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Round the houses

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

An opportunity for passion and commitment to the housing cause feels lost

Becontree Estate, c1930.
Becontree Estate, c1930.

As far as I can gather from this history of council housing in the UK, the apotheosis of genuine community involvement in development planning seemed to come with the publication of Patrick Abercrombie and JH Forshaw’s City of London Plan in 1943; a ‘lavish tome’, which despite wartime, apparently sold 10,000 copies, went out to schoolchildren and the armed forces, and drew 75,000 people to its County Hall exhibition. It was even discussed by British POWs just before they made their Great Escape in 1944. 

But beyond this galvanising moment, one takes away from John Boughton a sense that social housing was – and is – characterised by top-down social engineering and political and economic machinations that fail to address the working classes’ actual needs. Boughton, a left-wing historian and self-declared ‘Labour foot soldier’ may well disagree with that assertion; in an interview he hoped readers would take from his work ‘renewed belief in the positive and necessary role of the state in securing a fairer and more equal society and an appreciation of the enormously constructive role played by local government over many years’. That may be reflected in chapter three’s Utopic idealism emanating from William Beveridge’s 1942 notion of ‘social security’ for all, but it ebbs away further in – along with the concept of housing for the ‘general classes’ being eroded back to a last resort for the most vulnerable, dependent on a far less benevolent ‘welfare state.’

And that shift is well covered. Boughton takes us from the Boundary Road estate (1900), built on Old Nichol’s cleared slums, up to 2017’s Grenfell fire, in encyclopaedic detail. Chapters are well end noted, drawing from a wide range of academic and reported sources; but it’s not a dry read. Far from it – notorious episodes involving T Dan Smith/John Poulson, or Birmingham’s Herbert Manzoni and AG Sheppard, mix with rich accounts of his own visits to UK estates.

Readers move from the 1866 Labouring Classes Dwelling Act, Garden Cities Associations, the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, up to the flagship 1947 Town and Country Planning Act with its ‘Development Charge’ – precursor of Section 106. The increasing awareness of the state’s responsibility to house the masses reached its zenith, he thinks, in the humane modernism of the 1970s Camden Architects Department. But after Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 introduction of the Damoclean ‘Right to Buy’ and more recent policy posturing by both parties, solving the housing question drifts into dubious programmes with an Orwellian lexicon of acronyms: from HATs, CTI, ERCFs, NDC and of course PFI . All skirt round the unequivocal given, as recognised in that first 1866 Act – what possible interest would a profit-driven private sector have in meeting housing need?

This should make blood boil, but Boughton refrains from activism, preferring, as per his blog, ‘the nuance and rootedness of a historical approach that allows a proper and more persuasive case to be made’. I can’t help feeling something’s been lost. Instead of a rallying cry, the book ends with a nod of approval for small scale progress by local councils, due to the Localism Act’s changes to Housing Revenue Accounts, allowing LAs to spend extra revenue as they wish once debt interest is paid.

It’s a whimper when you’d hoped for a bang. No Owen Hatherley housing polemic or Anna Minton railing at the conscious theft of the public realm, but an even-handed appraisal of how we ended up here: a slow death of your chagrin, drowned in informed ennui.

Municipal Dreams – The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. John Boughton. Verso £17.99, 336pp, PB