Matthew Warburton, Policy Advisor at the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH) looks back on 100 years of council housing.
This July marks the centenary of the passage of the 1919 Housing Act, often known as the Addison Act after its sponsor, Dr Christopher Addison, then Minister of Health in Lloyd George’s government. Intended to help deliver ‘Homes Fit For Heroes’ returning from the First World War, the Act tasked councils with developing new housing and rented accommodation where it was needed.
It promised government subsidies to finance the construction of 500,000 homes within three years. Some councils had already been building homes for several decades, but the Addison Act for the first time made housing for the working classes a national responsibility and council the chosen vehicle for delivering it.
Unfortunately, as the economy went into recession in the early 1920s, the Government cut funding and only 213,000 homes were completed under the Act’s provisions. The Housing Act 1924, or Wheatley Act, passed under the minority Labour Government elected that year, restored the subsidies and raised the standards to which councils were expected to build.
A further Housing Act in 1930 extended council responsibilities to include slum clearance and replacement with new homes. By the outbreak of war in 1939, councils had built a total of 1.1 million homes — a quarter of the total council housing stock at its peak, before Right to Buy was introduced.
No one knows exactly how many of these inter-war homes are still standing or in council ownership. But the great majority — particularly of those built in the 1920s under the Addison and Wheatley Acts — are solidly built cottages still popular with tenants and Right-to-Buy purchasers alike. A significant number have been listed as of architectural interest.
This summer councils across the country will be showcasing their remaining Addison Act homes as part of a celebration of 100 years of council housing. They are hoping to deliver three messages: the first is how important council housing has been over the last century in raising the quality of housing available to working people, providing ‘the first social service’, as it was described in the 1951 Conservative manifesto. The second is that there is a crucial need to shift predominant media and public views of council housing as grim high-rise estates by pointing out the real quality of the homes they once provided.
The third message is that, 100 years on, new homes are still desperately needed by hundreds of thousands of households, and councils are committed to respond. Abolition of HRA debt caps has removed one of the main obstacles to council investment in new housing, and new homes are being planned and built across the country. Council housing will be no less needed in its second century.