Nationally in the UK only 7% of households live in a council house or flat. In the north east of England about a fifth of people live in council housing with an additional 11% in social housing provided by housing associations. In the 1960s it was over a half. Yet council housing or social housing may be on the cusp of a renaissance as the Government at last recognises that Britain is in the grip of a ‘’housing crisis’’ which show no sign of going away.
There’s nothing new about homes being provided by the local state. Local council housebuilding on Tyneside began in Newcastle -Upon -Tyne in 1904, and the sector even today displays a huge variety of types of houses. With the advent of World War One housebuilding ground to a halt. By 1918 there was a housing shortage of 600,000. The post-war Government committed itself to a policy of ‘’homes fit for heroes to live in’’.
The Addison Act of 1919 took central government into public housing for the first time. It required all councils to spell out what homes were needed to make up the leeway caused by the war and offered subsidies to build them. Over 200,000 new homes were built. In 1923 the Chamberlain Act brought in a revised policy. Although council housing was subsidised by the state, local authorities were only allowed to build for rent if the private sector couldn’t. Even so 400,000 houses were built.
A third Act by Labour Minister John Wheatley in 1924, although offering half as much subsidy as Chamberlain, still managed to produce half a million council homes. By 1930 Greenwood, the Housing Minister, unveiled an extensive programme of slum clearance, which was only temporarily halted by the economy measures after 1931.
Although 4m homes were built throughout the inter-war period, most were built by the private sector. For some historians council housing largely benefited the ‘’respectable working class’’. Many low-income families couldn’t afford even the subsidised rents. Yet some of the most attractive council housing is in the ‘’cottage estates’’ built in the 1920s, such as the High Heaton and Pendower estates in Newcastle and Balkwell in North Tyneside. In contrast, one of the former problematic estates was Meadowell in North Shields, an estate of mostly flats, built to reduced standards in the thirties to rehouse the population of the riverside slums of Wallsend.
From 1926 the Labour Party ran Sheffield City Council for the first time. They built 29,000 high quality, spacious, three to four bedroomed council homes between the wars – a striking example of how pragmatic municipal socialism could meet the needs of the many and not just the few.
Although areas of bad housing remained in 1939 on Tyneside and the east end of London, progress had been considerable in Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield, Shoreditch and Leeds according to the social historian C.P. Hill. 1m homes constructed were council provided.
Housing was a key political issue in the 1945 general election. Four out of 10 voters listed it as the major issue. Both parties promised rent controls, but Labour under Nye Bevan promised 5m new homes. The 1946 Housing Act, introduced generous subsidies, and gave local councils the lead responsibility for construction. Bevan put quality before quantity. The Labour Government under Clem Attlee PM rolled out an ambitious public sector housing programme with 147,000 homes, many with front and back gardens, built in 1947. By 1948 a further 238,000 houses were built, though the programme was cut back due to the economic crisis of 1948.
Despite this over 1.5m homes had been built by 1951. Several of the new council estates were ‘’revolutionary’’ such as Montagu and North Kenton in Newcastle for they contained community centres, shopping precincts, schools and libraries. Council housing with gardens was designed for anyone in need, not just for the working class. Given the post –war housing shortage temporary ‘pre-fabs’ were erected to meet the high demand in other cities and urban towns.
Throughout the 1950s there was a big increase in house building. The Conservative Minister Harold Macmillan was determined to outdo the previous Labour government’s record. Backed by the PM Winston Churchill, he devoted his energy into what he dubbed a ‘’national housing crusade’’. He managed to build 327,000 council homes in 1953 and 354,000 one year later. The worst of the housing shortage was over – though problem of overcrowding remained in many areas.
Throughout the sixties the quality of council housing provided was ‘poor’ argues the housing expert Stephen Moore. This became the key focus of the 1965 drama-documentary ‘Cathy Come Home’, which cast a spotlight on overcrowding, slum housing conditions and homelessness, despite the ‘welfare state’. Poverty had been ‘’rediscovered’ based on the research of the social policy academic Professor Peter Townsend.
The newer cheaper method was designed to construct ‘’warehouses’’ that could hold as many tenants as possible, while the Government claimed that slum housing was being replaced.
The solution to the housing problem was to ‘’build into the sky’, which climaxed with the construction of high-rise blocks of flats coupled with high-density housing in the 1970s. As the author and former Chairman of a major metropolitan housing authority Brian Lund note in his book much of it was so poor in quality that a decade later some blocks were already being demolished, while the rest underwent costly maintenance and refurbishment programmes.
This was evident in 1965 under the utopian Newcastle City Council leader T. Dan Smith. The aim of housing policy wasn’t just concerned with slum clearance or poor physical housing conditions. Rather as Northumbria University lecturers Stuart Cameron and Paul Crompton point out ‘’it involved a rejection of rows of Tyneside flats inherited from the 19th century to create a housing environment that was a visual symbol of modernity.’’
Reaction to high-rises point blocks, home to 4,000 tenants across the city, was mixed. For some they were deeply unpopular. Older residents blamed the blocks for the demise of community spirit in the west end and east end of the city. For other tenants, they proved reasonably popular.
In any event by the 1970s, council house building on Tyne and Wear, Co. Durham and south Northumberland followed the national trend of a return to low-rise and more traditional building, often in inner-city redevelopment neighbourhoods and on small sites.
One striking exception to this was the construction of the ‘Byker Wall’ development in 1968 to 1982 – a block of 620 maisonettes with colourful architecture and sensitive landscaping. With £20m investment in 2012, the estate has won the Great Neighbourhood Award from the Academy of Urbanism.
With Mrs Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy in 1981 over 1.7m council tenants have bought their homes, which arguably, saw the slow death of local authority homes. Few were replaced. Council house waiting lists grew throughout the decade. Homelessness and rooflessness became a major social problem. Young adults and ‘poor’ families were forced into the private rented sector with little security of tenure.
Furthermore, the shift to cheaper building methods in the seventies, fewer amenities and the targeting of lower-income groups – those from ‘slum clearance projects’ and ‘’problem families’ – all changed the profile and perception of council housing. By 1990 ‘council housing’ had become ‘’stigmatised’’. Not-for-profit housing associations became the main provider of social housing for those in need while existing council stock was brought up to the ‘Decent Homes Standards’ by 2007.
With the virtual collapse of new council home builds – there’s pressure from Shelter, the housing charity and the Conservative led Local Government Association (LGA) for central government to commit to an affordable house building programme of 250,000 homes by 2020. With housing at the top of the policy agenda there’s signs that we might be about to see a ‘’renaisance’’ in social housing to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor. He is a former lecturer of Social Policy and Social Work Studies at a North East College.