Council housing now: lessons from the past

In the quarter-century before 1914, local authorities accounted for about two per cent of new dwellings. But, for the years 1919-23, the figure was 60 per cent, and for the inter-war period as a whole 30 per cent – a figure that increased in the post-war period until the tap of council house building was turned off by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

The Addison Act followed from the promise made by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, in the turbulent period after the armistice of November 1918, to deliver half a million homes “fit for the heroes who have won the war”. Under the Act, local authorities were required to meet the housing needs of their area and, to enable them to do so, an open-ended (yes really!) Treasury grant was introduced.

Looking back from 2019, perhaps three major lessons stand out. The first is that, faced with a massive numerical shortage of housing, the only way to deal with it was through local authorities. At the end of World War I, Lloyd George and Christopher Addison realised that if the housing shortage was really going to be tackled, it was no good looking to private builders or housing associations: only the local authorities had the heft to do it. The same surely applies today.

“Surely this is what our private housebuilders need today – a kick up the backside from a new generation of high-quality council homes that will compel them to raise their standards to match

The second is to do with quality. To meet the aspirations of the returning ‘heroes’, the new houses had to be much better than the terraced housing (‘tunnel-backs’) of the past. Internally, they were to be of a much higher standard, well-lit and well-ventilated, with generous space standards and features such as inside bathrooms and toilets; and they were to be laid out not as long terraces but on ‘garden suburb’ lines, with gardens front and rear and ample green space for leisure and recreation.

The new approach was set out in the Tudor Walters Report of 1918 and implemented by local authorities, resulting in the construction of municipal garden suburbs across the land in the 1920s.

Faced with this new competition, speculative builders rapidly decided they could not continue with an outdated format and so they too adopted the Tudor Walters model. Surely this is what our private housebuilders need today – a similar kick up the backside from a new generation of high-quality council homes that will compel them to raise their standards to match?

The third lesson is to do with party politics. Lloyd George and Addison were both Liberals, but the Government in 1919 was a coalition in which the Conservatives were the majority partner. The Chancellor of the Exchequer who, in 1919, authorised expenditure on the housing programme (“We ought to push on with it immediately, at whatever cost to the State”) was not a Liberal or Labour MP but a Conservative, Austen Chamberlain. In other words, in 1919 the recognition that a large-scale programme of council house building was needed to tackle the housing shortage extended to all political parties. Let us hope this is something that our new Prime Minister bears in mind.

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