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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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