‘Its time for the war to end, and for housing to be reinstated as one of three pillars of the welfare state, along with health and education.’
The unnecessary destruction of Robin Hood Gardens Estate in Poplar, in east London, March 2018, to make way for a new private development, Blackwall Reach (Photo: Andy Worthington).
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Today, July 31, is the centenary of the first Housing and Town Planning Act (widely known as the Addison Act), which was introduced by the Liberal politician Christopher Addison, as part of David Lloyd Georges coalition government following the First World War, to provide Britains first major council housing programme, as John Boughton, the author of Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, explained in an article published yesterday in the Guardian.
Boughton explained how, when Addison introduced his flagship housing bill to the House of Commons in April 1919, he spoke of its utmost importance, from the point of view not only of the physical wellbeing of our people, but of our social stability and industrial content.
‘Between 1920 and 1980 the British government built around six million council houses’ says Tony Gosling
As we celebrate the centenary of council housing, Boughton noted, this sentiment is not lost in the context of the current housing crisis. From the rise in expensive, precarious and often poor-quality private renting to the dwindling dream of home-ownership, it is fuelling discontent. This escalating crisis means that increasing numbers of people are now forced to deal with the painful consequences of the country’s inability to provide such a basic human need a stable, affordable home.
Philanthropists had been creating social housing since the 1840s, beginning with Model Dwellings Companies (privately run companies that sought a return for investors while providing affordable housing for the working class), and the Peabody Donation Fund (now Peabody), founded by the London-based US banker George Peabody, whose aim was to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis, and to promote their comfort and happiness, and whose first project, on Commercial Street in Spitalfields, opened in 1864.
The first council-built housing was created in Liverpool in 1869, and in 1890, as Boughton put it, a Housing Act established the legislative powers and machinery of state for the expansion of council housing. He added, however, that only around 24,000 council homes were built nationally before 1914.
In contrast, as he described it, the 1919 Addison Act was a housing revolution – and while Addison’s motives were commendable, it must be noted that it took the horrors of the First World War and the housing plight of those who survived it for the British establishment as a whole to embrace the need for a major programme of genuinely affordable housing.
As he proceeded to explain, It required not only that all local authorities conduct a survey of housing needs within just three months but that they actively prepare plans to meet them. Beyond what could be raised locally by a penny on the rates, the cost of building these new homes was to be met entirely by the Treasury. The act also insisted on high-quality housing, taking its cue from the wartime Tudor Walters Report, which had recommended cottage homes with front and back gardens, bathrooms and pantries at no more than 12 to the acre.
Unfortunately, as Boughton proceeded to explain, in a post-war era of materials and labour shortages, construction costs were unprecedentedly high at around 1,000 per house, up to three times the cost of pre-war production and his programme fell victim to public spending cuts. Just 176,000 homes had been built in England and Wales of the 500,000 Lloyd George had promised, and Addison resigned from both the government and the Liberal party in protest, later joining the Labour Party, where he served under Ramsay MacDonald, and became Leader of the House of Lords during Clement Attlee’s extraordinary post-WWII government.
Following Addison’s resignation, there was a revival of council-built housing via other housing acts in the 1920s, although, as Boughton noted, the houses were typically smaller and plainer than those envisaged in 1919. In the 1930s, when the Labour politician Herbert Morrison undertook a visionary expansion of council housing in London as the leader of the London County Council (LCC), further housing bills, which particularly took aim at slum clearances and introduced rent rebates also addressed what Boughton described as one serious deficiency in Addison’s reforms that their relatively high rents excluded the slum population most in need of rehousing.
The horror of another war the Second World War and, again, the plight of returning soldiers paved the way for the British establishment to once more accept the need for another major programme of genuinely affordable housing, as part of the astonishing post-war government led by Clement Attlee, which also established the NHS and consolidated the welfare state.
From then until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and set about destroying council housing through her Right to Buy policy, cutting funding for maintenance, and introducing an absolute prohibition on councils spending money from the sale of homes to build new council housing council housing was promoted by both Labour and Conservative governments, ensuring that, for most of the preceding 60 years, after the 1919 Addison Act, there was, as Boughton put it, a broad cross-party consensus that accepted the necessity of state intervention to build the homes the country needed.
As Boughton also explained, One common factor underlay both eras of reform under Addison and Nye Bevan and it provides the single constant in the long history of what is now referred to as social housing: that is the inability of the free market and the unwillingness of the private sector to provide decent, affordable housing to those in greatest need.
40 years on from the start of Margaret Thatchers assault on social housing, Britains housing crisis has become nothing short of a disaster. Thatcher presided over a housing bubble, but also a subsequent crash, when numerous homeowners were caught in a negative equity trap. The market remained cool throughout John Majors premiership, but when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, ending 18 years of Tory rule, it didnt take long for another colossal housing bubble to develop one that continues to plague us today, with house prices at an all-time high, private rents unfettered and out of control, and social housing still chronically undermined. Blair failed to roll back Thatchers Right to Buy project, and also failed to establish the need for a major social homebuilding programme, and, throughout London, and across the country, Labour councils persistently failed to defend council housing, instead launching estate demolition programmeswith private developers that have drastically reduced the numbers of social homes available.
Since 2010, the Tories have only added fuel to this blazing fire of inequality, slashing subsidies for social homebuilding and encouraging housing associations like Peabody to lose touch with their founders aims by becoming, essentially, private developers with a sideline in social housing. Moreover, when Boris Johnson was Londons Mayor, he set affordable rents at 80% of market rents (as opposed to social rents at around 30% of market rents), and this injustice has, typically, not been adequately addressed by the Labour Party, or by the major housing associations. Since replacing Johnson in 2016, Sadiq Khan has set up a sliding scale of allegedly affordable rents, all of which are considerably more expensive than social rents London Affordable Rent (over 60% higher for a two-bedroom flat), and London Living Rent (over 130% higher).
For more information, see Andy Worthington’s articles, The Eviction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden and the Mainstream Medias Inadequacy in Reporting Stories About Social Homes and Affordable Rents, Video: I Discuss the Tidemill Eviction, the Broken Regeneration Industry and Sadiq Khans Stealthy Elimination of Social Rents, as well as Shame on Peabody: Calling on the Former Philanthropic Social Housing Provider to Abandon Its Plans to Destroy the Old Tidemill Garden and Social Housing in Deptford and A Radical Proposal to Save the Old Tidemill Garden and Reginald House in Deptford: Use Besson Street, an Empty Site in New Cross.
The result of the last 40 years of politicians eroding social housing and doing nothing to rein in greed in the housing market is akin to another war, but this time a cannibalistic war waged by British citizens on their less well-off fellow citizens, as those with mortgages taken out before the bubble have seen insane returns on their original investments, and, at the same time, absolutely no legislation exists to prevent those who take out buy to let mortgages from exploiting their tenants as much as they wish, while those fortunate enough to live in properties at social rent myself included are part of an ever-diminishing minority, and, since 2010, have lived in fear that the Tories will pass legislation intended to fully exterminate social housing, or, if they live on a council estate, that Labour councillors will vote to demolish their homes.
Its time for the war to end, and for housing to be reinstated as one of three pillars of the welfare state, along with health and education.
Note: If youre interested in doing something to mark 100 years since the Addison Act, please sign Shelters petition calling for the government to build more social housing, and watch George Clarkes excellent Channel 4 documentary, George Clarkes Council House Scandal, which was broadcast this evening, and in which George called on the government to build 100,000 council homes a year, and to suspend Right to Buy. An article by George, entitled, We dont just need more council houses we need the very best in space and ecological standards, is here.