wheatley subsidies had been specifically designed to reach the mass of poorer workers, it rather failed in this. They continued to live in old, rent-restricted property, because of course rents were lower. This was not really believed to be an issue, as there was an idea of ‘filtering up’: better off workers would move out, poorer tenants could then move into the housing they were vacating, so that ultimately the slums would ‘wither‘ away.  but by the late 20s there was a realization that these policies were not having much impact on the problem. Of course, some still blamed poor people, but this was another push for stronger state intervention. (243)

This came with the Greenwood Act, the foundation of slum clearance, passed by the Labour Government in 1930. It didn’t properly start until 1933. This period also saw an increasing use of flats given lack of money to pay rents. Despite this, only 5% of subsidized buildings between wars were blocks of flats across the country, though with concentrations (not unexpected really) of 40% in London and 20% in Liverpool. As Burnett writes: ‘...in the thirties multi-storey living began to acquire a less grudging acceptance as a normal means of accommodation…‘ (247)

Burnett describes the ‘lavish’ inter-war flat development was to be found in Quarry Hill, Leeds — I’m not entirely sure that ‘lavish’ is the word I would use myself, but it is an extraordinary building.

Speculative Housing 1918-1939

Patterns of building were changing,  and homeownership growing.

The creation of a mass market for home-ownership depended on the expansion of building societies which, although well-known since the Act of 1836, had generally been small-scale, local, and little developed.

  • 1910: 1,723 societies advanced £9,292,000 on mortgages,
  • 1938: £137,000,000 advanced,
  • 1966: £1,244,750,000 (253)

Most of this housing was still being built by small firms. In 1930 84% of firms employed 10 or less workers, and only 1.5 percent a hundred or more. At the height of the building boom in 1935, 76,112 contractors were registered. (259)

This was also the period that brought in early experiments with the Modern Movement. ‘New Ways’ was built in 1925, the 1st cubist, rectilinear house built in Wellingborough Road, Northampton. I quite like it.

New Ways, Northampton (1926) by Peter Behrens. Designed by German architect Peter Behrens for toy manufacturer Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke

New ways northampshire. Basset-Lowke House interior

There wasn’t a big market for this, though. Most builders were looking backwards to the vernacular for inspiration (and surety they were what people liked), So there was little innovation while housing types for upper range always sought to be unique through an irregularity of outline, mystery in disposition of the rooms.

Public and Private Housing 1945-1985

So here is where we enter the final stretch, the familiar and maybe that’s why it feels a bit grey, especially when Thatcher comes along. Burnett notes the many very large changes in policy, but also large changes in the population. Small households of 1-2, increased from 21.5% in 1911 to 45.9% in 1966 to 55% in 1983. This came of younger people setting up household earlier, and of curse people living longer. He notes that between 1945 and 1975, English people as a whole were more prosperous than at any comparable period in the past — as Malpass notes, this is what underpinned social housing and the welfare state more broadly. Yet by the late 70s and of course the 80s ushered in mass unemployment once more. Burnett writes of where we are now (or were, though arguably this holds true) :

Housing has been a particular victim of inflation–a favourable circumstance for owners or those who have been in the process of buying…but unfortunate for those seeking housing for the first time. (282)

Immediately post-war also saw the building of the new towns, all beginning with the 1944 Abercrombie Plan, which suggested development of such satellite towns roughly building on ideas of the garden city. The New Towns Act 1946 was passed amidst great enthusiasm — 12 new towns designated in England and Wales in their first period between 1946 and 1960, between 1961-1970 ten more.

Mark 1s: Stevenage (1946), Crawley, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Newton Aycliffe (1947), Hatfield, Welwyn, Peterlee (1948), Bracknell, Basildon, Cwmbran (1949), Corby (1950)

Mark 2s: Skelmersdale (1961), telford (1963), Redditch, Runcorn, Washington (1964), Milton Keynes, Peterborough (1967), Northampton, Warrington (1964), Central Lancashire (1970).

Alongside new building, this also ushered in new urban renewal policies, which Burnett divides into 5 main phases after the war:

  1. slum clearance, which reached its height in the 1960s;
  2. a change to housing and environmental improvement early 1970s;
  3. gradual renewal combined with selective clearance in the mid-1970s;
  4. priority area experienents concerned with urban deprivation;
  5. 1980s, and attempts to formulate a more comprehensive approach incorporating economic renewal. (295)

The building programme was, of course, much greater post WWII than it had been post WWI, though Burnett describes it as economic policy driving the ‘deceleration and acceleration‘ (296). As in previous periods, the design was guided by key government documents. The Dudley Report was published in 1944, its recommendations embodied in the Housing Manual upgrading the Tudor-Walters report. For the first few years building often exceeded the recommendations.

This was updated by the Parker Morris Report, Homes for Today and Tomorrow, published in 1961. The Essex Design Guide for Residential Areas followed in 1973. Burnett writes it ‘perhaps represented the last ‘optimistic’ approach of local authorities towards public provision.’ (314)

Then the cuts begin.

As always:

It remained important in the fifties and sixties, as it had in the inter-war period, that the private house should be readily distinguishable from the council house, both externally and internally. It should reflect membership of a distinct group, the possession of distinct tastes and values and the ownership of a distinctive level of material possessions. As the size and design of private and public housing converged ever more closely, it became increasingly important to accentuate remaining differences. (320)

from 1975-1984

In brief:

The industry is still characterized, as it was in the last century, by many small firms, relatively low investment in plant and machinery and, hence, relatively low productivity: over the decade of the seventies the number of firms fluctuated between 75,000 and 100,000, standing at 91,520 in 1978 of which 31 per cent consisted solely of proprietors, employing no workers. (326-27)

Retrospect and Prospect

Viewed over the whole period this study, the housing experience of many people showed little major change until, in the years after World War II a period of rapid house-building, both public and private, coincided with full employment and a rising standard of living to produce and effective demand. (331)

It’s curious reading this from today’s vantage point, when the private rented sector is now larger than the socially rented, when people are desperate for ‘council’ housing that no longer exists. When racism continues to be a key factor in access to housing, but the patterns of it are shifting.

The contraction of privately-rented accommodation to only 9.1 per cent of all tenures has had especially unfortunate consequences for those on low incomes and those who cannot fulfill the residence qualifications for local authority housing: recent studies have shown clearly that ethnic minorities, and particularly coloured families, are over-represented in poor quality rented accommodation. (333)

Over all, what has been the country’s success?

If we turn…to the quality of houses themselves, it is clear that the most striking improvement achieved since the early nineteenth century was in the accommodation of the working classes. The pace of that improvement was quicker in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth, it varied importantly between town and country, and again between town and town. The development of a sanitary house, with adequate standards of construction, water supply and sewage, was the product of the Public Health Acts and, more especially, of the building by-laws from 1875 onwards, which brought about a major, and largely unrecognized, advance in working-class housing standards. (335)

Not a victory fully won however.

This book is too big, broad, sprawling to do justice so i’m just giving sweeps to remind myself of big pictures and zero in on what I liked most. Something that must be read for those interested in UK housing…

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]