The History of Council Housing

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4 Inter-war Slum Clearance

The high building standards initially embraced in 1919 were gradually reduced during the 1920s and 1930s, as cost considerations became paramount space and amenities were reduced. The principle objective of the Wheatley Act of 1924 was to secure a continuous building programme for period of 15 years and to erect houses that could be let at lower rents to meet the position of lower wage earners. This put pressures to reduce the size and standard of houses and called for new council estates to be developed at a higher density. For instance, during this period, a new three bedroom house was often only 620 square feet compared to over 1000 square feet in 1919. New council housing was gradually becoming residualised and labelled for the very poor, despite this they generally continued to provide good quality accommodation.
After this initial burst of building activity across the country targeted at reducing the post-war housing shortage, local councils began to tackle the problem of its existing slum housing. The Housing Act of 1930 encouraged mass slum clearance and councils set to work to demolish poor quality housing and replace with new build. The photo on the left shows a designated Slum Officer at work to prioritise the demolition. Slum areas of housing existed in most inner city areas and were generally old, neglected and unhealthy places to live. Many of the houses had originally built for workers during the period of rapid industrial development often without thought for overcrowding or amenities such as an adequate water supply, ventilation and sunlight. Using powers available under the Act to acquire and demolish privately owned properties, slum clearance schemes were put into action across the country.
By 1933 all authorities were required to concentrate efforts on slum clearance; each had to submit a programme of building and demolition aimed at eliminating slums from their districts. The city of Bristol had calculated they had 25,000 people living in houses unfit for human habitation and proposed the replacement of 5,000 unfit dwellings. Unlike the garden estates built directly after the First World War, much of the slum clearance was replaced with flats, mostly three to five storeys high. They were often modelled on schemes in continental Europe such as the Quarry Hill flats in Leeds (shown left) which were inspired by a tour the Karl Marx building - workers flats in Vienna. Non-traditional building techniques were embraced - the photo to the right shows the steel framework for two of the units that would comprise Quarry Hill which was at this time the largest council house project in Europe.
Local councils tried initially to rehouse people locally back into the communities they were forced to vacate following the demolition of inner city slum areas. However central redevelopment was only ever confined to relatively small schemes at this time and the vast majority of new houses were built on new estates, most located on the fringes of the cities. This was a combination of central policy and the high cost of inner city land. The new tenants had to weigh up the disadvantage of a considerably longer journey to work and sense of isolation against the benefits of a new well equipped home.

Rents were generally lower in this period than they were for earlier schemes built under the 1919 Housing Act. Despite this and a general commitment to house those in most need, in practice the ability to pay the rent played a crucial factor in allocation. Rents were set much lower following the 1930 Housing Act in line with re-housing some of the poorest people in society under slum clearance policy.

Tenancy conditions were strict and regulations were enforced from the start. Some tenants were put off by the oppressive housing management. In Liverpool women housing managers were employed to inspect properties and instruct tenants on good housekeeping. Below is an extract from a letter to new tenant from the Corporation of Bristol Housing Estates on 15th June 1936 making an offer of a new house on the Knowle West estate.

“The Housing Committee realise that you have been living under very undesirable conditions, and that in worn out houses it is very difficult to get rid of vermin. But there will be no excuse in your new house. Do not buy secondhand furniture, bedding or pictures unless you are quite sure that the articles are free from vermin. Insects do not like soap and hot water, and they also dislike dusters and polish. So if in the new house you keep your windows open, and keep your bodies and clothing, floors and stairs, furniture and bedding clean; use the duster frequently on all skirting and ledges, you are not likely to be troubled again with vermin. This sounds a lot, but life isn’t going to be all work for the housewife. The new house will be easy to keep clean and it will be well worth looking after...”

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