In the late 1940s, my grandparents moved into a brand new council house in Birmingham. I remember visiting it as a kid in the ‘eighties and Sheldon felt like a pretty run down area by then, but just after the war it was a desirable area. Semi detached and modern, with a garden at the back (albeit still with an outdoor toilet) it was a far cry from what working class people had experienced before the war – not enough housing, exploitative private landlords, and buildings rotting and crumbling even before the efforts of the Luftwaffe. With a Labour government in power, promising a new era of ‘cradle to the grave’ collectivism amid the rubble of the war, housing was firmly on the agenda.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because housing is as much a political issue today as it was when Attlee was prime minister. A serious lack of affordable housing for first time buyers, combined with the post-banking crisis difficulty in obtaining mortgages, means a generation of young people will find it near impossible to get on the property ladder. Meanwhile, councils and housing associations have been building little in the way of social housing, and the age old problems of ‘sink’ estates and poor quality rented accommodation are still very much with us. Politicians know it’s getting worse – the waiting list for council housing is 12% longer now than in the previous quarter. But how did we get into this mess, and what should we do about it?
The Attlee government worked quickly to build new, good quality council houses – the ‘homes fit for heroes’ promised, but never delivered, after the previous world war. The incoming Tory government of 1951 built even more. But this was in a very different context than today – the 1950s and 60s were the post war boom years, supported by full employment, and the role of the state could not be more different to today. It didn’t seem unusual to anyone, except a handful of marginalised right-wingers, that the state had a role in providing most of the basic provisions of life for the majority of people.
Then, somewhere along the line, it all went wrong. In the ‘60s, government strategy moved towards creating new estates on the edge of cities, using new-fangled ‘system building’ to create vast, Modernist tower blocks and flats. This was in keeping with the optimistic, forward looking spirit of the era – remember, this was the age of Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’, when it was widely assumed that futuristic motorways would solve all our transport problems and new nuclear power plants would provide electricity too cheap to meter. Plus, system-building was cheap, and a booming population needed ever more homes. This disaster is well documented, but in brief, it condemned millions of people to being trapped in Eastern Block-like ‘slums in the sky’, riddled with damp, and with seemingly designed-in havens for crime in the estates’ dark corners and underpasses. With insufficient services on the estates, many residents felt isolated from the rest of society.
It didn’t help that it soon became evident that they were shoddily built, culminating in 1968 with the collapse of one tower block, Ronan Point in London, when it was nearly new. Neither did it help that corruption between developers and local councils (notably in Newcastle) gave the impression that local authorities had sold council house dwellers down the river.
All of these things conspired to turn public opinion against the State provision of housing, and the new political establishment were able to seize on this. When, in 1980, the Thatcher government broke with post-war consensus to allow council tenants to buy their council houses at a large discount, the pent-up desire for ownership was clearly in evidence. Plenty of working class people did indeed share Thatcher’s dream of a ‘property owning democracy’. Labour only objected to this initially – being against what was obviously the aspiration of many working people would have been wrong.
However, as we are now painfully aware, the problem with right-to-buy was that councils were left with the worst housing stock that no-one wanted to buy – generally the ‘60s era flats, creating sink estates where councils were forced to house addicts, the mentally ill and ‘problem families’ in the same areas. Once they got into power, rather than building new houses to replace the ones sold by the Tories, New Labour further reduced the ability of councils to do anything about the problem by transferring the responsibility for housing to unaccountable Housing Associations.
In Lynsey Hanley’s excellent book ‘Estates’ she accurately points out that the post war dream of the Attlee government was bound to run into trouble when it was commuted from ‘a council house for everyone that wants one’ to ‘a council flat in a high rise for anyone who can’t afford anything better’. The latter is the notion of council housing that I was aware of, growing up in the Thatcher era. There was no such stigma to being in a council house when my grandparents moved into that house in Sheldon, 60 years ago.
Moving back to the mass provision of housing by the State is unlikely in this day and age – society has moved on from that, irreversibly. Over 60% of homes are now owner-occupied. But that doesn’t justify Thatcherite ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitudes – the government should still have the same moral obligation to provide for people that it did in the Attlee era. Serious action needs to be taken to ensure that today’s young people have places to move into that are good quality and affordable, whether that’s through helping people get mortgages, or by providing more social housing. The free market won’t do it for us – just like in the 1940s, the government is going to have to take responsibility for the task at hand.
Of course, brown-field sites should be used first, but if we have to build on new land – so be it. It’s all very well for the baby-boomers to bleat about the aesthetics of new developments – they’re the ones who had no problem buying houses cheap and then watching as their values skyrocketed. We mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and 70s, where people were left isolated from jobs, shops and transport. We must recognise that demographics have changed, and provide not just family homes but also homes for single people and childless couples. But more than anything, we just need to get building. Britain has built its way out of recession at least once before, and, maybe, we can do it again.