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.