Opinion: The effects of housing policy on urban society

Houses in sunsetBy Richard Rodger, Professor of Economic and Social History, the University of Edinburgh

26 January 2011

Significant structural and sociological shifts have been brought about by housing policy changes over the last 100 years. The spatial extent of the city leap-frogged its pre-World War I boundaries with the introduction from 1919 of council housing. This fundamentally altered demand, restructured the building industry, and introduced extensive, homogeneous housing estates on the urban fringe. Council housing also ushered in the era of mass-produced, system-built, shuttered concrete- and steel-framed construction of houses from the 1920s. This new type of housing undermined small building firms and traditional craft skills in favour of more industrial forms of construction. Social housing largely replaced housing for the working classes in the inter-war years.

Almost simultaneously, the introduction of Rent Control – the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act, 1915 - radically altered the balance in the rental market by limiting the rents charged by landlords. Rents were virtually frozen and this led to the decay of the landlordism which prior to the World War I had made up 85-90 per cent of all housing. It took another 40 years before rent control was largely abandoned, though in removing the restrictions the 1957 Rent Act exposed sitting tenants to harassment as many landlords sought to let to new tenants at greatly inflated rents.

Combined with the introduction of council housing and Rent Control, historically low interest rates in the 1930s and, later, mortgage interest tax relief gave a stimulus to middle class semidetached (and in Scotland, bungalow) building for private ownership. Together with council housing, the result was that residential segregation reinforced the social segregation of British cities.

Tower blocks were a feature of mass house building which redefined the cityscape in the 1950s and 1960s. In these decades, Treasury subsidies were targeted towards high-rise blocks. In London, Glasgow, and Birmingham, where the councils held land for housing, the subsidy incentives encouraged high-rise construction, often on the periphery of the city.

As with council housing in the inter-war years this propelled the poorer families to the outskirts of the city and further disadvantaged them in terms of additional transport costs, disruption to social networks, and loss of informal credit sources. It also denied them neighbourhood facilities, including local shopping, and contributed to a sense of dislocation and exclusion that resulted in boredom, as often exhibited in anti-social behaviour. High-rise building was already in retreat for these reasons before the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in 1968 in Newham, London as a result of a gas explosion.

In the 1980s race riots in Liverpool, Bristol and other cities contributed to a re-thinking of the Conservative government’s urban policies and resulted in Michael Heseltine’s initiatives for inner city renewal. A series of regeneration schemes were encouraged by the Thatcher government, and cash injection they offered at a time when rate-capping, public expenditure cuts and ultimately the Poll Tax constrained local authority investment. Inner city redevelopment and the renovation of mills, warehouses, and other historic buildings followed.

Projects such as Castlefield in Manchester and Glasgow’s Merchant City and the GEAR (Glasgow East End Renewal) project were encouraged by the inclusion of Development Corporations in partnership with private builders and local authorities. This, combined with the listing process for historic buildings and the obligation to develop local neighbourhood and city-wide structure plans in the 1980s, stimulated interest in heritage and encouraged the re-use of existing buildings and brownfield sites. Re-use replaced demolition; rising incomes for those in work fuelled consumerism and inflationary house prices as footloose capital investment sought inner city opportunities.

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