Many people have a grim view of council housing. They think it’s a poverty trap, organised into crime ridden sink estates, where the very fabric of society has broken down. In their minds they see modernist monstrosities of concrete piled on top of concrete, which resemble the grim fantasies of totalitarian leaders and busybody social engineers; cramped, poorly maintained battery farms for humans that are freezing in winter and boiling in summer. They think of the worst excesses of a government that thinks it knows better than its people how they should live.
This vision, carefully built up over decades, has allowed the vital safety net of council housing to be dismantled. It makes me very sad that because of these blanket assumptions about council housing, many people today lead lives far more precarious than they need to.
To counter this narrative, it's worth thinking about the origins of council housing. Today is the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, better known as the Addison Act, after the Minister for Health Dr Christopher Addison. The Addison Act was the groundbreaking piece of legislation that laid the way for what became known as council housing.
The Addison Act provided subsidies for local authorities to build 500,000 new homes; although only 213,000 were built. The act required that councils assess their housing need and plan to meet these needs.
In the interwar perioid 1.1 million council homes were built. They replaced Victorian slums that had grown up as the population of cities had exploded in the 19th century. These were sites of terrible poverty, lack of sanitation and overcrowding. Council housing vastly improved the living conditions of the poorest in society and provided a safety net against people being exploited by slum landlords.
More than poverty relief
Council housing was more than just poverty relief. It was housing that was provided for anyone who needed it. It was good quality, at least by the standards of the time, provided on mass with secure tenures for residents. These homes were a universal provision, like health became after the founding of the NHS. Council housing laid down the basic idea at the core of the welfare state. Huge estates like Wythenhsawe in Manchester were built to provide housing for thousands of people. This showed that mass provision of services by the state was possible, before we had the post-war consensus.
Some of them had excellent designs and pushed the art of architecture forwards. Such as Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London. Councils employed top architects and their commissions were sort after. The best architects of the time wanted to put their talents to work on the huge canvases that council housing offered.
Obviously, there were problems with some council estates. Goldfinger’s Terllick Tower, his larger follow up to Balfron Tower in Kensal Green, West London became known as the “Tower of Terror”, synonymous with crime, drug addiction and social decay. The causes of the social problems on some estates are complex and beyond the scope of this article, but it’s undeniable that there were problems.
Some estates were built with the best of intentions, but were flawed. The lack of external doors on Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, meant that the only door to the outside world tenants had was the door to their flat. In theory this was a good idea as it mimicked the arrangement of the Victorian terraced houses the estate had replaced. The estate was also built with wide corridors so that if mums pushing prams stopped to chat they wouldn’t block access. However, the lack of external doors to the estate meant anyone could enter the estate and the vast corridors and stairwells quickly become convenient places to sell drugs.
Everyone should have a home
Although there were flaws in execution the idea of council housing was not flawed in principal. Everyone should have a home and the state should provide one to those who cannot access a good quality home through private markets. Council housing was more than just housing for those in desperate need or to avoid the exploration of the poorest. It was for everyone.
The crucial change came under Margent Thatcher. Her “right to buy” council house sell off was the largest privatization of her government. She also affected an ideological change that council houses were only for the poorest. They became much less appealing, as living in council housing was now a mark of poverty. It didn’t fit with the aspirational world view of the Thatcher government or the New Labour government, which did not invest in building enough new council housing to undo the damage of right to buy.
Neglect of council estates over the last three decades by Labour and Tory governments has made them worse and informed the negative view we have of council estates today. On the 100th anniversary of the Addison Act we should remember why council houses were built. Council housing shows that mass provision of housing by the state can improve people’s living conditions and give them more secure tenures. It also shows that mass provision, as opposed to means testing, is more effective in making a state service desirable and thus ensuring it continues to exist. This is an essential learning for the future of education and the NHS.
Today we desperately need more council housing to guarantee a minimum standard of housing for those who are suffering with terrible living conditions in the private rental market. Years of insufficient numbers of council houses being built has led to too many people renting privately and more people living in terrible conditions because they can’t afford anything better.
We also need to remember that fundamental to council housing is the idea of housing provision for all. The welfare state is there for everyone and it won’t be safe from those who want to dismantle it unless we embrace that concept.