Wednesday, June 27, 2018

About the houses

The fourth of my summer reviews is a work of both social and architectural history that throws revealing light on a subject of great importance. This is the last of my reviews for now – it will be back to my usual, more architectural, posts, soon.

John Boughton, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing
Published by Verso

This is a history of council housing in Britain. It combines architectural, social, and political history, to tell the story of this form of housing from its roots in the late-19th century, its real beginnings in the period after 1900, and its growth and eventual decline. Along the way the book profiles planners and architects who wanted to improve people’s lives by building better housing – and creating better environments for residents, many of whom had had to endure slum accommodation. It addresses the various political views that have had an impact on the story – the groups who have embraced council housing and who have condemned it. It discusses the economic constraints on the movement, the varying social backgrounds of those who’ve lived in council housing, the transformation brought by the right to buy policy, and the issues surrounding the restoration of housing types from terraces to tower blocks.

The author explodes many myths. Council housing was not at first expected to be solely a way of housing the urban poor, not a last resort for the desperate: many early estates were envisaged as mixed communities, containing middle-class and well as working-class families. It was not a form of housing promoted solely by the Labour Party: the government that built the most council houses per year was Macmillan’s Conservative administration. It was not all tower blocks: the ‘cottage estate’, with much in common with garden cities and suburbs, had a major role, especially in the interwar period. Tower blocks do not provide higher-density housing than low-rise: tall towers need space between them (to reduce the effect of shadowing and overlooking) and this evens out the density. Not all high-rise estates became ‘problem estates’. And so on.

Boughton is a passionate, but measured, advocate of public housing, who has produced a highly readable narrative with great pace. His book is written from a left-wing perspective (and comes from Verso, who publish Bernie Sanders and Tariq Ali – and also, with concerns relevant to this blog, Owen Hatherley and John Berger) but this shouldn’t suggest that it is unbalanced or unaware of the problems surrounding social housing. Municipal Dreams is an inclusive account, covering a neglected aspect of British history that has had a huge impact on both our built environment and our wider society. I’ve learned a lot from it, as I have in the past from Colin Ward’s work on housing (written from a very different political perspective) and the pioneering text book A Social History of Housing by John Burnett. Apart from such histories, it’s not a well ploughed field, and Boughton has cultivated it richly.

1 comment:

Stephen Barker said...

Philip I have followed the blogs on Twitter from the Municipal Housing site and have found them interesting and informative. My interest comes from studying late Nineteenth Century housing in Market Harborough developed by the Liberal and Industrial Freehold Land Society. Although the aim of the society was to provide working men the opportunity to build their own home it still remained out of the reach of many people in the community. It wasn't until after WWI that the local council started building houses and clearing the overcrowded housing in the yards behind properties fronting the main streets in the town.

Could the lack of interest in this topic by architectural historians be the the ordinariness of the buildings. They are not often associated with well known architects who attract a lot of attention but on the other hand they do not have the charm of vernacular buildings. No doubt the thought of wading through the minutes of council meetings icis also off putting.