Saturday, May 07, 2011

Social Housing

Over the past few days I have watched a couple of BBC documentaries on Council Houses. At the end of the Victorian era the housing stock in London and some of the other larger cities of the UK was terrible. The poor lived in overcrowded and unhygienic condition, renting rooms of multiple occupancy from private landlords, that were damp, cold and poorly ventilated. It was nothing for three of four families to live in a single room, their quarters separated by a sheet hanging over a line strung across the room. Washing and toilet facilities were outside and shared. Usually there was no heating and little employment.

Of course, the working classes were better catered for in service of the large country mansions, but that was strict servitude. Some philanthropists such as Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry and established garden cities around their factories for their workers and there were many tied cottages for railway workers, miners and agricultural workers.

A Royal Commission concluded that Local Authorities might be permitted to take the lead in providing social housing and first London County Council and then Liverpool and other large cities began to build tenements, houses, apartments, and garden cities to house the working classes.

These were an immediate success and proved a Godsend to the 'deserving' poor. There were always working people who sought to better themselves by the virtue of hard work and by and large it was these who took up the challenge of moving into carefully designed properties. The difference between these 'Council Houses' and their previously rented accommodation was immense. Indoor sanitation was universal. Fitted kitchens, pantries to store food, no more cooking over an open fire, gas lamps and then electricity, good ventilation, gardens, space; all were provided. Even better than the local flats were the garden cities just outside the London green belt; towns like Stevenage. Here ever man had his vegetable patch.

By the 1960s having overcome the challenges of two world wars and homes for returning heroes, the councils began to cater for consumerism, with more electric plugs for the kitchen, space for washing machines and fridges and garages and parking spaces.

The councils were surprisingly paternalistic, laying down how many times the house had to be cleaned, the windows washed, the inside decorated and the hedges clipped, but the occupants took no offence, such was the improvement of their living standard.

The earliest residence that I remember was a basement flat with one bedroom a kitchen and a living room. I lived there until I was 5 with my parents and younger sister. My first cot was a drawer of a chest of drawers, pulled out and padded with blankets. My sister and I had the bedroom and my parents slept in the living room on a bed-settee covered with 'leatherette' with a cigarette hole in it.

I think my father would have been called one of the deserving poor. His mother was a single mum by the time I knew her. She lived in one of the worst slums in Worcester, two up and two down, with no water, gas, electricity or inside sanitation. A pump at the end of the road was the source of water and there was an outside lavatory for every three houses in the street. Cooking was over a coal fire. She died at the age of 48.

My father served a 7-year apprenticeship as a tailor's cutter and found work as a tailor during the war (he was unable to serve in the forces because of past TB) following the troops making and repairing uniforms for Bernard Weatherall, the tailor (His son went on to be Speaker of the House of Commons). He and my mother lived in rented rooms and on one occasion in a Gypsy caravan parked in a field. While we were in the basement flat my mother fell pregnant again and my father, who was now employed as a bar steward in the officer's mess for the Royal Army Medical Corps in Aldershot, found extra work, moonlighting doing alterations for a local tailor. This kind man bought us a house to rent for our larger family and my father was able to take on extra moonlighting for the big multiple tailors like Burtons and Hepworths.

Our new house, that we moved into in 1948 had an outside toilet, no bathroom, three bedrooms, two reception rooms and a kitchen with a stone sink and cold running water. There was a small garden where we grew vegetables and kept chickens. We lived there for 8 years and when my youngest brother was born we bought our first house in 1956. This had a bathroom and a back boiler so we had hot running water for the first time. The galley kitchen was small but the kitchen sink was porcelain rather than stone, with two taps. We built a conservatory onto it in 1959 and extended into the roof for an extra bedroom that clearly did not meet building regulations. It had no window and I slept up there on an old camp bed.

After I went to University my parents bought a new house which my mother still lives in in her 92nd year. He background was just as poor as my father's. She was the daughter of the oldest daughter of a well-to-do builder. Despite the wealth in the family, she got nothing; all the money went to the boys. At the age of 12 my mother went into service with her grandmother, performing menial household tasks. My grandmother was married off to a builder's labourer and set up in a two-up and two down house owned by her parents. I remember it well as I used to holiday there as a child. It had no bathroom and an outside lavatory, a stone flagged kitchen that contained a solid fuel boiler and a mangle. People washed in the kitchen. It did have gas and electricity but no electric points. My grandmother brought up eight children in this little house and was there until she died.

My point in telling you this is that my mother's sister got a council house in Worcester. It was huge with a bathroom and a fitted kitchen. It had a large garden which backed on to open farmland. It was a far higher quality than most privately rented accommodation available then.

However by the 1970s policy had changed. You no longer earned points to raise yourself on the council house waiting list. Priority was given instead for the indigenous poor; the unemployed, the destitute, the drug addicts, the unmarried mothers. Council estates became tips. Rubbish, like old bikes, sofas and old TVs were dumped in front gardens and never cleared away. Drug pushing and casual crime abounded. Whole streets of fat, ugly, illiterate and lazy people proliferated. The neighborhood went down hill. The 'deserving' poor were offered the chance to buy their council houses at a discount in the 1980s and this did something to improve the estates, but others, especially the high-rise estates built in the 1960s and 1970s rapidly decayed. Nobody wanted to live in them. They had been cheaply constructed and had become slums worse that those they had replaced in less than 20 years.

Today there are people on Council House waiting lists that will never be rehoused. A large degree of criminality has entered into the situation. In London over 50,000 council houses are being sublet at a profit. Some council tenants have become millionaires from the largess of the local council. One man shown on one documentary owns several properties including a chateau in France. The housing problem has been exacerbated by huge amount of immigration that has taken place in the past 10 years.

In the 1960s the UK was building over 300,000 new homes every year. Today, only a fraction of that number are being constructed. We have a real problem awaiting us. There are many derelict houses in the north waiting to be reclaimed, but there are no jobs to sustain them. In London quite ordinary apartments regularly sell for over a million pounds. With interest rates so low, rents have become very high to get a return on investment. I fear for our young people. Many live at home with parents in overcrowded conditions until their late thirties.

The governments responses - council tenancies have to be reapplied for every two years, council houses being seen as stop-gaps rather than permanent solutions, a limit on housing bnefit, may make cosmetic changes, but they don't seem to be a solution.

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