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A political and social history in moving images

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Two features dominate the history of housing in Britain in the 20th century: state intervention in the mass production of housing for the working class, and the prolific suburban expansion of towns and cities. To some extent, the two overlap, but both emerged from a situation at the beginning of the century, when housing provision and quality of life had failed to keep up with the frantic pace of Victorian industrial development.

Before the 1890s, the dire state of working-class housing had been improved by trusts and societies such as the Peabody Trust, who produced grim but safe and sanitary tenements, and there was little direct state intervention. The 1890 Housing Act empowered local authorities to purchase and demolish slum dwellings, and rehouse their inhabitants. Councils such as Liverpool led the way, while the London County Council built the exemplary Boundary and Millbank estates in central London, less barrack-like tenements designed with inhabitants' quality of life in mind.

At the end of the First World War, there was an acute housing shortage, and ill-health stemming from poor housing had seen large numbers of young men physically unfit to serve in the war. Beginning with Lloyd George's 'Homes Fit for Heroes' policy, four million new homes were built during the interwar period, 1.5 million of them directly by local councils or with the aid of state subsidy. More and smaller new families demanded more and smaller new homes; suburban 'cottage' estates were developed for artisans, clerks and the semi-skilled working classes who could now afford to leave the inner cities. The world's largest planned suburb was built at Becontree in Essex, while good-quality suburban housing was planned around Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield.

In the1930s there were further slum clearances. While some poorer members of the working classes were rehoused in inner-city multi-storey dwellings, suburban expansion continued apace for the middle classes, who, with fewer servants than their Edwardian forebears, nevertheless demanded well-planned and spacious dwellings. Architecturally, this period produced houses in a mishmash of conflicting styles epitomised by the 'Tudorbethan' villa; the modernist simplicity of continental architecture was never popular with the British.

The economic depression of the 1930s slowed the pace of house building, but the Second World War caused much greater damage: by 1945 nearly half a million homes had been destroyed, a quarter of a million were seriously damaged, and another three million suffered lesser damage. The immediate crisis was partly met by the rapid construction of 125,000 cheap pre-fabricated houses or 'prefabs', but it was followed by a housing boom that equalled and exceeded that of the 1920s.

In the twelve years after the war, two and a half million new dwellings were constructed, three-quarters of them by local authorities. Labour's newly-devised welfare state had no comprehensive plan for housing to match its plans for health and education, but new and better houses were created, not only for the poorest but also for the skilled manual and clerical classes. However, the construction of new housing was outpaced by the decay of existing housing stock. By 1963, 3 million people were still living in substandard housing, and official housing policy moved once again towards slum clearance and redevelopment.

As Labour and Conservative governments alternated, housing policy changed. Labour favoured the direct construction of housing by local authorities, and the Tories attempted to encourage private rental by removing rent controls. Consensus existed at least on the desirability of encouraging private ownership, significantly accelerated by the 1980 Housing Act, which gave council tenants the right to buy their own homes at well below the market rate. The rate of owner-occupation, below 10% in 1914, is today among the highest in Europe, at over 70%.

For those without houses, the creation of the pressure group Shelter in 1966 significantly raised the profile of homelessness as a social problem, and the 1977 Housing Act required local authorities to provide housing for those who urgently needed it. Labour's 1997 Rough Sleepers Initiative centred on London, where Britain's homelessness is most heavily concentrated, with the aim of eliminating all street homelessness.

New dwellings took different forms. More than twenty New Towns were built between 1950 and 1970, integrating employment, housing, car use and pedestrian hubs, culminating in the massive Milton Keynes. In the inner cities, where slums had been cleared, 'mixed' developments of houses and taller blocks began to appear. Tower-block building was at its peak in 1966, the year before the Ronan Point disaster, when a gas explosion in a block in East London killed four people. Never popular with families, tower blocks quickly lost favour with both residents and local authorities.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the number of dwellings built and maintained by local authorities radically decreased. Ownership and management of many estates was transferred to locally-run Housing Associations. In the private sector, suburban expansion continued, with a return to a modified Tudorbethan style. In 1990, rapid interest rate rises caused a collapse in house prices, and many owner-occupiers were caught in the trap of 'negative equity', where the amount they still owed on their mortgage was greater than the amount they could realise from the sale of their property.

The 20th century saw an enormous improvement in everyday housing conditions. Even in the early 21st century, local authorities are demolishing remaining high-rise blocks to make way for low-rise, high-density housing, often turning the demolitions into a public spectacle. Both housing need and development are heavily concentrated in the South East, where the planned Thames Gateway development could provide between 60,000 and 90,000 new homes.

However, continued dependence on the private sector has made the development of social housing unreliable. Rising house prices are making it difficult for many to get their foot on the first rung of the housing ladder, and an ageing population will need more specialised accommodation. It has been estimated that at the current rate of building it would take over a thousand years to replace Britain's existing housing stock: keeping the population adequately housed is a constant race against time.

Danny Birchall

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