1919 – Surrey starts to build
As with most rural counties, Surrey did not have many slums that needed clearing, but it did have workers who lived in sub-standard housing and needed to be re-housed, and a low-earning agricultural workforce who needed homes. The Rural and Urban District Councils were contacted by the new government housing organisation and made aware of the options to build houses for the working classes. Many of the council minutes that have survived record an enthusiasm to take up the opportunity. An example is little Windlesham Rural District Council (centred on Bagshot). A sparsely populated borough, yet their Special Housing Committee immediately increased their existing plan from 12 houses to 24. This may not sound many, but was quite a commitment for the council and they immediately started negotiation with a local land owner to purchase some land at Guildford Road, Bagshot.
More typical was Woking Urban District Council, a relatively small but well populated district that was growing fast. It drew up plans to build a small estate of 42 houses in what is now called Old Woking. It soon added to this with developments in Horsell, Knaphill and Westfield, all within a few miles of the town centre. Altogether nearly 42 acres was purchased for the construction of 100 houses. This was much more in line with the Ministry of Reconstruction’s hopes. The larger Guildford Rural District Council also had big plans but decided on 7 small developments totalling 85 houses, mainly in outlying parts. None of their schemes consisted of more than 18 houses. Dorking Urban District Council also decided on carrying out many small schemes spread across the whole District, along with 2 small estates near the town centre.
A common problem they all came up against was the cost to build the houses. Most authorities purchased land quickly, at their own cost, assuming that house construction would soon follow. The need to purchase land in anticipation was because of the inevitable protracted negotiations, as against house construction which was a simple matter of taking the cheapest quotation and getting going. Some authorities were to regret this enthusiasm to purchase land in advance of government consultations. The minutes of the housing committees for most authorities show that there was an assumption that the excess cost to build the houses, no matter how high, would be covered by the government without hassle. But the Ministry of Health (the authority from 1919) was not going to loan money for schemes that seemed excessively costly; and all were deemed to be excessively costly. This is well illustrated with an example from Caterham Urban District Council. They were initially planning to build just 6 houses and received tenders from builders that ranged from £1,460 down to £895 per house to build a house that would be worth, without land, about £400 at most. The council did eventually suceed in building houses but it took many years of negotiation with central government and in 1922 they took the plans off the assisted scheme and took over funding completely themselves, whilst selling some of the land to a developer.
Woking UDC approached the problem with a bit more pragmatism and negotiating skills. They designed functional boxes from the start and so had less funding problems that others (they also successfully raised money through Housing Bonds). Windlesham was one of those who gave up and some of the land was sold to a private developer and the rest given over to allotments. One authority that seemed to “just get on with it” and build the houses was Dorking. All the planned housing was built and all were more than just a “box with a lid”, and are a credit to the council. There are no obvious clues in any of their historical records as to why they were so successful with their plans, but researchers get a distinct feeling that those in charge of housing knew exactly what they were doing. The differences between how Caterham and Dorking managed their house building are covered in more detail below.
Once the housing was being built, local people could apply for tenancy. The available minutes show a preference to local people who had a need, without any stated priority for ex-soldiers. All the tenants had references and all needed to pay the rent, which could be quite considerable, although it was for a new and well built home. Not all the tenants chosen turned out to be suitable and Guildford had a long running battle with a tenant whose sole income was a grant from the Guildford Commissioners that was noticebly less that the rent alone. The tenant was never evicted, probably for social and compassionate reasons, and he eventually solved Guildford’s problem by sailing to Australia, although leaving behind the sizeable rent arrears.
The examples below have been chosen as each had different ideas of what to build, and on what scale. Most Surrey Districts had housing schemes but all would have encountered the same problems described below. Some councils had success with their plans and others did not.
Woking Urban District Council
This borough has been chosen as an example as it built post-WW1 social housing very much in line with the vision of the Ministry of Reconstruction. The Council’s Housing Committee were already planning to build 24 houses as a response to the growth of the town, but increased that to 76 in September 1917, provided public funds would be available. These commendable plans were in place well before any government announcement and suggests that the council were aware of plans to introduce housing subsidies, post WW1. They even expected another 180 houses would be built by private individuals or speculative builders. In April 1918 the council’s surveyor was instructed to plan for a site at Old Woking (called the “Woking Village” site) at a tight 12 houses per acre with a total of 74 houses. By the end of 1918 this plan had been reduced to 52 houses on a smaller site but with all houses having provision for a bath (as per Tudor Walters’ report). Eventually, 42 houses were built on a site of 5.26 acres, at 8 houses per acre. This sounds generous, but was typical for social housing at the time – decent gardens were seen as a corner-stone of working class housing design. The council made good progress but events were overtaken by the 1919 Act and its new method of subsidising. Woking UDC then hit a problem. Any government loans under the 1919 Housing Act were offered to smaller authorities where the total rateable value was under £200,000. Unfortunately, Woking’s was above this level (£212,000) and so the Public Works Loan Commission would not lend the money to purchase the land and start the building. This left the council in a difficult position. They had already agreed to purchase the land and had sent tenders to builders. To their credit, the council did not abandon the scheme but looked to raise most of the capital by issuing Housing Bonds for local people to purchase. The bonds were for 7 years with a guaranteed income of 6%. The bonds issue was a success and the records show that many private individuals in Woking purchased small numbers of bonds. With the problem of the capital now sorted, the council could proceed with applying for the subsidy.
In anticipation of the 42 houses being built the council had already advertised the property for rent and 195 individuals requested an application form, of which 126 were returned. The demographic breakdown makes interesting reading:
63 applicants were ex-servicemen permanently engaged in work in the district
19 were other residents without a house
12 were residents already with a house
32 were from outside the district.
Returning to the problem of the subsidy, the estimated cost for the 3 types of house were around £1000 per house, above what the council wanted, and way above what the MoH (who were now in control of housing subsidies) would tolerate. High building costs meant a larger debt over and above the 1d on the rate, and so a higher subsidy for the MoH. There then came protracted negotiations between the council, the builder (local builder W. G. Tarrant of Byfleet) and the MoH Housing Commissioner. Eventually a compromise was agreed between all parties whereby the builder was forced to reduce labour rates (in accordance with published government rates), the council reduced their specification for the housing, and the MoH agreeing to accept a higher-than-desirable construction estimate and therefore a higher subsidy than desired. The Ministry was starting to accept that building costs in the home counties were always going to be high – as they are to this day. Even so, the final bill for the 42 houses was £35,214; a unit cost of £838. This cost included roads, sewers, fences and loan costs, but did not include the cost of the land. The high costs are well illustrated by one tenant offering to buy his house a few years later for £400. His offer was turned down. The use of local builder Tarrant is an interesting one. He was a well-known, respected and prolific house builder in west Surrey and known more for his building of the up-market estates of St George’s Hill, Weybridge, and Wentworth in Virginia Water.
Whilst the Woking Village site was being progressed, the council expanded their plans to include 24 houses at Gongers Lane (now Westfield Avenue), 30 houses at Kirby Road, Horsell, and 4 houses at Knaphill (Broadway/Sussex Rd). The construction estimates for these houses were also much higher than expected at between £913 and £1,071 per house. As with the Woking Village site, the prices were lowered by a combination of negotiation with various builders, and a reduction in adornments and fixtures. The construction was under way by October 1920 and the subsidies were agreed by the MoH. The average cost per house (excluding land) came out at: £1,191 for Gongers Lane; £1,159 for Kirby Road and £1,056 for Knaphill. These latter houses are mainly of the larger parlour-type whereas the Village houses are predominantly non-parlour.
Finally getting approval for the housing to be built was not the end of the problem for the council as regards the Westfield/Horsell/Knaphill housing. As the MoH were providing a subsidy they would set the minimum rent to protect their annual costs and ensure the subsidy did not increase because of a bigger deficit against the 1d in £ rate limit. This rent was set at a minimum of 15s 10¼d per week for the houses in Woking (more for the parlour-type houses). The council believed this to be “exceeding heavy” and requested that the ministry should agree to less. Eventually, after a problem with getting enough bricks delivered from the local brick yard in Knaphill, the houses were built and occupied. The Westfield and Knaphill sites were always planned to be expanded and more land was purchased. The Council wrote letters to the MoH imploring them to agree to subsidise more much-needed housing in Knaphill, but the Ministry refused. The negotiations came to a halt when subsidies were abandoned in 1921. The schemes were all resurrected under the 1923 and 1924 Housing Acts, including the much-needed expansion of the Knaphill scheme. The Westfield site was also considerably expanded over the next decade. The MoH finally agreed to a rent reduction across Woking in 1923 and the Woking Village tenants received a reduction of 1/6d per week, although Woking applied for a 2/6d per week reduction from the MoH. Rent reductions on the other sites soon followed.
The houses still stand, in many cases very much how they were built. They are clearly “council houses”, with many having a plain “box with a roof” look, but have weathered well over the last 90 years and are a testament to the building standards that the council tried hard to maintain despite pressure on costs. The council continued building small pockets of housing using subsidies under the 1923/24 Housing Acts. This story of a determination to build the houses wanted, raise the capital to purchase land, fund the building, all whilst negotiating as much subsidy they could get from the government, was typical for all authorities around the country. Woking’s problems with costs were exacerbated by the high material and labour costs – as they still are today.
Full details, plans and photographs of Woking’s housing is in the downloadable pdf file, link at the bottom of this page.
Dorking Urban and Rural District Councils
Dorking’s Urban District Council decided to build two housing developments in town centre, with the initial one totalling a commendable 80 houses (soon to be expanded by 22), and the Rural District Council built housing for agricultural workers in small pockets all over the District, comprising 84 houses in total. All of the latter are substantial buildings of considerable architectural merit that fits particularly well into the typical Surrey village where a simple “box with a roof” would look out of place.
The UDC’s scheme was proposed on April 1920 on land acquired from Sondes Place and resulted in 80 houses in Nower Road. The development was continued in Marlborough and Beresford Roads, just south of the High Street. The Council raised £25,000 from private lenders at a generous 6½% pa, but did not resort to Housing Bonds. This sum enabled the land to be purchased. They applied for a loan from the PWLB for the construction of roads and sewers and another quite substantial one of £50,000 to fund the house building. The first of the Nower Road houses were ready for occupation in the spring of 1921 but required an increase in rents a year later to cover the outgoings from the Sinking Fund. It is pleasing to read in the council minutes that the number of applicants far exceeded the housing available and that local applicants only would be considered. The housing in Marlborough and Beresford Roads followed, using the Council’s experiences and skills built up with the Nower Road scheme. The housing on Marlborough and Beresford Roads were added to under the later housing Acts.
The RDC’s scheme to build small pockets of housing for agricultural workers all around the District was also completed quickly and efficiently. The Council borrowed the capital to purchase the land and build the housing. The calculated annual deficit was £3,380pa for which the rate payers would contribute £360pa via a 1d on the rates. The balance was covered by a subsidy from the MoH. There are no committee records indicating protracted discussions or efforts to reduce the cost of the housing.
Full details, plans and photographs of Dorking’s housing is in the downloadable pdf file, link at the bottom of this page.
Guildford Rural District Council
This example from Surrey falls between the Woking and Dorking schemes in its ambitions in that the outlying developments were all over the district, but on a larger scale than Dorking, but with few in close proximity to the town centre, unlike Woking.
The Housing Committee met regularly and produced excellent and detailed minutes. These minutes relate the usual problems of excessive tenders from builders although not so bad as in some Districts. Possibly, being a large District with a number of potential building opportunities, the local builders were being careful not to be seen to profiteer. It is noticeable that the tenders received from all the builders were suspiciously close to each other. One difference between Guildford and the other Districts investigated is the use made of the two main architects engaged, Messrs Norris and Gambier Parry. Both carried out most of the negotiations with the builders and the Housing Commissioner and it is clear from the minutes that any differences were dealt with professionally and relatively swiftly; the Housing Committee just reported on the negotiations. An example is with the quotations for the first three developments. These were for 12 houses in Artington, 12 in Compton, and 16 in Hurtmore. The initial quotes from 25th Nov 1919 were reduced in just 2 months, as per table below.
|Site||Houses||Tender at 25/11/19||House||New tender at 18/10/20||House|
Note that the proposed houses were planned to be of the parlour type and more than a “box with a roof”. The more reasonable tenders enabled the rents to be estimated at an affordable 10/- per week for non-parlour houses and 12/6d for parlour houses. The rent of the smaller houses was finally agreed with the MoH at 9/- per week. When the loans to cover the costs were taken out the calculations, the final costs were closer to the former 1919 figure, although the loan would also cover expected maintenance costs and overheads.
|Site||Houses||Site cost loan (80 years)||Building cost loan (60 years)||Building cost per house||Occupation started|
The next 5 developments progressed soon after the above three and showed a noticeable reduction in costs in just a short time between the two schemes.
|Site||Houses||Site cost loan (80 years)||Building cost loan (60 years)||Building cost per house||Occupation started|
On the 8th Feb 1921 (shortly after the first houses were being occupied) the Housing Committee recorded the contents of a letter to be sent to the MoH regarding rents. This is very informative and needs no further explanation.
“That the Ministry of Health be informed that the committee are beginning to find that houses cannot be let to the class of person for whom they are intended, at a rent, plus rates, of more than 5/- weekly for non parlour and 6/- weekly for parlour houses, and to ask for any suggestions which the Ministry can make with reference to the matter”. The committee minutes have no record of any response from the MoH.
From April 1922 the committee persisted with requests to the MoH to reduce rents of the above 8 schemes by 33⅓% (which would have noticeably increased the annual MoH subsidies). The MoH agreed to a 6d/week reduction (about 5%) which was rejected. In October 1922 the committee finally agreed to a proposal from the MoH for the following weekly rents (which excluded rates and water charges). These are significant reductions on the rents originally agreed; typically 9/- for non-parlour and 12/6d for parlour.
|Site||Type “A” – non parlour||Type “B” – parlour|
Whilst these negotiations were proceeding, the council prepared for its last set of developments under the 1919 Housing Act. This was for 64 houses across 9 locations in the district. The tender chosen was from W. G. Tarrant of Byfleet. Despite the fact that Tarrant’s were never going to be a cheap choice, their first tender response makes interesting comparison with earlier schemes listed above. The costs were between £810 and £870 per house, depending on type and location. The costs were definitely on a downward trend as labour and material prices started to come down. However, the tender was rejected by the MoH as still being too high. The architect renegotiated the prices based on a significant drop in labour and materials costs, but the schemes got caught up in the removal of subsidies in 1921 and all were abandoned in June 1921 and most of the purchased land was sold. Only two, Peaslake and Shere, were restarted in 1923 under the new Act, and just 3 more schemes were added. The table below shows that the 9 schemes planned in 1921 were reduced to 5 by 1923, but these were built with commendable speed once the 1923 subsidies were agreed. Note the considerable reduction in the cost to build when compared to earlier schemes. These later houses have smaller gardens than those built under the 1919 Act.
|Site||Houses||Site cost loan (80 years)||Building cost loan (60 years)||Building cost per house||Occupation started|
|Peaslake, Fulvens Cottages||12||£432||£6,970||£580||13/10/1924|
|Ripley, Newark Lane||12||£228||£6,961||£580||13/10/1924|
|Send, Burnt Common||8||£1650||£4,118||£515||3/5/1926|
|Shere, Pathfield Cottages||6||£167||£3,395||£566||13/10/1924|
|SWest Horsley, Fulkes Cottages||12||£260||£6,609||£700||8/12/1924|
The Council then became prolific developers using the 1924 Housing Act and built across the District, but never more than 12 houses per scheme.
Full details, plans and photographs of Guildford’s housing is in the downloadable pdf file, link at the bottom of this page.
Windlesham Rural District Council
In contrast to Woking and Dorking, Windlesham was a relatively small and sparsely populated area in north Surrey, with Bagshot as its main town. The council formed a Special Housing Committee in February 1919 in response to the 1919 Housing Act. The council had already seen a need for new housing for their workers but increased the numbers required from 12 to 24 as a result of the promise of financial assistance from the government.
In anticipation of the plan being approved, the council purchased some land on Guildford Road, Bagshot, just to the east of the town. Things did not go according to plan and the ambitious 24 houses were soon reduced to 10, but with the funding from a PWLB loan. The Special Housing Committee seemed to be out of their depth and inexperienced in both building housing and dealing with government officials. The quotes for building the houses were as excessive as with other councils and the protracted negotiations eventually petered out in May 1921. The purchased land was split with one portion sold to a developer for housing and the remaining used as allotments.
Caterham and Warlingham Urban District Council
Caterham nestles in the northern foothills of the North Downs, only 5 miles south of Croydon, and has a good railway connection with London. It was, at the time, home to a large Asylum (opened in 1870). This was another council with bold plans which suffered from excessive estimates for the construction, not helped in this case by protracted discussions with the Housing Commissioner over the suitability of the sites chosen. The differences between the council and the Commissioner became difficult to resolve and caused unnecessary delays.
The council had two sites suitable for the housing. One they called “The hill” and the other “The valley”. The former was part of Queens Park Estate to the west of the town centre and the latter became the “Tillingbourne site” to the south. The “hill” site was ideal because the terrain made construction and drainage easy, which was not the case with the “Tillingbourne” site. Soon added to these sites were 4 acres on Banstead Road to the north of the town. By 1920 negotiations were taking place with the MoH over the amount of a loan and the subsidy. The Ministry would not agree to a loan for the Queens Park site because the council could not agree a fixed price with the land owner, but did agree to the Banstead Road site, despite the council wanting the first site in preference to the second. Eventually, by June 1920 the problems were sorted, loans agreed for purchase of the land and the plans for the sites approved. Construction of Homestead Road on the Queen’s Park site was commenced. The council was under pressure from the MoH to obtain loans themselves for the house building and in June 1920 decided to issue Housing Bonds. The take up of the Bonds issue was good and in 5 months was at £7,270. The fund was boosted by an MoH promise to the Housing Committee of 50% of the proceeds of the sale of Savings Certificates.
The “Tillingbourne” site was then planned, despite known issues with the terrain which would cause difficulties with drainage. This site was at the very bottom of Godstone Road between what is now White Knobs Way and Tillingdown Lane. The council minutes of the 24th March 1921 indicate an unusual situation in that the Housing Commissioner would not “….. authorise the Council to proceed with the work of the lay-out of this site until tenders had been obtained and building the houses commenced”. From this it seems the Council had to accept tenders and begin construction BEFORE the Commissioner would agree to subsidise the scheme. This is clearly a reversal of what should happen (and did happen) in other parts of Surrey. The problem was resolved when the Council sold the site to a local land owner, with the MoH’s approval.
The Banstead Road site seems to have been put on hold early in 1921 whilst the other two sites were progressed. Following the preparation of the Homestead Road site the council issued tenders for the housing but hit the same problem as the other councils of excessively high quotations. The Housing Commissioner estimated that a rent of not less than 17s 6d per week per house would be needed to provide sufficient income to maintain the subsidy at initial levels. This was far more than Caterham residents would be willing to pay for the housing proposed. The first quotations received for Homestead Road were for just 6 houses and the highest came out at £1,460/house whilst the cheapest was £895. Remember, this was for a house that would have a market value, including land, of no more than £400. The Housing Commissioner rejected even the cheapest quotation as being far in excess of the figure anticipated. The council were, like others in Surrey, stuck with land ready for housing but with no agreement on a subsidy to enable them to afford to build the housing. A potential solution was to offer the land to the Metropolitan Asylums Board (MAB) because a number of applicants for the proposed housing worked at the asylum. The MAB initially declined, but eventually took over the Homestead Road site in February 1922. The rest of the site progressed with a re-issue of the tenders and these were much lower than before, indicating that the building trade was no longer able to charge what they wanted. In the end, the council realised it was not going to be able to agree a compromise with the Housing Commissioner and took the whole development off the assisted scheme under the 1919 Act and carried out the development themselves. The result of all the protracted negotiations with the Housing Commissioner was the erection of just 6 houses in the Court Road area (adjoining Homestead Road), not under the 1919 assisted scheme, and the sale of other lands to developers or the MAB. The Council did continue to plan and build houses using subsidies under the 1923/24 Housing Acts, but encouraged private builders to obtain the subsidies and build housing themselves rather than have the Council involved.
Outside the large cities and industrialised areas the need for housing “Fit for Heroes” was never going to be a major one. From the evidence in Surrey, the need seemed to be mainly for agricultural workers. Despite being an industrialised country, Britain grew a lot of its own food and the need for this to continue was very apparent during WW1 when the German U-boats sank almost 5000 ships, many bringing food in (at one point in 1917 Britain has just 6 week’s food in reserve). The increase in allotments and small holdings after the war was also in reaction to the problem. It was also recognised that part of the recovery process for troops returning home was to give them an opportunity to have their own garden and an allotment.
In Surrey’s case, the large size of the houses built after the War is a surprise – streets of terraced houses are no longer the standard. The proximity of the housing schemes to public parks and open spaces is also a pleasant surprise. The latter is in contrast to the big cities, London included, where “blocks” were still being constructed in built-up areas, although garden estates were being planned and built.
The assessment of the success of the Surrey schemes comes down to one thing – could the authority and the workers afford the housing? Costs immediately after the war were very high and it took 2 years for prices to come down both for materials and labour. Even where the schemes were approved and subsidised to a suitable level the rents that had to be charged were often beyond the means of those the housing was built for. As happened in London, the houses for the “working classes” were invariably rented by the artisan class, who could afford them. Maybe if the government had given priority to house building and not industry then the results might have been different.
But this is being critical of well-meaning Surrey councils who all wanted to build houses for their workers, particularly if there was a promise of subsidies. The success or failure usually came down to the skill and expertise of the committee members who had to make the choices. Only after WW2 were the large council estates built by the local authorities.
> Full details of Surrey’s post-WW1 housing, including photographs (pdf)