In search of answers to the social housing crisis, Kate Macintosh finds no better starting point than John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams: the rise and fall of council housing
As a way of understanding how we’ve got to the housing crisis of today, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton is pretty hard to beat.
I consider it to be the most comprehensive history and summary of the movement to provide social housing in the UK. It’s certainly not an unmitigated eulogy. Instead, it takes a warts-and-all approach, looking at the origins of council housing from before WWI through to the interwar and post-WWII years, putting it all in its social, political and economic context.
On the critical side, Boughton looks at Birmingham in the 1960s. The council, which was conservative controlled, brought in as its chief architect Alwyn Sheppard Fidler, who had played the same role for the new town of Crawley. But he was subordinate to the city surveyor and struggled to influence how housing was planned in the city. The result was developments such as Castle Vale estate, which contained 4,800 homes in 34 towers six miles from the city centre. It was an example of what can happen when there isn’t an architect at the helm and instead you simply focus on producing the numbers. Today only two of the towers are left.
This was a great contrast with the LCC, which under Robert Matthew produced some of the most notable local authority housing in the UK including developments such as the Alton Estate in Roehampton, south west London. Yes, there was feuding between the Scandi and the Corb schools of thought, but the dominant vision was that everyone was aiming to produce housing for a classless society.
We learn how maintenance became a major issue, not helped by the lack of control on access. Even Keeling House in Bethnal Green, which we now recognize as a gem and is Grade II* listed, was in severe risk of demolition before being rescued and refurbished under private ownership. Recently a two bed flat there went for £875,000. Half of the flats are now occupied by architects, which perfectly illustrates how the original social housing agenda has been hijacked.
Boughton is very critical of the effect of Right to Buy on the decline of council housing, and in particular the way that it left local authorities unable to afford to maintain what stock they had left. A lot of that pressure came from the abandonment of the whole local authority project that social housing should be there for those who want to rent not buy.
Architects have often been the whipping boys when things have gone wrong. There was a real pressure from central government to use building technology such as industrialised systems in the 1960s with targets of 25%, rising to 40%, for its use in all new housing. When I was designing Dawson’s Heights in Southwark, for example, I remember having to explain why we didn’t want to use a pre-cast panel system – you had to have a very good reason not to. It was only after the Ronan Point collapse that such targets were abandoned, and then they tried to shift the blame to architects.
This is a very timely book since some local authorities are now building, such as Croydon Council’s Brick by Brick development company and Camden and Islington councils. But it’s on nothing like the scale that’s needed. What we really need are the sort of constraints on foreign investment that New Zealand now has, as that’s what’s driving up land prices and, in turn, property prices.
Am I optimistic that things are changing for the better? I don’t think the situation will improve under this disastrous government. But I think the Labour Party is looking pretty optimistic and would abandon Right to Buy, which
has already happened in Scotland and Wales, and give greater power to local authorities to build.
I believe you have to understand where you’ve come from in order to look to the future and on that basis I really recommend this book, which is a very good read. I’d also recommend Danny Dorling’s All That Is Solid: How The Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times and What We Can Do About It, and Anna Minton’s Big Capital; Who is London For?, which is a great reference book about how everything the government has done to encourage its volume housebuilder friends has simply jacked up housing prices.
Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton, Verso, £18.99