Hugh Pearman

Paved with good intentions

Bevan’s original vision has suffered many set backs. But new social housing is starting to emerge as a result of the 2011 Localism Act

As a schoolboy, I used to go round to my best mate Mike’s home. It was a good place: a cosy first-floor flat beneath the big, tiled, pitched roof, an anthracite stove in the kitchen. It faced onto a green and had a long garden at the back. It had a parade of shops nearby and a primary school. I didn’t know then that it was on a council estate or that the more tightly packed newer housing developments nearby were private. These were just places where people I knew lived.

Mike’s estate was (and is, for it still exists) a version of the ‘municipal dreams’ that John Boughton describes in his detailed history of social housing in the UK. Built in the late 1940s and early 1950s it is — despite being in a conservatively inclined part of the shires — a relic of the ‘Bevan housing’ of the immediate postwar years. Nye Bevan, housing minister among much else in the Attlee government, aimed his reforms primarily at the working class, but certainly did not envision ghettoes of the poor — or what he called ‘castrated communities’.

Boughton cites Bevan’s famous 1949 speech in the Commons:

It is entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live…. We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street.

This principle held for a while, thanks not only to the postwar political consensus on housing (Macmillan’s Conservative administration built more social housing than any previous one) but also to earlier initiatives from late-19th-century charitable housing onwards. If yours was one of the many homes with no bathroom and an outside toilet, this was a lifestyle to aspire to.

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