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A council house, otherwise known as a local authority house, normally part of a council estate, is a form of public or social housing. The term is used primarily in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Council houses were built and operated by local councils to supply uncrowded, well-built homes on secure tenancies at reasonable rents to primarily working-class people. Council house development began in the late 19th century and peaked in the mid-20th century, at which time council housing included many large suburban "council estates" and numerous urban developments featuring tower blocks. Many of these developments did not live up to the hopes of their supporters, and now suffer from urban blight.
Since 1979, the role of council housing has been reduced by the introduction of Right to Buy legislation, and a change of emphasis to the development of new social housing by housing associations. Nonetheless, a substantial part of the UK population still lives in council housing. In 2010 about 17% of UK households lived in social housing. Approximately 55% of the country’s social housing stock is owned by local authorities (of which 15% is managed on a day-to-day basis by arm's length management organisations, rather than the authority), and 45% by housing associations. In Scotland, council estates are known as schemes.
The documented history of social housing in Britain starts with almshouses which were established from the 10th century, to provide a place of residence for "poor, old and distressed folk". The first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Athelstan; the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, dating to circa 1133.
The pressure for decent housing was increased by overcrowding in the large cities during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century; many social commentators (such as Octavia Hill) reported on the squalor, sickness and immorality that arose. Some philanthropists had begun to provide housing in tenement blocks, while some factory owners built entire villages for their workers, such as Saltaire (1853), Bournville (1879), Port Sunlight (1888), Stewartby, and Silver End as late as 1925.
It was not until 1885, when a Royal Commission was held, that the state took an interest. This led to the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890, which encouraged local authorities to improve the housing in their areas. As a consequence London County Council opened the Boundary Estate in 1900, and many local councils began building flats and houses in the early twentieth century. The First World War indirectly provided a new impetus, when the poor physical health and condition of many urban recruits to the army was noted with alarm. This led to a campaign known as Homes fit for heroes and in 1919 the Government first required councils to provide housing, helping them to do so through the provision of subsidies, under the Housing Act 1919.
Many houses were built over the next few years in cottage estates. Examples of these were built at the Downham Estate in London, Kates Hill in Dudley, Low Hill in Wolverhampton, Weoley Castle in Birmingham and Norris Green in Liverpool.
Blocks of flats were also built.
While new council housing had been built, little had been done to resolve the problem of inner-city slums. This was to change with the Housing Act 1930, which required councils to prepare slum clearance plans, and some progress was made before the Second World War intervened.
During the Second World War almost four million British homes were destroyed or damaged, and afterwards there was a major boom in council house construction. The bomb damage from the war only worsened the condition of Britain's housing stock, which was in poor condition before its outbreak. Before the war many social housing projects, such as the Quarry Hill Flats (pictured, right) were built. However the bomb damage meant that much greater progress had to be made with slum clearance projects. In cities like London, Coventry and Kingston upon Hull, which received particularly heavy bombing, the redevelopment schemes were often larger and more radical.
In the immediate post-war years, and well into the 1950s, council house provision was shaped by the New Towns Act 1946 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 of the 1945–51 Labour government. At the same time this government introduced housing legislation that removed explicit references to housing for the working class and introduced the concept of "general needs" construction (i.e., that council housing should aim to fill the needs for a wide range of society). In particular, Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health and Housing, promoted a vision of new estates where "the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other".
While a number of large cities tentatively erected their first high-rise developments (e.g., Aston Cross in Birmingham, Churchill Gardens in Westminster), in England and Wales homes were typically semi-detached or in small terraces. A three-bedroom semi-detached council house was typically built on a square grid seven yards (21 feet (6.4 m)) on the side, with a maximum density of no more than 12 houses per acre (30 houses per hectare; around 337 m² or 403 sq. yd. per house), meaning that most houses had generous space around them. The new towns and many existing towns had countless estates built to this basic model. In Scotland, the tradition of tenement living meant that most homes of this period were built in low-rise (3–4) storey blocks of flats.
For many working-class people, this housing model provided their first experience of private indoor toilets, private bathrooms and hot running water. For tenants in England and Wales it also usually provided the first experience of private garden space (usually front and rear). The quality of these houses, and in particular the existence of small gardens in England and Wales, compared very favourably with social housing being built on the European continent in this period.
Towards the end of the 1950s the Conservative government began to re-direct the building programme back from "general needs" towards inner-city slum clearance. At the same time the rising influence of modernist architecture, the development of new construction techniques, such as system building (a form of prefabrication), and a growing desire by many towns and cities to retain population (and thus prestige) within their own boundaries (rather than "export" people to New Towns and "out of boundary" peripheral estates) led to this model being abandoned in Britain's inner-city areas.
Instead, tower blocks became the preferred model. The argument was advanced that more generously sized dwellings could be provided this way, that communities could be re-housed close to existing employment opportunities and there would be far less disruption to local shopping and leisure patterns. During the 1950s and 1960s, the number of high-rise dwellings rose significantly. In 1953, just 23% of public-sector approvals were for flats, with only 3% high-rise (defined as blocks of six stories or more). By 1966, however, high-rise housing accounted for 26% of all homes started.
The use of system building methods was later seen as possibly being a short-sighted, false economy, as many of the later houses are in a poor state of repair or have been demolished. On many estates, older council houses, with their largely superior build quality, have outlived them.
However, central government (under both the Conservative and Labour parties) considered the provision of as much new housing as possible to be a major part of post-war policy, and provided subsidies for local authorities to build such housing. A number of types of system building proved to have serious flaws, and some flats - which were initially very popular with tenants due to their generous space standards, and with councillors and housing officials due to their speed of construction - have suffered problems, especially poor protection from damp and weather ingress, as well as other design defects and poor management. Also, studies such as Family and Kinship in East London found that people moving to such estates lost their old social networks and failed to develop new ones.
On 16 May 1968, the problems associated with tower blocks were brought into sharp focus after the partial collapse of Ronan Point, a system-built tower block in Newham, east London, as a consequence of a gas explosion. A similar incident caused significant damage to one side of a block in Manchester.
Although these incidents were due to a series of failures (not least being the illegal connection of gas cookers by unqualified friends of tenants), subsequently all system-built tower blocks were usually built with "all electric" heating, to prevent the occurrence of such an explosion.
While some tower blocks have been demolished, many that occupy convenient city centre sites (such as The Sentinels in Birmingham, Trellick Tower and Great Arthur House on the Golden Lane Estate in London) remain extremely popular with residents and have even been subject to an element of gentrification, caused by the onward sale of leases purchased by original tenants under the Right to buy scheme to more affluent purchasers.
One of the most ambitious post-war council housing developments, the complex of estates at Broadwater Farm (shown above), became a national symbol of perceived failures in the council housing system following the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985. Since then, Broadwater Farm has been the focus of an intense regeneration program, resulting in a dramatic drop in crime on the estate.
Becontree in Dagenham is the largest area of council housing in the UK with a population of over 100,000. Building started in the 1920s and took eleven years to finish. There is only a small part of Dagenham that is not Becontree, and some do not consider Becontree to be an estate but really just the bulk of a town. Otherwise, the largest estates are Wythenshawe in the south of Manchester and Bransholme in the north-east of Hull. Arron Way in Corby was a large estate, although the majority of the housing became derelict and the area is now undergoing regeneration. Other large estates across London include Ashburton estate in Putney, Alton Estate in Roehampton, Churchill Gardens in Pimlico, Aylesbury Estate in Walworth, a vast series of estates in Gospel Oak (especially around Queen's Crescent Market) including the Bacton, Wendling, Lamble Street, Southfleet, Denton, Kiln Place, North Kentish Town and the Ludham and Waxham estates, plus the Ferrier Estate, and the Thamesmead Estate in South-East London.
There are also numerous large council estates in the West Midlands. These include Castle Vale in Birmingham, Newtown in Birmingham, Low Hill in Wolverhampton, Hateley Heath in West Bromwich, Blakenall Heath in Walsall, Priory Estate in Dudley, Tanhouse in Halesowen, Camp Hill in Nuneaton and Chapel Street Estate in Brierley Hill.
In Scotland, Glasgow has the highest proportion of social housing. The largest estates include Drumchapel, Easterhouse, Castlemilk and Pollok. In Edinburgh there are several estates on the outskirts of the city, including those at Craigmillar, Wester Hailes and Sighthill.
There were also many large council estates in Yorkshire. Some pit villages, such as Grimethorpe, are almost entirely composed of original council housing. Estates in Leeds, West Yorkshire include Cross Gates, Lincoln Green, Gipton, Seacroft and Halton Moor. Bransholme in North East Hull is the largest in Yorkshire. Sheffield boasts the award winning Park Hill (now being redeveloped).
In Tyneside large council estates include Byker and Walker in Newcastle, Felling in Gateshead and Meadow Well in North Tyneside, the site of violent civil disorder during the early 1990s. A large urban regeneration scheme is also being planned for Scotswood in the West End of Newcastle after decades of urban decay and high crime levels.
The Red Road flats in Glasgow were once the tallest residential buildings in Europe, but are now earmarked for demolition in local council regeneration plans. Cottingley Towers and Cottingley Heights in Cottingley, Leeds are also particularly notable for their considerable height.
New towns built across Britain in the 20 or so years following the end of the Second World War were predominantly made up of council housing, but many of these have since been further developed to see private housing become the most frequent accommodation. Many commuter towns around London have large areas of council housing.
An early and famous development of council flats was at Quarry Hill in Leeds. Modelled on Karl Marx Hof flats in Vienna, the complex was built by Leeds City Council. At the time they were considered revolutionary: each flat had a motorized rubbish chute leading to a central incinerator. The complex had its own offices, shops and gas works. The 1970s sitcom Queenie's Castle was filmed there. Long-term problems with the steel-frame structure led to demolition, beginning in 1978 and there is now no evidence of their existence. The Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health now have their regional headquarters on the site, alongside the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Council housing was generally typified by houses with generously sized rooms (compared to the bottom end of the private sector), particularly those built in the 1970s after the Parker Morris standards were introduced. However they also tended to be unimaginatively designed, and rigid council rules often forbade tenants "personalising" their houses. Council tenants also faced problems of mobility, finding it hard to move from one property to another as their families grew or shrank, or to seek work. Despite the building, there was a constant demand for housing, and "waiting lists" are maintained, with preference being given to those in greatest need. In Birmingham, people accepted as eligible for council housing are allocated points according to need, people then bid for properties and the property goes to the bidder with the highest number of points who wants it. People who fail to get a property can carry on bidding until they are successful. This is like a market but bidding success depends on need rather than financial resources.
The original wave of mass council housing from the early 1920s was among the first generation of houses in the country to feature electricity, running water, bathrooms, indoor toilets and front/rear gardens. However, some council house were still being built with outdoor toilets, attached to the house, until well into the 1930s. Some of the earliest council houses did not feature an actual bathroom; the bath could often be found in the kitchen with a design which allowed it to double as a work surface. Many of the earlier council houses had a "cottage" design and were built on estates imitating garden city principles, with an open spaced layout that gave a pleasant environment to residents who had previously lived in dilapidated inner-city slums. These new houses had two, three, four or five bedrooms, and generously sized back gardens intended for vegetable growing.
Flats and bungalows were first built by local councils during the interwar years, but in relatively low volumes. It was not until the 1950s that this type of property became a common sight, and until then it was rare to see blocks of flats which were more than three or four storeys high. It was also around this time that councils started building garages on new housing developments, although these were usually in separate blocks to houses, as car ownership increased.
The first tower-block flats in Britain were built during the early 1950s, reaching a peak in the 1960s. Whereas most interwar council houses had been built on completely new estate, it became common in the 1960s to redevelop established areas with new houses, and tower blocks featured prominently in these redevelopments, in most large cities and towns across the United Kingdom.
But these flats quickly became unpopular due to poor insulation and structural defects, with construction of high-rise flats being effectively ended by the 1970s. Tower-block clearance schemes were becoming common by the end of the 1980s, as a result of their dismal condition, unpopularity with tenants and becoming uneconomic to refurbish. The most notable regeneration programme featuring tower blocks was that of the Castle Vale estate in Birmingham, built between 1964 and 1969 to rehouse families from inner city slums in areas like Aston and Neachells. 32 of the estate's 34 tower blocks were cleared between 1995 and 2003, with the remaining two being refurbished and re-opened as "vertical warden-controlled schemes". All of the estate's 27 maisonette blocks were also cleared, as were more than 100 bungalows. The remaining low-rise stock, however, was retained. A similar regeneration had taken place around the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s on Smethwick's much smaller Galton Village estate, known locally as the "Concrete Jungle", which had been built in the late 1960s but fallen into disrepair and ravaged by crime when barely a decade old.
Many of the older interwar council houses have been demolished, mostly due to subsidence or their worsening condition. Much of this regeneration has been concentrated in the West Midlands since the early 1990s. Areas of this type that have been regenerated include Pype Hayes and Stockfield in Birmingham, parts of The Lunt estate in Bilston and a number of council estates in the Walsall borough. The first major redevelopment of this kind in the Dudley borough was part of the Priory Estate, where nearly 300 homes were demolished in 2009 due to their deteriorating condition and unpopularity.
Social policy economists, such as Culyer and Barr, have been critical of the role that council housing plays in attempts to help the poor. One large criticism is that it hurts labour mobility with its system of allocating housing to those in the local area. Working-class people thus face a disincentive for moving across district lines, where they would be further down the waiting list for council housing in the new districts. When Britain witnessed mass immigration after the Second World War, new immigrants did not initially qualify for council houses and this led to racial segregation in housing. This has changed over time; most large cities have council estates with large South Asian and Black communities. The division remains most marked in Northern English mill towns, which have large South Asian communities that remain concentrated outside the council estates.
Another criticism is that the system favours those who have already secured tenancy, even after they are no longer in dire need. The combination of security of tenure and affordable rent gives little incentive to tenants to downsize from family accommodation after their children have moved out. Meanwhile, those who are on the waiting list are often in much greater need of this welfare, yet they cannot have it; once a council house has been granted to a tenant, they cannot be evicted except for anti-social behaviour, serious offences committed at the premises or serious breach of the tenancy conditions, such as rent arrears.
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Laws restricted councils' investment in housing, preventing them subsidising it from local taxes, but more importantly, council tenants were given the "right to buy" in the 1980s Housing Act offering a discount price on their council house. The 'Right to Buy' scheme allowed tenants to buy their home with a discount of 33% - 50% off the market value, depending on the time they had lived there. Councils were prevented from reinvesting the proceeds of these sales in new housing, and the total available stock, particularly of more desirable homes, declined.
The "right to buy" was popular with many former Labour voters and, although the Labour government of Tony Blair tightened the rules (reducing the maximum discount in areas of most housing need), it did not end the right-to-buy. Labour did relax the policy forbidding reinvestment of sales proceeds.
Some councils have now transferred their housing stock to not-for-profit housing associations, who are now also the providers of most new public-sector housing. Elsewhere, referendums on changing ownership; in Birmingham for example, have been won by opponents of government policy.
The current position is that council housing is a more and more residualised and stigmatised sector, with the term 'council' increasingly used as a pejorative. Whereas in its early years, council housing was an acceptable option for much of the population, it is now increasingly an option only for those reliant on social security.
In some parts of the country, especially northern Britain, some council housing is virtually unlettable. Council housing stock has sometimes been used to house those seeking refugee status ('asylum seekers'), who have no choice in their accommodation. In the south and in London in particular, demand still massively outstrips supply.
The Wakefield district council found itself unable to maintain its supply of council housing and transferred it all to a housing association, in 2004; this represented the second largest stock transfer in British history. Housing rented from the council accounted for about 28% of the district and around 40% of the actual city of Wakefield.
Other than Wakefield, districts that maintain large amounts of council housing include most inner London boroughs with Southwark, Hackney, Islington, Camden and Lambeth having the highest proportions/amounts. Also, Barnsley, Corby, Easington, Hull, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham. Many districts of the country have less than 10% of housing rented from the council; the national average stands at 14% - more statistics are available as of the 2001 census although some have transferred to housing associations since then.
Council estates have often been stereotyped as a source of crime.
As mentioned earlier, many council housing estates have already undergone partial or total redevelopment, while more schemes are in the pipeline.
These include North Peckham in London, Castle Vale in Birmingham, Stockbridge Village in Liverpool, Blakenhall Gardens in Wolverhampton, Harden in Walsall, Galton Village in Smethwick, Camp Hill in Nuneaton and Hateley Heath in West Bromwich.
The legal status and management of council houses, and the social housing sector, has been subject to lobbying and change in recent years. Local governments now have new legal powers to enable them to deal with anti-social behaviour and the misuse of council houses by organised gangs or anti-social tenants. An example is when a gang uses social housing as a "crack house". Anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) were created by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and ASBIs were created by amendments to the Housing Act 1996, enacted by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. Tony Blair launched the Respect Agenda in 2005, aimed at instilling core values in the tenants of council houses. Recently bodies such as the Social Housing Law Association have been formed to discuss the impact of legislation in the social housing sector and to provide training and lobbying facilities for those who work in that area.
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