Homes for all?

John Boughton – Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (Verso, 2018)

I woke up in a youth hostel in Oxford in June 2017 to the news of the Grenfell fire. I was there as an attendee at an academic conference themed ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’. The grim extent of the catastrophe unfolded as the conference went on, and its repercussions are still being felt now, nearly ten months later.

One of the attractions of the conference was that John Boughton, author of one of my favourite blogs, the meticulously researched yet accessibly written Municipal Dreams, was speaking about his work visiting, documenting and exploring the history of the country’s council estates, one of the key areas of architectural and social development in twentieth century Britain. This work took on a new dimension in the light of Grenfell, which opened in 1974; the conference was both subdued and emotionally charged. There was a general sense of shock. As well as being close to home as a research interest, it was also an area several of the London-based conference participants knew well – many had passed close-by North Kensington on the London to Oxford bus that very morning.

The Grenfell fire, perhaps inevitably, also frames Boughton’s new book, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, which both starts and ends by reflecting on the implications the tragedy has for the future of council housing. Although these implications still haven’t become fully clear, Municipal Dreams builds the case, culminating in Grenfell, for a return to a strong state, with both the regulatory capacity and oversight to protect us from the commercial agendas, cost-cutting and failures of neo-liberalism and private enterprise that, Boughton argues, have increasingly characterised the provision of housing for the masses through the late-twentieth and early twentieth centuries.

Municipal Dreams acts as a history of the large-scale provision of housing by local authorities in England. Boughton sets the scene after the First World War, when housing was provided for returning soldiers not just as a right and reward, but also to quell potential disloyalty and unrest. In the inter-war period, council housing proliferated, but after the Second World War military camps were squatted in protest about the lack of availability of housing. The post-war period was characterised by large-scale slum clearance and the dispersal of many former city dwellers to new towns outside of London – although often the accompanying facilities and sense of community took longer to follow. As the 1970s progressed, local authorities brought private rented homes into public ownership, and further into the closing decades of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century, public-private partnerships began to dominate the financing of public resources such as housing. Today, Boughton suggests, the state’s efforts to remove security of tenure through widespread and unpopular welfare reforms are the latest in a series of economic, social and cultural developments that contribute to the spread of precariousness and instability into all aspects of life, from employment to housing.

Those familiar with the blog will appreciate the thoroughness with which Boughton approaches each estate and development he visits, often drawing heavily on archival research. The book, too, pays brief visits to key estates, but uses these more as examples to illustrate much bigger narratives about the changing motivations behind the provision of homes, the ideologies that underpin public housing, and the political and economic developments that have changed and influenced state-led approaches to house-building over time.

One of the major shifts identified by Boughton concerns changes in public perceptions and cultural and media representations of council housing. It can be easy to forget that most council housing was aspirational, aimed at the upwardly mobile working-classes and ‘respectable’ communities; it’s only relatively recently that it’s become regarded by many as housing of last-resort and become associated with problematic behaviour – partly, as Boughton observes, because of changes in who is housed, and the responsibility of local authorities to house groups such as the homeless.

Other ideas which have been in the headlines recently, conversely, have been around for longer than we might think: Boughton identifies precedents of the so-called ‘poor doors’, for instance, designed to separate residents according to their occupancy and economic status, early in the history of social housing, along with debates about who has the ‘right’ to live in areas such as Hampstead. Boughton questions some of our assumptions about political attitudes towards council housing, too: for example, the Labour party promoted right to buy as early as the 1950s. He also offers a more nuanced view of some of the terms used in contemporary debate around changes to housing, and social housing estates. For example, he seeks to understand the motivations behind processes such as ‘social cleansing’, and challenge the broad catch-all nature of terms such as ‘regeneration’, which often ignore the roots of poverty and deep-rooted issues such as unemployment.

Ultimately, Boughton sets out two poles, between conservatism and socialism in a broad sense. In practice, this equates to a difference in opinion between those who regard the state provision of housing as a safety net, for the neediest in society, and those who regard housing as a fundamental right, access to which should be ensured by the state as part of its duty to ensure basic human needs are met for everyone.

Municipal Dreams the book is a worthwhile counterpart to Municipal Dreams the blog. Whereas the latter visits and responds to individual estates and cities in detail, the former pulls all this together to present a much bigger picture, of national and historical significance.

– Natalie Bradbury

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