The History of Council Housing

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2 Before Council Housing

Britainís cities began to expand on a large scale during the nineteenth century largely due to workers and labourers from the surrounding countryside flocking to the city seeking work during the years of industrialisation and growing opportunity for employment. House building at this time was largely done by profit-seeking private builders. Mostly they built long streets of terraced houses and these new communities were largely unplanned. The large majority of the population rented privately, from a modest room in a house to a grand residence in the country. Mainly due to the fact that borrowing and mortgages had not become commonplace, only the richest people could afford to own their own homes.
Problems of poor housing conditions, mostly in inner city areas, grew steadily as city populations increased. With the development of high density unorganised neighbourhoods, overcrowding became commonplace. In the poorer areas of cities families could be found huddled in dark and unsanitary courts of squalid housing often without facilities and natural light. Some of the worst conditions were found in London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle. Concerns began to grow across the country about public health arguably this was stimulated by a fear among the middle classes of infectious disease spreading from the overcrowded and insanitary working class housing into where they lived. There was pressure on the Government to begin looking at housing issues and they were slowly persuaded to intervene. It was argued that new private housing was too expensive for most working class families and of these houses, most were built in the suburbs which were too expensive and distant from their sites of employment.
Government begun to pass various Acts mainly aimed to address the worst areas of housing unfit for habitation or to improve or demolish existing houses. The most important Act came in 1890: the ĎHousing for the Working Classes Actí. Efforts was made to build and regulate private Common Lodging Houses that catered for those in the most need, like the one purpose built in Bristol illustrated on the right. They provided accommodation mostly for single men in little dormitories as seen left. Other private Lodging Houses like the 'Britts Central Home for Men Only' (below) opened up providing basic beds for some of the poorest people in society and were mostly run by charitable trusts or voluntary organisations. There was also a movement for improved housing from some independent organisations such as the Bristol Industrial Dwellings Company who pioneered for housing the poorer people in Bristol and succeeded in erecting three blocks of flats containing 80 tenements in the area of Jacobís Wells.

Up until 1919, although councils did have the power to build houses, most had had little involvement. Some corporation family housing was provided, mainly in London, Liverpool and Glasgow, often to rehouse those displaced as the result of street improvement schemes. Londonís local councils had began to build houses in the 1890s, one of its earliest schemes was the inner city Millbank Estate in Westminster completed in 1902. The estate provided affordable rented flats for 4,430 people on a site that had previously been the notorious Millbank prison.

However in almost all areas, efforts to clear slum areas exceeded all house construction, effectively reducing the number of low cost housing available. Most pre-1919 corporation housing was built cheaply taking the form of high density tenement blocks of flats with small rooms and limited facilities including shared kitchen and toilets and no running hot water. Typical rents where high which was no comfort to those on low and irregular wages and thus did not provide housing for the very poor. One reason for high rents was that before 1919 no corporation dwellings received subsidy from central government. It wasnít until after the First World War that housing became a real priority.

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