Building a New World and Tearing it Down: British Working Class Housing Since 1900 By Andrew McCormack

 29 November 2012 — New Left Project

The right to an adequate home is well recognised as essential for participation in any human society[1] and the requirements of adequacy in contemporary industrialized societies are fairly uncontroversial. Yet, whilst thousands of new luxury houses are built for the rich every year, many in Britain remain trapped in conditions reminiscent of the Depression era. 48,000 households became homeless during 2011, with 655,000 families (and rising) battling cramped and overcrowded homes. With five million people stuck on Council <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing lists and the financial burdens of maintaining a home increasing for many more, it is worth taking a step back to ask how we arrived in such a state. The condensed history of British working class <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing offered here sketches the development of mass <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing provision since 1900. It highlights how political movements forced the capitalist state into substantial policy concessions, and how the reversal of these concessions has itself undermined working class political organisation. Considering the present conjuncture in this context provides us with important lessons at a time of acute crisis for neoliberal orthodoxy.

Origins of socialised housing

In spite of the vast increases in productive capacity and wealth experienced by Britain in the 19thcentury, the quality and security of ordinary people’s homes remained strikingly poor. In 1900 the overwhelming majority of the population rented accommodation from private landlords; there was no Council <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing, and owner-occupation was the preserve of the bourgeoisie and its best rewarded servantsNevertheless the state had already begun to undertake slum clearance and rehousing. A number of employers and politicians had come to regard the condition of much of the UK’s <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing as appallingly substandard to the point of threatening the successful reproduction of an exploitable labour force, and energetic advocates of (somewhat moralistic) reform such as Seebohm Rowntree, Octavia Hill and the Webbs gained prominence. Prior to the First World War, municipal house-building slowly spread from London County Council to other Local Authorities. These homes were typically built for the highest-paid workers, whilst a new layer of managers and professionals were able to buy their own home. Consequently, the proportion of households renting privately remained as high as 76% in 1914, encompassing virtually the entirety of the working class.

The years leading to WW1 saw a remarkable upsurge in militancy in Britain as elsewhere in Europe, culminating in the “Great Unrest” of 1910-14. The increasing organisation of the working class made possible a new and radical activism on <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing provision, most remarkably expressed in the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915. This campaign,  led mostly by women, constituted a response to extortionate private rent hikes during an acute supply shortage, and involved community protection from sheriffs attempting to carry out evictions along with numerous protests in support of the refusal to pay any increase (the slogan ‘not a penny on the rent’ recurred in tenant actions throughout the 20th century). The success of the strikes altered fundamentally the British state’s approach to <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing[2] in a context of wider industrial struggle and war the strikers won legislation to cap the rents that private landlords could charge. These remained in one form or another through most of the period up to Thatcher’s counter-reforms.

More broadly, following 1917, fear of revolution amongst European ruling classes loomed large in response to the Russian revolution and sustained working class action domestically. In Britain, 1921 alone saw 85 million days of strike action by fast-unionising workers – more days than during the Winter of Discontent and the Miners’ Strike combined.  This led to state strategies to improve the material conditions of the working class. With respect to <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing, this involved Council <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing starting to become something that workers could aspire to, collectively and individually, although the fallout after the 1926 General Strike failure slowed this trend of Council house building. By 1939 Council tenancies were available to around 10% of English households.

Contradictions of social democracy

During the ‘golden age’ of post-WW2 welfare-state capitalism, most of the working class benefited enormously from rapidly improving <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing conditions. In this period Tory and Labour governments consistently built in excess of 100,000 new Council homes per year; since 1982, by contrast, the total of Council and Housing Association new-build has never exceeded 50,000 in one year and during the New Labour years the annual figure frequently fell below 25,000. The causes of this substantial shift towards socialization of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing are as those for the wider development of ‘the social wage’ across Western capitalism from 1945-1979 – on the one hand, strong political and industrial working-class organization driving a Labour party committed to the partial de-commodification of basic needs; and on the other, ruling class concessions to prevent a deeper radicalisation of the working class movement, along with the goal of reproducing a healthy (and so more exploitable) workforce. Although the Conservatives periodically attempted measures aimed at reviving the role of the private landlord in providing working-class <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing[3] and raising Local Authority rents through market mechanisms, [4] the enduring popularity of socialised <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing in this period forced Tory policy to operate within a social democratic framework.[5]

The sustained Council house-building undertaken enabled millions of households to escape insanitary slum conditions, and many could for the first time enjoy facilities such as indoor bathrooms, proper heating, and nearby open space. Still, socialists shouldn’t discount more critical perspectives on this era. By 1979 no more than one-third of households lived in Council <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing, and the home ownership accounted for over 50% of the <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing stock. Owner-occupation retained prestige and appeal for much of the working class, and private home ownership maintained ideological support beyond those willing to vote Tory (as well as certain practical advantages, as discussed below).  Indeed, after Labour returned to opposition in 1951 the national party moved progressively towards a ‘mixed economy’ of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing provision, with owner-occupation remaining discursively embedded as Britain’s majority tenure. Harold Wilson’s government planned for 500,000 homes to be built from 1964-1970, half of which were to be public and half private,[6] and in 1976 Labour Environment Minister Peter Shore went so far as to declare that “owner-occupation not only makes economic sense for the individual and the community, it also satisfies deep rooted aspirations in our people”. A Labour Green Paper of the same year confirmed this view: “for most people, owning one’s home is a basic and natural desire, which for more and more people is becoming attainable” (italics mine). This naturalisation of home ownership was surely at odds with the outlook of most Labour members, but shows a certain continuity with the party’s later embrace of neoliberal dogmas. 

There were also sharp limitations to the quality of Council house building in practice. While estates such as Sheffield’s Park Hill certainly were excellent in terms of design and build quality, cheap and unimaginative flats were more common and developments often lacked decent family or community facilities (although it may be noted that the private <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing later produced at higher cost under neoliberalism is rarely better). Even <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>left-wing Local Authorities found themselves forced by Labour and Tory government alike into programmes of bargain-basement homes – frequently system-built – that failed their tenants, although private developers prospered. These were certainly contributing factors to the working-class preference for home ownership. Also of significance was the overwhelmingly privatized actual production of Council <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing, with Council contracts offering huge profit to large developers. Some level of overt corruption seems to have been pervasive, the downfall of Newcastle Labour’s audacious T. Dan Smith being only the most conspicuous case. David Peace’s Red Riding property-developing arch-villain John Dawson describes the process succinctly: Labour can be relied on just as well as Tories, after all their councillors are cheaper to bribe. 

It should not be imagined that socialists acted merely as grateful cheerleaders to the uneven and sometimes contradictory gains offered by post-war socialised <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing. From the formation of the United Tenants’ Association in the St Pancras rent strike of 1960 to the 14-month long Kirkby rent strike of 1972-3, tenants organisation improved rapidly, as lessons were learned from trade union activity.[7] Strikes, campaigns and protests were directed at national policies as well as Council landlord practices, often expressing militant opposition to public <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing as it stood “within a capitalist society, bureaucratically administered by an authoritarian state apparatus, and still subject to the extortion of banker and landowner.”[8] Feminist critiques highlighted the patriarchal nature of such authoritarian administration, and the role of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing provision in reinforcing oppressive family structures and gender roles.[9] To generalize, by the 1960s the <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>left had extended a cautious welcome to ‘actually existing’ Council <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing, but fought and argued for its de-commodifying promise to be made universal, and its functioning to be radically democratized.

The neoliberal era

If <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing during the high point of welfare statism had its drawbacks, the neoliberal era has been an unmitigated disaster for most. Since the radical reconfiguring of class power in favour of capital forged by Conservative governments from 1979, Council (and Housing Association) <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing has become highly marginalized and accessible only to the most disadvantaged sections of the working class: by 1999, the proportion of English households living in social <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing was only 20.2%, falling further to 17.7% nine years later.[10] A key policy driving this reconfiguration in <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing provision was the ‘Right to Buy’, introduced in 1980, offering Council tenants a huge discount to buy their Council home. With its creation of a million new working class home-owners, the policy introduced a significant new tenure division within the working class whilst rapidly diminishing the quantity and quality of Council <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing. This double transformation won terrain for Thatcherites (of all parties) that, as noted above, had previously been broadly social democratic. Although owning a home does not deterministically preclude militant industrial or community activism, house purchase and mortgage repayment do nonetheless tend towards interest-identification with certain aspects of capitalist status quo. The home-owning worker is financially driven to support the Ponzi-like endless expansion of land values and house prices, and action such as striking now carries a looming threat of mortgage default. Routes to improvements one’s private <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing circumstances are individualistic, not collective.

New Labour maintained a remarkable continuity of approach to <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing, overseeing with enthusiasm the grim progression of trends instigated by Thatcher’s governments. Council house-building fell to almost nothing, and Housing Associations did little to make up the difference. Housing Associations, in any case, are a highly problematic vehicle for mainstream <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing provision: though nominally non-profit, they charge higher rents for less tenure security. The large and increasing surpluses they are able to generate have been used to pay ever-higher salaries to management, unburdened by serious regulation or democratic oversight (which are replaced largely by cronyish Board arrangements). Further, the rising debts owed in the sector to finance institutions[11] further circumscribe progressive options by forcing Associations to produce a viable return for their private creditors. New Labour’s one notable social <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing initiative, the Decent Homes programme, brought much-needed investment to existing stock but presents only a minor exception to the woeful record; in fact, from 1999-2010 the government held Councils effectively to ransom by refusing much-needed money to Councils that rejected its privatisation-lite initiatives. Arch-Blairite former minister Hazel Blears is surprisingly candid about such an approach: “we brought into Government quite big prejudices against local authorities in the field of policy. And in some ways, quite rightly. Because some of them were rubbish. You wouldn’t have trusted them to wash the pots, let along run a community”, adding, “we did anything to get control out of the local authorities.”[12] Her alternative was, as we have seen, to pass control of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing into organisations unburdened by any pretence of democratic control; the same is true in many other spheres of policy.


Such developments have combined to eliminate Council <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing from the mainstream of contemporary working-class experience. In conjunction with forced deindustrialisation and the dismantling of private sector trade unionism, this has caused intense spatial concentrations of poverty and deprivation. These conditions have emboldened charges that Council estates ‘create dependency’, cause anti-social behaviour and worklessness and other social ills. Meanwhile the steady growth of private renting and home-ownership has combined with a chronic and worsening lack of overall supply[13] and stagnating median wages to make both renting and buying in the private sector increasingly unaffordable in most of the UK.[14]

The cuts to Housing Benefit have only exacerbated the financial strain faced by working class Britons. It is notable calls for cuts to this benefit often come from the same quarters as those who attack Council Housing. They have one thing right, which is that the Housing Benefit bill is large – having grown to a hefty £21.6bn annually. But what is <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>left out of the picture is that this has primarily grown to compensate for the declining investment in social <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing – two-thirds of this increase is the result of new privately rented cases, with the remainder mainly caused by rising unemployment.

On top of all this, developments in the political economy of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing in the neoliberal era helped to precipitate the economic crisis that broke in 2008. That important story is beyond the limits of space here, but it serves as a reminder of the enormous significance of questions around <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing.  

A revived <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>left needs thus needs to place <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing at the centre of its politics. How can it begin to turn around the misery and chaos wrought by marketised <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing?  The key is to recognise the need to go beyond defense against cuts and Council house privatisation and to develop a new politics of socialised <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing. Not only will this help to rebuild the values of solidarity, which are essential if we are to challenge capitalist power, it is also a prerequisite of flourishing communities and security for individuals.

This article is part of NLP’s series on the politics of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>housing.

[1] Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor, 2000

[2] See for example ‘The Struggle Against the Housing Finance Act’ by Leslie Sklair

[3] For example, the Rent Act of 1957 attempted some rent deregulation

[4] Most notably the Housing Finance Act 1972

[5] Peter Shapely, The Politics of Housing: Power, Consumers and Urban Culture (p40), Manchester University Press, 1979

[6] Shapely, ibid.

[7] See Sklair

[8] Simon Clarke and Norman Ginsberg, “The Political Economy of Housing”, University of Warwick 1974

[9] See Sophie Watson with Helen Austerberry, Housing and Homelessness: A Feminist Perspective, Routledge 1986; also Mike SavageAlan Warde and Kevin WardUrban Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity, 2002

[12] Owen Jones, Chavs, Verso 2001, (p.208)

[13]Government estimates ( forecast that in England alone, 250,000 new-build properties are needed every year simply to keep pace with new household formation and population growth. Instead an average of 142,000 new homes were built annually from 2001-10, with 2010 and 2011 recording record post-war lows.

[14]Over the past 10 years the ratio of average house prices to incomes has increased by around 40% – an enormous hit to household budgets of pre-2002 non-homeowners.

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