A history of council housing

London’s housing crisis is a major concern for My Fair London. Below, MFL activist Joan Grant offers an extended review of John Boughton’s new book, Municipal Dreams: the rise and fall of council housing, (Verso, London, 2018)


John Boughton’s book starts by taking us back to a lost world - a world in which a local authority, the London County Council was a major housebuilder. The LCC predated the GLC and was in existence from 1889 to 1965. Its Architecture Department was responsible for many council housing schemes. By the early 1950s it had 1500 staff of whom 350 were architects. In the 1950s, there was conflict between the Swedish Humanists and the Corbusier Brutalists. Brutalism (synonymous with the use of concrete) came to be seen as a way to cheaply build the new welfare state: homes, schools, hospitals and universities from the 60s onwards.

The story of Council housing is a story of a constant struggle between generosity and parsimony in terms of spending on social housing. For 80 years there has been a debate about who council housing is for. Is it for the broad mass of the working population (Labour) or is it only for those who can do no better, with private housing rented or owned always preferable (Conservative).

By the turn of the 20th century, the government accepted that it might have to fund some social housing. The Boundary Estate is the first council estate in London. But there had already been other council housing built in Liverpool. For a couple of years from 1919 when the government pledged to build homes fit for heroes a reasonable amount of money was spent on social housing. In 1921, austerity kicked in and the quality of public homes built began to decline.

The 1945 Labour Government was determined to get housing right. The 1945 Town and Country Planning Act incorporated a development charge. This meant that the increase in the value of land as it moved from being undeveloped to developed accrued to the public sector rather than to the developer. This charge was abolished by the 1951 Conservative Government. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, local councils found that they could not afford land on which to build low rise estates, so they started to build high.

Bevan had been clear that council housing should be for everyone. His 1949 Housing Act tried to ensure that council housing was not demarcated for working class people only. It could be argued that Bevan wanted to build homes of too high a standard – he was interested in quality not quality. Labour were felt not to have built much needed homes quickly enough and were punished at the 1951 election, which the Conservatives won. The Conservatives promised to build 300,000 a year and by the mid 1950s they were. Not all of the houses built were council homes, some were for sale. But the Conservatives significantly reduced standards. The 1954 Housing Act made it clear that the main purpose of council housing was to re-house people moved out of slum areas. The 1956 Housing Subsidies Act made it law that only housing which was for older people or was re-housing people displaced by slum clearances could receive a subsidy. This Act also provided larger subsidies if Councils built high rise flats.

Who remembers that Labour’s 1959 election manifesto proposed a right to buy for existing tenants?

By the mid 1960s, many councils were obtaining their housing by letting contracts to a select number of contractors: Taylor Wimpey, Laings, Wimpey and Waites. And as so often when the private sector gets into relationships with the local state it takes advantage. Corruption began to creep in, of which the Poulson scandal of the early 1970s is the best known example. By modern standards it was all very small beer.  

The Ronan Point collapse did nothing to engender confidence in high rise living.

By the 1970s, council housing was suffering from jerry-building, ill-thought out designs and councils unwilling or unable to properly maintain council blocks. Some had structural faults and problems with lack of insulation and condensation were commonplace. These problems began to create a situation in which only those in the greatest housing need would accept a tenancy on poor quality estates which gradually became known as ‘hard to let’.

The 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 placed a duty on local authorities to house people in priority need. In the absence of alternatives, they tended to house vulnerable people on what were the least popular estates. Labour had given up on Bevans’s idea that Council housing should be for all. The Conservatives continued to see council housing as only for the least well off. The result in a few short years would be that council housing became ‘residualised’, tending to concentrate together people with little money and other problems.

The idea of buying a council house was not unknown by the time Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979. Some councils had allowed tenants to purchase their home. But she turbo-charged the policy. It was at the centre of Conservative housing policy for a decade. As we know, local authorities were not allowed to use the receipts to build new council homes.

From the late 1980s onwards to the late 1990s, the Conservatives initiated a whole series of policies which were intended to change the social composition of council housing. The Conservatives started City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget. There were stock transfers, TMO and ALMOs

Labour, when it came to power in 1997, far from re-thinking Conservative policy, just continued with it. ‘Estate regeneration’ tended to see council homes replaced by unaffordable housing. And these regeneration projects take a long time. The two set out below, started under New Labour but were not completed until the Coalition was in power. On the Heygate Estate in Southwark, 1200 council homes were demolished. The existing tenants were dispersed with just 216 able to continue living in SE17. The developer Lend Lease planned to build 2,535 new homes of which just 79 will be “social rented”.

Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney, a 1940/50s estate is an only slightly less egregious example. An estate that once contained 1,980 council homes (many had been sold off by the time of its regeneration) was replaced by 1,458 socially rented homes and 2,700 homes for sale. The developer, Berkeley Homes apparently made a 20% profit. Some like me, see it as (local) state sponsored gentrification.

New Labour also launched the ‘New Deal for Communities’. Millions were thrown at a range of social housing estates. These schemes seemed to ignore the fact that in many places the local economy had been radically altered. Well-paid manufacturing and other jobs had disappeared, replaced by low-paid work in call centres, shops, care homes and the like.

Labour continued and accelerated the transfer of council housing stock from councils to housing associations. Housing associations now manage more properties than councils. Under Blair and Brown, 7,870 council homes were built. Housing associations built 350,000.

Other Labour policies were equally disastrous. The Housing PFI schemes have left us with a £4.3 billion bill. The Pathfinder Projects in northern cities seemed to exacerbate problems of decline and decay. Regeneration was very slow in coming and in many cases did not benefit existing owners.

Boughton’s final chapter covers the years of the Coalition and then the Conservative Government. He argues that since 2010, solo council housing has become subject to welfarisation. That is to say, it is only for the most needy/vulnerable and only available on a temporary basis. The 2011 Localism Act ended lifetime tenancies. Tenancies can now be given for periods of between 3 and 5 years. This went hand in hand with cuts to benefits and the so called Bedroom Tax.

The ill-thought out Planning and Housing Bill contained a pot pouri of all sorts of proposals - forcing councils to sell off high value homes, Pay to Stay, extending the right to buy to housing association tenants and starter homes. The bill drew widespread opposition from campaigners. The bill did become law eventually after a number of its provisions were dropped.

The Conservatives continue to try to promote home ownership while in fact the rate of home ownership continues to decline. It is now at about 63% - the sort of level that we had in the mid 1980s. More people now rent from private landlords (4.5m) than from social landlords i.e. councils or housing associations (3.9m)

One of the things that Cameron planned to do in what we now know was his last 6 months in office was to demolish hundreds of Council estates. He allocated a mere £140M to this task. Michael Heseltine was put in charge of the taskforce. Less than a year later May removed Heseltine as he criticised Brexit.

Cameron seemed unaware of the estate re-generation that was already going on. Governments come and go, but this process continues, driven as it is , mainly by private finance. There are hundreds of estate regeneration schemes across London and no doubt across the entire country.

As far as I know, Cressingham Gardens, a beautiful, small estate in Lambeth saved themselves from the demolition ball. Boughton looks at the fate of the West Hendon Estate. This is a large estate. There has been a massive protest against the estate regeneration. This is a 15 year long saga of broken promises and managed decline.

The estate is a 1960s block, with the usual structural faults. Back in 2002, when the regeneration was first mooted, the council was under Lib Dem control. Secure tenants were promised a new flat in the regenerated estate. By 2004, the council was in Conservative control. A promise of a home for every council tenant (700) was changed to only 543 affordable homes of which 256 would be social rent.

The tenants campaign group, Our West Hendon estimates that 95% of the original tenants have decided they had no option but to leave the estate. Over the past decade a range of housing has been built for private owners, overlooking the Welsh Harp Reservoir. There are schemes like this all over London. Kensington and Chelsea Council planned to re-generate the estate next door to the one on which the Grenfell Tower is located. Those plans are currently on hold.

As with any book like this, the figures can be a little bit out of date. As of 2016, there were 1.8 million households on council waiting lists. £3.5B has been spent housing families in temporary accommodation over the past 5 years. One really would have thought that sheer common sense would tell you that low income people need genuinely affordable housing. That awareness is growing.

As a nation, we spent 60 years building up a stock of council housing. We have spent the last 40 selling it to the tenants, transferring it to housing associations or selling it off to the private developers at a massive undervalue, We are now back where we were in the 1930s with millions of people renting housing of a very poor standard from private landlords.

John Boughton’s book brings a national focus and wide perspective to our housing history. It might have been nice if the photos had been in colour – housing is something that we understand better when we can see it, but overall this is a well-researched, well-written and very readable account of British housing policy over the past 100 years.




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