The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Council Housing across Scotland and the UK

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, August 4th 2019

Council housing once defined much of Scotland – geographically, culturally, and how people saw themselves and lived.

In 1975 54% of Scottish homes were council owned; in England one-third of households then lived in local authority housing. This turned out to be the apex of council housing here and across the UK – with the council stock now forming a little over a quarter of homes in Scotland and significantly less in England.

Today it is no longer the case that council housing defines most of Scotland. The story of this decline is complex, in which the Thatcher Government and right to buy plays a major role, but isn’t the entire picture. There are wider issues about changing society and expectations, while cuts in local government and housing provision began under the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan in the 1970s.

Scotland’s housing has seen massive changes in the past 20 years says Douglas Robertson, academic and housing expert. There is now ‘no government housing agency, no ‘right to buy’, no Glasgow Housing Department, no area regeneration, and now very few slums. Disrepair in private housing still persists, as does homelessness’ and sadly ‘spec builders’.

With this background and a prevailing Westminster political consensus writing off and sneering at council houses and sometimes the tenants who lived in them, the tide does now seem to be slowly turning. This is happening as we mark the 100th anniversary of council housing with the passing of the Addison Act in July 1919.

The UK is in a grip of a housing crisis. Owner occupation is out of the reach of millions. An entire generation of twenty and thirtysomethings face exclusion from what is still euphemistically called ‘the property ladder’ – with all its assumptions of social mobility and inheritance – now under increasing question.

The UK-housing emergency is aided by what architect and TV presenter George Clarke calls ‘the council house scandal’ – which sees a scarcity of council houses, low house building and scandalous levels of social house building over decades, all of which has been aided by the Tory right to buy.

Introduced in 1980 this saw two million tenants buy their homes at generous discounts. Not surprisingly the best of council stock was bought and taken out of council ownership, and often much of it was sold on to private landlords who then rented it out at inflated rates to those who would, in other times, have been council tenants. Clarke acknowledges that the Scottish and Welsh Governments have already scrapped this policy, and would like to see it abolished or suspended in England.

Look at the state of social housing in England: 1.1 million households on waiting lists, 277,000 recorded homeless on a given night, 100,000 children living in temporary accommodation. Vienna builds 7,000 social apartments a year: more than all of England which has a population 30 times the size.

Last week was the 100th anniversary of the Addison Act that began the modern story of council housing, named after Dr. Christopher Addison, the Health Minister in Lloyd George’s government, who knew he had to act upon the ‘homes for heroes’ rhetoric in the aftermath of the First World War. The first council estate in Scotland was built in 1920 in Logie, Dundee, with the homes still standing to this day – and much sought after – as I personally know as my own mother enjoyed her last years living in one.

Subsequent legislation included the Housing Act 1924 passed by John Wheatley and the Housing Act 1930 both gave further impetus and support to council housing. This was further advanced in the period immediately after the Second World War when the country was faced with the need to replace millions of damaged and destroyed homes due to bombing and engage in mass slum clearance.

The period after 1945 saw the energy of Labour’s Aneurin Bevan deliver 1.2 million homes in six years in an age of austerity and rations. The Tories when elected in 1951 did not slack either with housing minister Harold Macmillan committing to, and achieving, 300,000 homes per year. Housing was a major election issue between the two major parties with each trying to outbid the other to build more homes. The Tory 1951 manifesto declared: ‘Housing is the first of the social services’: a statement hard to imagine today.

The rise of council housing changed Scotland and Britain. It remade cities such as Glasgow (with 68% council housing at its peak) and Dundee and much of the West of Scotland. It created huge communities such as Drumchapel, Easterhouse and Castlemilk in Glasgow, Whitfield in Dundee, and Ferguslie Park in Paisley.

Problems began to emerge before Thatcher and right to buy. Large estates in Glasgow were built without any basic amenities such as shops and easy access to transport. Tower blocks became more prevalent in the 1960s due to the need to build quickly and cheaply and became less popular. Glasgow gained the reputation as having the most tower blocks of any city in Europe with the Red Road Flats – now demolished – the tallest anywhere.

The mood of the times turned against council housing. People wanted to have greater choice, express themselves and their individuality, and began to see their home as a financial asset. A backlash began, expressed by the likes of historian Dominic Sandbrook, stating that the failure of council housing in 1970s Britain was about ‘the kind of people put in them’ as much as the quality of the housing. Even someone as liberal as Will Hutton in 2007 said that ‘council housing is a living tomb … a ghetto of both place and mind’.

How did we get to a situation where such comments were permissible? Council housing transformed the lives of millions of working class and middle class families. It brought better standards of housing within the reach of people who would have previously had to put up with slum housing and exploitative private sector landlords. It gave people who previously had no choice a real choice.

The cultural impact of council housing had a huge impact over the period 1945-1975. Like many in Scotland I directly know the positive aspects of this story. I grew up as a child in Ardler, Dundee, in a tower block at 13a Edzell Court from when it was built to through the 1970s. It was an enriching experience: a place of community, optimism, secure jobs and good quality housing with lots of amenities as well as play and green spaces.

Of course like many places in Scotland there was another side to this with Labour corruption and cronyism on a systemic scale between the council and construction companies to the extent that Dundee became known in the 1970s as a ‘mafia town’ with subsequent charges brought and a senior councillor jailed.

There is for many of us a host of emotional relationships wound up in the terms council housing, estates and schemes, something powerfully explored by Lynsey Hanley in her ‘Estates: An Intimate History’ where she observes that: ‘I can’t think about council estates without having a pronounced emotional reaction to those very words’. Too much of our housing debate doesn’t acknowledge this basic truth.

The war on council housing of recent decades has contributed to the UK-wide housing crisis and this in turn has led to the demand for council housing to come back up the political agenda. Scotland has made some progress in this with a decent programme of council house building, but much more needs to be done.

Britain needs a housing revolution in attitudes and home building. The decades of denigration of council and social housing has to be stopped as does the obsession with owner occupation at the expense of all other forms of tenure. As damning, the patronising and demeaning view of council and social tenants as somehow being failures and drains on the public purse, needs to be challenged.

Similarly, the view of housing as a financial and marketising product comes at a cost. Housing is seen as a commodity to gain individual or organisational profit, resulting in councils, public agencies and developers encouraging gentrification and selling off public stock and assets.

Housing has to be put centrestage as an intrinsic human right, as a social good and a public good, one which is integral to public policy and government actions. It is pivotal to health and well-being, quality of life, and sustainable communities.

Wider economic and social pressures undermine this as Douglas Robertson observes: ‘housing has always been about more than ‘bricks and mortar’’. In the past decade, we have seen ‘housing assets tie into personal wealth, and from that a capacity to use that asset to earn an income or to borrow or buy into additional housing assets. We have thus witnessed a return of rentier capitalism.’ This is an exploitative, harsh world for many with private renting, the rise of Airbnb in cities like Edinburgh, and a commensurate increase of people living in temporary accommodation.

How we respond to this has to involve more than celebrity sleep-outs and the good intentions of the likes of Social Bite, and instead a collective drive and commitment from government. ‘George Clarke’s Council Housing Scandal’ began this week on ‘Channel 4’ with the aim of building a new estate in Manchester: ‘It is a national emergency’ he states and we need action now.

This requires progress on house building, dumping discredited terms such as ‘affordable housing’, thinking anew about planning, architecture and design, and the role of local and central government. Clarke has shown the scale of the problem, and the history that we have tackled and overcome housing problems before. But the question remains: do we have the ambition and belief in Scotland and the UK, and courage to cut through powerful vested interests? We have to at least ask.