Developing the housing

The need for state-sponsored or funded housing will vary according to the needs of the city or populous, and to the politics prevalent at the time. Socialist governments will prefer the state to provide housing and there are many successful examples of this, particularly either side of WW2. But widespread state housing with little choice for those wanting to escape the confines has been shown to create environments where housing, and subsequently the quality of life, to be poor. The author has visited ex-Eastern Bloc countries where city suburbs seem to contain endless rows of soul-destroying concrete tower blocks. Countries with free market economies prefer the people to have as much choice as possible and have the opportunity to purchase their own homes. This also has its dangers as it creates a property-based economy where those who cannot get on the property ladder get left behind and rely on renting low quality accommodation. Neither is right or wrong, and countries will drift one way or the other over time. What is needed is a balance of social and private housing where everyone is able to live safely in accommodation they can afford. This utopia is very difficult to achieve, but that does not, nor should not, stop enlightened governments and local authorities trying.

In Britain the issue of affordable housing for the workers came to a head from the 1850s when massive industrial expansion created centres of industry that needed workers to live close to the factories. This could only be achieved by the industrialists funding the building of cheap housing. Much of the new housing was cynically built, as cheaply as possible, but was often better than immigrants from the countryside were used to. Some employers and industrialists were more enlightened than others, such as Titus Salt, who built a whole town for his workers, called Saltaire, in Yorkshire. But in larger cities the housing could not be tied to one employer as there were usually many potential employers nearby. This meant local authorities providing affordable housing for the working man, but without any restrictions on where he worked or strict rules on what he should and could not do in that dwelling. In London, the lack of decent working class housing for the masses started to become acute as early as the 1850s. In 1851 Prince Albert sponsored the development of the ideal working-men’s dwelling that became known as “Model Dwellings”. The example 4-tenement property was exhibited at the Great Exhibition and was rebuilt shortly after in Kennington Park, Lambeth, where it still stands today.

Initially the philanthropists, such as American banker George Peabody, were encouraged to provide the housing. In fact, the local authorities did not have the ability or funding to do this themselves. They were responsible for the clearance of slums, on health grounds, but could not build replacement housing themselves. This all changed in 1890 when a good Housing Act came into being that allowed social housing to be built and funded by authorities. This happily coincided with the creation of the London County Council (LCC) in 1889. The LCC, along with the major philanthropists, took up the challenge of building affordable housing for “the masses”, without any restrictions on the occupation of the tenants. All the tenant needed to do was pay the rent regularly and abide by the inevitable few rules, which included a maximum occupation for each tenancy to prevent overcrowding.

Read > The Demographics of London

Did they succeed? What lessons were learned? What lessons have the modern-day authorities forgotten about? And why do they need to learn those lessons again?

This “Victorian” section continues by describing the legislation of the time, brought in to help with the cause of the philanthropists, but with little success in the early days. The section finishes by using London’s Borough of Southwark as an example of the successes and failures in the 1800s. Use the menus above to navigate through the pages.