Council housing was about building homes not financial assets, and we should be proud of that, finds William Alderson

John Boughton, Municipal Dreams (Verso 2018), 330pp.

Municipal Dreams is an excellent book, informative, thoughtful and eminently readable. If you thought that a book about social housing would be dull, John Boughton shows how the subject can be vivid and moving, not least because it concerns people and how their lives have been changed for both the better and worse by shifting political agendas, and often without those most affected actually being consulted.

The first council estates

Until 1900, there was no such thing as council housing. Industrial growth and its accompanying cities produced a desperate need for housing met entirely through the private sector, and leading to notorious slums such as Old Nichol in London, described in 1863 as nothing ‘but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth and poverty’ (p.9), and a breeding place for disease. In 1900 Old Nichol was demolished and replaced by the Boundary Estate, Britain’s first council estate, and one of several council estates which have been Grade II listed. At that point, however, the debate began about who social housing was for.

The need to recover the costs of building the Boundary Estate meant that nobody from Old Nichol could afford the rents, but it was hoped that ‘a “filtering up” process would occur – that the slightly less slummy homes vacated by those moving to municipal housing would be taken over by the poorer working classes in the worst accommodation; everyone would climb a rung up the housing ladder’ (p.23). In fact, so long as the bottom rung is private housing of the poor, landlords will spend the minimum, and it will inevitably decay into crowded and inadequately maintained slums.

While there was a steady growth in council-house building, the greatest transformation followed the Second World War, when the Labour government enabled a massive public building programme while inhibiting private house-building. Nye Bevan stated that:

‘Speculative builders, supported enthusiastically, and even voraciously, by money-lending organisations, solved the problem of the higher income groups in the matter of housing. We propose to start at the other end. We propose to start to solve, first, the housing difficulties of the lower income groups’ (p.93).

He did so by building to higher standards rather than lower, increasing the area of the houses above those recommended and including two toilets, ‘an unprecedented luxury in working-class homes which had more often lacked a single toilet of their own’ (p.94). Crucially, Bevan wanted the homes to be suitable for a wide cross-section of the community, with the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all living in the same street:

‘It is entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live. If we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should all be drawn from different sections of the community’ (p.97).

Reducing standards

After the return of a Conservative government in 1951, Bevan’s minimum standards became maximum standards, and the second toilet was dropped, but a social shift had occurred: house building by councils had become normalised, and living in a council house or flat lacked stigma.

The scale of council building, and problems of finance, led to an increasing involvement by speculative builders, and a wide variability in the standard of housing built, especially in respect of high-rise buildings, and inevitably the worst examples were highlighted in the media. These problems were exacerbated by cuts in the routine maintenance by councils, and by laws aimed at helping those most in need, but tending to raise the concentration of people with problems in council housing, unbalancing the variety of tenants proposed by Bevan. By 1979 the ground was prepared for an ideological attack on council housing, led by Professor Alice Coleman of King’s College, London.

The attack on council housing

For me, this is a particularly interesting part of Boughton’s book because parallels can be seen in so many other fields. Coleman’s research ‘had a rigorous, even “scientific” air’ (p.179), but it was ‘both methodologically flawed and ideologically driven’ (p.181), failing to control for population sizes and ignoring levels of deprivation. In short, her study blamed buildings for problems actually caused by poverty and disadvantage. Its weakness was graphically demonstrated when the estate Coleman had ‘upheld as an example of the intrinsically peaceable nature of low-rise housing’ faced increases in unemployment in the 1980s which ‘came to a head in 1991 with a police crackdown on car theft and joyriding that culminated in a youth-led riot’ (p.183). Long before then Coleman had been rewarded by an invitation to Downing Street to meet Margaret Thatcher and by ‘a £50 million grant to apply her ideas in selected estates’ (p.184).

Coleman had given credence to the idea that council housing was in itself a problem, and this fed into Margaret Thatcher’s plans to remove as much housing as possible from council hands. The Right to Buy scheme forced councils to sell homes at a discount (of up to 60%), while councils were severely limited in access to funds to build new housing. Where 79,160 new council homes were started in 1978-9, only four hundred were started in 1996-7, and council houses fell from 31% of all housing to around 20% in the same period. At the same time as this reduction in council properties to rent, regulations which had provided stability and security for tenants in the private sector were removed. [1]

The true origins of our current housing crisis are all too clear, with subsequent governments not only accepting the attack on council housing, but forcing more housing into the private sector, including housing associations, and entrenching the idea of stigma in the new term ‘social housing’. Even more grotesque, as Boughton shows, is the fact that those who need such housing may be forced to move out while it is being built, only to find that, like the Boundary Estate in 1900, they cannot afford to move back, and that the social housing is only a fig leaf for the lucrative private developments built on the same site.

Within this framework, Boughton’s discussion and analysis of the changes in design of council housing is fascinating, as he considers the driving ideas behind the designs through to the response of those living in the various results. It becomes clear that no type of housing – high-rise, low-rise, terraces, semi-detached – is intrinsically good or bad. Even well-designed estates will become a problem if they are built badly and inadequately maintained; if their population is skewed towards those suffering from poverty and deprivation; or even if they are repeatedly condemned in the press.

In the end, the most important thing about housing is the people who live in it, and at its best council housing served the needs of those people. When they are considered of marginal importance or second to the cost and value of the properties, the risk of problems increases, and so does the risk of disaster. Boughton inevitably introduces his book with reference to the Grenfell Tower fire: ‘above all, a personal tragedy,’ but one which ‘stood as an awful culmination to deeply damaging policies pursued towards council housing, and the public sector more widely, since 1979’ (p.1). All too often nowadays housing is seen as a financial asset, but council housing recognised first and foremost that it should be a home.

[1] As an aside, I noted a couple errors in figures in the book. On p.203 five estates appear to have received £60 billion out of a total spend on all estates of £57 billion. On p. 229 the figures given for the rates of transfer of council properties to housing associations are accurate only if the Conservatives were in power for 6 years between 1988 and 2008, rather than 9 years.