Promises, promises, promises
After surviving the horrors of WW1, many returning soldiers, sailors and airmen were expecting the world to be a better place, where their life could return to some normality in a secure and safe environment and jobs for all. This expectation was raised by a speech by Lloyd George the day after the armistice where, amongst other promises, he said there would be “homes fit for heroes”. “Homes”, and not just houses; “fit”, implying built to a standard; and “heroes”, giving a sense of gratitude and deserving. Dreams never meet reality and what Lloyd George actually said was “Habitations fit for the heroes who have won the war”, which is a lot less punchy and emotive than the phrase everyone remembers, and the word “habitations” suggests something very basic. The press could not fit that sentence in a header in a newspaper column and so naturally shortened it to the phrase we now know. So, what was the result of this promise? Were those houses built all over the country immediately after the war? It will come as no surprise to historians that the reality fell a long way short of the promise, but for many reasons that even Lloyd George could not control. The legislation that followed his speech was well meaning and quite well thought through, but was hampered by two serious problems: the lack of funds; and the extreme shortage in the building industry of skilled manpower and materials.
But was there a need for housing?
Modern socialists would like to think that Lloyd George, a popular Liberal PM, and his coalition cabinet really did want slums to be demolished and all those “heroes” living in good housing. But the government had more a pressing problem to solve, and that was Bolshevism. From 1917, industry and the docks had been hit with some damaging strikes, no doubt spurred on by events in Russia in that year. The government realised they could not go head-to-head with the radicals, as Russia tried to, and so planned to improve the lives of “the workers” and defeat this new and worrying movement. The government created a Ministry of Reconstruction in 1917, headed by the very capable Christopher Addison. The term “reconstruction” was not in the context of rebuilding fallen property, but the reconstruction of how government was organised. Its recommendations covered many subjects that included, amongst other targets: a more efficient government administration; women’s roles post WW1; housing; industrial relations; and employment. The aim of the Ministry was “charged with overseeing the task of rebuilding the national life on a better and more durable foundation”. To the credit of the government, many of the recommendations were implemented and Bolshevism did not take hold as a result. The main impact on post-WW1 housing was to create a Ministry of Health under which social housing and slum clearance were managed, with a housing department and local commissioners being in control. This all became permanent in 1919. In the meantime, the Ministry of Reconstruction introduced a scheme in 1918 to subsidise some of the expected excesses in the costs to build housing. Apart from each scheme needing government approval first, there were no other restrictions. But this subsidy was too early for most local authorities as they did not have the funds for such schemes or were unable to borrow the necessary money. The London County Council (LCC) was one of the few authorities who could afford to build houses and allocated £500,000/yr towards it, although they did not build any new houses using this money because further legislation overtook the planning. The mainly rural counties were never going to be able to afford such grand schemes. This was recognised by the Ministry and the Housing and Town Planning Act, 1919 was passed that changed the way social housing could be funded. The Act was to resolve many issues highlighted by a far-reaching report in 1918 by John Tudor Walters.
The 1918 Tudor Walters Report
The government appointed architect and MP Sir John Tudor Walters to report on the condition of housing although his main role in Lloyd George’s government at the time was Paymaster General. The result was the “Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider Questions of Building Construction in Connection With the Provision of Dwellings for the Working Classes”, which inevitably everyone shortened to simply “The Tudor Walters report”. This influential report made recommendations for the design of housing and housing estates. These designs were specifically to: set minimum expected building standards and facilities (such as bath in every house); provide house designs that would be both pleasant to live in yet economical with scarce building materials; and provide useful guidance as to the layout of a scheme. A good example of the last point was to build housing in cul-de-sacs. The number of houses that could be fitted would not change but the authority would save on road-building costs when compared to a through road.
Tudor Walters’ recommended designs were known as Types “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” and “E”. Not very imaginative, but a very useful way to indicate to the housing authorities what type of house was planned. These designs were modified in 1919 to make better use of scarce building materials and one change was to design the larger houses with a small gable at the front on each side to save wood and bricks as compared to a house with gable ends, although they were a little more expensive on labour. These houses happened to look better, which was a bonus. All had 3 bedrooms and a bath, but only the bigger houses had a purpose built larder (extremely useful in the age before refrigerators). Authorities could design their own houses, but the size, amenities and whether parlour or not were standard measures used by all authorities.
1919, and things start to happen
The house building industry in 1919 was in a difficult position. There were severe shortages of skills and materials. The government decreed that priority was to be given to industry, which is very understandable, but had far reaching repercussions over the following two years that culminated in a recession in 1921 that severely affected the building industry. With skills and materials in short supply, builders could charge high prices to both industry and private individuals. This problem was recognised by the government as far back as 1917 when the Ministry of Reconstruction stated that “In the years immediately following the war, prices must be expected to remain at a higher level than that to which they will eventually fall when normal conditions are restored”. They went on to give the warning that “Anyone building in the first years after the war will consequently be faced with a reasonable certainty of a loss in the capital value of their property within a few years”. So here we have the government recognising that house building, post WW1, was going to be difficult and only with subsidies could local authorities afford to do so. This was not the only problem. From 1915 there were a succession of Rent Acts that prevented landlords or mortgage lenders from profiteering from increasing rents or interest rates due to the severe shortage of housing for munition workers. Although some increase was permitted by 1919, the rents that could be charged were usually well below that needed by a local authority to be able to cover the cost of building the new housing.
The only solution was for the state to intervene and make it financially viable for authorities to build the housing Lloyd George had promised. The short-lived 1918 scheme and the well thought through 1919 Act were the result. Local authorities were now able to plan the building of social housing knowing that there was financial help from the government. So how was it funded?
> Homes Fit for Heroes pdf: Full details, including Acts of Parliament for funding.