Let’s Build the Houses: How Attlee and Bevan tackled the Housing Crisis in 1945

With the increasing prominence of housing problems in recent years, Louis Welvaert looks at the achievements of past governments in this area.

One significant period remaining unanalysed in terms of the contribution it can make to our current debate on housing is the Attlee Government. Today often only mentioned for the supposed restrictive effect of the Town and Country Planning Act, the first majority Labour government was a period of great success in housing policy.

During the Second World War three-quarters of a million houses had been destroyed or rendered inadequate, and housing was a key issue in the General Election of 1945. During the war no new houses were built and existing construction was halted in order to ensure all resources were dedicated to the war effort. Labour’s pledge to ‘Build the Houses- Quick!’ won over millions of voters looking for good accommodation. 

Almost immediately after Labour’s landslide victory the new government set to work at the mammoth task of rejuvenating British housing. Building off the 1944 Abercrombie Report, which proposed the housing of half a million Londoners in satellite towns, the Labour government passed the 1946 New Towns Act. The Act enabled the government to designate a series of New Towns, whereby new settlements would be set up or existing towns expanded to accommodate the needs of a growing population. In addition to this, the 1945 Building Materials and Housing Act provided £100,000,000 to local authorities to construct new council houses.

The ambitious housebuilding programme was headed by none other than Aneurin Bevan, the minister who introduced the National Health Service. While serving as Minister of Health, he took to the task of rebuilding Britain after the war with great fervour. Along with others such as George Tomlinson, Minister of Works 1945-47, he worked quickly to ensure that the housing shortage was ameliorated.

Surely the greatest contribution of the 1945-51 period of housing policy is the council house. One of the great reforms of the postwar Labour government was the greater involvement of the state in the economy. One example of this was the expansion of local authority provided council houses. By the time the housebuilding programme was in full swing in the late 40s, more than 170,000 council houses were being built per year- almost the same amount as houses of all kinds are built in a year today. This expansion of affordable housing meant that a new generation of people were able to have a roof over their head.

The most controversial housing policy of the Attlee government was the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. While modern day critics view it as the source of Britain’s housing shortage, the primary constraints on development- the restrictive greenbelt policy and obstructionism by local government- do not originate from the TCPA.

While the Town and Country Planning act did provide permission for local authorities to include reserved areas in their local plans, a green belt had already been set up by the Greater London Regional Planning Committee, and the concept would be expanded in the 1950s by the Conservative Government. While it did impose a requirement for permission to build from local authorities, the act did not incentivise them to stifle development- far from it, as it allowed councils to benefit from new construction via a Betterment Levy. This was scrapped by the next Conservative Government although the need for local authority permission was maintained. 

The enormous achievements of the Attlee Labour government in housing policy are clear. 

Although it was far from ideal that a single minister serve in two extraordinarily onerous roles, tackling what could be described as two of the biggest problems of the age, Aneurin Bevan managed to realise an impressive vision of security for all with his housing policy.

While all the manifestos at the 1945 election promised to tackle the housing crisis- the Conservative manifesto remarking that ‘all our energy must be thrown into’ the task of an ‘all-out housing policy’, and the Liberal manifesto warning about a ‘house famine’, it was only Labour who offered practical solutions and real action on this important issue.

Louis Welvaert is a student from South London and a Labour Party member and a Branch Secretary. He is a student of the history of the Labour party and the welfare state.

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