The History of Council Housing

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3 Homes for Heroes

In the years before the First World War private builders had supplied virtually all new housing in towns and cities. The war, however, changed everything. Building activity came to a virtual standstill whilst the country fought. By the time of the General Election in 1918 it was becoming clear that the country faced an acute shortage of housing. Building costs were inflated and this, combined with a scarcity of materials and labour, made it impossible for the private developers to provide houses with rents within reach of the average working class family. The close of the war also brought a new social attitude that focused the Government’s attention on a national responsibility to provide homes, giving rise to Lloyd George's famous promise of  'homes fit for heroes'  referring to the many soldiers returning from the war.
The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 (The Addison Act) was seen as a watershed in the provision of corporation (council) housing. Councils were thrust to the forefront as the providers and they began to plan their post-war housing programmes. Housing Committees were set up, working largely from recommendations from central government's advisory committee - the Tudor Walters Committee and encouraged to build through the provision of generous subsidies. The subsidy arrangements shared the costs of this new housing between the tenants, local rate payers and the Treasury. Councils in areas of high housing need could apply for these subsidies. The London County Council (the predecessor to the Greater London Council) also raised money through selling London housing bonds which promised investors a 6% return and raised £4 million during the 1920s.

Planners promoted the construction of new suburban ‘garden’ estates, situated on the outskirts of cities. Mainly consisting of three bed houses for families, the design of the estates aimed to create self-contained communities of low density - often with no more than 12 houses per acre. Facilities, including churches, schools and shops, were provided; public houses were initially excluded from the plans. On most estates, house were provided with a generous size garden to encourage the tenants to grow their own vegetables, a privet hedge at the front and an apple tree at the back. The interiors varied, some having a parlour, but all had a scullery and bath. For most new tenants these new conditions were a huge improvement on their previous slum housing where they had experienced overcrowding and often were without even basic facilities. The quality of the housing was generally high. Although some slum clearance took place during the 1920s much of the emphasis of this period was to provide new general needs housing on greenfield sites.

The most ambitious estate built to reward soldiers and their families after the war was the massive Becontree estate in Dagenham which was to become the largest council housing estate in the world. Work by the London County Council on the estate started in 1921, farms were compulsory purchased and by 1932 over 25,000 houses had been built and over 100,000 people had moved to the area. The new houses had gas and electricity, inside toilets, fitted baths and front and back gardens. LCC also, however, had strict rules for new tenants on housework, house and garden maintenance, children’s behaviour and the keeping of pets. The estate expanded over the Essex parishes of Barking, Dagenham and Ilford with nearly 27,000 homes in total creating a virtual new town with dwellings for over 30,000 families.
Most of these new council estates, like Becontree, provided good quality housing for the better off working classes but did not provide a solution for the poorer people in society. Rents were high and subletting was forbidden so naturally the tenants in the best position to pay were selected. High rents sometimes meant difficulty in paying, as more applicants from unskilled occupations were housed.

The Addison Act was passed initially as a temporary measure to meet the housing need felt in the country as an effect of the war and at a time when private builders could not meet the demand. It was generally assumed that the private sector would resume responsibility for working class housing once the British economy had recovered.

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