How we came close to housing utopia

Photograph via Getty

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.

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