Part 2 – A Brief History of Public Housing

The Right to Housing Is an Election Issue

Part 2 – A Brief History of Public Housing


Public housing in Britain has a long history stretching back to the 19th Century. The steep rise in the population of the cities during the Industrial Revolution led to the growth of urban slums, where much of the working class lived in overcrowded buildings of poor quality, disease was rife and crime and other social problems took hold. This had reached such proportions that change posed itself as a straightforward necessity. For the industrial capitalists, there was the economic need for a fit, healthy and orderly workforce, located near to the factories. Disease led to epidemics and was not discriminate: the rich were themselves very much at risk. For the workers, the need was simply for a standard of living fit for human beings. Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, was seminal in smashing the silence on the conditions of life and work. Furthermore, the Chartist movement and the formation of the first workers’ and socialist parties meant that the working class was becoming organised and making its demands politically, while ever since the Paris Commune, the threat of revolution existed.

The issue of housing therefore posed itself as a sharp necessity at that time, which the owners of capital needed to act upon, lest the workers themselves would. First this was taken up in the form of philanthropy, later by certain factory owners, some of whom built quite extensive housing for their workers, most notably the villages of Saltaire in 1853, Port Sunlight in 1888 and Bourneville in 1893.

Nevertheless, it was only after the entire period of the Industrial Revolution that the state first became involved with a Royal Commission in 1885, resulting in the Housing Act of 1890. This Act encouraged local authorities to improve housing, including giving them the power to close unsanitary residences. As a consequence, the newly-formed London County Council began building the world’s first public housing estate in 1890. The Boundary Estate, officially opened in 1900, replaced the notorious Old Nichol slum in the East End of London, where the infant mortality rate was so high that a quarter of babies died before reaching the age of one.

This began the first wave of council house building. It was no coincidence that this happened at the turn of the 20th century as capitalism matured into the global, monopoly-dominated imperialist system. The pursuit of empire-building further required a healthy working class, not least to serve in increasingly sophisticated and large-scale wars. The poor condition of the workers became particularly evident during the First World War. The Housing Act of 1919 required councils to provide housing, assisted by government funding, resulting in council house building on a mass scale. Later, with the onset of the Great Depression, the 1930 Housing Act required councils to prepare slum clearance plans.

The Second World War changed the situation again, not only because of the need to rebuild the bombed cities. Inspired by the victory over fascism, the working class and people were demanding change. The post-war Labour government ushered in the new welfare state arrangements to control this situation through accommodating and making some concessions to the workers. At the same time, the Labour Party was beginning to position itself as a catch-all party ostensibly representing the whole people, and as such set out a vision for society. In this context, and drawing on the experience of the earlier “garden cities”, Health and Housing Minister Aneurin Bevan envisioned estates where “the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other”. Out of this came the New Towns Act of 1946. Under this programme, entire towns were built on areas of land designated for development by the government. Eleven such towns had been built by 1955, the first being Stevenage in Hertfordshire.

The pattern followed in England and Wales was typically of modest but well-spaced semi-detached houses with gardens; in Scotland, three or four storey blocks of flats. In either case, these homes brought indoor toilets and hot running water for the first time to many workers.


This set the stage for the subsequent period, which became the heyday of the public house-building era under both Labour and Conservative governments, though it went through various phases and shifts in emphasis. Generally, the new town model was gradually abandoned, with the focus now on rapid house-building within the cities on the scale of hundreds of thousands per year; 1.5 million homes were built between 1965 and 1970. High-rise tower blocks of six or more floors, which could be built quickly and cheaply, came to dominate. Council housing rose to form half of the total housing stock during the 1960s, and was the way in which the majority of the working people lived.

It was also in this period that the Parker Morris Committee wrote a report entitled “Homes for Today and Tomorrow” on the size and quality of social housing, resulting in the Parker Morris Standards. These became legally enforced, first for all houses built in new towns in 1967 to all council houses in 1969. Though aimed at public housing, private sector housing was also influenced by these standards.

The welfare state era and the post-war social contract came to an end with the election of the Thatcher government in 1979, which unleashed the anti-social offensive in favour of the monopolies, which had switched their favoured approach to demanding that every aspect of the economy and society pay them tribute. Only monopoly right was to be recognised from this point on; public right was to be accommodated no more. Initially, this took the form of the erosion of state provision, privatisation and promotion of the so-called free market economy.

Regarding housing, this meant replacing any notion of the right to housing with the “Right to Buy”. Under this banner, one of the first pieces of major legislation of the Thatcher government, the 1980 Housing Act, allowed council tenants to purchase their house from their local authority. In addition, the Parker Morris Standards were abandoned, and house sizes in both the public and private sector became significantly smaller.

This single act spelled the end of the public housing system that had developed until that time. About 1.5 million council houses were sold in the first ten years; in that time, home ownership rose from 55% to 67% of the population. Subject to the unshielded market, house price boom and bust has become a permanent feature, with an overall trend of widening disparity between average prices and wages. The opening up to the market allowed big players to move in; it is reported that at least a third of ex-council houses are now owned by rich landlords. Other features have been a shortage of social housing as well as, on the one hand, gentrification of housing estates, and on the other, their running-down into areas of concentrated deprivation.

The other growing sector that took off in this period are non-state providers of social housing, such as housing associations. Tony Blair’s New Labour government which came to power in 1997 carried on where Thatcher left off by using housing associations to take the management of social housing away from local authorities. This was first done through Large Scale Voluntary Transfers of council property to housing associations, and later settled on Arm’s Length Management Organisation. This was in effect a kind of public-private partnership, where local authorities retained ownership, but “not-for-profit” organisations managed the homes. It was a classic “third way” approach to increasing private involvement in the sector.

By this time, mortgages and the private rental sector was the norm for most of the population; council housing had become a form of welfare benefit for those on lowest incomes. House prices and rents were on the rise, and standing in between, housing associations typically charged higher rents than councils. By the early 2000s, rents had become so high that private property developers began to be required to offer a proportion of “affordable housing” in order to obtain planning permission.

The situation today is that a small but significant minority (17% in 2010) of households are in social housing, split almost half way between homes provided by councils and private housing associations. Of the council houses, a small proportion is arms-length managed. Most new housing fails to meet the Parker Morris Standards laid down fifty years ago.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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