For social historian John Boughton the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy remains a chilling symbol of the way in which public housing and those who live in it have been nonchalantly cast aside over the last four decades, subject to ruthless cost-cutting, sell-offs and all-round scorn.
Yet as he underlines in his book Municipal Dreams, council housing originated towards the end of the Victorian era in acknowledgement that the fetid, disease-ridden slums depicted by the likes of Dickens would persist and spread without government intervention.
Millions of new homes were built by both Labour and Conservative governments, particularly after the two world wars, housing at one time more than a third of the population. In a bid to increase their property portfolios, London boroughs like Camden and Islington went a step further by buying up whole streets of run-down houses, reasoning that it was cheaper to refurbish than demolish.
“It reminds us that council homes have been for the most of that long history, aspirational housing, the mark of an upwardly mobile working class and the visible manifestation of a state which took seriously its duty to house its people decently,” Boughton tells me.
“It is such a huge part of our shared story, yet it has been neglected and its record much maligned. I wish to put it back to the centre stage and show the enormous positive contribution it has made in a clear-eyed way.”
The book, published a year ago and now out in paperback, is a detailed and compelling exploration of council housing down the ages, from Shoreditch’s 1890 Boundary Road Estate, a triumph of Arts and Crafts design complete with a bandstand, through to the many different architectural and policy approaches of the last century, the post-war New Towns among them; and finally to the present day as market forces run riot to consign social housing tenants to the bottom of the heap.
“That negative narrative has been very powerful since the 1980s with the message around tower blocks, sink estates and dysfunctional communities. Grenfell Tower was part of this,” he adds ruefully.
“The state didn’t always get everything right and mistakes were made in the early ‘60s and ‘70s in the scale and form of council housing. There were some genuine problems but people were very often the victim of broader economic factors. A failing society failed these communities.”
Travelling up and down the country for the book, he found, contrary to popular belief, people mostly had positive things to say about living on the council estates he describes, even those that have supposedly come to epitomise the municipal dream turned sour. Residents of the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark were particularly incensed by its routine media portrayal as an urban dystopia, typified by the infamous 2004 Channel 4 ident, all doom-laden music and litter-strewn walkways.
Although he writes with measured eloquence, there’s no doubt Boughton deplores the ideological antipathy towards council housing – and corresponding obsession with home ownership – first manifested by Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy programme in 1980 that prevented local authorities replacing the two million homes sold by the end of her stay at No. 10.
As a Labour councillor in Winchester in the 1990s representing a ward with two of the city’s largest council estates, he had first hand experience of the impact of the policy as well as the cut backs in council funding that meant that the remaining stock was not properly maintained. With council homes in short supply they were prioritised for those in most need and became known thereafter by the somewhat loaded term of ‘social housing’.
As privately-run housing associations increasingly took up the slack and councils began selling off estates despite ever lengthening waiting lists, Boughton decided it was time to mount a spirited defence of council housing and all things municipal via a blog – Municipal Dreams.
Started in 2013 and still going strong, it evidently hit a nerve, garnering more than a million views and providing the springboard for the book. In both he is fulsome in his praise for Camden’s projects of the 1970s, among them the now listed Alexander Road and Dunboyne Road estates designed by Neave Brown, a member of the borough’s celebrated in-house architecture team.
Newcastle’s 200-acre Byker estate is another favourite, as is Park Hill in Sheffield, where, following a now familiar pattern of privately-funded regeneration, only a tiny percentage of socially rented flats remain.
With Britain in the grip of a deepening housing crisis and Mrs Thatcher’s dream of a property-owning democracy looking more and more unattainable despite gimmicks like help to buy, is there any prospect of the state mobilising once again to tackle the problem head on?
“You would need a crystal ball for this,” he laughs. “However, my sense is that the mood around the issue has changed significantly. There have been small moves in a more positive direction towards a programme of council house building; baby steps. The government has made some positive noises about a revival in social housing and the Labour Party is committed to it. Meanwhile, Scotland and Wales have abolished the right to buy.”
He adds: “The 1.2 million people on the council housing waiting list and an awful lot of people renting in the private sector would love the affordability and security of a council home. It is doubtful that we will ever build on the scale we did in the past but there is a realisation that we have to produce housing that is affordable, secure and safe – for the many, not the few.”
Municipal Dreams – the Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton is published in paperback by Verso
This article appeared in The Review, May 9 2019