A new age of council housebuilding is dawning

Photo-LCC-Becontree-timber-clad block-cpd by Mark Swenarton

Mark Swenarton on what we need to learn from the Homes Fit for Heroes programme a century ago

July 2019 marks the centenary of the Housing Act of 1919 and as such of council housing as one of the pillars of the UK’s housing system. A conference on July 18 will look back at the “homes fit for heroes” programme and at its lessons for housing today.

Of course 1919 did not mark the absolute beginning of council housing: that honour goes to Liverpool city council, with its St Martin’s cottages scheme of 1869. But it did mark the beginning of councils right across the country building housing on a large scale. In the quarter-century before 1914, local authorities accounted for about 2% of new dwellings. But for the years 1919-23 the figure was 60% and for the inter-war period as a whole 30%. Looking back from today we can see 1919 as the start of a system that lasted for 60 years, until the tap of council housebuilding was turned off by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Under the 1919 legislation, local authorities were required to look to the housing needs of their area and to make plans to address them. To enable them to do so, an open-ended (yes really!) Treasury grant was introduced to cover their losses beyond the product of a one-penny rate. And to make sure they got on with it, a Soviet-style system of housing commissioners was introduced to chivvy them along. The councils’ housing proposals had to be forwarded to Whitehall for sign-off by the team of architects at the Ministry of Health headed by Raymond Unwin – the principal author of the Tudor Walters Report of 1918 and before that the father of garden cities and garden suburbs across the land, from Letchworth, to Hampstead, to Gretna.

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