The betrayal of the Addison Act

Originally published on July 22 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

As we celebrate the centenary of what was effectively the birth of council housing in 1919, it’s also worth remembering what happened just two years later.

Christopher Addison was the minister of health in the post-war coalition government of 1919 and it fell to him to deliver on the promise made by the prime minister, David Lloyd George of ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’.

The Housing and Town Planning (or Addison) Act that received Royal Assent 100 years ago this month (I started the celebrations early) was the landmark legislation that established the principles of council housing and also set out housing’s role in the wider health and wellbeing of the country.

As the King’s Speech put it in April 1919: ‘It is not too much to say that an adequate solution of the housing question is the foundation of all social progress.’

As seen at the time, especially by Addison himself as a surgeon before he became an MP, that housing question started with the consequences for health of the insanitary conditions and overcrowding suffered by millions of people.

The Addison Act provided generous subsidies for new council homes but it also set a framework that ensured that slum landlords did not profit from slum clearance.

Yet just two years later, in July 1921, the housing programme was abruptly scrapped. Only 213,000 of the promised 500,000 homes were delivered and central government assistance to replace and improve slums was reduced to a grant of just £200,000 (around £11m in today’s money) for the whole of Great Britain.

These cuts were the result of a post-war drive against waste in public spending that culminated in the Geddes Axe (named after the businessman and Conservative politician who chaired the committee recommending what could be cut).

However, those who Addison called ‘the apostles of anti-waste’ had a broader ideological agenda: to return the economy to ‘normal’ after increased state intervention during the war.

Addison resigned from the government in protest and eventually left the Liberals to join Labour. In 1922 he published his case for housing and against austerity in The Betrayal of the Slums.

In this righteously angry pamphlet Addison set out the insanitary conditions suffered by millions of people and the long-term costs to the country of poor housing.

At the time there were 77,000 back-to-back houses in Leeds and almost a half a million people living in one or two rooms in Glasgow.

Under His Act the Treasury picked up all of the costs of new council houses beyond what could be financed by a penny on the local rates.

He admitted that costs had escalated as a result of general inflation in building costs after the war but said his warnings about the need for preparatory work to avoid cost increases had been ignored in the clamour for quicker progress.

Instead there had been a ‘sudden reaction’:

‘Those who before had been loudest in their protests at the insufficient rapidity of our progress now became the foremost champions in the demand that the housing and slum reclamation projects should be abandoned.’

He also argued that costs were falling again by the time the programme was cancelled, and that they were in any case outweighed by wider benefits from employment and lower health and social costs.

As he put it:

‘It is difficult to argue how any body of rational beings could persevere in a policy of this kind at a time of such serious unemployment.’

Housing was trapped in a vicious circle. Private housebuilding could not revive in the face of continued restrictions on rents that were needed to keep them affordable in the face of a shortage of homes.

‘Therefore, at one and the same time the Government prevents the accumulated shortage being made good by State or municipal assistance and, by prolonging the shortage, commits the community to the continued operation of that statute which effectively prevents its being met by private enterprise.’

The point of this historical diversion is partly to make the point that the framework established by the Addison Act only lasted for two years before being cut to virtually nothing. The fortunes of council housing have ebbed and flowed ever since.

The Act’s legacy lies in the principles that it established to which future goverments would return (notably the 1945-1951 Attlee government in which the then Viscount Addison served as a minister).

However, there is also a more contemporary point. The arguments that Addison made are just as relevant now as they were then, especially when the austerity of the 2010s was the biggest squeeze on public spending since the anti-waste drive of the 1920s.

Austerity may be officially over, and even Tory politicians now say they are in favour of council housing, but a new prime minister, Cabinet and Brexit lie ahead and who knows where that will lead.

The final chapter of the pamphlet looks to the future and starts with a quote from a letter from the town clerk of a metropolitan council to a man looking for accommodation for his family:

‘I have to inform you that there are at present no vacant houses on any of the council’s estates. Your application has been received, and these will be considered in the event of a vacancyoccurring on any of the estates or when the houses now being erected are completed. There are at present about 6,000 applications on the file.’

If the echoes of contemporary waiting lists are hard to ignore, so too is Addison’s portrayal of an £11m housing budget in 1922 (£600m in today’s money) of which half was subsidy to private builders and which compared with expenditure on war services of £233m (£13bn).

The justifications for a social housing programme may be different now: the slums have largely been cleared (permitted development permitting); and affordability and security are now seen as the biggest elements of the housing question.

But the case for decent housing and its wider economic and social benefits (not least to health) are just as relevant today as they were then.

And it’s hard to put that case better than he did in 1922:

‘There is no direction in which the thrift, the contentment and the physical and intellectual capacity of our people can be more directly or plainly promoted than in this. It may be drab and unattractive in its detail, but in its nature and in its fulfilment, it is heroic. It is worthy of sacrifice and of all the powers of discipline and statesmanship that we possess.’

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