The rise and fall of council housing

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing

By John Boughton

Published by Verso, 2019, £9-99

Reviewed by Niall Mulholland

From 1945 to 1981, over five million council homes were built in Britain. This is celebrated by John Boughton in Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. “Historically, councils have made an enormous contribution to meeting our housing needs and in doing so, they have transformed the lives of many millions for the better. Not every home was a ‘Buckingham Palace’ to its new residents, though many were, but to nearly all those who lived in them council housing provided a decent and secure home”.

The coming to power of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979 saw the “sell-off of over forty state-owned businesses, employing 600,000 workers. But by far the largest privatisation of public good was the sale of council homes worth an estimated twenty-two billion in 1997”. This was forced through with the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, the purchase of council homes by sitting tenants, which, as Bougton points out, was first mooted by Labour in the 1959 election. 

An ideological offensive against council housing was underway for many years before Thatcher’s assault. As Boughton notes, “Council housing’s record has been much maligned. The form and nature of council housing has been unfairly blamed for problems entrenched in our unequal society and exacerbated by the politics that reflect it”.

Municipal Dreams surveys council housing from its 19th-century beginnings in Liverpool and London up to the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. Along the way, Boughton discusses the pros and cons of public housing architecture and design, from the early suburban ‘cottage estates’ to post-war modernist ‘homes in the sky’ tower blocks (the book usefully contains pictures of various council homes over the last century). It is a well-balanced retort to the reactionary argument that all council housing was synonymous with ’concrete jungles’, ‘sink estates’ and juvenile crime. 

Many of the pioneering architects of council housing were surprisingly young, often just in their twenties, and inspired by European progressive house-building. Many of them were on the left and genuinely wanted to improve the lives of millions with innovative and humane housing. Great effort was placed on creating pedestrianised areas, green spaces, children’s play areas, local shops, GP surgeries and other amenities. Council in-house architects’ departments employed hundreds and were regarded as far superior to the private housing sector. Today, in contrast, private builders throw up expensive ‘rabbit hutches’ in the sky and there is barely any green space provided.

While Boughton believes that the “legacy of our early municipal reformers is unjustly neglected and often unfairly maligned” he is also candid about some of the “failures and missteps as well as successes”. Much of the failings of council housing were due to budget cuts and building delays, the use of cheaper, inferior materials, and the lowering of building standards. A gas explosion at Ronan Point in Newham, in 1968, brought down four flats and killed four people. “Its later demolition revealed unfilled gaps between floors and walls (with some joints filled with newspaper rather than concrete)”. The ‘Large Panel System’ used to build Ronan Point, and many other tower blocks, was abandoned.

Often there was not enough real engagement with the needs and wishes of tenants, with councils acting in a top-down, paternalistic manner. The Tories played a malignant role, for example, repeatedly cutting down the legal minimum living space requirements for council tenants. 

Some aspects of social housing are missing in Boughton’s account, such as the development of cooperative housing in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1970s policy of ‘municipalisation’, the purchase and council management of former privately rented homes, is covered briefly but not some other forms of state housing (I grew up in forestry workers’ homes that were owned and rented out to employees by the Department of Agriculture). Council housing in Scotland is only touched on and nothing is said about Northern Ireland (which because of local authorities’ sectarian-based housing allocations was placed under the control of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive). 

Minor criticisms aside, Municipal Dreams is an excellent comprehensive history of council estates and overview of the political, social and ideological motives behind government housing policy over the last hundred years or so. 

Boughton looks in detail at successive legislation and its consequences. Tory housing ministers love to denigrate council tower blocks but it was the Tory 1956 Housing Subsidies Act that acted as a big incentive, including to private developers, for these types of buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong constructing tower blocks, in itself, Boughton contends. It required careful planning and design, quality construction, sensitive to the needs of families, in particular, and to be safe and secure. 

Early council housing was generally aimed at the ‘better off working class’, with the poorest left in slum housing, Boughton shows. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there was massive council house building, a result of the wartime destruction and political radicalisation of the working class after the huge sacrifices of the conflict. That 250,000 copies of the book, Town Planning, by Thomas Sharp, were sold in 1940, indicates how a radicalised population yearned for a post-war, egalitarian society. In glaring contrast to today’s kowtowing to private property interests, the power of the wartime government to requisition private homes was used for a period after the war. And in 1947 private developers were required to pay 100% of any increase in land value to the government, measured before and after development. 

Getting a council tenancy was an occasion of pride and joy for millions of working-class people, who were lifted out of overcrowded slums and provided with inside running water, toilets and central heating. There was a much greater mix of the ‘better off’ and poorer working-class families in council homes, as well as some from the middle class, than the Tory propaganda would have us believe. However, by the 1980s and 1990s council housing was demonised by the media and treated as ‘ghettos’ of the ‘last resort’ for the poorest and most vulnerable in society by both Tory and New Labour governments. 

Boughton is scathing of the damaging housing policy of the Con-Dem coalition and subsequent Tory governments, like the cruel bedroom tax, and so-called ‘regeneration’ schemes that are intended to bulldoze council estates to make way for lucrative private housing. He quotes a critic of the controversial Haringey Development Vehicle championed by London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. It was “zombie Blairism”, based on the belief that “the best way to relieve an area of poverty is to kick out the poor people who live there”.

Boughton credits a “spate of high profile housing struggles in recent years”, such as the 2013 occupation of Newham’s Carpenters Estate by ‘young mums’ facing removal by the council to bed and breakfast accommodation. “Their slogan ‘People Need Homes; These Homes Need People’ acquired a powerful resonance”.

However, Boughton is light on proposals for what is needed to be done now.  Jeremy Corbyn promised a substantial council house building programme but the defeat of Labour in the December 2019 general election shows that making policy announcements are not enough. To successfully enact a radical public housing programme requires for it to explained and popularised amongst the working class and campaigned for by the labour and trade union movement, by socialist organisations, alongside tenants and residents’ groups.

The struggle of the Clay Cross councillors is cited by Boughton. They refused to carry out Tory government 1974 legislation, substituting ‘fair’ rents for ‘reasonable’, which meant a rent hike for council tenants. Eleven councillors were personally surcharged and removed from office. “Other councils toed the line”, Boughton records. But he omits mention of the resistance of Liverpool city council, which was led by Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) in the mid-1980s. Liverpool defied Tory budget spending limits on the basis of a mass campaign amongst communities and workplaces. It succeeded in wresting substantial funds from central government and built thousands of homes, as well as creating jobs and sports centres. That struggle was ultimately betrayed by Neil Kinnock and others on the right of the labour and trade union movement.

Any serious intention to carry out a massive council housing building programme – the only basis on which to start solving the housing crisis – requires Labour-run councils to follow this example, to refuse to carry out Tory-imposed cuts, to use their budget powers to begin building decent, affordable council housing now, and to demand the necessary central government funding to sustain it.