Part One: Homes Fit For Heroes
The Wheatley Housing Act of 1924 allowed central government to provide subsidies for social housing. The aim was to create employment in a shattered construction industry and provide quality homes at affordable rents. Ten years later, over half a million council homes had been built in the UK. It was the one influential legacy of the first ever Labour administration.
The effect of the first world war contributed to a severe housing shortage by the year 1918. Overcrowding was a huge issue which affected nearly 500,000 families (Overcrowding was defined as more than 2 people sharing each bedroom in the house). The war had added to the severe housing crisis, as the cost of construction rose while the number of builders declined. Rising to the challenge was the relatively new Labour party, who, in their 1918 election manifesto, demanded;
“A million good houses – Labour demands a substantial and permanent improvement in the housing of the whole people. At least a million new houses must be built at once at the State’s expense, and let at fair rents, and these houses must be fit for men and women to live in”
Prior to the election, Lloyd George – leader of the Liberal coalition – had made his famous statement that “slums are not fit homes for the men who have won this war”, thus coining the ‘homes fit for heroes’ phrase. When he returned as leader of the coalition government, he pushed through the radical ‘Addison Act’ of 1919. It had an ambitious target of 500,000 new houses within three years, to meet the demand. The government, who had previously taken a back-seat over house building, would now provide subsidies to builders to enhance the nations stock. Yet the increasingly difficult economic climate meant that private developers could not meet the demand, leaving government as the key initiator of the programme. As conditions worsened and the great economic crash deepened, funding was substantially cut, and less than half the target was met.
Nevertheless, the passing of the Addison Act was a hugely significant step in accepting the need for house building as a national priority, and it gave local authorities extra responsibility for delivering decent housing. By the 1922 election, Labour had risen rapidly to become the main opposition party in British politics. The Tories still maintained power and Chamberlain’s 1923 Housing Act introduced new building subsidies of £6 for each home, paid annually over a 20 year period. The aim of the act was to incentive the private sector to supply housing. A local authority could only receive a subsidy to build, once they had proven that private developers were not meeting demand.
It would be six years after the end of the war, with the advent of the first Labour government, that a firm promise was made to the returning heroes. When Ramsay MacDonald became the first ever Labour Prime Minister in January 1924, he appointed John Wheatley as his Minister of Health. Wheatley had been the radical leader of the ‘Red Clydeside’ group of Labour MPs in the 1920s. Schooled in the tough Glaswegian politics, he had been involved in the infamous Clydeside struggles and had risen up through the same communities that had been so poorly housed before the war.
Wheatley’s Housing Act became law in August 1924 and is seen as one of the few achievements of the very first Labour government. It looked to build on aspects of the Chamberlain Act, by providing higher subsidies of £9 per year for 40 years, to stimulate a mass building programme. However greater onus was placed on local authorities to build, and Wheatley outlined a 15-year programme of housing building at rents affordable to the ever-expanding working classes. Local authorities would no longer need to demonstrate ‘housing need’ to undertake building.
Wheatley was able to negotiate a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with the trade unions, to relax the rules which limited the number of skilled men in the profession. By increasing the number of workers, they stood a better chance of meeting the rising demand. The act outlasted the short-lived Labour government and, despite a Tory cut in the level of subsidies in 1927, over 500,000 houses were built as a result of the act by 1933.
In the book, Britain’s First Labour Government, John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn argue that the Act was the Government’s ‘singular success’. At the 1924 election, Labour heralded their reforms;
“Its work for housing – In the face of much opposition, the Labour Government has passed into law the Great Housing Charter, the statute that enabled the Local Authorities and the Building Industry to engage in a fifteen years’ uninterrupted building programme, with such generous financial assistance as will provide:
Houses to let at low rents; a separated dwelling for every family in the land; A continuous policy of slum clearance and an ending of overcrowding. Meanwhile, the Rent Restriction Acts (which practically expire next year) have to be continued and amended; and the Bill to prevent profiteering in building materials has still to be passed. It depends on the result of the Election whether this great Housing Policy will be carried out.”
However, Wheatley and MacDonald fell out after the 1926 general gtrike. and Wheatley did not figure in the 1929 minority Labour government. Wheatley became a fierce critic of the party as they grappled with a world economic crisis. He would die in 1930, in the same year that Arthur Greenwood introduced his own housing act. The act would be the first to address slum clearance, by providing subsidy to local authorities in order to re-house tenants.
A year later the scheme was dropped, and MacDonald became the ultimate traitor to the left as he joined the Conservative dominated national government. MacDonald was part of the government that abolished the Wheatley Act, claiming that it was now too expensive. In its place was a a policy of slum clearance, but many protested at the creation of a much lower standard of housing.
Wheatley’s legacy lived on and under the provisions of the various inter-war housing acts 1.1 million homes were built. This expansion would form a base of voters for the future of the Labour movement and enhanced the party’s presence in the inner cities. But as 1939, and the outbreak of war approached, all the progress came to a sudden and damaging halt.
Part Two: Let’s build the houses quick
Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government built more than a million homes, 75% of which were council houses. But it wouldn’t be enough to keep them in office.
After another war, the UK faced another crisis as house building came to a shuddering halt during the conflict. Britain emerged from the devastation of war with over 200,000 houses destroyed, and nearly 500,000 in need of urgent repair. In the first Kings Speech – transcribed in the 1945 King’s Speech – On behalf of the people the King admitted that:
“An urgent and vital task of my Ministers will be to increase by all practicable means the number of homes available both in town and country. Accordingly they will organize the resources of the building and manufacturing industries in the most effective way to meet the housing and other essential building requirements of the nation”
In the Beveridge report, ‘Squalor’ had been identified as one of the five great evils to be tackled and the new Minister for Health Nye Bevan, remained responsible for housing provision. Part of the population remained homeless and many resorted to squatting in old army camps. There also remained the problem of slums. So in addition to creating the NHS, Bevan faced a monumental task. The party envisioned housing as a key aspect of their new welfare state and the first priority was to deal with the homelessness. In the immediate aftermath of war, the government focused on short-term solutions and in their first year in office, 600,000 homes were repaired to make them habitable again.
Yet there remained a chronic shortage. Resources were still in scant supply, and progress was slow. The shortage in housing had been preempted by Churchill, who in 1942 set up the Burt Committee to assess new developments in prefabricated construction by the Americans. This housing would become known in the UK as ‘prefabs’ and provided the country with a temporary solution to the problem. The prefabricated houses were made in factories and could be quickly assembled onsite. It was envisioned that each of the houses would have a 10-15 year life-cycle, and the measures would run alongside a mass council house building programme. Prior to the Labour victory, a 1944 act of parliament had committed £150m to the prefab scheme (the equivalent of £4.3bn today) and they were intended to house returning servicemen.
Costing about £1,000 a piece, they sprung up across the major cities and over 150,000 were built in total. Nye Bevan, dismissed them as “rabbit hutches” and came under attack for building too few homes. He refused to compromise on quality and was motivated by his own upbringing in the Welsh slums:
“We shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build; we shall be judged in 10 years’ time by the type of houses we build”
On a point of principle, Bevan would not sacrifice quality for quantity. He dreamed of new housing estates occupied by a cross section of class, occupation and wealth. The war had broken down many of the class divisions, and raising standards for the people at the bottom would be his main priority. The New Towns Act of 1946 attempted to resolve the inner city problem of overcrowding. Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, would be the first new town created under the Act, with ten others following by 1955.
Other reforms followed and councils were given more planning powers in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. The Housing Act 1949 enabled local authorities to buy decrepit homes for improvement, with some of the costs provided by central government. Additionally, private home owners could be given home improvement grants to arrest war damage and prevent overcrowding.
Throughout his time in office, Bevan restricted private house building to ensure that the very limited building supplies and manpower could be used for council housing. By the time Labour left office, 700,000 council homes had been built. Yet Labour had promised to ‘build the houses quick’ and with such a mammoth task on their hands, it would not be enough to keep them in office.
It would be the Conservatives who capitalised on Labour’s housing shortcomings, and in the 1951 election, they promised 300,000 houses per year. The Tories promised:
Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by crowded houses. Therefore, a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence.
Macmillan later maneuvered his party towards the centre and Labour, having put housing on the agenda, could step out of office, safe in the knowledge that the welfare state could no longer be reversed.
For further reading, check out How Macmillan built 300,000 houses a year