Last edited 18 May 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Municipal Dreams: the rise and fall of council housing

Municipal Dreams - the rise and fall of council housing.png
Municipal Dreams: the rise and fall of council housing, John Boughton, Verso, 2018, 330 pages, 30 black and white illustrations.

This book describes a subject, council housing, political to its very roots and bedevilled by politics since its inception. John Boughton keenly believes that the crux of the municipal dream was that ordinary people should have access to a decent home at an affordable rent by right of citizenship. He is wearily exasperated that such a simple and worthy idea should have been an ideological football for so long, and more than ever remains one today.

You should not allow the fact that Boughton is a political commentator to deter you from an analysis which traces the twists and turns of national housing policy and the multiplicity of local built responses to it with forensic care. Alas, with one conspicuous and telling omission.

While council houses were built in minute numbers in England from 1869, their story is a defining one of the 20th century, of an entire housing tenure class which went from virtually nothing in 1900 to almost one third of the nation’s housing stock by 1979, before shrivelling again in a bitter winter of political antipathy, media hostility and apparent public indifference.

Almost every government since Lord Salisbury has had a meddle with public housing, their interventions frequently stemming from profoundly different perceptions of what it was for and who it was intended to benefit. Early council housing was often an overtly political offshoot from the garden city movement. It is interesting that the first tenants of these ‘cottageestates were mostly drawn from the skilled working class – ‘strivers’, in modern parlance. The private rented housing they left behind only benefitted poorer social groups, through a rather shabby, chintzy form of trickle-down.

The motivation to provide public housing was rapidly accelerated by a brief flowering of social solidarity brought about by the Great War. Close proximity and shared sacrifice with their often-conscripted working-class men gave younger members of the upper class a new insight and empathy into their lives. It would not last, but this impulse lay behind the Lloyd-George ‘homes for heroes’. By 1930, Boughton notes, house floorplates and gardens were shrinking again; the English class system returning to normal.

The inter-war years also saw the first profoundly poor council tenants, those folk displaced by the earlier slum-clearance schemes. In a handful of large cities, of which Liverpool and Leeds were prominent, they might find themselves housed in modernist or art deco blocks modelled on exemplars in Vienna, Paris or Amsterdam. Mostly though, English council housing between the wars followed the example of Wythenshawe in Manchester, vast expanses of suburban housing laid across open farmland on the edges of town, around the point where the tram routes had terminated.

Mass destruction of housing brought about by the bombing of the second world war, followed by the election of the first successful Labour government in 1945, led to a huge expansion of council housing, sometimes utopian in architectural concept, more often following the pre-war norm. For the first time, system building techniques based on factory mass-production displaced traditional building processes. For pre-fab bungalows this approach proved harmless; when projected into 1960s high-rise or vast stretches of deck-access, architectural hubris, contractor cynicism, political over-reach and ultimate nemesis were the result.

The statutory obligation placed on local authorities in 1977 to house homeless and vulnerable groups, followed almost immediately by the rapid shrinkage of available housing stock caused by Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ in the early 1980s, had a fatal impact on social housing. Today, the surviving rump of municipal housing is frequently occupied by marginalised groups in society, a process Boughton dubs ‘residualisation’. In a society as atomised as ours this seems unlikely to end well, as the grim shell of Grenfell Tower potentially forewarns.

This is a compelling story, for the most part well told. What is the glaring omission? That despite a foray as far north as Carlisle, Boughton has managed to describe the history of municipal housing with only two passing references to Scotland, the polity within the UK which has remained most loyal to the post-war social democratic settlement, if not to the Labour Party.

Depressing testament perhaps that commentators of the left already assume that the Scots have joined the Irish in leaving us – when perhaps it is the English, even those as transparently well-intentioned as Boughton, who appear resigned to leaving them.

This article originally appeared as ‘Ideological football’ in IHBC's Context 156 (Page 56), published in September 2018. It was written by Michael Scammell, a conservation officer employed by the South Downs National Park Authority.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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