Lessons from history: A century ago, the Tories accepted that only councils could solve the housing crisis

A London family with all their possessions in the street following eviction from a slum, c1901. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Nothing symbolises the perversity of the contemporary housing market better than the surfeit of luxury accommodation in central London postcodes, much of it contained in a rash of high-rise developments along the Thames.

As homelessness and overcrowding rise, social housing waiting lists grow, and millions of families face the high rents and permanent insecurity of the private rented sector, developers have nevertheless managed to over-supply the demand for high-end living in the capital.

This misalignment of priorities in housing feels like a peculiarly modern phenomenon: a symptom of London staking its place to be one of the world’s premiere cultural and financial centres, not to mention a playground for the rich. But many of the dynamics of today’s housing market – particularly its chronic failure to cater not just for the poor, but for the average working family – would have been familiar a century ago.

For years, politicians and the press had been wringing their hands about the housing conditions of the working classes in Britain’s industrial towns and cities, particularly London. Rents were high; overcrowding was severe. Conditions were so appalling that “the housing question” was regarded, first and foremost, as a public health consideration.

It would be too much to suggest an equivalence between the squalor of the 19th century slums and the housing plight facing many Londoners today. But it is no exaggeration to say there are very clear parallels between the way the housing market operated then and now, which should give today’s policymakers pause for thought.

First, housebuilding failed, year after year, to keep up with demand. It proceeded in fits and starts, dictated not by the constantly rising need for homes (due to the rapidly expanding population), but by wider economic conditions and their impact on house prices. Whenever prices fell, builders reduced their output.


Second, housing costs were punishingly high – rents in London absorbing for many up to half their wage – and the vast majority of people could not afford to buy their own home. Private landlords, offering hardly any security of tenure, controlled about 90 per cent of the housing stock.

Third, attempts by philanthropists and the earliest housing associations to provide for the poor were heroic but ultimately futile. The cost of land meant that they were consistently crowded out by private builders who wanted to construct homes for people of greater means.

Fundamentally, the housing system provided for the better off, and ignored the poor. By 1914, politicians of all stripes had begun to see the situation for what it was. Tories and Liberals just as much as the small band of Labour MPs had begun to despair that the private sector builders would ever provide all of the homes the country needed.

By the First World War, politicians were beginning to realise there was only one way out of this mess. What was missing, as today, was a meaningful programme of public sector housebuilding to bypass the private developers.

In 1913, a Conservative Party pamphlet concluded that the housing problem would be “irremediable” without state support for local authority housebuilding. The following year, on the eve of war, the then Liberal chancellor David Lloyd George told the Commons:

“You cannot provide houses in this country by private enterprise. I do not care what party is in power: whatever party it may be, I predict it will have to realise the fundamental fact that the builder for years has gradually been passing out of the field in the building of houses [for the poor] — he has been passing on to something which he finds more profitable.”

As soon as the First World War was over, the government would stop relying on speculative private builders to meet the country’s housing needs, and order councils to make up any shortfall between supply and demand. What the private sector did not build, councils would – and the Treasury would pick up the tab.

The massive council housebuilding programmes of the 1920s and 1930s, and then after the Second World War in the 1950s and 1960s, transformed the housing market and improved the living conditions of millions of people. Supply got ahead of demand, prices relative to incomes levelled out or even fell. Owner-occupation grew, and decent provision was made for those without the means to buy their own home.

Since the 1970s, and the collapse of public investment in housebuilding, things have come full circle. The housing market is prone to speculation, building fails to keep up with need, housing costs are rising, and a new generation of private landlords is coming to colonise the housing stock. As ministers grapple with these issues, they could do worse than look back to their early 20th century forebears for inspiration.

Daniel Bentley is editorial director at the think tank Civitas. His latest report, “The Housing Question: Overcoming the shortage of homes” can be read here.

 
 
 
 

Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.