Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (review, part 1)

Given the centrality of housing as the centrepiece of British socio-political reality, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is far more than a simple audit and historical account of the trajectory of social housing spanning over a century. Viewed through the lens of social housing, John Boughton provides a detailed and nuanced analysis of housing as a response to the changing social and political conditions of Britain. The big questions of the day are often reflected in the government’s responses to the challenge of housing its people. The Municipal Dreams journey departs from the early Victorian-era disease-ridden slums where life, for most, was, to quote Hobbes’ Leviathan “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” through to the golden age of socialist thought rising from the ashes of two brutal world wars, to the late 20th century project of “rolling back the state,” privatisation of state assets, financial deregulation and push to the free market and its somewhat tragic consequences, the embodiment of which are reflected in the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.

This fascinating project to trace the noble origins and development of social housing in Britain stemmed from four years of blogging, which is in fact still very much alive and well at Municipal Dreams. Much of the material in the book derives from ethnographic sources, which affords Boughton a level of intimacy not seen (to my limited knowledge) in any other literature spanning such a broad range of council estates. It also allows Boughton to encompass an insider’s perspective and avoids the lack of objectivity that befalls many accounts of working-class culture using a more distant, participatory observation approach.

The book is organised chronologically, with three discernible phases:

1. Philanthropy, morality and Victorian values: Britain’s first council estate, the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch which was completed in 1900, was constructed as a direct response from the appalling conditions of the slum quarter in London’s East End. Multiple accounts, from novels such as Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago referenced in the first chapter of Municipal Dreams, Charles’ Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, to historical accounts and ethnographies including Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, also referred to in Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, and Friedrich Engels’ The Great Towns offered stark descriptions of the criminality, abject poverty, death, and disease in these miserable human rookeries. This misery was the downside of the first ever Industrial Revolution. The work of empiricists such as Engels, and later Thomas Carlyle, informed embryonic ideas for developing the welfare state. These ideas were brought forward by philanthropic individuals and loosely bound “corporations” which would later crystallise and formalise into local councils embedded within the institutional architecture of the British state.

2. The impact of war: The first world war gave rise, both directly and indirectly, to the world’s first mass council housing building programme. In 1919, Lloyd George promised “homes for heroes” and following the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, over the next two decades, 1.1 million council homes were built (pg 31). This gained support from both left and right wing of the political spectrum, albeit on differing grounds. The right, especially, feared the revolutions and Bolshevism sweeping across mainland Europe and believed that providing council housing would sweeten and disarm would-be revolutionaries. Following the war, it was tacitly agreed that a fit, healthy, and strong population was desirable and providing good-quality housing seemed one logical way to do this. The interwar period and the Great Depression saw large-scale slum clearances, where for the first time the poorer working class were brought into council housing.

From 1945, under Clement Attlee there was a concerted effort to rebuild and rebirth the nation following a catastrophic first half of the twentieth century. The welfare state was born, and housing was a large part of this. At this time, socialist thought defined post-war Britain. The NHS was created, access to education expanded, and the dominant ideology gave rise to the idea that council housing was for a prosperous, economically active, and aspirational working class (pg 256).

3. Demonisation and privatisation: From 1979 onwards, Britain was remodelled once again. The post-1945 consensus was replaced with free market ideals of shrinking the state and selling off state-owned assets. This included council housing. While national companies were being sold off at an alarming rate, council housing stock was transferred from state ownership to private hands or to third-party public-private entities and housing associations for ideological reasons. This included the expanded Right to Buy introduced in 1980. Meanwhile, rhetoric and discourse peddled by government, the national press and free-market think tanks such as Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute ensured that council estates and their inhabitants were stigmatised. Social housing is today the preferred term for those working in the housing sector, due not in small part to the negative connotations attached to the term “council housing” and “council estate.” Municipal dreams is not party political work, but it certainly seeks to bring to the fore the social origins of council housing and the critical role the Labour movement played in ensuring access to decent and affordable housing. These principles have been very much eroded in recent decades, but not all hope is lost. We may reach a turning point once again. Or then, things might become ever more entrenched.

I will elaborate further on these musings a bit later.