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.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.