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
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
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.