Posted in Reading on Thursday 20th December 2018 at 8:12am
Walking the suburban margins of London I have stumbled - sometimes with surprise - across a range of housing estates. The explosion in population in the outer reaches of the capital travelled through the 20th century like a shockwave. Propelled by changing economic conditions, the aftermath of two long and bruising wars and the recognition that the conditions of life many faced were appaling, these new enclaves grew swiftly in every corner of the metropolis. The schemes varied in size, in style and in ambition - from the modest in-fill blocks of 1930s balcony flats to the vast sweep of Becontree - but had one thing in common: a recognition by the agents of the state that only intervention in the housing conditions of a mass of Londoners could assure they were adequately met. On paper at least, John Boughton's tale of council housing - a term he very deliberately sticks to throughout the work - shouldn't be an exciting read. However, the progress through a turbulent century where municipalism meets modernism is compelling from the early philanthropic green shoots right up to the present where ideology finally appears to triumph.
Born out of a painstakingly well-researched blog, Municipal Dreams makes the leap from screen to page effortlessly: Boughton sifts detail effortlessly, weaving the stories of some of the key people driving the rise of council housing into the broader narrative of policy directions and architectural bravado. A range of responses to the growing need in the early part of the century is explored, from the bravely modern adopters of Corbusier's vision to those Boroughs who dabbled in the building of garden suburbs. The book is anchored in London - which was a focus of the most intense need and the most varied solutions - but doesn't exclude the work of ambitious authorities in Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle and beyond. Throughout, the voices of tenants are given the space they didn't get in those days before consultation was a mandatory tick-box on the decision, and the book is peppered with contemporary quotes and interviews with those who experienced the shift from slum to point block.
I came to this book most interested perhaps in the architectural history: and Boughton doesn't disappoint in his exploration of the rise and - tragically literal - fall of system-building, the debates about densification and the ultimate rejection of modernism. However, the book is necessarily political too - and achieves a rare balance. The simple fact, as Boughton exposes very ably, is that both left and right tackled the issue of housing via intervention and that while the positions were not widely variant at the outset, the voices of ideologues have dominated the more recent discourse. Two distinct shifts in thinking emerged as the century entered its second half: the left shifting from a broad universalism to a rhetoric of 'greatest need' while the right responded by lionizing the aspiration to escape the clutches of the state. As the new century opened and local authorities grappled with the best means to leverage capital from the private sector, these views have whirled together into a perfect storm of policy failure: there is simply not enough housing, and no agreement on how that is best remedied. Boughton's book explores both the creation and the outcomes of this dilemma with care and precision - no party is let off the hook, as the dizzying and contradictory tumble of Housing Acts endlessly rebadges but fails to increase existing investment, indulges in ill-advised tinkering and ultimately presents the same old tricks in new clothes. Council housing becomes contested, blamed, a diagnosis rather than a symptom as a result. Residualisation both creates the myth of the 'sink estate' and condemns some troubled places needing assistance to perhaps even deep opprobrium.
Council housing is a political issue - and if you approach this book from an extreme in either direction - as a radical Corbyn supporter seeking an endorsement of the state as guardian of the people, or as a steamrollering free-marketeer who wants the dubiously proven laws of economics to take the decisions out of our hands - you will be disappointed. Boughton's book is a plea to the kind of municipal collaboration and effort which dominated the discourse back when those who governed Britain shared a collective will to solve problems and when politicians could disagree across the house - and indeed along their own benches - without resorting to character assassination. The post-war consensus which endured for many decades is after all, still active in the minds of the majority of voters, and perhaps it is only in those radical fringe voices - often thought the very loudest - that we have moved so far from this. It is a strange world where 'centrist' with is an insult. Boughton concludes that the state is good at some things and not at others and that the challenge is to restore the role of council housing: something that is simply one of those good things with a host of proven benefits and demonstrable value. The book opens and closes with a vision of Grenfell Tower smoldering and glowering over the rooftops of West London. At the outset, it appears a totem of failure, but by the end, it stands as a symbol of hope: good can be done, if we can separate lofty ideology and basic needs.
Throughout this journey - which is often frustrating and sad - Boughton manages to tell the complex, nuanced story with style and balance. It's easy to take sides - to believe that one path was more morally correct than another - but the public servants Boughton describes are usually, at least, doing their utmost with what they have and making decisions based on their best ideas. That they fell short is an inevitable conclusion to this concise but engaging history of an often glossed-over topic. John Boughton's book will likely become a standard text for those trying to understand this curious and torrid period as Britain accelerated to modernity, and then came to an abrupt halt.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.