Towering ambitions: the problematic history of social housing

How council estates went from being seen as the solution to poor housing to a dank and crime-ridden example of it.

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The story of Britain’s council estates begins in Shoreditch. When completed in 1900, the Boundary Estate was made up of 20 grand Victorian mansion blocks, plus primary schools, laundry and bandstand: a new, planned community, built from scratch on the site of one of London’s most notorious slums.

The council estate, thought to be the world’s first, still stands, protected by a Grade II listing. But it’s nearly half private now: its ground floors boast boutique coffee shops and organic groceries. So sought-after are its homes that a two-bed flat can fetch £2,145 a month in rent. Yet at the very beginning, the Boundary Estate showed quite how good municipal housing could be.

This story is told near the start of John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams, but it’s not the first estate to which he takes us. In the very first sentence of the book, we head six miles west to north Kensington, where stands the “charred remains of Grenfell Tower… symbol of one of Britain’s worst peacetime housing disasters”. This opening gives the book the feel of a tragedy. The early chapters are full of hope, as slums and rookeries are swept away, and a brave new world of garden cities and cottage homes springs up. But, like the prologue declaring Romeo and Juliet dead before they step on to the stage, the neglect and abandonment Grenfell represents always loom on the horizon. We know how the story ends.

The earliest council housing sprang not from conscience, but from fear. Most Victorian politicians feared that intervening in the housing market would create a culture of dependence – but the poor sanitary conditions in the slums combined with the unscientific “miasma” theory of disease transmission to make action inevitable. Some wealthy Victorians wanted to improve the lot of the poor; many more were just terrified of getting sick. So cities, led by London and Liverpool, began to build.

Initially, council housing meant something very different to today. For one thing it was aimed not at the poorest, but at the respectable working classes, and was priced accordingly. Those lower down the ladder were expected to benefit through a process of “filtering up”, in which everyone would move to slightly better housing than before.

After the war, as municipal housing became part of the welfare system – “the first of the social services”, in the unlikely words of the 1951 Conservative manifesto – it took on a more utopian tone. Better homes were a key front in the battle to rebuild Britain, and a small army of idealistic architects and planners joined councils to make their mark on the country. Many of these were strikingly young, both for the responsibility they were given and the impact they would have. The Churchill Gardens estate in Pimlico, for example, was designed in 1946 by a pair of recent graduates aged 24 and 25. For another 20 years, council offices were where architectural talent would congregate.

Yet even as their influence was at its height, things started to change. The shift to high-rise – motivated by architectural fashion, land shortages and the government subsidies intended to combat them – was one factor. The corruption and poor build-quality this wrought was another. By 1970, with the slums largely cleared, council estates were no longer seen as the solution to poor housing, but a dank and crime-ridden example of it.

Boughton lays much of the blame not on the estates themselves but on government treatment of them. Completed homes received inadequate upkeep investment and anyway, as early as the 1930s, there were competing notions of what council housing was for. While Labour wanted it to be for everyone, the Tories thought it was “for those who could aspire to no better”: the free market would provide for everyone else.

“Residualisation”, as this policy was known, was boosted by Labour’s 1977 Housing Act, which required councils to prioritise the housing of vulnerable groups. The resulting decline in mixed communities became self-reinforcing: those who had other options moved on. In the minds of the public, as well as the Tories, council estates were now for the poor.

The story since 1979 is a familiar one. The Thatcher government sold cut-price council homes to their tenants without replacing them, in a nakedly political attempt to create Tory voters. Labour did much to renovate existing homes but built few and, crucially, did not reverse Right to Buy. At first ownership rates rocketed – but then began to fall as prices rose and Buy to Let took off. Today, many of those former council homes have tenants again – but private ones, paying market rents. The government still spends a fortune on housing – but where once that money went into bricks and mortar, today it goes into landlords’ pockets. We’re back where we started.

Boughton’s book ends on what is, in effect, a cliffhanger. Millions of Britons are in insecure, poor-quality homes – but even as some on the right are coming around to the idea of getting councils building, it’s not clear they can. There’s no money to pay for it, no in-house expertise and little vacant land, so any major building scheme is likely to involve “regenerating” existing estates. It’s an idea with support from both Labour and Tory politicians, but one which seems blind to the fact that people already live on them. Many even own their homes.

Municipal Dreams begins and ends with Grenfell, which, for a moment last summer, felt like a turning point. A year on, though, with the government consumed by Brexit and public attention elsewhere, its impact is less clear. Boughton sets out a case for making council housing stronger than it’s been in four decades. But in a tragedy, the sight of a happy ending is rarely enough to stop you hurtling towards a bad one.

Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Social Housing
John Boughton
Verso, 384pp, £18.99

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. He writes the Evening Call newsletter. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead