Homes Unfit for Heroes: The Slum Problem in London and Neville Chamberlain's Unhealthy Areas Committee, 1919-21

Article excerpt

The clearance and redevelopment of the slums after the First World War takes second place in most histories of social housing to Lloyd George's subsidised house-building campaign, which famously promised 'Homes fit for Heroes'. Yet the attack on the slums prompted widespread debate about the merits of multi-storey tenement flats versus low-rise cottages as replacements for demolished dwellings. The paper begins by reviewing the post-war housing situation in London and the often conflicting approaches of the LCC and the London metropolitan boroughs. It continues to discuss the proceedings and recommendations of the Unhealthy Areas Committee (1919-21), which was chaired by Neville Chamberlain shortly after his first election as an MP. The committee explored a wide range of town planning issues and helped to inform Chamberlain's subsequent career as the longest serving Minister of Health in the 1920s.

The subsidised house-building campaign of 1919-21 is best known today for the new cottage estates, built on low-density garden suburb lines on the edges of many British towns (Swenarton, 1981). These houses are the physical legacy of Lloyd George's promise in his famous Wolverhampton general election speech of November 1918 to build 'homes fit for heroes to live in'.1 But in this speech the Prime Minister had also promised to sweep away the slums:

Slums are not fit homes for the men who have won this war. They are not fit nurseries for the children who are to make the Imperial race, and there must be no patching up. This problem has to be undertaken in a way never undertaken before, as a great national charge and duty.

Slums featured prominently in many other speeches as the nation and Parliament was prepared for the first peacetime housing subsidies provided by the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919. To many the promised new cottages and the demolished slums formed parts of a single policy which - taken literally - meant that local authorities would be expected to replace high-density slums with garden estates. Others agonised over the prospect of having to deport a high proportion of the displaced former slum residents to distant peripheral housing estates, far from familiar haunts and sources of employment. Such a prospect was inescapable if cottages with gardens laid out at the recommended 12 dwellings per acre (or even to the maximum permitted 20 per acre) were to replace densely crowded slum property.

What of the obvious alternative to the low-density cottage estates - the use of high-density multi-storey flats? Policy-makers at this time saw a very limited role for flats. The influential report of the Committee on Building Construction after the war (chaired by Sir John Tudor Walters MP)2 concentrated entirely on the need for and desirability of two-storey cottages, commenting that for the large blocks of tenements four or five storeys high, such as have been erected in our great towns ... no advocate appeared, although it was admitted that modified types of such buildings might be a necessity in the centre of areas already partly developed with this class of dwelling or to meet special conditions. (Tudor Walters, 1918, para. 84)

The Ministry of Health's Manual on Unhealthy Areas (MOH, 1919) recommended blocks with a maximum height of three storeys in central areas, and this approach was endorsed as late as 1921 when the London Society's book on London of the Future was published under the editorship of Sir Aston Webb, President of the RIBA, member of the Tudor Walters Committee and probably the single most authoritative public voice of architecture. The flats versus cottages debate had divided architects before the war and would continue to do so for years to come (Pepper and Richmond, 2008). As soon as the practicalities of slum clearance on any scale were considered, however, other difficult questions called for answers. If the new houses were to be built first and the slums cleared later - as one very senior Whitehall figure believed was always intended - what could be done in the meantime to alleviate conditions? …