High-Rise Heroes and the Big Society

Islington Estate towers in Salford

Islington Estate, Salford. Image - Fraser Chapman.

Leif Jerram (History) writes about the history of social housing in the UK and the challenges for today.

We all know that ‘our inner city estates’ are places of despair, desperation and architectural idiocy, right? We know that we need a ‘big society’, and that ‘society’ and ‘the state’ are not the same thing, right? But there are other questions to ask. Let’s start with the most basic one: where will your children live? And with current rates of house-building and house prices where will any working-class person be able to get a house in 2012, let alone 2025? Because when the Liberal, Labour and Tory city fathers of 1920s Liverpool, 1930s Manchester or 1950s Birmingham asked these questions, they came up with robust, vivacious, dynamic answers. For them, the ‘big society’ meant great houses, lots of houses, cheap houses, built in their millions by the private sector and town councils.

A survey of a house in Liverpool in 1929 captures some of the misery of British cities between the wars. The house had 9 rooms. Each room was inhabited by a family – this one was typical: ‘A young married couple, both 22, with a three-month-old baby. Husband describes himself as “casual labourer” but has apparently never even had an hour’s insurable employment… They live on 22s relief, of which they pay 5s. rent.’ Broken Britain indeed. But the response was to construct solid, well-built housing on a vast scale – not for the likes of this man, but for the respectable working class above him. He would move into their vacated slums. The City of Liverpool built housing for about 80,000 people in the 1920s inside the city boundaries, with a further 15,000 homes built outside the city. Then, in the 1930s, they moved another 60,000 out – right in the middle of a global financial crisis and prolonged industrial depression that dwarfs our own.

But it wasn’t just the state: our cities are ringed by vast belts of 1930s semis, financed through innovative, risk-taking financial products aimed at the lower-middle classes: cheap, low-deposit mortgages. So while city councils build 1.2m homes between the wars, the private sector built 3m. Even in 1933, in the depths of the Depression, 288,000 privately built houses were finished; in the last boom year of 2009, only 108,000 private homes were built. Why? Because planning laws now viciously restrict land supply, and middle-class suburbanites are proactive and ruthless in mobilising them to ossify their ‘communities’ just the way they are. And damn the consequences for the ‘young married couple, both 22, with a baby.’ Between the wars, planners set quality standards and building densities – but the rest, they left to the market. These are still some of the most popular houses and areas in the UK today. Commitment to quality + market-based solutions to land supply + innovative financial products = housing success.

And what of the ‘mistakes’ of the 1960s? The ‘never had it so good’ Tory government of the 1950s knew that for the 41% of Mancunians in 1951 with no bath, and 44% with no toilet or hot water, urgent action on a vast scale was needed. And so in 1957 they decided to build upwards, and Tory and Labour competed in city elections on how much they could build and how quickly, such that the Tories could win Salford in 1968. That was a big society – Tories holding working-class northern councils, determined to house their citizens. A working class desperate for light, clean, warm living moved enthusiastically to the high- and low-rise estates of the 60s and 70s. And they were mostly a success.

But in the crises of the 1970s and 80s, three terrible mistakes were made. First, building by the state stopped as the Wilson government collapsed into bankruptcy. This started the crisis of housing supply we feel today. Second, Labour gave people the ‘right’ to a home in the housing act of 1977. With noble intent, combined with the end of house building, this was a disaster. Housing officers were picky about who got council housing before 1977, and they worked hard to make sure estates got a mix of people – old and young, families and single, lower-middle and working class. The 1977 act changed all that. Whereas before, being an alcoholic or a single mum or unemployed or a refugee would have excluded you from public housing, with no new stock, being unstable or unemployed or unemployable or mentally ill or drug addicted or having lots of children by different fathers would now privilege you on the housing list – housing had become a ‘right’ and not a ‘reward’. Estates collapsed, and the ‘respectable’ working classes left when they could. The final blow was not the Thatcher government’s decision to allow the prosperous working classes to buy their well-built, spacious council houses; it was their insistence that the money raised should be spent on any old thing except more houses.

So by the mid 1990s, many social housing estates were either private and prosperous due to right-to-buy, or still in council hands but housing communities in crisis, unable to manage the ever-growing numbers of social problems crammed into their perimeters. But the problem can be fixed. Releasing land supply, challenging the more hateful aspects of NIMBY-ism, setting high construction standards and stimulating an inventive mortgage market would free the private sector to build good houses. And realising the limitations of the ‘big society’, and the occasional need for ‘proactive but not big government’ on a local scale would mean that we could start to put working people back into social housing and make it sociable again.

Thanks to Fraser Chapman for the image.

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