Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing

By Dockerill, Bertie | The Town Planning Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing


Dockerill, Bertie, The Town Planning Review


Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing ,John Boughton, London, Verso, 2018, 330 pp, ?18.99 (hardback), ISBN978¡78478 7394

Fusing together party politics, changing political priorities, economic realities and idealised proposals for municipal housing, as well as commenting on public opinion and contemporary developments in the field of social housing, John Boughton's book Municipal Dreams seeks to provide an overview of the development of British council housing from its mid- to late nineteenth-century origins to the present day. An enjoyable and accessible read, as Boughton has adopted a largely chronological and narrative approach that is not overburdened by references, the book will have a place on the shelves of many, as it appeals not just to planners, geographers and historians, but also to those with an interest in politics, local government and society in general.

Despite the book's appeal, it does present some challenges in academic terms; given the breadth of the topic, this is not surprising but nevertheless disappointing. For example, the council housing records of local authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are almost wholly ignored and the policies pursued by the devolved parliaments not mentioned, eroding the publisher's claim that the book is 'an alternative history of Britain'. The pre-1918 period is not addressed with the same thoroughness that is afforded later periods, and there is also a tendency - especially within this early period - for the book to be overly focused on London, at the expense of putting developments into their proper historic context. There is, for instance, no rationale given as to why the LCC's 1900 Boundary Estate development should be regarded as 'Britain's first council estate' when, in terms of their structure and form, the tenements constructed therein were but copies of those that had been (repeatedly) built in Liverpool over the preceding three decades.

These issues aside, Municipal Dreams offers readers a geographical tour of predominantly England's social housing that goes well beyond the traditional roll call of 'iconic' estates. Accordingly, whilst due attention is given to estates such as Wythenshawe (Manchester), Quarry Hills (Leeds), Castle Vale (Birmingham), Park Hill (Sheffield) and Byker (Newcastle), it is refreshing that the author also provides an exploration of more ordinary estates such as Mackworth (Derby) and North Hull (Kingston upon Hull), as well as the individual successes and failures of local authorities that tend to be overlooked, such as Norwich.

The 1950s was, of course, the high-water mark of council house construction with, as Boughton reminds us, some 318,000 new homes being completed under Macmillan's watch as Minister of Housing and Local Government. Soon after, however, problems set in. In addition to the partial collapse of the Ronan Point Tower in Tower Hamlets (London) in 1968, economic retrenchment meant that there developed a growing gap between the high-minded idealism of what planners and architects envisaged, and the homes that were actually constructed. This issue is finely illustrated by Boughton using examples such as Womersley and Wilson's Hulme Crescents (Manchester), Alison and Peter Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens (Poplar), Denys Lasdun's Keeling House (Bethnell Green) and Katie Macintosh's ziggurat-inspired design for the Dawson's Heights estate (Southwark) (the latter two are now both Grade II listed whilst Hulme Crescents and Robin Hood Gardens have been demolished). The inability, thereafter, of local authorities to undertake adequate maintenance of the homes that they had commissioned led to a further undermining of the perceived desirability of estate living.

By the early 1980s, council housing had become, in the words of the social scientist Michael Harloe (cited at 167), 'an ambulance service concentrating its efforts on the remaining areas of housing stress and dealing with a variety of "special needs" such as the poor, the homeless, one-parent families, battered wives and blacks'. …

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