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How Council housing failed

The Liberty Scott blog offers an interesting review of a BBC4 programme on the history of Council housing. Presented by Michael Collins it sets out to be sympathetic to the "great social revolution" - this perversely makes its chronicle of failure all the more compelling. It was shown on Thursday but there are still five days to watch it on iplayer.

The combination of the state bureaucracy making an for a landlord and the brutalist architecture of the tower blocks was always going to pretty disastrous. Even the early examples showed a top down approach. The Socialist architect Sir Raymond Unwin designed houses he thought  tenants should have not what they wanted to have. They wanted parlours - but he thought it was an inefficient use of space, etc...

But as Liberty Scott says the change of policy who could live in them has also been pretty significant:

To get council housing, people needed to be vetted.  They needed letters of reference from their employer to prove that Mr. X was a fit and proper person, didn't have any criminal convictions and earned enough money to pay the rent.  Those on welfare alone, those without work and those who had committed crimes were not going to get homes provided by the state.  Indeed, their homes could be swept aside with aplomb so that the aspiring working classes could get homes.

The result was that even when the grotesque Corbusier style housing estates started popping up around the UK (many built by private investors with extensive state subsidies), their first generation of residents were proud aspirational people on relatively low to middling incomes.

They were almost entirely couple or families.  Intact families, not single parent families.  They were almost entirely employed and as they were all people who aspired for a better life, instilled the work ethic they had into their children.  They lived as a community together, and instilled the same ethic in each others' children. Most of all, because they had to be able to afford to pay rent, they treated these communal areas as their own, with some pride.  When a family gained such a flat, they had it until they wanted to leave as long as they paid up.  If they stayed, their children could inherit the right to remain tenants.

So instead of Council housing being a matter of pride and aspiration it came to be a stigma associated with welfare dependency pervasive anti social behaviour. On the other hand subsidised rent for those on high incomes is pretty indefensible. So it is right to charge those who can afford it the market rent but encourage them to stay - ideally through becoming home owners. Collins talked about the right to buy in the 1980s as a "death sentence" and "lethal blow" for Council housing. But it has made living on the estates more desirable for everyone.

However the programme showed plenty of examples of estates which are architecturally beyond redemption and need to be redeveloped. Often changing the tenure mix will not be enough to turn them round.

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