Photograph via Getty

How we came close to hous­ing utopia

As we celebrate the centenary of social housing, rights campaigner Vicky Spratt takes an investigative look at the UK's relentless housing crisis.

In 1919, Britain faced a hous­ing cri­sis. Around 80% of peo­ple rent­ed their homes from pri­vate land­lords and faced poor liv­ing con­di­tions. The indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion had sucked work­ers from all over the coun­try into the cities on an unprece­dent­ed scale and many of the homes they lived in were not fit for purpose. 

As Friedrich Engels had writ­ten in The Con­di­tion of The Work­ing Class in Eng­land – his 1845 study of post indus­tri­al Britain: the social order makes fam­i­ly life almost impos­si­ble for the work­er. In a com­fort­less, filthy house, hard­ly good enough for mere night­ly shel­ter, ill-fur­nished, often nei­ther rain-tight nor warm, a foul atmos­phere fill­ing rooms over­crowd­ed with human beings, no domes­tic com­fort is possible.”

Cam­paign­ers and some politi­cians had long raised their con­cerns and some­times even tak­en mat­ters into their own hands by build­ing homes. The Bound­ary Estate in Shored­itch, for instance, was built by the local gov­ern­ment. It opened in 1900 and is arguably our first coun­cil estate, but it was only at the end of the First World War that nation­al action was tak­en when Prime Min­is­ter, David Lloyd George promised a land fit for heroes”.

For the first time in British his­to­ry, the Hous­ing Act 1919 (also known as the Addi­son Act after the then-min­is­ter for health and hous­ing Lord Christo­pher Addi­son), set aside the means for coun­cils to build homes. It cre­at­ed the prin­ci­ple of large-scale, state-fund­ed house­build­ing, avail­able to ordi­nary peo­ple at rea­son­able rents.

Arnold Circus, Boundary Estate, Bethnal Green, London, UK
Photography by Alamy

2019 marks 100 years of the Hous­ing Act and 100 years of what was then called coun­cil hous­ing, but is now gen­er­al­ly referred to as social hous­ing in the UK

It was a huge turn­ing point – a blue­print for hous­ing ordi­nary work­ing peo­ple and the moment at which the state acknowl­edged that it need­ed to step in to reg­u­late the hous­ing mar­ket, clear slums and pro­vide safe, secure and afford­able homes. What fol­lowed was decades of inno­v­a­tive archi­tec­ture and a house­build­ing dri­ve that reached its peak in the 1960s.

It saw the cre­ation of gar­den cities, spa­cious estates like Wythen­shawe just out­side of Man­ches­ter, the Bea­con­tree Estate in Essex and now-list­ed bru­tal­ist build­ings like Park Hill in Sheffield and Row­ley Way in North London. 

These social­ly sub­sidised homes changed people’s lives. One in par­tic­u­lar – a small maisonette flat which still to this day sits on a grassy patch of South Nor­wood Hill – direct­ly changed the course of my family’s life. My grand­par­ents were giv­en the keys while my Nan was still in hos­pi­tal after giv­ing birth to my uncle. 

At the time she and my grandad were stay­ing with her par­ents and sev­er­al of their eight oth­er chil­dren in a rent­ed house in Croy­don. As my Nan recalls today it had an out­side toi­let” and they all shared bedrooms.”

The Barbican, London
Photography by Arcaid /Universal Images Group

As social his­to­ri­an John Boughton writes in his book Munic­i­pal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Coun­cil Hous­ing, the homes built by the state dur­ing this peri­od were seen as aspi­ra­tional and intend­ed for the afflu­ent work­ing classes.” 

How­ev­er, towards the end of the 1900s that per­cep­tion of coun­cil homes shift­ed. Social hous­ing, once seen as a tri­umph of the state became much maligned and liv­ing in it slow­ly start­ed to come with a huge stig­ma attached. 

Wythen­shawe is a prime exam­ple of this. In 2007, dur­ing his hug a hood­ie” years, David Cameron vis­it­ed the estate to talk about anti-social behav­iour and what he would lat­er dub Bro­ken Britain”. The moment of Cameron was cap­tured by press strolling smart-casu­al­ly with his top but­ton undone, while a 17-year-old boy made gun fin­gers in the back­ground, marks the era perfectly. 

In 1979, 42% of peo­ple lived in coun­cil hous­ing. Today it’s just 17%, and there are cur­rent­ly more peo­ple rent­ing unsta­ble and often unaf­ford­able accom­mo­da­tion from a pri­vate land­lord again. 

This is pri­mar­i­ly because the state stopped build­ing and sec­ond­ly because in 1980 Mar­garet Thatch­er intro­duced the Right to Buy scheme, which has seen thou­sands of social homes sold off, nev­er to be replaced. Recent research has found that more than 40% of for­mer coun­cil homes are now rent­ed out by pri­vate landlords. 

Through­out the 1980s and 1990s, the pro­por­tion of pri­vate rent­ed house­holds was sta­ble at around 10%. Since 2002 the sec­tor has dou­bled in size. 

As we cel­e­brate the cen­te­nary of social hous­ing, it’s a sad indict­ment of our times that we are, once again, in the midst of a huge hous­ing crisis. 

David Cameron at Wythenshawe
Photograph via Getty

Mar­garet Thatch­er also did away with rent con­trols in 1988, it was part of a push to remove laws that pro­tect­ed ten­ants to entice more buy-to-let land­lords to enter the hous­ing mar­ket and plug the gap left by sell­ing off coun­cil hous­es. Her aim was to lib­er­ate the mar­ket and give peo­ple more choice.

Thatch­er suc­ceed­ed in cre­at­ing a boom­ing buy-to-let sec­tor. In recent years, in many parts of the coun­try it’s been more lucra­tive to own prop­er­ty than it has been to do pret­ty much any­thing else. But, in terms of choice, her poli­cies have deliv­ered any­thing but. It’s look­ing increas­ing­ly like­ly that a grow­ing num­ber of young peo­ple will rent from cra­dle to grave, unable to ever afford a home of their own because house prices have risen faster than people’s wages. They don’t have a choice, they are forced to rent because home­own­er­ship is now a pipe dream for so many peo­ple.

The very prob­lem which the state stepped into solve in 1919 – an unscrupu­lous, expen­sive and some­times, unsafe, pri­vate rent­ed mar­ket – has since not only been fuelled, but made worse by the hous­ing poli­cies of sub­se­quent governments. 

A view of The Barbican Estate on its 40th anniversary
Photograph via Getty

In 2019 the UK faces a short­age of hous­es and a cri­sis in pri­vate rent­ing, just as it did in 1919. We live in one of the rich­est coun­tries in the world and there are peo­ple liv­ing in what can only be described as squalor. I recent­ly vis­it­ed Eros House – a for­mer office block which has been con­vert­ed into flats – in Cat­ford, South Lon­don. I saw young mums liv­ing in homes infest­ed with aggres­sive black mould, bro­ken heaters and lights which had obvi­ous­ly been burned out by elec­tri­cal fires. The block is owned by a pri­vate land­lord, but many of its res­i­dents had been placed there by their local coun­cil as tem­po­rary accom­mo­da­tion because there sim­ply aren’t enough social homes to go around.

There are sim­i­lar sto­ries all over the coun­try – not just in Lon­don. Peo­ple are being denied the start my fam­i­ly had, forced to live in unsafe homes, on short-term ten­an­cies and hav­ing their for­tunes dic­tat­ed by the whims of their land­lord. If you don’t know where you’ll be liv­ing next year, how can you build a life?

Today, far from the state build­ing homes and rent­ing them at afford­able rates to its cit­i­zens, we are all lin­ing the pock­ets of land­lords. A recent study found that £9.3bn of tax­pay­er-fund­ed hous­ing ben­e­fit is being paid to pri­vate land­lords.

In the last cen­tu­ry, hous­ing built by the state for the com­mu­ni­ty came close to being a real­i­ty and we almost got it right. But, as the ongo­ing news about poor qual­i­ty hous­ing shows us, we’ve now com­plete­ly lost our way.

00:00 / 00:00