Where Do Housing Schemes Come From? A Brief History (1)

Where Do Housing Schemes Come From? A Brief History (1)

This is the first in a number of posts on the topic of housing schemes.

In most of the UK they are known as ‘Council Estates’, in the US they are regarded as the ‘Projects’ and in Scotland they are called ‘Schemes’. They are unique, if I can use that word, to ‘Westernised, industrial’ nations. They are not ‘slums’ as one would see in India, for instance, (and in pre-industrialised Britain), nor are they ‘favelas’ as one would see in South America. (Both terms may seem similar to the Western eye but a favela dweller would take unkindly to you calling where they live ‘a slum’, I can assure you!) So, what are they and what is the history behind the rise of these places in the landscape of the United Kingdom?

“Homes for Heroes”

This sounds like the perfect catchphrase for a modern politician, but it was actually first coined by a British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, shortly after The Great War. He wanted to make Britain, ‘a place fit for heroes to live in.‘ Of course, these were not the only factors at play for the rise of housing development in the years immediately after WWI. Granted, safe, affordable housing was needed for our returning war heroes, but this was coupled with the fear of the rise of Bolshevism among the poor and working class. Far too many in the UK were living in substandard, slum conditions, evidenced by the fact that over 10% of conscripts in the war were rejected on health grounds, as a direct result of squalid living conditions. There is a short clip here courtesy of BBC Scotland which gives an all too brief insight into the state of housing before WWI. Historians may argue the merits of each reason, but the fact remains that council housing in the UK was birthed in this political hot-house. Historians tell us that,

Prior to the First World War private builders supplied virtually all new housing in towns and cities. Due to the war building activity came to a virtual standstill whilst the country fought. By the time of the General Election in 1918 it was becoming clear that the country faced an acute shortage of housing and there were a great deal of slum areas. Since 1890, local authorities had the powers to clear slums and replace or refurbish existing homes but as now, not the funds.

Indeed, prior to WWI, 1% of the population lived in council houses and by 1938 that figure had risen to 10%. By the late 1970’s that figure would rise to 50%. The problem, post WWI, was that demand far outweighed the private sector’s ability to produce good quality, affordable housing on a mass scale. The Addison Act, passed in 1919, sought to remedy this by charging local authorities to ensure adequate housing for the ‘working class.‘ Of course, the dream of 1/2 million new homes to be built within 3 years, was completely unrealistic and unattainable. The Addison Act soon gave way to Neville Chamberlain’s act of 1923. A year later it was replaced by the Wheatley Act. Half a million homes were built in the end but it took until 1935 to achieve this figure. Seemingly great progress with two large problems.

  1. Demand was so high that these numbers still weren’t sufficient to meet Britain’s housing needs.
  2. The problems of inner city slums was still very evident even into the 1930’s. Tenements (run down, overcrowded apartment style houses occupied by multiple families sharing basic facilities), particularly in Scotland, were a blight on society and greedy landlords were still getting rich off the very poor.

An attempt was made to at least address the issue of the inner city slum areas.

Greenwood’s 1930 Housing Act was designed to address the problem. However, economic problems again had an adverse impact on clearance and replacement rates. Although an estimated 245,000 houses had been cleared by 1939, it was estimated that at least 472,000 slum houses were still in urgent need of demolition.

The effect of all of this rehousing? Surprisingly (or not), it caused a great deal of upheaval. The ruling class and the rich were largely unaffected but not so the working class and the poor who were uprooted from their homes – however slum like – and shipped out to new schemes (in their thousands), usually on the outskirts of the city/town centres.

Social surveys carried out during the inter-war period suggested that although tenants wanted new homes, many were reluctant to leave their communities where they felt secure amidst the established family and neighbourhood networks and where they could easily walk to work. Moving people to new estates involved the destruction of existing communities, created a sense of dislocation and isolation as well as placing greater pressure on the family budget because of increased travel costs.

People were generally forced to move against their will, although it has to be stated they were (in the main) relocated to far larger and more superior homes in cleaner, safer (though this point is arguable) areas. Another positive was that many people had now escaped the clutches of tyrannical private landlords and were treated with more fairness, had more civil rights, and had recourse to have any and all grievances heard, and acted upon, by their local authority/council. Eventually, the political furore died down, people settled and the future looked bright. That is until the intervention of war in 1939.

More to follow on the Post WWII years.