The History (and Politics) of London’s Social Housing

The History (and Politics) of London’s Social Housing

What happened to the housing estate? Adil Sait gives us a guided tour of London’s social housing history

Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced plans to “redevelop” a hundred of the United Kingdom’s housing estates in a move that has been met with both suspicion and good will. Yet, when we think of the housing estates in cities like London we’re often unsure of their past and what they actually symbolise. The question of why social housing is so important to Britain leads us to a tale of idealism, poverty, and loss of faith.

Britain’s social housing has its unlikely origins in the nineteenth century crisis of rapid urbanisation. The Victorian era was characterised by the laissez-faire economic policies of both the Conservative and Liberal governments as well as the industrialisation of major UK cities making Britain the “workshop of the world”.

However, this resulted in some of the worst slum conditions and housing problems due growing problems of poverty in overpopulated cities. This led to social commentaries such as the “Condition of the Working Class in England” by Fredrick Engels, after a visit to the slums of Manchester, which influenced parts of Karl Marx’s radical “The Communist Manifesto”.

By the early twentieth century the Liberal party, under Herbert Asquith, had changed its attitudes towards housing and poverty in Britain. Through the reports of wealthy philanthropists like Rowntree and Booth, poverty became a campaign for social reform and through policies such as Old Age Pension’ and Free School Meals it laid foundations of the welfare state. The Liberal party also made massive efforts at slum clearance giving rise to the Town Planning Act of 1909, which gave the power to Local government to tear down British slums and re-build housing.

This emerging progressivism ended when the Liberals split, losing their political mandate after World War I to the infant Labour party.

Social housing came of age in the post-war era under Labour leader Clement Atlee. By the end of the two World Wars, the bombing of major industrial cities like London, including housing, meant that reconstruction was a priority. Government control over the construction industry through the planning sector meant that post-war housing estates were a prominent feature of the era, and the provision of social housing peaked post-war.

By the 1970s though they had fallen out of favour with British governments. The idealism of post-war Britain was met a backlash against the paternalism of the modernist architecture that sought to destroy historical areas of Britain’s cities and concrete housing estates. This was the start of the end for housing estates as gradually governments stopped building new housing, and the private sector became more dominant.

The changes in the 1970’s culminated in the election of Margret Thatcher as Prime Minister. A key part of her platform between 1979 and 1989 was the policy of Right to Buy where the council owned social housing in estates across Britain could be bought by tenants. This project was slowed for two decades then brought back and expanded by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition between 2010 and 2015. The effects have been the decline of the housing estate and the current housing crisis that Britain now faces. According to the new London Plan, Britain needs to build 49,000 homes a year to meet the ever increasing demand for housing in the capital, which seems not only optimistic, but nearly impossible.

In summary, we can see how important housing estates have been to the changing fortunes of Britain’s industrial cities. They’re symbols of the end of the slum-era that dominated industrial Britain and key features of post-war paternalism. The history of housing in Britain is intertwined with the politics of the welfare state, the rise of the Labour party and the notions of equality that have come to define it.

Ultimately, Thatcherism resulted in changing attitudes that continue to define the current situation today. David Cameron and the current Conservative government argue that housing estates seem to be of another era. Despite a lot of discussion about them it is still unclear what the future of social housing will look like, or if it will have a future at all.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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