A very brief history of council housing

Trellick Tower, a GLC-built property in Kensal Town, west London. Image: Getty.

The story of Britain’s council estates begins in Shoreditch. When completed in 1900, the Boundary Estate was made up of 20 grand Victorian mansion blocks, plus primary schools, laundry and bandstand: a new, planned community, built from scratch on the site of one of London’s most notorious slums.

The council estate, thought to be the world’s first, still stands, protected by a Grade II listing. But it’s nearly half private now: its ground floors boast boutique coffee shops and organic groceries. So sought-after are its homes that a two-bed flat can fetch £2,145 a month in rent. Yet at the very beginning, the Boundary Estate showed quite how good municipal housing could be.

This story is told near the start of John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams, but it’s not the first estate to which he takes us. In the very first sentence of the book, we head six miles west to north Kensington, where stands the “charred remains of Grenfell Tower… symbol of one of Britain’s worst peacetime housing disasters”. This opening gives the book the feel of a tragedy. The early chapters are full of hope, as slums and rookeries are swept away, and a brave new world of garden cities and cottage homes springs up. But, like the prologue declaring Romeo and Juliet dead before they step on to the stage, the neglect and abandonment Grenfell represents always loom on the horizon. We know how the story ends.

The earliest council housing sprang not from conscience, but from fear. Most Victorian politicians feared that intervening in the housing market would create a culture of dependence – but the poor sanitary conditions in the slums combined with the unscientific “miasma” theory of disease transmission to make action inevitable. Some wealthy Victorians wanted to improve the lot of the poor; many more were just terrified of getting sick. So cities, led by London and Liverpool, began to build.

Initially, council housing meant something very different to today. For one thing it was aimed not at the poorest, but at the respectable working classes, and was priced accordingly. Those lower down the ladder were expected to benefit through a process of “filtering up”, in which everyone would move to slightly better housing than before.


After the war, as municipal housing became part of the welfare system – “the first of the social services”, in the unlikely words of the 1951 Conservative manifesto – it took on a more utopian tone. Better homes were a key front in the battle to rebuild Britain, and a small army of idealistic architects and planners joined councils to make their mark on the country. Many of these were strikingly young, both for the responsibility they were given and the impact they would have. The Churchill Gardens estate in Pimlico, for example, was designed in 1946 by a pair of recent graduates aged 24 and 25. For another 20 years, council offices were where architectural talent would congregate.

Yet even as their influence was at its height, things started to change. The shift to high-rise – motivated by architectural fashion, land shortages and the government subsidies intended to combat them – was one factor. The corruption and poor build-quality this wrought was another. By 1970, with the slums largely cleared, council estates were no longer seen as the solution to poor housing, but a dank and crime-ridden example of it.

Boughton lays much of the blame not on the estates themselves but on government treatment of them. Completed homes received inadequate upkeep investment and anyway, as early as the 1930s, there were competing notions of what council housing was for. While Labour wanted it to be for everyone, the Tories thought it was “for those who could aspire to no better”: the free market would provide for everyone else.

“Residualisation”, as this policy was known, was boosted by Labour’s 1977 Housing Act, which required councils to prioritise the housing of vulnerable groups. The resulting decline in mixed communities became self-reinforcing: those who had other options moved on. In the minds of the public, as well as the Tories, council estates were now for the poor.

The story since 1979 is a familiar one. The Thatcher government sold cut-price council homes to their tenants without replacing them, in a nakedly political attempt to create Tory voters. Labour did much to renovate existing homes but built few and, crucially, did not reverse Right to Buy. At first ownership rates rocketed – but then began to fall as prices rose and Buy to Let took off. Today, many of those former council homes have tenants again – but private ones, paying market rents. The government still spends a fortune on housing – but where once that money went into bricks and mortar, today it goes into landlords’ pockets. We’re back where we started.

Boughton’s book ends on what is, in effect, a cliffhanger. Millions of Britons are in insecure, poor-quality homes – but even as some on the right are coming around to the idea of getting councils building, it’s not clear they can. There’s no money to pay for it, no in-house expertise and little vacant land, so any major building scheme is likely to involve “regenerating” existing estates. It’s an idea with support from both Labour and Tory politicians, but one which seems blind to the fact that people already live on them. Many even own their homes.

Municipal Dreams begins and ends with Grenfell, which, for a moment last summer, felt like a turning point. A year on, though, with the government consumed by Brexit and public attention elsewhere, its impact is less clear. Boughton sets out a case for making council housing stronger than it’s been in four decades. But in a tragedy, the sight of a happy ending is rarely enough to stop you hurtling towards a bad one.

Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Social Housing, by John Boughton, is available now from Verso.

This review originally appeared in our parent title, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.