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The council house is a form of public or social housing, primarily referred to in the United Kingdommarker. Council houses were built and operated by local councils to supply uncrowded, well built homes on secure tenancies at below market rents to primarily working class people. Council house development began in the late nineteenth century and peaked in the mid-20th century. Mid-20th century council housing including many large suburban "council estates", and also many urban developments featuring tower blocks. Some 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. Approximately 40% of the country’s social housing stock is owned by local authorities, 15% is managed by arm's length management organisations, 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, and the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Crossmarker in Winchester, dating to circa 1133.


The pressure for decent housing increased from overcrowding in the large cities during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, and many social commentators (such as Octavia Hill) reported on the squalor, sickness and perceived 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 Saltairemarker (1853), Bournvillemarker (1879), Port Sunlightmarker, Stewartbymarker, and Silver Endmarker as late as 1925.

Tax funding

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 the London County Council opened the Boundary Estatemarker in 1900, and many local councils began building flats and houses in the early 20th 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 shock and 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. The government was no doubt encouraged by the increasing influence of the Labour party and the widespread strikes and mutinies which characterized Britain in 1919. Many houses were built in cottage estates as in Downham Estatemarker as well as in blocks of flats, known as "council blocks".

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.


Some of over a million bombed homes in London during WWII
During the Second World War, nearly four million British homes were destroyed or damaged, and afterwards there was a major boom in council house construction. The bomb damage of the Second World War only worsened the condition of Britain's housing stock, which was in poor condition prior to the outbreak of war. Prior to the war many social housing projects, such as the Quarry Hill Flatsmarker (pictured) were built. However the bomb damage meant that much greater progress had to be made with slum clearance projects. In cities like Londonmarker, Coventrymarker and Kingston upon Hullmarker, 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. Houses were typically semi-detached or in small terraces. A three-bedroom semi-detached council house was typically built on a square grid 7 yards ( ) on the side, with a maximum density of no more than 12 houses per acre (30 houses per hectare; around 337 m² 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.

For many working class people, this housing model provided the first experience of private garden space (usually front and rear), as well as the first private and indoor toilets and bathrooms, with hot running water. The quality of these houses, and in particular the existence of small gardens, compared very favourably with social housing being built on the European continent in this period.

Towards the end of the 1950s, the influence of modernist architecture and the development of new construction techniques, such as system building (a form of prefabrication), led to this model being abandoned in Britainmarker's inner city areas. Instead, tower blocks became the preferred model. The argument was that more dwellings could be provided this way (a claim on which research at the LSEmarker has cast serious doubt). The use of the later methods is often seen as 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.

Central government (under both the Conservative and Labour parties) saw the provision of housing as a major part of its policy, and provided subsidies for local authorities to build such housing. System building proved to have serious flaws, and flats - which were initially very popular due to their generous space standards - suffered many problems, especially poor protection from damp and weather ingress, as well as other serious design defects.

On 16 May 1968, the problems associated with tower blocks were brought into sharp focus after the partial collapse of Ronan Pointmarker, a tower block in Newhammarker, east Londonmarker, as a consequence of a gas explosion. A similar incident caused significant damage to one side of a block in Manchestermarker. Following these incidents, tower blocks were usually built with 'all electric' heating, to prevent the occurrence of such an explosion.


Becontreemarker 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 Wythenshawemarker in the south of Manchester and Bransholmemarker in the north-east of Hull. Arron Way in Corbymarker was a large estate, although the majority of the housing became derelict and the area is now undergoing regeneration. Other large estates across Londonmarker include Churchill Gardensmarker in Pimlicomarker, Aylesbury Estatemarker in Walworthmarker, a vast series of estates in Gospel Oakmarker (especially around Queen's Crescent) including the Bacton, Wendling, Lamble Street, Southfleet, Denton and the Ludham and Waxham high-rises between Mansfield Road and Lismore Circus and the Ferrier Estatemarker in South-East Londonmarker.

There are also numerous large council estates in the West Midlands. These include Castle Valemarker in Birminghammarker, Newtown in Birminghammarker, Low Hillmarker in Wolverhamptonmarker, Hateley Heathmarker in West Bromwichmarker, Blakenall Heathmarker in Walsallmarker, Priory Estatemarker in Dudleymarker, Tanhousemarker in Halesowenmarker and Chapel Street Estatemarker in Brierley Hillmarker.

Large estates in Scotlandmarker include Drumchapelmarker, Easterhousemarker, Castlemilkmarker and Pollokmarker in Glasgowmarker.

Council estates in Greater Manchestermarker included the Hattersleymarker overspill housing estate.

Walesmarker also has many large council estates. These include Caia Park in Wrexhammarker, Bettws in Newportmarker and Elymarker in Cardiffmarker.

There were also many large council estates in Yorkshiremarker. These include the village of Grimethorpemarker (which at one stage almost entirely consisted of council housing), and the Chickenleymarker estate in Dewsburymarker which was unusually constructed without including a church. Estates in Leedsmarker, West Yorkshire include cross flatts Lincoln Greenmarker, Giptonmarker,Seacroftmarker and Halton Moormarker. Bransholmemarker in North East Hullmarker is the largest in Yorkshire. Sheffieldmarker boasts the award winning Park Hillmarker (now being redeveloped).

The Red Road flats in Glasgowmarker 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 Cottingleymarker, Leedsmarker are also particularly notable in 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 Londonmarker have large areas of Council Housing.

An early and famous development of council flats was at Quarry Hill in Leeds. This was a large complex built in the 1930s and demolished throughout most of the 1980s. The flats were apparently modelled on Karl Marx Hof flats in Vienna and built by Leeds City Council. It was in these flats where sitcom Queenie's Castle was filmed. At the time they were considered revolutionary, each flat had a motorized rubbish chute which led to a central incinerator. The complex had its own offices, shops and gas works. There is now no evidence of their existence. The DWP and BBC now have their regional headquarters on the site, alongside the West Yorkshire Playhousemarker.


Tom Collins House, Byker Wall Estate
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.

The original council houses from the early 1920s were among the first houses in the country to feature electricity, running water, bathrooms, indoor toilets and front/rear gardens. Many of these houses were built on estates designed along 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.

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. It was also around this time that councils started building garages on new housing developments, although these were usually in separate blocks to houses.

The first tower block flats in Britain were built during the early 1950s, reaching a peak in the 1960s. But these flats quickly became unpopular due to poor insulation and structural defects, with construction of high-rise flats being effectively ended during the 1970s. The first few tower blocks were demolished during the later part of the 1980s, but clearance programmes accelerated during the 1990s and are still ongoing in the 2000s. The most notable regeneration programme featuring tower blocks was that of the Castle Valemarker estate in Birminghammarker. 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'smarker Galton Villagemarker estate, known locally as the Concrete Jungle.

Many of the older interwar council houses have been demolished, mostly due to subsidence or decay. Much of this regeneration has been concentrated in the West Midlands since the early 1990s. Areas that have been regenerated include Pype Hayesmarker and Stockfield in Birminghammarker, parts of The Luntmarker estate in Bilstonmarker, the Poet's Estate at Hardenmarker in Walsallmarker and the Harrowby Road Estate in Darlastonmarker. Several other estates are currently earmarked for a similar regeneration in the future. These include the Goscote Estatemarker in Walsallmarker, parts of the Priory Estatemarker in Dudleymarker and parts of the Tibbington Estate in Tiptonmarker.


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, when they would be farther 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 Asian and Black communities. The division remains most marked in Dewsburymarker and Bradfordmarker, which both have large 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 or serious breach of the tenancy conditions, such as rent arrears.

An excellent survey of the advantages and disadvantages of social housing in England was provided by John Hills, in Ends and Means: The Future Roles of Social Housing in England. This report, commissioned by government but independent of it, was published by the London School of Economics ESRC funded Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion as CASE Report 34, ISSN 1465-3001 and can be found on the LSE/CASE website. A summary is also available.


Council housing declined sharply in the Thatcher era, as the Conservative government encouraged aspiration toward home ownership under the Right to buy scheme.

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 up to 60% of the market price for houses and 70% for flats, 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 Wakefieldmarker 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 Southwarkmarker, Hackneymarker, Islingtonmarker, Camdenmarker and Lambethmarker having the highest proportions/amounts. Also, Barnsleymarker, Corbymarker, Easingtonmarker, Hullmarker, Leedsmarker, Manchestermarker, Nottinghammarker and Sheffieldmarker. 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 high crime rates, though similar problems can occur in areas of private housing.

As mentioned earlier, many council housing estates have already undergone partial or total redevelopment, while more schemes are in the pipeline.

These include North Peckhammarker in Londonmarker, Castle Valemarker in Birminghammarker, Stockbridge Villagemarker in Liverpoolmarker, Blakenhall Gardensmarker in Wolverhamptonmarker, Hardenmarker in Walsallmarker, Galton Villagemarker in Smethwickmarker and Hateley Heathmarker in West Bromwichmarker.


The legal status and management of council houses, and the social housing sector, has been subject to lobbying and change in recent years. Local Authorities 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.

Social stigma

The perceived poor state of social housing in the UK carries some negative social stigma. For example, the phrase "schemey tea" in Scotland is a derogatory way of saying "poor person’s supper".

See also


External links


  1. Chris Roberts, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme, Thorndike Press,2006 (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)
  2. "United Kingdom" Section VII (History), J (World War II and Its Aftermath), J2 (Postwar Britain), MSN Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2006. Archived 2009-10-31.
  3. R. Burdett, T. Travers, D. Czischke, P. Rode and B. Moser, Density and Urban Neighbourhoods in London: Summary Report(Enterprise LSE Cities, 2004), pp. 13-14.
  4. BBC - Leeds - In Pictures - Quarry Hill's history
  7. Margaret Thatcher Party Election Broadcast (Housing) 1974 Sep 27
  9. Blair's Speech outlining 'Respect' agenda (2005-05-06)
  11. Chris Roberts, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme, Thorndike Press,2006 (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)

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