Lessons from history: A century ago, the Tories accepted that only councils could solve the housing crisis

A London family with all their possessions in the street following eviction from a slum, c1901. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.