Social Housing, a history – part 2 | S1E2

Park Hill, Sheffield

Social Housing plays a dramatic and hugely important role in our society. Before we delve into how marketing sits within this landscape, let’s take a look back over the last 150ish years at the history of Social Housing in the UK.

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Episode Transcript

Last episode we left things just before the 1st WW. We saw a shift from the rural, self-subsiding farming way of life to an urban one. We started to see industrial philanthropists like Titus Salt, the Levey and Cadbury brothers creating model villages for their workers, and Liverpool had lead the charge in the development of social housing, building what was the UK’s first block of Council Houses. Sure, that initial endeavour wasn’t fab but I think we decided that … well, at least it was a step in the right direction.

But before we dive into Social Housing’s post war story, I forgot to include Garden Cities in our last episode which is a huge oversight because what started as a concept in little ol’ England spread throughout the world, and was taken up by others around the world hoping for a better way of living. Let me rectify that.

Today, Garden Cities are often named thus for its picturesque implications rather than being founded on the guiding principle of the original movement., Ebenezer Howard worked as a court stenographer in the London Courts. Each day that he travelled to work will have shown him the horror of London’ slums and its urban squalor, and in his evenings and weekends came up with the idea of a Garden City. It was an idea that combined a vision of slumless and smokeless cities, together with social equality. There would be a place for everyone, with the town’s profits being fed back into the community.

Howard’s original drawings looks much like a wheel. Central to the plan is the larger city, a population Howard has specified on plan number seven as 58,000, over an area of 12,000 acres. Ringing the town is a canal which then radiates outwards, following the spokes of the main roads. These roads and canals form the connection between the city and the smaller, satellite towns around it, each with their own population of 32,000, over an area of 9,000 acres. Howard’s specificity does not stop at people and land. In the areas between the city and towns, he has designated space for farms, forest, reservoirs, and homes for those who suffer from epilepsy, waifs, inebriates, as well as an asylum. As we travel further out, industries are included and we see brickfields, stone quarries, an agricultural collage as well as a school for the blind. In other plans we see the inclusion of factories for cycles, boots and even a well-known life essential, jam. Howard believed very strongly that all of society’s individuals could be found a place to be useful, healthy, and to feel safe.

His vision came to fruition with the town of Letchworth, where construction started in 1903, with architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker laying the city out according to Howards idea. The actualisation of this vision was so influential to the New Town movement, that housing projects throughout the world were built on his guiding principles, with garden cities being built in Australia, German, Finland, Latvia and Egypt. Wonderfully, Howard was able to see his dreams become a reality. After Letchworth, Welwyn, in Hertfordshire, was built in 1920, a full eight years before Howard died. Not many visionaries get to see their dreams and ideas come into reality, and so it must have been tremendously pleasing for Howard to see two Garden Cities come to life.

As I said earlier, today Garden Cities are thus in name rather than vision. Christchurch, back in New Zealand, is called a Garden City. When I asked google why, the information it returned confirmed my suspicions and illustrates what the term Garden City means to so many these days. Under the title, “Is Christchurch still the Garden City? Blooming right it is”, Christchurch mayor Leanne Delziel is quoted saying, “If we’re going to live up to our reputation as a garden city then we’ve got to look a lot better than we do at the moment… unrestrained nature in the form of weeds does not make for a beautiful environment befitting our country’s Garden City.”  Another article I found lays the cities claim to the title at the feet of its “vast tracts of parklands, rose and water gardens, and verdant surroundings.” I mean, I can attest to the place being pretty but … No mention of welcoming all, caring for those in need, and most certainly no consideration to actively feeding profits from city-owned industries back into the support of the community. I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking that along the way, Howard’s vision got lost under a desire for the perfect lawn and matching rose bed. And I don’t think Christchurch is on its own in getting that one wrong.

But in our story, we haven’t quite got to the inequities of the House Proud of Later Years, and so I shall get back into where I left off in episode one. World War One. 

As you’ll remember from the last episode, before the 1st WW, the majority of housing was built by private builders, and that the commencement of the war brought a stop to almost all construction. This makes complete sense when you consider that world war one was the first industrial war the UK had been involved in. The entire county’s focus shifted to the war effort, and the manufacturing of materials, weapons and goods. Knowing the difficulties of housing that the country was already facing, the government built as many of the war-time factories as they could near towns, allowing workers to be brought in by bus or train. When that wasn’t possible, they built permanent housing close to the factories, as seen at Queensferry in Chester, in Gretna and Eastriggs for the Gretna Factory, and with the Well Hall Estate in Eltham. These four estates were the first housing developments built by the British Government using their own H.M. Office of Works

After the war, it was again to the private sector that the government looked. Unlike the Victorian times though, it wasn’t an option to sit and wait for them to feel the right kind of social feels, and so funding was found to encourage housebuilders to build in a time when rents and mortgages were falsely low and skilled workers were expensive because of their rarity.

The low rents and mortgage rate were put in place by the Government in the succinctly named 1915 Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restriction) Act. Extending to 6 months beyond the end of hostilities, it kept landlords and banks from take advantage and profiteering from the vulnerabilities of wartime. This was later secured and furthered by a 1918 Act that froze rents and mortgage interests at the rate they were charge on Christmas 1918 through to 1921, with only a 10% increase. Where these Acts protected the tenant and homeowner, they did nothing for the viability of working-class house building.

To combat this, the government came up with two schemes that would subsidise the building of new houses, the first in 1918 was superseded by another in 1919. It was this scheme that was so significant, as it brought the development of social housing under state control and was left to the newly created Ministry of Health to manage.

David Lloyd George, brought to the country’s highest office of Prime Ministerin the 1918 elections, made many promises in his speech after the armistice, and one amongst them was reported as the promise of “Homes for Heroes”. It was a good promise, one that conjured the impression of well built, nurturing places so deserved by the UK’s returning heroes. And it was a line that made for much better journalism than DLG’s actual, somewhat sterile commitment to build “habitations fit for the heroes who have won the war”. So the press did what the press sometimes of and changed the quote, thereby give it the lustre they deemed it lacked. All of a sudden it had some glamour, and most importantly of all, it was headline material. And so, a promise was made that wouldn’t’, couldn’t be entirely fulfilled. There wasn’t the money, and there wasn’t the manpower or materials to build homes for heroes.

That isn’t to say they didn’t try. The alluringly named “Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider Questions of Building Construction in Connection with the Provision of Dwellings for the Working Classes” was presented in 1918, setting out their recommended minimum for the design of housing and housing estates. Each house – there were 5 designs named A, B C D, and yep, you guessed it, E – had a living room, a scullery, bath, three bedrooms, and with the larger houses D and E having a specific larder.

Between 1918 and 1921, houses and housing estates were indeed built but it wasn’t without considerable grumbling from the treasury, the ministry of housing, the developers and the architects. With arguments and disagreements from all sides, it sounds an awful lot like that Christmas dinner you knew you shouldn’t have gone to. By 1921, subsidies were removed, and yup – house building slump. Things got a little better by 1923 which meant the money came back which then meant so did the builders.

This initial burst of enthusiasm slowed in the later 1920 and continued it’s decline in the 1930’s. Space and money reared their prohibitive heads again, and the 1924 Wheatly act that set in motion a 15 year long building programme aimed at lowering rents resulted in the houses built being considerably smaller than their 1919 predecessors. Councils widened their housing focus to slum clearing, and although they aimed to rehoused those living in the slums into the new houses built, it didn’t quite work out as planned. The inner-city redevelopments were limited to small areas, and the majority of the building happened on the fringes of the city. The newly unhoused tenants had to choose whether to stay in housing equal in state to the ones they’d just been evicted from to stay close to work and their community, or contend with the long travel times and social isolation of the new, fringe estates.

As was with the first world war, the start of world war two brought a halt to any house development, and the end of the war left the England and Wales needing seven hundred and fifty thousand new homes. An initial, stop-gap approach was to introduce prefab housing, and by June of ’45 these prefabs were already up. Factories previously making aeroplanes were instead building sections of houses, complete with bathrooms and kitchens. Previously, concrete hadn’t been a viable option when building houses, and now technology had caught up. Steel reinforced concrete panels were either bolted together on site or constructed using a steel frame. The speed and efficiency that this provided allowed the construction of 1.5 million houses in the ten years after the war.

In spite of all those new houses though, the UK was still in trouble. Slum areas were still widespread, and although they had been earmarked for clearing and redevelopment, it just hadn’t happened. Which meant people were still living in abject poverty in conditions that were should have been unhabitable. War-time bombing had laid waste to tracts of city land which many saw ripe for redevelopment, and it was into this landscape that architects, planners and designers stepped in to offer a different concept. A modern concept. Vertical living became a logical and achievable way of providing the quantity of housing at a high quality and would make use of the space in cities that came from slum clearing and bombing.

“Streets in the sky” was a concept of Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier, who’s architectural style as well as his sartorial choices were much copied around the world.  The building that started the Brutalist movement of architecture was the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. It was, as Corbusier described it, a vertical Garden City. Wide, pedestrian streets ran down the centre of Unité, flanked by restaurants and shops, and provided a social focus for the residents. Along with bread and a place to sleep, what Corbusier provided with his design “Space and light and order…”

For British architects Jack Lynn and Ivan Smith, this concept was what they needed for their project in Sheffield. Park Hill transplanted the terraced housing communities into new towers. The old street names were used to name the levels of the towers, and the planners made great efforts to keep neighbours by neighbours so that connections and social networks were maintained. Taking from Corbusier’s central street, the Park Hill houses were fronted by wide decks, much like that of a ship, so that there was space to stop for a chat and let the mailman past, or for the milkman to be able continue his rounds, cart and all.

In spite of its idealistic conception, Park Hill was deemed a failed experiment. For some of the residents that moved in, this new way of living was to different. There was an increase in suicides, families suffered from the lack of easily accessible play-space for the kids, and many tenants requested to be moved to low-level housing. And so, towards the end of the early 2000’s the complex was emptied out and taken over by a developer. It was, essentially, ahead of its time. Today Park Hill has been reopened and this time round has been successful enough to warrant a phase two which will be ready middle of next year.

Councils were encouraged to embrace multi-storey building, and in order to speed up the process of slum clearing and reducing the housing shortage, local authorities returned to prefabricated housing materials that had worked so well previously. Conservative Prime Minister Howard McMillan encouraged the adoption of this style of building, and even offered subsidies to local authorities who built beyond four stories. The more floors, the more money local authorities got. McMillan, when he came to office in 1951, pledged to build 800,000 homes in the first three years, and by the end of 1954 he was only 5,000 short. When looking at those kinds of numbers on the page, it was a remarkable feat.

But as we know, speed and cost cutting isn’t something that works well together. McMillan’s housing officer called it Industrial Building: factories churning out stackable wall panels that sandwiched the floor between them and it was at Ronan Point was where it all went wrong. It was, as architect Sam Webb described, a tower built like a house of cards. Completed in the late 60’s, and only a month after the residents moved in, a gas explosion on the 18th floor blew the load-bearing, external walls out of one corner, toppling the flats above onto the flats below. The corner of the building, almost to the ground floor, sheared off. The disaster killed four people and left 17 others severely injured. After the explosion, and as a result of the enquiry into it, tower blocks lost their appeal for many.

So if building up isn’t everything they hoped it would be, why not go back to building out? The Thamesmead estate on the outskirts of London, is an example of this. Designed as a self-contained New Town, it was a futuristic mix of multi-story and high-rise buildings, housing 90,000 people, with a boating lake and open green spaces. It promised safer, better place to live. The only thing was, things didn’t get off to a great start. The land they had chosen was marshy and prone to flooding, and it was flanked by the first and second largest sewage works in Europe. Their other neighbours were hardly any better with two power stations pumping fumes so foul into the air that the planners agreed not to build higher than 60 meters. Regardless of those not trifling hurdles, many who arrived to live in Thamesmead loved it. The original plan was to put in place another river crossing so that the residents could reach central parts of London with more ease, but that didn’t happen and those that didn’t love the estate felt isolating from the rest of the world. New residents who were moving into a new town, with new neighbours. This isolation was caused by the fact that many of the New Towns and Estates built in the post-war era, struggled to find land large enough to house the population they were building for and so, very often, were only able to find land on the periphery of larger cities, as was the case with Thamesmead. This mean, in their early stages, they weren’t connected with adequate bus services. Houses were often finished and yet residents would arrive to find that their houses were surrounded by unfinished roads and footpaths, without schools, shops and other amenities that offered communities structure and focus.

Having had this flurry of building after the end of the second world war, councils and local authorities shifted their focus from building new houses to maintaining the stock they already had. This was, as it ever has been, an expensive game and the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, under Thatcher’s Conservative government was a defining moment for both councils and homeowners. In one foul swoop councils’ maintenance bills were dropping, and more people across the UK were able to own their own home. Over the ten years since the scheme was introduced, 1 million council houses were sold. The thing is that the majority of those sold were houses rather than flats, and that dramatically impacted the number of council houses available to families.

And today? Well, as I’m sure you are well aware, things aren’t much better. In fact, things are really bad. We have a dearth of suitable council and social housing, and what is available is saddled with huge waiting lists. The financial burden on councils and landlords to keep their old stock maintained and up to a decent standard is vast, and the drive to build at a level that will meet.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, the reality of what it would take to bring tower blocks even just up to cos, is scary and we’re now in a kind of stalemate with landlords and local authorities arguing about who’s fault it is and who’s going to fit the gargantuan bill of fixing it.

From the reading I’ve been doing over the last few weeks, the theme that seems to reoccur throughout is that people do want to do the right thing. That desire is what drives the building of estates, New Towns and tower blocks, as well as the innovation in design that we’ve seen from the Garden City ideal, to the Corbusier, brutalist Streets in the Sky. People do care for other people. It’s just that the promises they make are undermined by the perceived need for expediency and profit, or if not profit, then at least savings. And it occurs to me that the reason the individuals and families … the people within the system fall foul is that speed and money are more readily measurable. Quantifiably manageable against the qualitative experiences of tenants.

I think there is the greatest possibility that we can swing the balance of priorities and put the qualitative alongside the quantitative, and once we’ve done that we will have found a balance between the needs of society and bottom lines.


Social Housing History
Park Hill Housing Estate
Park Hill Documentary
Garden Cities of Tomorrow
Le Corbusier, The father of the Brutalist Architectural movement.