Lessons learnt

So what lessons have been learnt, and what have been forgotten?

Before answering the question it is important to put the housing needs at the time, and the needs in the 21st century, into context.

House ownership in the Victorian and Edwardian age in Britain was only for the well-off. Very few of the working-classes would have even dreamed of owning their own home in a city, let alone actually doing so. Renting was the normal option. There were also far less rules and regulations as to the standards of that housing. Overcrowding was tolerated and property was allowed to be in a condition that nowadays would be unacceptable. This is particularly the case when it comes to sanitary and cooking facilities. The LCC continuously strived to raise standards, but this was very much by example rather than by law. Remember that slum clearance was only carried out where the infant mortality rate was high. There was also very little protection for the tenants from unscrupulous landlords. Finally, one important difference between then and now is that until the 1970s the local authorities were not obliged by law to house just about everyone, especially where children are involved. These factors together meant that the working classes in the city had to often take what they could get when it came to accommodation, and it was down to the authorities and philanthropists to develop working-class houses that would allow the workers to improve their lives, to the benefit of the city and their industries. These hard-working and reliable people were usual called the “deserving poor”, even if many were not poor – just honest working-class.

Modern working-class housing needs are very much the same, in principle. You want a roof over your head for yourself and your family where you feel you can live safely and within your income. But the world around has changed. Laws now oblige local authorities to house families, whether they can pay rent or not, or whether they are considered to “deserve it”. The UK has become a property-based economy where house ownership is the aspiration of all and to not being able to get a mortgage is somehow seen to be a failure. The cities are more crowded than ever with much less available housing than before.

So what are the lessons that modern housing authorities (and governments) need to re-learn?

The first is one of management of the housing. No matter what the quality of the housing, or even the tenants, well-managed housing remains well tenanted. Octavia Hill proved this in the 1860s. She appointed a female manager for each block she built or took over. The female manager would build up a relationship with the “lady of the house” during the day and improvements would gradually be made to the property for tenants who paid rent on time and accepted the tenancy rules. These good tenants were moved onwards to better tenements. Bad tenants were kicked out. This follows very much the Victorian belief in self help. Other organisations such as the Peabody Trust followed these principles, although only Octavia Hill deliberately employed female managers. The one organisation that went away from this ideal was the LCC. They decided to manage their property from County Hall and this was a retrograde step in many cases. It is good to see that in the 21st century many authorities are realising that having a building manager or representative living on site is cost-effective. In Victorian and Edwardian times this job was often given to retired NCOs from the armed forces, and modern housing authorities would do well to investigate this option more. For more on Octavia Hill, read “Octavia Hill and the Social Housing Debate” (ed. Robert Whelan).

The next lesson is build to a quality. Nearly all the philanthropic and LCC housing in London built since 1900 is still standing, and in good condition following a number of refurbishments. Peabody blocks, in particular, have weathered well mainly due to their strength and design. Where council property has been demolished, this has often been the result of road developments or larger area re-developments. The LCC housing was built for a minimum life of 60 years (the typical pay-back period for the loan). It was not just built to last, but designed to improve the lives of the tenant. The cost was sometimes too high and resulted in some creative accounting by the local authority, but time has proved that it was money well spent. The tower-block culture of the 1960s and 1970s did result in clean housing for many people, but the build quality was not so important and the resulting high maintenance costs were not allowed for. It is also very difficult to refurbish flats in tower blocks and it is often cheaper to demolish and rebuild. Also, concrete as a house building material is expensive in the long run. As a result, many tower blocks are being demolished and replaced within 50 years. Although the timescale is not a disaster, the degeneration of the estates will have been going on for a long while before that and many blocks are overdue for demolition. Towers are a necessity because that is the only way many authorities can build enough housing, but build them to a quality and manage them properly. The private sector can do this, so why not the local authorities?

The third lesson is to actually build housing. This may seem obvious, but with authorities seemingly having less and less money and available land becoming scarce, there is simply not enough affordable housing being built. The fault lies much more with central government than with local authorities, but some of the latter are better than others at managing this. The early LCC faced the same problems and had to build estates out in the suburbs, and they proved to be popular, but only where they were close to industry or convenient transport links. The massive Becontree Estate built in Essex between the wars for workers who were being rehoused from east London was too far from convenient rails links, too far from their family in the East End, and had too few amenities in the early years, particularly schools. It was not a great success. Immediately after WW2 the LCC built estates in outlying towns such as Sheerwater in Woking and South Oxhey in Watford. These were smaller and conveniently located to towns and transport and were more of a success as a result. The typical modern “affordable housing” project is to have a developer build the housing and have some as social housing and some as private. The debate as to the pros and cons of this approach is a complex one, but the author believes that this is a practical solution if managed properly. To compound the shortage, the private housing market is being overwhelmed by people buying-to-rent and this prices-out much of the affordable housing that could be aspired to by those who are now forced into looking for social housing options. The problem is one for the central government to resolve, but buy-to-rent needs to have much higher financial penalties than at present to deter many and so make available more of the affordable housing into the market. Those penalties may be an option for a local authority through Council Tax charges.

The last lesson is an emotive one. It is to do with effective management of the tenants. The early philanthropists and the LCC had strict rules regarding payment of rent. The LCC still had to apply for a Notice to Quit for tenants they wished to evict, but bad behaviour and failure to pay rent resulted in eviction. All the good housing organisations wanted references before offering a home. One bad tenant can ruin the lives of neighbours and the housing owner should have to ability to simply remove them. Some modern authorities try to separate the good from the bad, but as they are enforced by law to ensure dependants are always housed the result can be sink estates or buildings which house a lot of less-desirable tenants. But the “deserving” who live there should not have to suffer as a result. The balance is usually a fine one, but the authorities need to address the problem, no matter how hard it is. Efforts to improve the bad tenants, using Octavia Hill’s methods from the 1800s, should prove worthwhile. Pressure needs to be placed on central government to enable the authorities to deal with bad tenants in an effective way.

Read > Lessons learned and conclusions