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The home truths of public housing

The Grenfell disaster casts an ominous shadow over John Boughton’s forensic history of public housing

24 April, 2018 — By Allan Ledward

Flaxman Terrace, a small block of tenements over the road from the British Library, was opened by St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council in 1908

SADIQ Khan is seen by many as an anomaly of public housing. The Mayor of London, a product of the Henry Prince estate in Wandsworth, is portrayed as a rare success story from places that, for many, have become shadowy ghettoes plagued by nefarious activities and “scroungers”.

John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing examines how public housing mutated from being homes for the aspirational working class to dwellings of last resort.

Public housing was first built on a significant scale in the final years of the 19th century. After the Industrial Revolution created the first urban proletariat, often squeezed into overcrowded slums and exploited by private landlords, the insidious effects of disease and deprivation led to very Victorian concerns over spiritual wellbeing in such squalor.

Boughton traces the subsequent response from politicians, planners and architects, including cottage suburbs, high-rise towers and their “streets in the sky”, quick-fix prefabs built after the Second World War – designed to last 10 years, in London around 10,000 were still in use into the 1970s – New Towns and, of course, “Right To Buy”.

Thirty years after buying his five-bedroom council flat at a subsidised price of £39,000, and seeing its value rise to £600,000, a security guard living on the Whittington Estate reflects that, for him, Margaret Thatcher’s flagship housing policy was “perfect, just perfect”.

The Whittington is cited as one of a number of progressive public housing developments in the dynamic new borough of Camden. Designed by 20-something Peter Tabori in the early 1970s, its unorthodox stepped terraces were staggered and divided to make best use of a sloping site. The Alexandra Estate – called “the hanging gardens of Camden” by one critical Conservative councillor – was further evidence of Camden’s determination to innovate and resist standardised ideas. One of its 300-metre-long terraces backs onto the West Coast mainline, with a smart design that smothers the noise of passing trains.

Early examples of public housing included Hampstead Garden Suburb, founded in 1906, where homes were set aside at a lower rent for working-class residents. Two years later, Flaxman Terrace, a small block of tenements over the road from the British Library (and still standing), was opened by St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council.

Intended for the “submerged tenth” (the term of the time for what would later be called the underclass), many homes ended up in the hands of the better-off working class.

Art critic and social thinker John Ruskin was an early investor in London’s public housing, at a time when investors were promised a 5 per cent return from “model dwellings”.

Even in those days there was concern at government level over a “dependency culture”. Conservative Sir Richard Cross, who twice served as home secretary, in the 1870s and 1880s, insisted it was “not the duty of government to provide any class of citizens with any of the necessities of life, and among the necessities of life we must, of course, include good and habitable dwellings”.

More than a million council houses were built in the 20 years following the First World War, after prime minister Lloyd George pledged to create “homes for heroes” in his 1918 election campaign. The post-1945 construction scramble led to five million being built by 1981 after minister of health and housing Nye Bevan pledged to “start to solve, first, the housing difficulties of the lower income groups”.

Public housing, particularly over the past 40 years, has been exposed to government expediency, while the dreams of idealist architects have clashed with the brutal realities of finance and politics.

Ultimately, Boughton’s forensic history of public housing effectively sets the scene for the Grenfell disaster – and the subsequent Chalcots estate evacuation. The charred tower stands as a devastating symbol of neglect by successive governments and decades of those in need of state assistance being increasingly marginalised.

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. By John Boughton, Verso Books, £15.19

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