A hundred years ago housing was made a national responsibility with the introduction of the Housing Act.
A watershed moment in social housing, the legislation provided subsidies for local authorities to help finance the construction of houses for the “working classes” in post-World War One Britain.
But a century on, and with the UK in the grip of a deepening housing crisis, what lessons can we learn from the past to build a brighter future?
Housing crisis in numbers
Everyone deserves a safe place to sleep – but for millions of people, that is not their reality.
A recent report from Shelter called for 3 million social homes to be built in England over the next 20 years to solve the housing crisis.
The housing charity believes around 277,000 people are homeless in the country, most commonly because they have lost their privately rented homes.
Shelter says 1.3 million homes are needed for those in greatest need – including those who are homeless, living with a disability or in very poor conditions.
The number of families with children renting privately soared to 1.8m in 2017, from 566,000 in 2003 – a trend expected to add £5bn to the housing benefit bill over the next five years.
As a result, an extra 1.2 million homes would be made available under the social housing plans for these “trapped renters” who cannot afford to buy and face a lifetime in expensive and insecure private renting.
And a further 690,000 extra homes are needed for older private renters who struggle with bills after retirement.
Social housing: a timeline
The first social housing came about in the 1800s, and cities like Manchester have a proud heritage of building homes for ‘the people.’
Victoria Square, an 800-person block of tenements in Ancoats, is one of the first examples of social housing in the country. Completed in 1894, it boasted communal laundries, food stores, a toilet for every two apartments and ‘very wide balconies convenient for playgrounds’ according to architect Henry Thompson.
Now Grade 2 listed, and over a century later, Victoria Square remains true to its roots and is now a retirement scheme for older people managed by a social landlord.
The 1919 Housing Act – known as the ‘Addison Act’ after its author, Dr Christopher Addison, the Minister of Health – was a significant step forward in housing provision. It sought to build half-a-million ‘homes fit for heroes’ within three years.
Low-density garden suburbs were encouraged – a contrast to the existing social housing of the day which was often overcrowded, terraced homes, lacking in basic facilities.
The programme was axed in 1921 once the post-war economy had begun to recover. From start to finish, 176,000 homes had been built under the Act.
It wasn’t until after The Blitz, that the social housing revolution really began. Following WWII, the government built over 800,000 council houses. Millions more followed (around 120,000 per year) over the next 20 years. But by the 1970s, the numbers being built fell, as schemes like Right to Buy were launched.
In 2016/17 there were 5,000 new social homes built in England – down from 210,000 in 1954.
The scale of the UK’s housing shortage has been laid bare in analysis from think-tank Resolution Foundation, which revealed there are now just 825 homes for every 1,000 families across the country.
The biggest challenge of our generation
Shelter warns that unless we take action to boost social housing, over the next 20 years, hundreds of thousands more people will be forced into homelessness.
It says building 3.1 million new social homes would cost an average of £10.7bn a year.
But the charity claims the government would save £60bn over 30 years if it can make renting cheaper. At present “affordable rents” for typical two-bedroom properties work out at 30% more expensive than social rents, with the report dubbing these rent levels “completely out of reach for most people who are eligible for social housing.”
The Addison Act and projects like Victoria Square broke the mould on social housing. An attempt to rebuild post-war Britain and an antidote to Victorian slums, the history of social housing is tinged with tragedy.
As we battle the biggest challenge of our generation, in order to look to the future, we cannot forget the past.
Loosening the cap on local authority borrowing is one step forward – but it is clear more needs to be done. Fast.
Partnerships are, and will continue to be, essential in bridging the social housing gap. Newgate clients such as Galliford Try Partnerships are proof that collaboration works.
Take Chase Park for example, a redundant greyhound stadium in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, which has been transformed into 141 new homes.
Galliford Try Partnerships worked with Cheshire West and Chester Council on the £19m contract which has seen 45 council houses and apartments built on behalf of the local authority – the first council homes to be built in the area in 40 years.
The housing crisis is not the sole problem of those caught up in it, of charities or councils. Society cannot allow so many people to live in dire straits – which is why we must continue to develop ground-breaking initiatives and work together to solve it.