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.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.