Celebrations fit for heroes

Originally published on January 31as a blog for Inside Housing.

This year marks the centenary of a key event in the history of housing in Britain that deserves to be widely celebrated.

The 1919 Housing Act was designed to deliver on Lloyd George’s promise of homes for the soldiers, sailors and munitions workers of the First World War. He never actually said the exact words ‘homes fit for heroes’ and only 213,000 of the 500,000 promised were delivered before the Treasury axe fell in 1921.

But the results can still be seen in towns and cities all over the country in well-designed and spacious houses and the Act drawn up by health minister Christopher Addison also legacy for the future that went beyond the homes themselves. 

Christopher Addison, the architect of the 1919 Act

It effectively established principles for council housing that lasted (but would also be contested) through the rest of the century by giving local authorities responsibility for assessing local housing need and the tools and the resources to address it. 

Councils had been building houses on a discretionary basis since the 1860s but both main political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, were opposed to state subsidies. Under the 1919 Act, councils levied a penny on the rates and the Treasury met the rest of the initial costs in loans repayable from the rents.  

The homes themselves would be of a far higher quality than were being built in the private sector, with the best homes drawing on garden city principles to deliver space and light and a bathroom instead of damp, overcrowding and slums. 

Council housing has had its ups and downs in the 100 years since. The Conservative part of the coalition government in 1919 saw council housing and post-war rent control as temporary measures that could be abandoned when the housing market returned to ‘normal’ (a theme that would be replayed after 1979). 

The Geddes Axe of 1921 scrapped a programme whose costs were inflated by post-war inflation. Addison resigned in protest from the government and eventually left the Liberal Party. 

When Bevan proclaimed his vision of a ‘living tapestry’ in 1945 Addison was a member of the Labour government and council housing would become a mass tenure in the years as both main parties vied to build more of it. 

For most of the last 40 years, through the right to buy, spending and borrowing controls and stock transfer, it has mostly been about the downs but politics is at last moving back in the right direction. 

I’ve just edited a special issue of Welsh Housing Quarterly celebrating the centenary with articles looking back to 1919 (see, for example, this article by John Boughton, author of Municipal Dreams). 

But I also look at more recent developments that allow local authorities to look to the future with renewed confidence. 

It may be too early to assess the full impact of the end of borrowing caps in England and Wales but the right to buy finally ended in Wales last Saturday after several years of being suspended in many areas.

There was clear ambition to build new homes among the Welsh councils that I spoke to but this is about much more than just numbers – councils are also looking to advance agendas on quality, space and energy efficiency and embracing a wider housing role. 

Austerity and universal credit may continue, and I also found some frustration at the time it takes to get things done, but 100 years on from 1919 there is a real determination to make sure that they do. 

But this year’s centenary is about more than just the plans of individual local authorities. It also marks an opportunity to celebrate a proud history, bring communities together and remind everyone of the achievements of the past that could be an inspiration for the future. 

The best plans I’ve come across so far are in Bristol, where Homes for Heroes 100, a group of projects in Sea Mills, Hillfields, St Judes and Knowle West, has won National Lottery Funding to explore the history of the areas and the people who have lived there over the last century.

There will be a book written by people who have grown up on council estates, art projects, walking tours and a phone box refurbished to share stories and the planting of a new oak tree to go with the one planted by Addison himself when he visited Bristol in June 1919 to cut the first sod for new homes at Sea Mills.  

The present day housing minister was asked in the Commons on Monday why he had turned down an invitation to the centenary celebrations and said that he was ‘impatient to visit’ and plans to be in Bristol today (Thursday). 

There is also a conference at the Institute for Historical Research in London in July bringing together historical perspectives on 1919 plus broader themes about social and housing policy.  

The Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH) has raised the anniversary with the government and is calling for ideas and suggestions about how to mark it.  

There are Addison Act houses all over the country and any number of different Addison Streets whose story their residents may not know. 

This year’s centenary is a chance to celebrate not just the past but also the present and the future of council housing.   

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The best housing books of 2018

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 17.

As housing has risen up the political and media agendas, so the shelves are filling with books explaining where we’ve gone wrong and what we could do to put things right.

Reflecting that, and just in time for anyone wondering what to get the housing nerd in their life for Christmas, here are my three housing books of the year.

Municipal-Dreams-1050-f7515083b021fd4a7184368e857ac9de

First up is John Boughton’s indispensable history of council housing, Municipal Dreams – The Rise and Fall of Council Housing.

It’s a predictable choice and one already made by many other reviewers but it is one that is better late than never and one that will be even more worth reading next year against the background of the centenary of Homes Fit for Heroes.

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Radio review: Streets Apart

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on September 11.

In case you missed it, you still have chance to catch up with a superb history of social housing that ran over the last two weeks on Radio 4.

Lynsey Hanley’s Streets Apart told the story from the beginning of council housing in the 19th Century in Liverpool to the present. I got the impression that most of it was made before the fire at Grenfell Tower, but its shadow looms over everything.

Why is the series so good? Partly that Lynsey Hanley knows what she is talking about (as author of Estates: An Intimate History and Respectable: The Experience of Class). She is also an engaging presenter with an accent not normally heard on Radio 4 that comes from her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood estate in Solihull.

Partly because her interviewees know what they are talking about: they are a mixture of experts in local areas, in architecture, planning and housing and local residents who are given time to tell their stories.

But also because she recognises the nuances and contradictions in the history of social housing and in its present: Michael Heseltine comes out of it surprisingly well for the minister who introduced the Right to Buy; another Tory minister Harold Macmillan gets the last word; and the final episode features more than one side to current regeneration controversies.

Her message may be obvious in one sense and, as she says, naïve and utopian in another: in the wake of Grenfell Tower, housing needs the same national priority as health and education.

But the thesis behind it is also a challenge to those of us who would agree with all of that: ‘Social housing in Britain has suffered from the flaw of being regarded as being only for poor and working class people and not for everyone.’

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Theresa May and Old Joe

Originally published on June 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Ever since the advance reports of what would be in the Conservative manifesto, I’ve been wondering where the party’s new housing agenda comes from.

As I blogged at the time, the manifesto programme seems to go well beyond the Housing White Paper. It involves not just ‘a new generation of social housing’ but also enhanced compulsory purchase powers for councils and land value capture.

The obvious answer – one that all governing parties do in their manifesto – is to take what is already on the stocks in the relevant department and spin it into a more visionary-sounding idea.

That seems to be what happened with the discussions already underway between the DCLG and three councils – Stoke, Sheffield and Newark and Sheffield – about a package of measures that would enable them to build more homes.

As Inside Housing reported last month, the deals with those pilot authorities involve not just flexibility on borrowing caps but potentially new deals on rents and land assembly too.

That is important because councils have identified a range of barriers to them building new homes, including the caps, the way Right to Buy receipts are treated and (especially) the rent cut. Funding would come from the £1.4 bn allocated in the Autumn Statement

But the manifesto seems to be about more than just a few pilots and some existing money.

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The charge of the Brexit brigade

For some strange reason, these lines are running through my head ahead of the triggering of Article 50.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

It’s not so much because I think we will be metaphorically blown to pieces by the guns of the other 27 EU members. Nor because that verse is a pretty accurate description of MPs trooping through the lobbies to vote for something they know is a historic mistake. It’s because our generals seem to think those are reasons to send us even faster into the valley.

Without stretching the metaphor too far, the famous charge into the Russian guns at the Battle of Balaklava was the result of ambiguous orders, arrogance and personal rivalries. Lord Raglan probably said something about ‘having a punt, having a go, that’s what pumps me up’, Lord Lucan (yes, really) gave a speech in front of a bus and the Earl of Cardigan obeyed an order he knew was suicidal while mumbling something about a country that works for everyone.

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2016 and the end of the end of history

As we near the end of 2016 history is everywhere. Everyone seems agreed that it was the year that marked the end of something – but of what exactly?

Does Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton mark the end of neoliberalism? Does the fact that it happened 27 years to the day from the fall of the Berlin Wall mark the end of the post-Cold War era or the start of a new counter-revolution? Does the vote for Brexit mean a return to the ‘golden age of free trade’ or the protectionist, fear-ridden politics of the 1930s?

Does the West’s failure in Syria and the rebirth of Russian power in the Middle East mark the end of American hegemony? Does all of it mean that the Age of the Internet is experiencing the same upheavals as the Age of Discovery?

Both Trump and Brexit appealed to the past for their core support. Nostalgia was weaponised through slogans like ‘take back control’ as they promised to Make America (or Britain) Great Again. The same arguments were made in reverse in the first European referendum – the sense of national decline, of losing an empire without finding a role was a big reason why people voted yes to Europe then – but the Brexiteers harked back to a supposed golden age before 1975.

Trump appealed to the common man and promptly appointed the richest Cabinet since the Gilded Age. One young Republican with no sense of history or irony celebrated the great news that the party was set to control the presidency, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court for the first time since 1929.

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Shrinking the state

What would it mean if George Osborne succeeds in cutting public spending to its lowest level since the 1930s?

The scale of the cuts for the rest of this decade implied by the deficit reduction targets in the Autumn Statement takes us into territory uncharted since the war. Many people believe Osborne has moved from the realms of the unlikely to the realms of fantasy and it’s not hard to see why. If the chancellor missed the deficit targets he set out in 2010 by a wide margin, why should we accept what he says in 2014? Especially when he says he can cut taxes at the same time.

Osborne must have hoped that all the headlines would be about stamp duty reform. Instead, news coverage has instead been dominated by the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projections of what further austerity would mean for the public sector. This graph on government consumption as a proportion of GDP sums it up:

1930s

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