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  • Writer's pictureSteffan Willis

Econ Insights: Lessons from Britain’s 20th century council housing experiment

In this series, we look at interesting data sets to uncover hidden insights. This article looks at the lessons from Britain's experiments in social housing during the 20th century.

In 1900 the Boundary Estate, the first council estate, opened in London built by London County Council. It was built on the site of the Old Nichol - an infamous East End slum. Built to address the problems of overcrowding, disease and squalor common to the inner city slums of Britain’s industrial cities, it was the start of a process that would shape both the country’s urban landscape and its over the following century.

Charles Booth' poverty map of Old Nichol estate

Housing developed as a political issue during the late 19th century as the industrial revolution triggered waves of urban migration, rising land prices and the growth of densely packed, poor quality tenements around factories, docks and warehouses. But it wasn’t until the First World War that it became clear to the political class that substantive action was required. Many of the urban working class were of such poor health that they were deemed incapable of military service. Furthermore, following the conclusion of the war in 1919, there was fear of unrest and insurrection if working class men returning from combat were not given adequate housing, leading to Lloyd George’s call for “Homes fit for Heroes”.

The unplanned, speculative expansion of London during the 19th century had demonstrated a need for the state to be involved in the planning and development of housing if it was to meet the needs of the working classes and the Town and Country Planning Act 1919 made this the responsibility of local authorities. The inter-war years saw a number of experiments in council housing, such as the Becontree Estate in Dagenham which provided homes for over 100,000 people. Although designed to alleviate overcrowding in the East End, the majority of the initial tenants were relatively well-off, skilled members of the working class in secure employment rather than the very poorest. It is easy to forget the impact of these homes, with internal toilets, gardens and running water, on their new residents. The blog Municipal Dreams quotes one early resident describing Becontree as “heaven with the gates off”. In total, 1.1m homes were built by local authorities between 1919 and 1939.

It took another war and the advent of the welfare state under the Labour government of 1945 before housing became a key component of public policy. Housing came to be seen as vital for both improving the health and living conditions of the poor, but also for creating a more equitable society. Council housing was no longer only for the working classes. Aneurin Bevan, who as Minister for Health was responsible for housing, described his vision of creating a “living tapestry of a mixed community” in which people of all social classes would live side by side. The subsequent 30 years saw a political consensus on the need for the public provision of housing and recognition that the private sector was incapable of meeting the needs of low income households. Council housing was seen as aspirational, but most importantly it provided families with the security of lifetime tenancies and allowed them to escape the tyranny of private landlords.

It was during this period that the New Towns programme was established, which aimed to create a series of new towns around London to reduce overcrowding in the capital. Learning the lessons from areas like Becontree, which lacked civic centres, these were to be self-sufficient communities which would provide places for people to live and work. Businesses were encouraged to relocate from the inner city to industrial estates, offering space to expand. Workers who had a job offer from a firm in the New Town were eligible for housing and, as with earlier experiments, these were generally the more skilled, aspirational working class families rather than the most excluded members of society. New Towns such as Stevenage, Harlow and Crawley were designed according to the latest thinking in modernist architecture and urbanism, with pedestrianised centres and large gyratory systems. Whilst aesthetically they have not aged particularly well, the ambition to create places that people would want to live demonstrates the awareness of the importance of urbanity and community that underpinned the ideals of modernism. The link between housing and employment determined the success of many of the New Towns.

The redevelopment of inner-city areas in the 1950s and 60s, following slum clearance or as a result of bomb damage, shared the aspirational nature of the New Towns programme. Le Corbusier’s vision of towers set in open parkland was championed as a model of the ideal modern city by architects and planners working in local planning offices which, coupled with central government incentives for their construction, led to over 500 being built in London by the late 1970s.

New residents moving from overcrowded, poor quality dwellings were initially extremely grateful and enthusiastic for the new ‘modern’ developments. However, this enthusiasm quickly waned and by the 1970s, inner city council estates had become associated with crime, anti-social behaviour, and poverty driven by increasing unemployment, inadequate maintenance and poor building quality. These new inner city estates with their ‘streets in the sky’ lacked connections with the wider city, becoming enclaves of deprivation. The decline in their reputation generated problems of residualisation in which families with more resources and options moved out of the worst estates leaving the most vulnerable, socially excluded groups behind, only exacerbating the problem.

This perception that the council estates which had replaced slums have themselves become areas of destitution has had a long-lasting and pernicious impact on the popular and political view of council housing in the subsequent decades. In 1977 the Labour government changed the law so that housing was now to be allocated on the basis of need, marking the formal abandonment of Bevan’s vision of council housing as a tool for building a more harmonious socially inclusive society. The aspiration of the prosperous working class had changed as well - home ownership was the new mark of social and economic status. This combination of effects fundamentally shifted the political-economy of housing. Where previously social housing had been a reliable vote winner, by 1979 Margaret Thatcher swept to power on the promise of owning your home.

How successful was the British experiment with council housing and are there lessons we can learn today? From a purely quantitative perspective, council housing was immensely successful. By the late 1970s, almost a third of households lived in council houses. But there were many areas of failure. Many inner city estates were plagued by poor design and low building quality and they were disconnected from the rest of the city. There are many parallels to the challenges facing informal settlements in cities across the global south which, despite being in the heart of the city, are isolated. Their residents are demonised and separated both mentally and often physically from the surrounding neighbourhoods.

As we consider how to address our current housing crisis, it seems clear that the private sector is incapable of delivering the truly affordable housing needed in the 21st century. As a consensus develops, we must ensure that we learn the lessons of the past - low quality, poorly maintained, isolated homes will suffer from the same cycles of residualisation that plagued earlier periods. Instead, we need to ensure that our cities are vibrant, socially integrated, and built at human scale. Perhaps the most important lesson, 100 years on from ‘Homes fit for Heroes’, is the need to recapture the original boldness, vision and belief that characterised this period of British housing policy.

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