October
28
2019
Author
Richard Wilson
A view on affordable housing

Architect and television presenter George Clarke has a passion. Concerned and challenged by the country's housing crisis – which includes the continuing low delivery of new private housing as well as rising house prices, fewer affordable housing units being built, increasing rent levels, and poor housing standards and homelessness – Clarke has raised the issue of council housing in ‘George Clarke's Council House Scandal’. What was originally a Channel 4 documentary has now become a national campaign.   

This year marks one hundred years since the ‘Addison Act’ (the first significant Housing and Town Planning Act) which introduced the first national council house building programme. The Act, brought in by the Minister of Health, followed the findings of the Tudor Walters Report on housing standards, in tandem with the aim of providing ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ after the First World War. The Act brought in a significant change in the delivery of housing in this country and Clarke celebrates the positive outcomes from this era, including his own childhood upbringing in a council house in Washington New Town, where his mother still lives today.

As a retired town planner, I too can't help but be impressed with the achievements of many of the early council estates and the new towns like Washington. Admittedly, not all the schemes were so successful, but that was rarely due to any inherent problem with the estates themselves.

While homelessness continues to blight our society, council waiting lists continue to rise and housing standards to fall, the manner in which housing is provided has, arguably, become more of an ideological and political battleground over the last forty years. At the same time, housing is often viewed more as a capital asset to be exploited than as a basic need for all. In the meantime affordable homes are not being delivered and the poorest in our society fall between the cracks and suffer the most. 

The provision of affordable housing was not always so political or ideological. As Clarke points out, some of the highest levels of council house building took place during the years of a Conservative government in the 1960s. And although the Conservatives were also behind the 'Right to Buy' policy introduced in the 1980s – from which his own mother was able to benefit –the houses sold-off as a result of that policy were never replaced in any numbers by either Conservative or Labour governments. Placing the onus on requiring private house builders to build a proportion of affordable units in their schemes, while potentially laudable to increase social integration, has never been successful in terms of the numbers of houses delivered. Private developers have only really had the will to provide houses for private sale even when mixed developments have been financially viable.

Council housing is only one means of delivering affordable housing, and it will be interesting to see how Clarke's campaign develops – he also has his own small housing project planned on a vacant site offered by Manchester City Council. We are in a housing crisis today and while some of the issues may differ from one hundred years ago, providing good quality affordable housing will require some of the idealism and vision of Christopher Addison and the first council housing pioneers who saw the necessity of integrating housing, health, education and planning policies. 

Clarke’s conclusion is that, “100 years ago the birth of council housing brought affordability, security, and better living standards to millions of people across the UK. I want this country to remember the true value of council housing and restore it to a place of pride.”

That is surely a laudable goal.

 

For more information see https://jubilee-plus.org/housing/