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.

 
 
 
 

The media scumbag’s route of choice: A personal history of London’s C2 bus

A C2 bus at Parliament Hill. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

London’s C2 bus route, which runs from Parliament Hill, by Hampstead Heath, down to Conduit Street, just off Regent Street, is one of the bus routes recently earmarked for the chop. It has oft been noted that, of all the routes recently pencilled in for cancellation after a consultation late last year, it was the one most likely to survive, for the simple reason that it links liberal suburban north London with BBC Broadcasting House and Soho; it’s thus the route most likely to be used by people who can convince someone to let them report on its imminent demise.

So it would come as no surprise that former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger took to the Camden New Journal when the consultation began, arguing that it would be a disservice to the local community to discontinue a route where you can always get a seat – seemingly missing the point that the fact you can always get a seat is not a great sign of the route’s usefulness.

It wasn’t always that way. When I left university in 2000, and moved from accommodation near college to up to a rented shared house in N6, the C2 was my bus. I commuted to Soho for sixteen years: for more than a decade from flats around the Swain’s Lane roundabout, and for five years from Kentish Town. While my place of work bounced around from Golden Square to Lexington Street to Great Marlborough, it was always the most convenient way to get to, and from, work; especially given the difference between bus and tube prices.

So when it comes to the C2 I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and bought the bus pass. And by bus pass, I mean those little paper ones that still existed at the beginning of this century. Not just before contactless, but before Oyster cards.

More importantly, it was before London buses operated a single zone. There was an outer zone, and an inner zone, with different prices. To travel from one zone to another cost £1.30, meaning an all cash commute was £2.60, whereas a paper bus pass was £2.00. That made it worth your while to divert to an early opening newsagents on your way to the bus stop (GK, in my case), even if you only got two buses a day.

It’s a measure of how greatly London’s buses have improved over the last twenty years, since first brought under control of the mayoralty, that pretty much everything about this anecdotage, including the prices, seems faintly mad. But there’s more: back when I started getting that bus down to Stop N, literally at the very end of the route, the C2 used single decker buses with a single door. It’s an appalling design for use in a crowded city, which meant most of any journey was, for most passengers, spent fighting your way up and down the middle of the bus to find a seat, and then back again to get off; or – and this was more likely – fighting your way up the bus to get into standing space the driver insisted was there, before fighting your way, etc.

Such buses – and in my former life in the English Midlands I went to school on one of these buses every day – are perfectly functional where bus stops are infrequent and buses rarely standing room only. But running through Camden Town at rush hour, they’re wholly unfit for purpose.

A Citypacer. Image: RXUYDC/Wikimedia Commons.

It could have been worse. I didn’t know this at the time, but a few years before the C2 route had been run using Optare City Pacers. Those are, let us be frank, not really buses at all, but minibuses. That’s something the reveals the C2’s origins, as a hopper route to the west end largely intended for the daytime use of Gospel Oak’s pensioners in the years immediately before bus privatisation. (The C11 has a similar origin, taking the same constituency from Archway to England’s Lane.)

Once responsibility for London Buses was moved to the newly established mayoralty, things improved dramatically. Under Ken Livingstone it went double decker in 2005, and 24 hour in 2007. Under Boris Johnson it was extended from its once, and future, terminus of Conduit Street to Victoria Station, swallowing up the cancelled sections of the 8 bus; this extension was quietly disposed of a few years later, once it was clear no one would notice. (I did.)


In those years I must have taken a C2 the best part of ten thousand times; but for all the years when I wouldn’t have been able to live without the C2, times have reduced its utility, and not just for me. I’m now a 214 sort of guy: these days the top chunk of the C2 route is duplicated exactly by that other bus, which starts up in Highgate Village and, once it gets to Swain’s Lane, follows the same path until the fork of Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street, opposite the long defunct South Kentish Town tube station.

From a few hundred metres below that point, at Camden Gardens, stop C, the 88 starts. That duplicates the rest of the C2’s route, with the exception of the run down Albany Street and onto Great Portland, for much of which the C2 is the only bus.

So the C2, old friend that it is, is pretty redundant in the age of the hopper fare, which allows you to change buses without paying a second fare. That’s even more true now the C2’s otherwise un-serviced stops are being giving over to a re-routed 88, which will pick up the C2’s most northern leg, by not finishing at Camden Gardens anymore and instead going all the way to Parliament Hill Fields. Which will be nice for it.

All this, however, ignores the best reason for getting rid of the C2 (or rather for merging it with the 88, which is what’s actually happening): that first character. The letter. Who wants a bus route with a letter in front of it when even half the night buses don’t have the N anymore? It’s relic of the route’s aforementioned origins as a ‘Camdenhopper’.

That C is twenty five years past its own utility. It’s just untidy. City Metric hates that sort of thing. Get rid.