If I tell you that this history of social housing policy in the UK (mostly England) is unputdownable, will you ever trust a recommendation from me again? Well, I guess I’ll just have to risk it, because I honestly raced through it. Municipal Dreams: the rise and fall of council housing was a take-it-everywhere book for me. Now I suppose I must explain why I read it in the first place, let alone loving it so much. It’s been on my radar for years – author John Boughton was a guest on the late lamented Skylines podcast, a deliciously nerdy look at infrastructure and urbanism in towns and cities. I listened to the episode, found it fascinating, planned to read the book, and promptly forgot all about it until I was responding to a comment by Bill about tower blocks earlier this year. That reminded me of this book, and then two days later I walked into the Foyles at London Waterloo and found this book prominently on display. It was one of those lovely instances of book serendipity that happen from time to time.

Municipal Dreams, as the subtitle suggests, provides a potted history of both the logistics and the shifting ideals of council housing, beginning with individual council schemes in the late 1800s, and ending in the context of the Grenfell Tower fire. Like most of the people I know who either grew up in council estates, or have spent substantial time living in them as adults, Grenfell Tower felt personal and horrifying to me in a way that such disasters rarely do. In addition to the 72 deaths and hundreds of people traumatised and left homeless, Grenfell Tower felt like a symbol of successive governments’ disdain for and lack of interest in council tenants. The book isn’t about Grenfell (Boughton’s blog of the same name was running for years before the disaster), but it’s chronological, and it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the closing chapters lead inexorably into tragedy. But let’s start with something positive, at least, which is the celebration of the idealism that originally led to the development of council estates in the first place.

There is a little background about individual Victorian schemes in the opening chapter, but the book really gets going during and after WWI. That’s when Boughton’s blend of architectural, social, small-p political, and historical writing begins to shine. For instance, I did not know that the first widescale instance of government intervention in the housing market was precipitated by a rent strike in Glasgow in 1915 – a strike which at its height included 20,000 housholds. The goverment were so concerned that this would lead to working class revolution that they imposed rent control. This discouraged the building of privately rented property, which exacerbated the crisis, but in turn this paved the way for a “Homes for Heroes” post-WWI splurge on the building of council estates. Similarly, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the changing role of women over the 20th century, especially the first half. Early schemes had the aim that homes would be built to such a high standard that the housewife would have no more than a 40-hour work week. Extremely progressive stuff for the time. By the late forties, there’s an understanding that perhaps “both husband and wife” will be out at work all day, and then by the sixties, the dawning realisation that some people might choose or have to live alone, or that some couples might be childless.

Balfron Tower (courtesy of Wikipedia) – an example of 60s council housing now deemed Too Good for Commoners. Council tenants have been moved out to make way for art installations.

One of the things I found most impressive about this book is its willingness to discuss topics like housing reform with nuance and balance. Anyone with a deep interest in the history of council housing is, almost by definition, partisan – but I think Boughton does a really even-handed job. For example, he acknowledges that a lot of the original handwringing over gentrification and the loss of social networks occasioned by slum clearance or estate redesign came from well-intentioned middle-class people who had perhaps not grown up in e.g. a tenement flat that shares its bathroom with three other families. Your fellowship with the neighbours may decrease if you are moved to a more spacious building, but so does your risk of cholera. I found the exploration of the way that modernist (and later brutalist) architecture was a reflection of midcentury idealism, and people’s initial reactions to their new homes, really fascinating. There is a lot of architectural detail here, especially in the early chapters, and the few other reviews I’ve seen of this book have been pretty critical of those aspects – but I really enjoyed them, so I think it’s a matter of personal taste.

Boughton identifies that some working class families missed the strong connections they had with their neighbours, often including extended family, and that do-gooder architects and planners often damaged a community when they relocated it without input from residents – but he also points out that, in sheer numbers, it is clear that new estates were correlated with an improvement in people’s health. In one London estate, the mean heights and weights of children went from being under the London average to roughly in line with the (higher) national average over the space of about 15 years. Gentrification is a tricky problem – or, rather, it becomes a problem when residents are forced out of their homes because of escalating rents. Material improvement in the fabric of the area can be a fantastic thing for council tenants. The area where I grew up has been somewhat gentrified and lost “character” as a result, but there are still lots of social housing tenants (including my mum, who moved back a few years ago) alongside the young professionals that have bought up the new builds. The old Y-block towers (which as a child I knew I Must Never Venture Into) are gone, but also it’s been years since anyone’s flat has blown up in a gas explosion. Which feels like a win to me, honestly. It’s also true that the estate as a whole houses fewer people than it used to. Basically, it’s complicated, and this book engages with that in good faith.

During my research for this post, I made the depressing discovery that our old flat is now on the market, aimed at private landlords and thus outpricing local residents.

It would be simplifying matters to say that the first half of the book is characterised by optimism and idealism, and the second half by things going wrong. There were plenty of mistakes in the first half of the century. Still, Boughton comes across as very fair – both Labour and Tory councils and governments had achievements; both parties made mistakes. For a long time, the belief that council housing should be both affordable and high-quality does not seem to have been a party political one. That changed in the late 70s and early 80s. The only individuals in the whole book who really come in for direct criticism are Margaret Thatcher and her pal Alice Coleman. Since this is occasioned by the fact that both women seem to have taken active pleasure in the destruction of communities, rather than it being a case of best intentions going wrong, it’s pretty easy to see why. I think it’s telling that Thatcher’s policy-making was so tied up with her own personal ideology that it’s impossible to evaluate it without talking about her values and character. It’s also in the late 80s or perhaps early 90s that the book becomes more difficult to follow. I don’t think this is a flaw of the writing, but a reflection of the fact that when council housing became fragmented to different services, it became inherently more confusing. This was nonetheless very interesting to me – post 1990 is when social housing policy began to influence my own life*. If you’re interested enough in the subject to pick up the book, I think you’ll be interested enough to make it through the complex labyrinth of social housing policy from the 80s to today.

In the final chapters, Boughton tracks the way that council estates went from being aspirational homes to “sink estates”. Problems associated with poor maintenance, declining reputations, and shoddy workmanship were already in existence pre-Thatcher, but they were very much exacerbated in that era. The rhetoric of the time was that everyone successful would own a home, and that this was the thing council tenants should aspire to – which ran counter to the original dream of housing for people from a wide range of backgrounds. Policies like Right to Buy led to better council homes being sold off to the tenants with more money and often more stable lifestyles**, who then often sold them off again and moved out of the estates. The remaining homes became places that people only lived in when they couldn’t get anywhere else – which, ultimately, leads to increased antisocial behaviour and crime, which gives the area a worse reputation, which makes it harder for people to get jobs if they have the wrong postcode, which leads to more crime, and so on and so forth. A lot of council estates got caught in this kind of downward spiral, which then made it easier for anti-state MPs to point at local estates and say “look how bad the state is at providing public services! Quick, privatisation is definitely the answer!” And so on. It’s rather a depressing book, because a history of council housing in the UK can’t possibly have a happy conclusion right now.

There is a lot else in the book, but this is already a very long post. The PFI intiatives, introduced by Major but hugely expanded by New Labour, are analysed in depth; and, of course, Grenfell Tower is discussed in the final chapter. It was published in 2018, and anticipated that perhaps the disaster would shift our attitudes towards social housing in a more positive direction – but this was during May’s tenure. I don’t know what Johnson’s council housing policy is – to be honest, I would be shocked if he actually had one – but it’s hard to feel that anyone in the current Conservative front benches will do a better job with social housing when he gets ousted. Because the book was written in early 2018, it ends with optimism about the election result in 2017 that it is impossible to share from this distance. Still – I feel like lockdown made people acutely aware of the importance of housing policy, and perhaps this will lead to longer-term change. Maybe we can even start to build council houses again. Wouldn’t that be nice?

*I am pretty sure our kitchen was done up as a result of New Labour’s Decent Homes Standard, for example, and when our estate went housing association, my mum became a tenant representative for a few years.

**When I was buying my flat, I felt genuinely guilty about benefiting from Right to Buy, which has led to such a loss of council housing in the UK. I wouldn’t have been able to afford anywhere else, and I missed the community that you often get living in an estate. It’s also a case of the policy working as actually stated, since the people I bought the flat from had been living in it since the 80s, bought it in the early 90s, and only sold it off – to someone who would live in it, not rent it out – when they needed to move to a home that didn’t have any stairs. Still, though.