Homes fit for people

A Brief History of British Social Housing (1920s-1980s)

A hundred years ago in 1919 Parliament passed the Housing Act known as the Addison Act, which promised government subsidies for the building of working class housing. Significantly, for the first time housing becomes a national responsibility for all local authorities. The Act was partly the result of a campaign to improve the design of working class housing and a pledge by prime minister David Lloyd George in November 1918 to provide habitable homes fit for the returning soldiers subsequently known as Homes fit for Heroes.

Further Acts during the 1920s and the 1930s addressed issues of housing as a social service, slum clearance in the inner cities and overcrowding, which led some very innovative schemes by authorities in Liverpool (St Andrew’s Gardens) and London (Ossulton Street). By the outbreak of the Second World War over 700,000 new homes had been built and more slum clearance undertaken than at any time previously.

In 1945, wartime bombing had destroyed or rendered uninhabitable over 450,000 houses, with 3 million in need of repair. During the war schemes for reconstruction, including housing provision were being considered. In 1943, an exhibition held by the RIBA entitled, ‘Rebuilding Britain’ encouraged architects to design prefabricated housing. By 1949, 156,623 ‘prefabs’ had been erected. In 1944 the Dudley Report on housing design and layout made recommendations for creating neighbourhood units, with estates having a mixture of flats and houses. Known as mixed development it would become one of the big ideas to dominate house building after the war.

In London the Architects’ Department of the London County Council (LCC) had successfully provided working class homes from the 1890s. But, owing to expediency, responsibility for housing was given to the Valuer’s Department in 1945. The programme was to build 100,000 new homes as soon as possible and over 30,000 dwellings were completed by 1949. Characterised by four to eight-storey blocks with balcony access they were severely criticised by the architectural profession, who described the blocks as being ‘dull’ with ‘small windows’, ‘pitched roofs’ and of ‘institutional appearance’.

Such criticism strengthened the case for the newly appointed Chief Architect Robert Matthew to bring back housing provision to the Architect’s Department, which it duly did in 1951. From the 1950s the Architect’s Department at the London County Council became the largest employer of architects in the country, with a staff of over 1,700, including 350 professional architects and trainees of whom 250 worked in housing. The estate at Roehampton (1957) is the flagship example of their work, particularly with its mixture of tall point blocks and lower maisonettes.

Although not by the LCC, Churchill Gardens, Pimlico is the earliest example of mixed development, built in four phases from 1945-1962. Other schemes like Priory Green, Islington, planned before the war, show the shift with its series of uniform eight-storey blocks giving way to a combination of four and eight-storey blocks, when construction began in the 1950s. At Hallfield Estate in Paddington, the first project to be designed by Denys Lasdun and Lindsey Drake after the dissolution of Tecton in 1948, the idea is already in place with its mixture of ten and six-storey blocks.

By 1956, there is a move to building high owing to an increased subsidy being granted above six floors. Hence a flat in a six-storey block received more than double the basic subsidy compared to a house, rising to more than triple for a 20-storey block. Estates at Balfron, Trellick, and Pepys all have very tall towers, alongside lower blocks, but the Hutchesontown and Red Road estates in Glasgow appear to be dominated entirely by tall towers.

This drive for high-rise coupled with industrial building methods was at its height in the mid-1960s, with 55% of new public housing developments in England and Wales (outside London) constructed under package deal contracts with local authorities and building companies. In 1966 the premium for flats above six-storeys was abolished and the subsequent collapse of Ronan Point in 1968 sealed the fate for high-rise system building.

Architects, though, had begun to question the social and practical issues emerging around high-rises (isolation, poor maintenance). In 1962, when the last phase of Churchill Gardens was completed, the design has changed from the proposed nine-storey to a five-storey block which snakes round the eastern perimeter.

In the 1970s the last phase of volume council house building there is a move towards low-rise housing, and a smaller scale. At Lillington Gardens, Westminster (1972) by Darbourne & Dark, there is a focus on brick construction and a sense of enclosure within an urban setting. The Branch Hill Estate, Hampstead (1979) by Benson & Forsyth, is low-rise and low-density, but set within a mature landscape.

As the great age of council housing ends in 1980, social housing has been criticised as a massive form of social engineering, with ‘experts’ dictating how people should live. One person who stood out with a different approach, was Walter Segal, pioneer of the self-build movement. His work at Lewisham showed how ordinary non-skilled men and women from public authority housing waiting lists could build their own. Amply demonstrated at Walters’ Way, named as a homage to the man. By using his methods, he would say ‘we have freed ourselves from the architect designed façade at last’.

This feature has been created to complement the joint RIBA and V&A display, A Home for All: Six Experiments in Social Housing, which runs from 24 November 2018 to 30 June 2019 at the V&A Museum, and the exhibition Dawson's Heights: Hilltop Community at 66 Portland Place, between 29 November 2018 and 2 February 2019. 

Below are links to images of social housing in Britain from the inter-war period to the 1980s. All of the images are available to download, purchase or license.

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