The History of Council Housing

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5 Meeting the Post-war Housing Shortage

The outbreak of the Second World War effectively put a stop to house building for a second time. As the war drew to a close, Britain faced its worst housing shortage of the twentieth century. Thousands of houses across the country had been lost by heavy bombing and many more were badly damaged. It was estimated that 750,000 new homes were required in England and Wales in 1945 to provide all families with accommodation. Plans were drawn up for a major building programme, drawing on the themes established prior to 1939. The election of 1945 saw a Labour government voted in and housing policy was central to their welfare reforms in their manifesto. Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health, was responsible for the housing programme which focused heavily on local authority involvement rather than reliance of the private sector. Added pressure on the Government came in the form of soldiers returning from war and rising working class expectations as a result of Labour's promises.
Part of the initial response was programme of short term repairs to existing properties and the rapid construction of ‘prefabs’ – factory built single storey temporary bungalows. These were highly controversial at the time but the Prime Minister of the time, Winston Churchill, was strongly in favour and initiated the Temporary Prefabricated Housing programme. Churchill originally wanted half a million prefabs built across the country as a stopgap measure until labour could be mobilised for more permanent housing. They were expected to last for only 10 years but they proved very popular with some residents. There are still many lived in across the country with 330 in use today in the city of Bristol - one of the largest concentrations of prefabs left in the country. Over the years most prefabs have been demolished and replaced with permanent housing.
The first prefabs were completed June 1945 only weeks after the war had ended. Factories that had previously been employed to build other products such as Aeroplanes were converted to build sections of the innovative new houses. It took a minimum of 40 man-hours to assemble the two bedroom houses complete with plumbing and heating. Sometimes prisoners of war who were still being held in the country were used to help in the construction of the concrete slabs on which the sections of bungalow were erected. The prefabs could be completed very quickly once the sections were delivered to the site. Unlike traditional houses they had fully fitted kitchens and bathrooms.
Despite the construction of 156,622 prefabs the country still faced an acute housing shortage and waiting lists soared in urban areas. All over the country local authorities took the lead in building homes for growing families. House building battled on despite a shortage of materials and the worst winter in living memory in 1947. New estates were emerging and established ones expanded, at the peak of production in Bristol in 1955, 43 families per week were being moved into brand new homes. Demand was so high that national league tables were devised showing the numbers of council homes built across the country, enormous pressure was put on Housing Departments to produce.
To meet the shortage and bring the cost of housing down, a new form of construction was pioneered, commonly called ‘PRC’ (Pre-cast Reinforced Concrete). These houses were quick to assemble and required less skilled labour than traditional build. They were proprietary brands developed and marketed by different builders. Largely made from concrete panels reinforced with steel then bolted together or constructed with a steel frame. They included various kinds such as Airey (left), Cornish, Wates, Unity (below left), Reema, Tarran, Woolaway (below right) and Parkinson types. The city of Leeds lead the way with the highest number of PRCs built. They were like the prefabs in that they were built by non-traditional methods from components made in a factory but unlike the prefabs they were permanent and were expected to last for at least 60 years.

The construction of these new quick build houses seemed like part of the solution to the housing crisis at the time, however as we will see they were later to cause major problems for tenants and councils across the country. In the decade after 1945, 1.5 million homes had been completed and some of the demand for housing had been alleviated. The percentage of the people renting from local authorities had risen to over a quarter of the population, from 10% in 1938 to 26% in 1961.

©2008 University of the West of England, Bristol
except where acknowledged
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