Broken Dreams: The Rise and Fall of British Council Housing

In 1979 42% of the British population lived in a council house. Today the figure is less than 8%. The drop has led to an inflated housing market, insecure tenancies and a sustained cultural attack on the working class. As Britain endures its worst housing crisis since the war, with 1.8m households on the waiting list, can Labour revitalise the municipal dream?

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is published by Verso.

The 21st century perception of the council estate as depicted in The Streets – Original Pirate Material.

Britain is a divided country. Among its fraught battle lines are the obvious; Leave v Remain, North v South and the Graduates v Non-Graduates. Yet nowhere is the division more stark than in the widening political priorities of the owners and the renters. There are now two factions; those who have financial support from their parents for a deposit and those who don’t. For decades the media judged the success of a government on their ability to stimulate house prices. Now a new generation of middle class workers are locked out of the house party. With it marks the end of the forty-year crusade towards a property-owning democracy. In the next decade, the number of renters will outnumber the rent seekers and the clamour for affordable rents will be insurmountable. We have been here before of course. In a bid to defeat tyrannical landlords, sub-human conditions and inflated prices, successive post-war British governments embarked on a mass house building programme. For the millions and millions of people housed after 1945, council housing offered the basic human right of stability and comfort, enabling them to flourish. But is Britain ready to become a nation of renters again? As housing becomes the dominant issue in British politics, John Boughton’s timely Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is essential reading for the modern activist.

Lets Build The Houses Quick

It was in the aftermath of the second world war that the Municipal Dream came alive, with Boughton elevating housing as the issue ‘central to the post-war rebuilding.’ Britain’s stock of 12.5million houses had been greatly damaged during the war and the total reduced by 700,000. One in three homes were severely damaged and in need of repair. The Attlee government also faced a 33% increase in births and an 11% increase in marriages. The 1945 Labour manifesto did not shy away from the challenge ahead:

“Housing will be one of the greatest and one of the earliest tests of a Government’s real determination to put the nation first. Labour’s pledge is firm and direct – it will proceed with a housing programme with the maximum practical speed until every family in this island has a good standard of accommodation. That may well mean centralising and pooling of building materials and components by the State, together with price control. If that is necessary to get the houses as it was necessary to get the guns and planes, Labour is ready. And housing ought to be dealt with in relation to good town planning – pleasant surroundings, attractive lay-out, efficient utility services, including the necessary transport facilities.”


One of the five evils Beveridge and Bevan tackled was ‘squalor’.

By handing the housing programme to Nye Bevan, Attlee put faith in an idealist who used his own slum experience to demand change. Boughton recounts Bevan’s vision of a  ‘full life’ where the individual is ‘aware of the problems of their neighbours…drawn from different sections of the community’ where ‘the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street.’ In his first speech as housing minister, Bevan lamented the ‘evil’ notion that local authorities built for one group and speculators built for another. Boughton argues that Bevan’s plans ’embodied much of the social idealism of the post-war era’ which above all aimed to ensure that ‘income groups living in the new towns would not be segregated.’ Between 1945 and 1951 804,921 council homes were built and the Housing Act 1949 stipulated that council housing should no longer be designated for the most vulnerable. Yet the numbers fell short of Bevan’s own target. Faced with tough economic and weather conditions, supply shortages and ‘too high standards’ the house building programme was dubbed a failure. Churchill took great pleasure in the irony that ‘the most mischievous political mouth in wartime has become, in peace, the most remarkable administrative failure.’ Boughton writes that Labour were constrained by their high standards of what council housing should look like.

Labour’s Missed Opportunity

Sensing an opportunity, the delegates at the 1950 Tory conference demanded a commitment of 300,000 houses per year and in just three years the target was met under Harold Macmillan. In the 1951 Tory manifesto, the party claimed housing was second only to defence in their list of priorities. Macmillan espoused that ‘a wide distribution of property…makes for a sound community.’ The record 229,000 council houses built in one year ushered in the post-war consensus. Remarkably, it would be Labour who first looked to break with it, recognising the rising ambitions for home ownership within the working class. In 1959, under Hugh Gaitskell, Labour included the Right to Buy in their election manifesto. It would have enabled council tenants to purchase their home at a discounted rate. Twenty years later Margaret Thatcher would point to Gaitskell as the last sensible Labour leader after she became the sole beneficiary of the policy.

The Right to Buy became Thatcher’s flagship policy, yet it first appeared in Labour’s 1959 election manifesto.

It didn’t have to be that way. As late as 197,  a housing study by Jim Callaghan’s government accepted that ‘for most people, owning one’s house is a basic and natural desire.’ Mired by internal dogma and industrial conflict, the party was unable to capitalise on the policy. The polls showed that it was popular, with 8 in 10 tenants keen on the idea. Instead, the Right to Buy became the flagship policy of the Thatcher era. It worked because it represented everything the party wanted to project; of ambition and pride in the self, of freedom from the state, the rejection of local authority intervention and above all, a break from socialist uniformity. The Thatcher government linked owning a house to having a stake in society, using one broadcast in 1983 to ask ‘Is it any wonder that people turn to crime when brought up in estates like this?’. Cecil Parkinson used the broadcast to claim that, as a society,  ‘We have given them housing but not given them homes.’ The ‘us’ and ‘them’ being used to divide the working class in two. Whist the post-war generation had been happy to accept uniformity as a price for slum clearance, the Thatcher revolution tapped into working class aspiration. Labour dug their heels in and promised to reverse sales, thereby missing out on the most popular working class policy of the post-war era. The Right to Buy did not affect council house building initially, with more than 250,000 constructed between 1980 and 1985. Yet Boughton highlights the cold hard statistics that show the eventual change; new builds reduced from 80,000 per year in 1979 to just 400 in 1997, the percentage of council house tenants in work down from 43% to 23% and, by 1991, a 55% increase in rent for the remaining council tenants. As 1.8 million households partook in the scheme communities divided into renters and owners.

No one foresaw the astronomical rise in prices that would ensue in the next two decades. Culturally this is signified in the sitcom that defined the Thatcher era: Only Fools and Horses. The show’s writer, John Sullivan, derived much of his comedy from the ‘poxy’ three bedroom flat the council had lumbered the brothers with. As the show progressed throughout the 1980s, Del, in an attempt to become a Thatcherite ‘Yuppy’, announces that he has applied to buy the flat off the council. The storyline was intended to exemplify Del’s poor business skills. When his application is accepted three years later, Del is devastated to learn that he now owns it.  Rodney responds ‘Oh bloody hell’ as Del likens his situation to ‘a mosquito that’s caught malaria’. When he finally plucks up the courage to tell his partner Raquel, she sarcastically suggests that they can now ‘build a conservatory or a patio.’ When Del claims ‘at least we have a roof over our head’ she angrily retorts ‘yes and fourteen other families.’ Yet in the accidental deal of a lifetime, the flat that Del purchased in 1992 would be worth £850,000 today. Del’s story represents that of the baby-boomers supreme good fortune. In 2018 nobody could credibly write a sitcom about the misfortunes of a family owning a three bedroom flat in Peckham. Even a ‘poxy’ council flat would seem luxurious. With prices continuing to escalate, Delboy could soon be the millionaire he always hoped to become.

In the accidental deal of a lifetime, Del’s Peckham flat would be worth £850,000 – and rising.

Second Class Citizenship

Only Fools and Horses was born out of the late 1970s Britain, when housing tenants had lost faith in the state to manage tenancy. Boughton points to this era as the beginning of the ‘cultural battle against council housing’ and the idea that the large estates and the people who lived there had failed. As early as 1971, Labour’s Tony Crosland admitted that council tenancy had ‘the whiff of welfare, of subsidization, of huge uniform estates and generally of second class citizenship.’ For the Tories, Enoch Powell had claimed the system was ‘morally and socially damaging.’ In 1976, Labour commissioned an investigation into the most unpopular housing estates and discovered that the issue of ‘problem families’ and a ‘high number of children’ was the biggest concern. The media began to profile ‘spongers’ who cheated the dole and demanded free housing. Alongside this, Boughton pinpoints Labour’s 1977 Housing Act as the beginning of the decline as needs-based allocation became the central requirement in the bidding process. By the turn of the 21st century the council estate was depicted as a lawless, feral environment. David Cameron promised to introduce ‘Shameless squads’ – in a nod to the Channel 4 show Shameless – to target problem families. The term Chav – which stands for Council House And Violent – became a catch-all term for the working class. Vicky Pollard of Little Britain became one of the most popular sitcom characters of all time.

This is juxtaposed with the romantic notion of council housing championed on the left, many of whom had never stepped foot in a dilapidated run-down tower block. In the 1980s Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn clashed over Labour’s opposition to the Right to Buy with Benn claiming that ‘These are not the tenants houses to buy. These are the communities houses.’ Kinnock snapped back ‘On the day when you start paying a mortgage or rent, you will have some authority on the subject.’ Kinnock recognised that Labour had lost touch with the working class, exemplified by a decline in vote share between 1951 and 1983, when Labour support within the group fell from 63% to 38%. Indeed Tony Benn would later argue that Thatcher had been very clever in allowing working class people to buy their homes as this made them less likely to challenge their boss and come out on strike. The view of Jeremy Corbyn and the current Labour leadership is the adoption of the Right to Buy enabled the ‘social cleansing’ of London.

Boughton argues ‘New Labour seemed to agree that councils were poor landlords’

Tony Blair tackled the issue in an early speech as leader, when he spoke anecdotally of the ‘Mondeo Man’ who he had met whilst campaigning in the 1992 general election. Blair recounted how the man had bought a car and a house and started his own business. He told him that he couldn’t vote Labour as a result. Boughton refers to the Right to Buy as ‘a symbol of such aspiration and council housing its antithesis’. New Labour certainly avoided the issue. In the Blair and Brown era 2.61 million new homes were built, with just 7,870 classed as traditional council homes. It coincided with the issue of council housing dying as a political issue. In its place was a media focus on expanding house prices and interest rates. In their 2001 election manifesto, Labour dedicated just two small paragraphs to housing, with the priority being ‘Lower interest rates to enable more people to own their own homes.’ Whilst Labour actively encouraged the boom in house prices, they did instigate positive initiatives for council house tenants. The Decent Homes Standard began in 2000 and required all homes to be in a ‘reasonable state of repair’. The initiative saw £22 billion put into restoration and repairs of local authority homes.

For the current Labour leadership the shift in tone was exemplified at the last Labour conference when the shadow housing minister announced they would end the Right to Buy, claiming that ‘the difference between us and the Tories is they think housing is about property whereas we know it’s about homes, communities and life chances.’ Indeed, the introduction of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and the ending of the lifetime tenancy ensures that council housing will remain the preserve of only the most vulnerable within society. Yet much ammunition was handed to the press when it emerged that Emily Thornberry had purchased a housing association property in a cut-price auction for the purpose of renting it out. While Labour have shifted their policy, it remains to be seen whether the electorate has shifted theirs on home-ownership. Getting on the ‘housing ladder’ remains a distant dream for most young people but it remains just that; a dream, which the Tories will do everything in their armoury to cultivate. If Labour stops working class people from buying council property, as Benn wished, it will further diminish their grip on the heartlands. The day that Labour MPs voluntarily rent is the day that they will speak with some authority on the subject. Until then, Boughton’s thorough and timely history of the council house should enhance their understanding of a complex issue that should now move beyond the realms of identity politics.

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton is published by Verso (£18.99) 








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