Hearth & Home- a brief history of housing

ACCLT Housing

An example of council housing in 1960s

ACCLT Chair Linda McCanna recently attended a 10 week WEA Course “Hearth & Home a History of Housing” – Local Sussex University professor and geographer Dr Geoffrey Meade ran the course and shared a wealth of knowledge particularly concerning our local Sussex geography and housing history.

The course focused on centuries of housing history from the Victorian era to our current housing issues, something of particular interest to ACCLT and its members. 

Housing in Victorian Britain

Victorian Britain brought rapid growth and jobs to the inner cities. Private badly built, often squalid housing saw people squeezed into small areas with multiple families sharing tiny two roomed homes with outdoor toilets and shared water pump. These were the classical slums of ‘Dickensian’ Britain. There was no government provided housing other than the workhouses which were prison like and harsh and carried a stigma that the poor were lazy and irresponsible

Interestingly home ownership for the masses is a recent innovation with the 95% majority of people renting prior to the first world war.

Transport innovations changed the face of housing and allowed the middle classes  to move out of urban areas but to travel in to work– Rural areas were no longer farmed or needed-and land was sold for housing.

Dr Meade taught about vernacular building where local resources and building materials shape the architecture of an area such as the flint houses here in Sussex and the use of hardwoods in tudor style homes. He explained the Anglo Saxon meanings of suffixes in town names such as ‘ham’ meaning ‘homestead’ and why the east end of towns is always the poorer due to wind direction, soot and smoke ingress.

The Ministry of health was originally responsible for housing as health and poor housing were and perhaps still are, inextricably linked.

Housing Post WW1 

Rapid social, economic and political change followed WW1 including the 1915 Rent Act, which put limits on rent increases by private landlords. Some Philanthropic ventures such as Guinness, Peabody Trust and Apprenticeship housing was built but often involved investment with a sometimes 5% return to investors. Slums were cleared to create housing for ‘the industrious poor’ but the very poor had nowhere to go leading to cheap DIY housing in the form of cheap plot lands; shanty type towns with makeshift homes going up with no planning permissions or building regulations. An interesting nugget emerged that Guinness beer was created as an alternative health drink to counteract the hard liquor and alcoholism amongst the working class poor. 

Following WW1 many working class servicemen were in poor health and the government launched a campaign to “build homes fit for heroes”.

The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 brought large-scale government intervention with Local councils being given subsidies to build new social housing. All local authorities have been required by law to provide council housing since the 1919 Housing Act.

New council estates, sprang up and by 1933,  500,000 council houses had been built, creating a new form of housing in the UK. The 1921 economic recession and resulting cuts in government stalled the building of good quality homes.

The Housing Act of 1923 prioritised slum clearance and offered subsidies to private builders and between 1919 and 1929 just under half a million private sector houses were built.

The 1930’s Housing boom

Although the 1930’s was a time of depression, it also spurred the growth of new suburbs with homes alongside the new railways and underground lines. A growing middle class prompted a rise in owner occupancy. 

Housing Post WW2

A cessation of house building and many bomb damaged houses resulted in a 

major post war housing crisis. An estimated 3/4 of a million new houses were needed but, materials and labour were in short supply and there was huge government debt. 

The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 facilitated one million local council homes between 1945-55 and over 150,000 easy build prefab houses were also built to alleviate the acute housing shortage. (Think modern shipping container or mobile homes today). New towns and garden cities followed. 

Between 1950 and the early 1980s, home purchases steadily increased, and the renting sector fell.

The Gentrification Cycle

Speculative landlords bought up regency homes often in seaside towns to rent out rooms like modern HMO’s. The Cycle of large houses becoming HMO rentals and returning  to original homes in gentrification continues today and the workers homes, cottages, mews and stable properties of yesterday have become today’s sought after listed homes.

Thatcherism and the sale of council homes in the 80’s

Council tenants were encouraged to buy their council homes at a discounted price under the Thatcherism of the 1980’s leading to a fall in social renters, and large rise in home-ownership.

The 1980s and 1990s also saw deregulation of the finance sector, with growth in new types of mortgages, which allowed people to borrow more.

The Boom and Bust years

Since the housing crash of 1990 the number of homes built by local authorities and private enterprise has fallen to much lower than the growing number of households. 

The boom and bust economy has continued and house prices have continued to rise faster than inflation and real wages especially in the South and London. Despite the rise in the number of households, house building has not kept up with demand, pushing prices higher. The credit crunch of 2008 made getting a mortgage harder and there has been growing demand for housing from buy to let and overseas investors.

The current housing crisis continues

What is clear is that land and home ownership are inextricably linked to wealth or the lack of it and that uncomfortable liaison has continued through the centuries.

“An Englishman’s home is his castle” proves as true today as it was when the term was first coined. 

In much of Europe renting is the norm and made possible because of affordable housing.. Perhaps in some ways this could prove to be a better model than saddling oneself with mortgage debt for much of one’s life. Perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the word ‘mortgage’ means’ death grip’! Ask anyone unfortunate enough to be in the trap of an interest only mortgage or whose financial circumstances have changed whilst their mortgage payments have not. 

House prices have now become totally unaffordable for many first time buyers resulting in a fall in the percentage of home-owners and a rise in private renting which has become more expensive than mortgage repayments.

ACCLT exists to address this need.

The Workers Educational Association is an adult education provider that has been providing educational opportunities to communities since 1903. Courses range from arts and crafts to work related courses and even free courses on driving theory.