Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Jigsaw citiesBig places, small spaces$

Anne Power

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9781861346599

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861346599.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Breaking up the jigsaw

Breaking up the jigsaw

(p.36) (p.37) Three Breaking up the jigsaw
Jigsaw cities

Anne Power

John Houghton

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the role that housing and urban policy played in sucking out people in the interwar years, leaving decay and squalor behind. It notes that the reality of poverty, squalor, and disease drove new forms of town planning that were supposed to overcome the endemic problems of urban poverty. It claims however, that one Utopian model of urban and housing planning was developed in the early 20th century with real enthusiasm and exported all over the world. It notes that the Garden City movement managed to combine enterprise and cooperation, houses and gardens with public and social amenities, in a totally new form of philanthropic endeavour that was eventually to capture the imagination of governments. It also looks at the devastating urban consequences of the First World War.

Keywords:   urban policy, interwar years, poverty, squalor, disease, Utopian model, housing planning, Garden City movement, social amenities, First World War

That in this land of abounding wealth, during a time of perhaps unexampled prosperity, probably more than one fourth of the population are living in poverty, is a fact which may well cause great searchings of the heart. There is surely need for a greater concentration of thought by the nation upon the wellbeing of its own people, for no civilisation can be sound or stable which has at its base this mass of stunted human life. The suffering may be all but voiceless, and we may long remain ignorant of its extent and severity, but when once we realise it, we see that social questions of profound importance await solution.1 (Seebohm Rowntree, social reformer, son of Joseph Rowntree, 1901)

Garden cities and the urban exodus

Joseph Rowntree’s high-minded son, the meticulous social researcher Seebohm Rowntree, was shocked to discover in his native city of York that, as the new century dawned, a large minority still lived in deep hardship, even starvation. The reality of poverty, squalor and disease drove new forms of town planning that were supposed to overcome the endemic problems of urban poverty. One Utopian model of urban and housing planning was developed in the early 20th century with real enthusiasm and exported all over the world. The Garden City movement managed to combine enterprise and cooperation, houses and gardens with public and social amenities, in a totally new form of philanthropic endeavour that was eventually to capture the imagination of governments2. It was intensely public-spirited and yet intensely independent of the state in its founding structure and funding. The model villages that we described earlier, particularly New Earswick in York, helped inspire Ebenezer Howard, the founder and utopian visionary of the garden city movement.

In 1898 Howard published a riveting booklet Tomorrow: A peaceful path to real reform. In it, Howard set out his social vision of garden cities: self-contained, self-financing havens of peace and prosperity, built outside the main cities but connected to them by major rail links, where people of all incomes and all walks of life would share its benefits. All profits were to be reinvested for the common good of the garden city itself. His utopian vision echoed Robert Owen’s earlier cooperative ideals but at city scale.

Garden cities were a reaction against the miserable state of cities, and their design harked back to an earlier, gentler age of village life. But unlike the model (p.38) villages of the 19th century, they also captured the urban experience because of their scale. Howard conceived garden cities as a harmonious combination of urban and rural life, melding the commerce, liveliness, culture and entrepreneurial spirit of cities with the health, order and peace of the country. “Town and country must be married and out of this joyous union will spring a new life, a new hope, a new civilisation”3.

The architect of New Earswick, Raymond Unwin, designed the original garden city at Letchworth, outside London, near the New Town of Stevenage, at far lower densities than cities but higher densities than suburbs, about 40 homes to the hectare. There was generous provision of workspaces, railway links, communal facilities, allotments, parks, public buildings, shops, theatres and so on. Howard thought of everything as his careful plans show – children, older people, the needy and workers. Figures 3.1 and 3.2 illustrate both his philosophy and his meticulous planning.

Despite Howard’s best efforts and the support of powerful figures including George Cadbury, garden cities never materialised on a large scale. Only two – Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City – were built. Letchworth continues to thrive as a self-financing, integrated and socially progressive model of Howard’s ‘peaceful path to reform’, abruptly broken off as it was by the outbreak of war. Welwyn became a New Town later. But too few well-housed, prosperous families supported this idealistic experiment, while the poor and badly housed could not afford to move out. The limited dividend principle, akin to five per cent philanthropy, did not elicit much interest from private investors, as it meant that any bigger increase in value was ploughed back into improvements for the whole

Breaking up the jigsaw
Breaking up the jigsaw

Figure 3.1: Ebenezer Howard’s three magnets

Source: Ebenezer Howard (1898), quoted in Hall and Ward (1998, p 18)

community including further garden cities. Large cities like London exerted too powerful a pull on potential investment, and it took Howard 10 years to galvanise enough support for his first city.

Nonetheless, the garden city ideal had a huge impact on how people viewed and treated British cities, although it became a very different legacy from the one Howard hoped to leave behind. As the historian Tristram Hunt argues:

Ebenezer Howard’s bequest would not be a reformed urban civilisation, but a new planning consensus which spurned the legacy of the nineteenth-century city and posited instead a miserable town-country suburbia which one hundred years later still blights our public space and belittles our civic sense.4

Howard must be turning in his grave, so far is this verdict from what he originally envisaged. During the early phase of the growth of cities, affluent families sought (p.40)

Breaking up the jigsawBreaking up the jigsaw

Figure 3.2: Ebenezer Howard’s planning principles for a Garden City

Source: Ebenezer Howard (1898), quoted in Hall and Ward (1998, p 20)

Source: Howard (1898)

to escape their dirty, diseased centres by moving to inner suburbs. By the early 20th century, they were abandoning the inner city for outer more affluent suburbs. The ‘garden city’ quickly became the ‘garden suburb’ and the middle-class exodus went into full flow.

The ‘all-embracing fervour for suburban housing’ shielded from the poverty of cities was institutionalised by the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909, (p.41) which shifted the focus of new urban developments from high-density, inner-city building to low-density, traffic-dependent, suburban sprawl. It confirmed housing per se as the dominant driver of the new suburbs, far from work and other services5. Garden suburbs have strong appeal today, offering calmer, greener, safer environments than denser forms. Perhaps as the first country to experience rapid industrialisation and urbanisation simultaneously, we have never quite escaped the mindset that associates city life with chaos and human brutalisation. Nor have we shaken off the impulse to escape urban troubles by building outwards rather than tackling our urban problems from the inside.

The most unexpected and direct impact of the garden city was on council housing. In this Howard’s dream mutated from his far-sighted espousal of sociable, self-sufficient, planned cities into something wholly mundane. We explore the legacy of garden cities in the New Towns, Green Belts and council estates following the Second World War in Chapter Four. First, we must look at the devastating urban consequences of the First World War.

Homes fit for heroes

The First World War put a halt to all ideas of house building and even repair, diverting all materials and manpower into the war effort. The dream of garden cities vanished under the onslaught. By 1918 it was estimated that there was a national deficit of 600,000 homes6. Some profiteering private landlords were quick to exploit the shortage by ramping up their rents and evicting tenants who could not pay. With five million men away fighting, wartime industries such as shipbuilding relied on a female army of workers to ‘man’ production and these working women with children could not tolerate rent rises and evictions7. The resultant rent strikes, most famously in the Clydeside dockyard area of Glasgow, led the government to pass the 1915 Rent and Mortgage Restrictions Act, pegging rents at their pre-war levels and introducing tight rent controls. The Act was designed as an emergency measure but proved impossible to repeal, due to ongoing chronic shortages created by the war and its long aftermath.

Breaking up the jigsaw

The 1915 Act still affects British cities today. According to the Cambridge historian F.M.L. Thompson, it shaped our rigid class system, our inflexible (p.42) tenures and ossified urban conditions at a time when they needed to adapt to radical changes8. It forced housing to the forefront of city problems for two generations. The Act was not fully repealed until 1988, by which time its restrictions had forced most private landlords out of the market. The size of the housing stock had doubled but the share of private renting had shrunk from nine tenths to one tenth in the 70 years of rent control. The slow death of private landlords created a virtual state monopoly in rented housing, with 70% of households who could not afford to buy becoming tenants of local authorities by 1980. Britain became unique in the western world in having so little private renting and such a large state rented sector. It also created an explosion in cheap suburban ‘semis’ for owner-occupation.

Rent control seriously restricted the amount of available money even for basic repair, let alone reinvestment and modernisation, so, over the long decades of decline from 1915 to 1988, the old by-law terraces, model dwellings and inner suburban homes, not to speak of relatively new council estates, were deprived of adequate funds for repair9. Our cities decayed inexorably as rent controls removed landlords’ incentives to improve. As a result, most inner-city areas dominated by private renting would sooner or later be condemned en masse to clearance.

The 1915 Act was only the first step in a period of frenetic interwar housing activity. Up to the First World War, the impetus for legislation had generally come from progressive city corporations, influential philanthropists and emerging trades unions focusing on ‘slum problems’10. But by the end of the First World War, the problem became far more widespread. The Tudor Walter Committee, established by the Local Government Board in 1917 to investigate and make recommendations on post-war working-class housing provision, concluded in its final report of November 1918:

Breaking up the jigsaw

(p.43) The problem with which the Boards are now confronted, however, is a serious shortage of all kinds.11

The government feared that the five million demobilised soldiers might embrace revolutionary ideas from Bolshevik Russia if they returned from the war front expecting to be treated as heroes but finding their homes in a worse state than when they left. The Russian Revolution dominated international thinking and this gave housing a national political impulse. The secretary to the Local Government Board openly admitted that, “the money we are going to spend on housing is insurance against Bolshevism and Revolution”12.

Over time, urban development, housing provision and social progress had become all but synonymous. There had developed a widely shared consensus that improving people’s basic living conditions was inseparable from wider political and social goals, as Seebohm Rowntree, Robert Owen and other reformers had urged in the previous century. Towns and cities were the hotbed of social fears and unrest, so reform had to start there. Moving people out and dispersing concentrated deprivation became a political goal. Lloyd George’s government announced an ambitious campaign to build ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ in greater numbers and at a higher quality than ever before in order to reward the war effort and head off revolutionary fervour13.

The 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, the ‘Addison Act’, required local authorities to plan and provide homes for their populations and introduced a direct government subsidy for local authorities to build, with the aim of delivering a startling 500,000 council homes in just five years. Never before had central government given local authorities the duty, as opposed to the power, to build14. Nor had it previously given direct central subsidies for new working-class homes – effectively a blank cheque to build without the brake of raising local taxes. The assumption of state power in rent control, town planning and housing provision followed from the wartime mentality of a besieged island people. We had survived the war against the odds on the back of state control of almost everything15.

The government wanted all hands to the wheel and subsidies were available for private as well as public building – in practice, far more suburban housing came to be built for owner-occupation at low cost than council renting. Some private landlords took advantage of the new subsidies to build for rent too16. Nonetheless, after decades of piecemeal local authority and central government interventions, councils became the major organs of government-provided rental housing. Eventually they became the majority landlords – although that was still a long way off.

Birth of the council estate

The passing of the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, together with Lloyd George’s command to build ‘homes fit for heroes’, soon saw the Council acting to meet their new obligations and the concept (p.44) of the Council Estate was launched. (Carl Chinn, Birmingham historian)17

The government’s firm intention in its ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ plan was to break away from outmoded by-law housing to bring “light and beauty into the lives of the people”18. Raymond Unwin, the brilliant designer of both New Earswick and Letchworth Garden City, was an influential member of the wartime Tudor Walters Committee that shaped the new ideas and lent the utopian vision of the garden city to the committee’s recommendations for council housing. The new plans suggested that neighbourhoods needed more than just houses.

The new homes for heroes would be built in ‘cottage estates’: small groups of two-storey houses clustered in culs-de-sac with ample space and greenery, with modern amenities and large windows, a minimum of three rooms on each floor including a much disputed ‘parlour’, as well as a bath and larder. The best materials would be used with the aim of keeping the cottage estates in good condition for 60 years. The layout and social mix of cottage estates was designed to mark a radical break with the economical layout of by-law housing and all its predecessors. In effect cottage estates were to be mini-garden cities, although this of course was not how Ebenezer Howard’s original idea of mixed planned cities was conceived.

Cottage estates were popular and desirable, and many of them still are today, but too few were built to this remarkable standard19. The original target for 100,000 completions in 1919 was not met until 1922, and inflated building costs caused by material and labour shortages following the war led to relatively high rents since government subsidies came in the form of low-cost loans that

Breaking up the jigsaw

(p.45) had to be repaid. Costs were further driven up by the 100% initial government subsidy, which to private builders and to local authorities themselves signalled that there was no need to control costs – a truly ‘revolutionary’ blank cheque for house builders. Rents rose to meet the repayments. The new houses were bound to be “out of the reach of any but the most affluent heroes”20. A London county council survey found that over 50% of its cottage estate tenants were skilled or semi-skilled workers and a meagre 2.5% were pensioners.

Cottage estates, built for ‘heroes’, proved too costly for a government struggling with an ominous economic slump in the early 1920s. The Homes fit for Heroes campaign was curtailed after three short years, only a quarter of the way to its five-year target. The Housing Act of 1923, the Chamberlain Act, sought to reinvigorate private builders by reducing the subsidies to local authorities and lowering building standards. Local authorities had to convince the Minister of State that the private sector could not meet demand before they were allowed to continue building. Private building meanwhile boomed under the more limited subsidies. The new Labour government’s Wheatley Act of 1924 restored some power to local authorities and increased subsidies again, but retained the lower space and layout standards set out in the Chamberlain Act. The ‘parlour’ had disappeared after a short life, so “in the continuing climate of economy, former minima now often became maxima”21.

The immediate post-war ambition of building high-quality artisan homes for better-off workers to allow poorer workers to filter up from the slums was lost and the result was a “massive burst of lower-quality, cheaper council housing”22. Many large cottage estates that survive today from this era, such as White Hart Lane, Haringey, London, display the signs of these changing political priorities and subsidy levels, with proper ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ shifting down into Chamberlain, then Wheatley, and finally slum clearance standards. The cottage estate became the council estate – a meaner and more unfriendly creature. Nonetheless, the role of the state in housing provision increased massively between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second, and the shape of urban growth changed irrevocably, with big social consequences.

In spite of the continuous falls in the standard of council housing, rents and rates for new working-class dwellings accounted for a quarter of the average working family’s income. Local authorities “had perforce to secure a class of tenant which could be an asset and not a liability from a rent paying standpoint”23. Yet many of the new estates were far from the city, where jobs were, so many tenants struggled with the rents, newfangled plumbing and fares to the city24.

Accessible land was running short around the outskirts of cities and slums were growing within due to rent controls, with the poorest workers and their families still excluded from the subsidised estates, trapped in slum conditions. In fact in the interwar years the number of families in shared accommodation rose and the number of unfit homes accelerated. Private landlords, who still owned huge swathes of inner-city properties, could not charge enough rent for repairs. A 1928 Special Committee of the National Housing and Town Planning (p.46) Committee estimated that there were at least one million unfit and two million overcrowded pre-First World War houses almost entirely within inner cities.

Abandoning the terraces to their fate

Cities are transitory markers in the progress of civilisation, not permanent fixtures. We can conserve some of the artefacts whose creation they fostered. We may even cherish some of the social ethics they promulgated, but tend to forget we have discarded or rejected a great deal – mostly for good reasons. We cannot go back in any constructive sense.

(John Reader, 2004)25

The ongoing growth of slums within our cities led to a slum clearance policy, destined to demolish millions of homes across every major city by the time it finally ended in 1980 – although nobody thought it would go on for anything like that long. The 1930 Greenwood Act for the first time gave local authorities direct subsidies for each slum property they demolished and for each displaced tenant. The radical change was to make councils directly responsible for re-housing all slum families directly affected and standards fell to help reduce rents. To fit in enough tenants, and to reduce housing pressures on remaining slums, councils were encouraged to build flats rather than houses through a special building subsidy, augmented in 1935 with a higher subsidy for ‘expensive sites’, usually inner-city areas that required extensive demolition. To reduce overcrowding, the government also subsidised each individual slum dweller housed, so large families were no longer penalised. Around 100,000 balcony walk-up flats built in the 1930s helped this process.

Flats were increasingly regarded as the mass housing answer, particularly in the capital, where land was short and London County Council had already built them extensively. The extra cost of constructing multistorey flats required increasing subsidies for lower quality buildings. Flats also required the intensive management that the Octavia Hill, Peabody, Guinness, Rowntree and Bournville Trusts had grasped, but local authorities simply did not. Large blocks would prove hard to ‘police’, families would lack privacy and tenants would disturb each other more easily. Flatted estates often deteriorated quickly through lack of management, and tenants were deprived of open space.

Clearance and estate construction had become an overriding priority, and management, maintenance and welfare services were minimised. The various responsibilities for rents, allocations, repairs, lettings and cleaning were spread across different local authority departments and staff were thin on the ground. The common areas of estates – shared-access balconies and stairs, entrances and courtyards – received very little attention at all. For anything beyond the most minor maintenance, staff had to report problems ‘up the line’ to different sections at the town hall, where surveyors, sanitary engineers and treasurers were the new managers.

(p.47) Management problems on the new estates

The magnified housing role of local authorities grew in exactly the opposite direction from the detailed and careful management that Hill and the Victorian philanthropists had espoused. The urban authorities quickly became large-scale, expensive producers rather than efficient managers. Estates run from the town hall, by treasurers, engineers and surveyors, created little direct contact between tenants and landlords26. The government’s Central Housing Advisory Committee (CHAC) in 1935 bemoaned councils’ neglect of landlord responsibilities compared with the behaviour of their tenants. The Advisory Committee agreed that running large flatted estates in the inner city was so complex a task that only the well-trained descendants of Octavia Hill’s meticulous methods were up to the task. They urged councils to adopt the ‘lady housing managers’ approach27.

Several cities including Liverpool and Chesterfield did indeed turn in desperation to the Society of Women Housing Managers to tackle the serious social and management problems on their estates. The Society was founded by the women who had worked with Octavia Hill until her death in 1916. The women managers argued for frequent, friendly contact with tenants, close supervision of common areas, constant maintenance, tight financial control and an integrated ground-level system, concentrated in the hands of a ‘single point manager’ in charge of all aspects of housing care and repair. The Society required members to qualify as surveyors, so that they would be able to resolve complex building problems, alongside social problems. This single point system was endorsed by the government but neglected by local authorities who thought that well-housed tenants should be able to ‘manage without help’28. How little they understood of rented housing and cities.

The few progressive local authorities who sought to employ women housing managers met fierce resistance among male professionals. They argued that women should play only a limited ‘welfare’ role but the women refused to relinquish their professional autonomy. This stand-off marginalised the women managers and council housing accelerated its rush to build and clear without looking at what was really happening on the estates, even though the government urged them to adopt the Society’s more careful long-term methods.

Thus, during the interwar period, national housing policy swung from an initial high-minded attempt to raise standards across the board by subsidising virtually all providers, private and public, towards getting rid of slums and building basic homes to accommodate the masses of our cities. This narrowing of purpose culminated in the abolition in 1933 of general subsidies for housing that was not built specifically to tackle overcrowding and slum conditions. In effect, this meant that the only way for councils to get money for housing was to build it exclusively for slum dwellers. The twin incentives of additional subsidy for every dwelling demolished and every person re-housed alongside the prospect of clearing precious inner-city land of bad housing for subsidy-driven flats encouraged local authorities to instigate increasingly ambitious clearance programmes. Nearly (p.48) 300,000 slum properties were demolished by 1939 but a million old homes were put into slum clearance plans, hastening inner decline everywhere. Between the wars, one million new council homes were built to accommodate the two million displaced slum dwellers.

Suburbs take over

Local authority housing policies institutionalised for the working classes the process of suburbanisation which the middle classes had followed since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, but developed what had been a largely unconscious process for the few into a planned policy for the many. (John Burnett, social historian)29

The location and physical design of the new estates created many problems. Either they were contained in slum areas of the inner cities or driven out to marginal peripheral sites to prevent them from dragging down house prices in more prosperous suburbs. Chris Holmes, in his book A new vision for housing, tells the terrible tale of modest owner-occupier suburbanites in Oxford building a wall to barricade their hard-won new homes against the threat of former slum dwellers moving in at the end of the road30. Large council estates on the edges of cities often made their occupants poorer through lack of jobs and minimal but expensive public transport. Death rates were reported to be rising in some outer estates through sheer loss of work, access and social supports31. The inner cities were even more blighted by slum clearance programmes than by the tight rent controls already in place. The impact of the state on cities was huge.

In spite of such devastating unintended consequences, the interwar building campaign offset some of the most urgent demand for new homes, even though population growth kept up the level of demand. It often became cheaper to own than to rent as private building boomed32, and many respectable working-class families preferred cheap owner-occupation. A major transformation of ownership took place with three million families buying their homes, either in the new suburbs or from private landlords selling up their terraced property cheaply within cities to sitting tenants. Low-cost home ownership was the twin result of the gradual demise of private renting and the ‘slum’ focus of council building.

It is one of the peculiar quirks of urban evolution that we tied ourselves so tightly in this country to direct public ownership and management of rented homes. European philanthropists and non-profit housing cooperatives meanwhile had developed into a different form of ownership and management for their ‘social’, ‘philanthropic’ and publicly subsidised housing. On the continent, subsidised housing was much more akin to our philanthropic trusts, but supported, regulated and used by government. More independent of local authorities and central government, continental non-profit, limited-profit and cooperative associations attracted private and charitable investors, and also in some countries involved residents in managing new estates. Independent non-profit landlords (p.49) were better managers because they had to self-fund; they were answerable to their members, often tenants; and they were much smaller on average than council landlords. Their ‘affordable’ rents, like ours, often excluded the very poor. But their big advantage was their non-political status and their legal autonomy. Their dense flatted estates were more popular and more socially integrated than council estates although, as we show in the final chapter, the drift of polarisation is accelerating on the continent too33.

Harsh monotony

All individuality and homeliness have been lost in endless rows of identical semi-detached houses. The depressing appearance of these estates is very largely due to monotony in design and layout, and to the repetition of the same architectural unit in dull, straight rows or in severe, geometrical road patterns which bear no relation to the underlying landscape features. (John Burnett)34

For the best part of a century, British cities had struggled to deal with constant population influxes. From the 1920s, the opposite problem emerged. Middle-class families, growing in number as the economy changed, often left cities for the new suburbs and beyond. Seebohm Rowntree complained that many of the new estates of ‘little boxes’ were nothing but “sheds of brick with flat, cemented roofs … they look like privies”35. Slum clearance was supposed to sterilise the city of ‘slums’, by separating uses, getting rid of hovels, ‘sin parlours’, ‘hawkers’ and ‘pawn shops’. Schools, social facilities, shops and transport links were wiped out in the demolition and often added to new estates long after people had lost their bearings. This is the price we paid for low-density suburban development at low cost, far from the grime of industry.

England stands out as the European country with the most single family homes and the most decayed cities. North America is vastly more extreme and its cities give us a vital signal of what we should not do. Sprawl is the ultimate enemy of cities and of the people who live in them36. Even under the hammer, older communities often felt welcoming and homely places in spite of the long-run decay and thorough neglect. By-law streets were full of pubs, shops and workshops, a real mix of enterprises and supports, often in front rooms and back yards. There was an inner dynamism and embedded social structure, so well captured in Family and kinship in East London. In their landmark study of by-law streets in Bethnal Green prior to slum clearance in the 1950s, Michael Young and Peter Willmott argued that one of the oldest institutions, the family, was being undermined by one of the newest, the suburban council estate37.

(p.50) A changing urban world

There were fewer than a million owner-occupied homes in 1914, less than 10% of the total housing stock. By 1938 there were 3,700,000, a near fourfold increase and a third of the total national stock. Around half the increase in owner-occupied homes was new-build suburban semis that were cheap and easy to build and far more popular than flats. Helped by the 19th-century Friendly Societies that became 20th-century building societies, owner-occupation came within the reach of the skilled working class. The old by-law model was banished. As far as possible private estates signified social distance from both council housing and inner terraces, with mock Tudor gables, smart porches, front gardens and paired semis, not rows. It was in this era that council housing became firmly fixed in the popular imagination as the refuge of ‘slum families’ who could not afford this step up the social ladder, and inner cities became symbols of decline.

Throughout the interwar period, private landlords continued to shrink, although there were still nearly two privately rented homes for every owner-occupied home and private landlords still dominated housing and cities; they were still building under government subsidies. Although local authorities had mushroomed faster than any other provider, increasing over fiftyfold in the interwar years, they still housed less than 10% of the population, as Table 3.1 shows. Nonetheless, becoming landlords of over one million homes represented a major shift in scale.

Birmingham as builder

If you stood on tiptoe and looked in a certain direction you could just see the top of a tree. (Birmingham resident)38

No other city better encapsulates the dramatic changes in British cities during the interwar years than Birmingham. By the First World War, Birmingham conceded that it had failed in the basic task of ensuring decent conditions for the majority of its citizens. Even then it refused to contemplate a programme of municipal house building. It had only occasionally used the accumulated powers granted to it by Acts of Parliament to do something about the state of housing in spite of other pioneering reforms in the city. This was to change during the interwar period. Birmingham declared the most extensive slum clearance programmes and built more council houses than any other city. The city council,

Table 3.1: Distribution of housing stock by tenure (1914–38)



Local authorities

Private landlords and others












Source: Power (1987, p 26)

(p.51) once the bastion of an ambivalent ‘shopocracy’, revelled in the breadth and scale of its own ambition. A sort of ‘housing mania’ overtook the city.

The 1919 Survey of Housing Need proposed 20,000 new homes every year for 20 years to accommodate the steadily growing population, then just below one million, often still crowded into surviving back-to-backs. The city sought to build new homes in spacious planned estates generously provided with parks and amenities, to be coordinated by a new Housing and Estates Department. In spite of these ambitions, by 1922, only 2,000 houses had been built, less than 700 a year, one thirtieth of the target number.

Conscious of the depth of the housing problem and spurred on by the imperative to build within the ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ plan, the council scrapped the Housing and Estates Department and replaced it with the Public Works and Town Planning Committee. The new committee was given a simple instruction: build, build, build, with or without government subsidy. From that point on, the city council embarked on a spectacular municipal building programme that would last up to 1939. The city’s 30,000th council house was opened with fanfare by Arthur Greenwood, Minister of Health, in July 1930. Greenwood was the driver of the first mass national slum clearance programme of the 1930s and pushed through cheap, flatted, subsidised council estates as the ultimate model of urban recovery. The abolition of general subsidies for higher quality council housing in 1933 had the immediate effect of doubling the annual building rate in the city, from just under 4,000 units over the three years between 1931 and 1934 to almost 8,000 a year between 1935 and 1938. The 40,000th new home was opened by the city’s famous son, Neville Chamberlain, by then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1933 and the 50,000th was opened in 193939. Birmingham became the exemplary builder.

In practice, in the city, flats were less common than houses and, as far as anyone knew, a less popular choice. A ‘colony’ of 300 flats and maisonettes was built in the Balsall Heath area, but an inquiry by Birmingham’s Public Works, Town Planning and Estates Committee reiterated the commonly held view that houses not flats were the natural and expected dwelling for working families. This did not mean that estates of houses were well designed or provided for.

The city maximised the number of homes it produced by constructing homes in uniform patterns, without wasting resources on amenities. A survey in 1936 revealed that only one in five estates had a community hall; many lacked schools, churches, libraries and, to the disgust of the city’s working men, pubs. There were few green spaces either. Such a hectic rate of construction left little time or energy for the consideration of estate management, welfare needs or wider city activity – work, education and leisure.

The ‘Birmingham model’ of housing management was described at the 1938 National Housing Conference as one in which “the collection of rents is divorced from the welfare work and a section of women home visitors is wholly employed in investigating and assisting cases of the unenlightened type”40. The crucial tasks of helping tenants to find their feet and establish a community in the new estates (p.52) were irrelevant to the main task of building, fit for women, but not the job of powerful engineers engaged in the big task of knocking slums down and rebuilding them. Cities did not require careful piecing together; they were simply ‘Lego sets’.

The location of the new estates in Birmingham, as in other cities, precipitated mass demographic movements within the city. To absorb those displaced by demolition, many of the new estates were built in the outlying districts that had been incorporated into Birmingham in 1911. By the 1930s, the population had breached the million mark. The inner and middle rings, however, both lost around a quarter of their populations as a result of outward flows and demolitions. Meanwhile, the population of the city’s outer ring almost doubled and by 1939 over half of Birmingham’s residents lived on the edges of the city, far away from jobs and the city’s commercial and cultural centre. Birmingham was beginning to follow the North American ‘doughnut’ model of growth, sprawling outward, abandoning the inner city to its fate. Outer council estates, however, were clearly demarcated from private suburbs41.

The city celebrated the national acclaim that followed the building of so many houses. Even so, it was the victim of its previous complacency and of a mistaken anti-city focus, for problems within the city were far from over. A 1936 report on overcrowding in the city found that there remained nearly 40,000 back-to-backs, 15,000 houses without an inside water supply and 50,000 houses without an indoor toilet. More radical action was needed.

Herbert Manzoni, the new and highly respected city engineer and surveyor, unveiled a new plan for building 25,000 dwellings over the following five years, of which 15,000 would be flats or maisonettes. The Redevelopment Plan he devised for Eccleston and Nechells in the eastern part of the city, covering 267 acres at a cost of £6 million, was the largest and most far-reaching clearance plan ever. As Chinn observes, “the era of redevelopment and high rise flats was at hand, although it was to be postponed for ten years by the Second World War”42. After the Second World War, Birmingham, the producer of the most famous cars and engines in the world, cradle of Chamberlain’s path-breaking ideas of urban management, a city of a thousand trades, was to become the city of the bulldozer, of ugly, unpopular high-rise estates and urban motorways.

Gloomy cities

Freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them. (William Beveridge, founder of the British welfare state)43

The outstanding contribution of late Victorian cities to magnificent public buildings and parks, vastly improved housing and sanitary conditions for the urban majority, alongside radical improvements in basic urban services – clean water, drains, lighting, paving and refuse collection – all paved the way for a (p.53) vastly better 20th century. Workplace reforms, expanding education, recognition of the rights of women, albeit on a limited basis, and shrinking family size all carried through from their 19th-century beginnings to an avant-garde interwar society that largely disregarded cities. Social reforms led to generally rising standards but the interwar era was a gloomy one for cities. Most of the improvements and innovation happened outside the city heartland in millions of suburban semis spreading in dull lines into the country. It was nothing to do with cities per se; rather it caused their depletion.

Progress was represented by the massive outward flow of people. Cities within their restricted 19th-century boundaries lost people and power – inner London halved in population, while the bigger city expanded into something much more amorphous and unplanned. So it was with Birmingham, Manchester and all our major cities. There was little positive focus on core cities and their significance to the economy and society, other than to clear slums and build estates. The diversion of virtually all financial resources and human energy to building homes anew and clearing away the old distracted local authorities from their core civic tasks.

While trains had galvanised the interconnections between dense centres of cities in the 19th century, in the 20th century urban centres were increasingly overtaken by roads, and buses, which acted as powerful channels out from cities. Birmingham and its Black Country hinterland epitomised this shift, which derived its power and wealth in this century above all from the manufacture of the car and the building of suburbs. Asa Briggs strikingly attributes this 20th-century decline of great Victorian urban achievements to the arrival of the motor car, the liberator and enslaver of people but the curse of cities:

The automobile by contrast [with railways] scattered the cities, pushing them further and further away from their mid-Victorian centres to new suburbs … and in the process caused large tracts of country-side to become neither truly urban nor truly rural.44

Our Northern European counterparts in contrast retained their compact urban form throughout the 20th century, and consolidated their existing dense street patterns, conserving their multiple functions. They opted into cities, possibly because their urban, industrial era came later and more slowly, was more modern and less harmful. In sharp contrast, we largely rejected our dense urban form, which terraced housing, model dwellings and some model villages offered in their heyday45. Our imposing city centres, such as Birmingham’s Corporation Street, Newcastle’s Grainger Town and Manchester’s St Anne’s Square, had unrivalled grace and luckily they survived, even as they decayed. Our inner suburbs of Victorian semi-detached houses and villas were so spacious they could be subdivided into attractive multistorey flats, and on the whole they were spared too. Indeed most terraces survived too, although eventually nearly three million disappeared. So the form was not lost, but the focus was.

(p.54) Tragically we opted for a model of town planning that was largely anti-urban; we destroyed many lower-value townscapes through over-hasty demolition and years of blight, ignoring the obvious repair and modernising potential of solid but aging homes; and we filtered better-off families out into mono-form private estates, while shunting poorer families into mono-tenure council dormitory estates. Dull thinking, a consequence maybe of the interwar dip in growth after 150 years of rapid and intense expansion, made cities drearier, less attractive places.

The loss of urban focus, squandering the best of our Victorian legacy, made interwar housing achievements, huge as they were on some measures, a liability. For cities no longer fitted together like the jigsaw we described at the beginning. They were more like scattered, broken and battered shadows of their real selves. The big picture was lost in a confusion of anti-urban sentiments. The interwar period brought dramatic changes in government housing and urban policies, which continued to be played out long after the Second World War was over. They included the drive for quantity of units over quality of life; large-scale, subsidy-driven demolition and rebuilding in estates; the neglect of social and community needs; ignorance and neglect of urban management; tight rent control leading to starvation of reinvestment and inner-city decay; the loss of older residential communities; and the creation of sprawling suburbs. The role of the state itself expanded from legislator and regulator to commissioner, organiser, deliverer and landlord.

This anti-urban process was coupled with a disastrous economic depression. The Great Depression of the 1930s led to three million workless families on the dole, a penal level of assistance to eligible families, mostly still living in the old slums, but some literally starving in new cottage estates. So desperate were discarded workers on the Tyne that marchers set off from the mining area of Jarrow to London in a desperate protest on behalf of their hungry families. Cities and industrial towns were no longer thriving economically and the tense buildup to the Second World War began to divert scarce resources into armaments rather than peacetime programmes.

Disjointed thinking about the future of cities was engulfed by the Second World War, with events that were to change our urban world all over again. We entered the war with suburbs competing strongly with cities, slum problems still unsolved, core cities in steep decline and an extremely doubtful future. At this point our cities were far less important than our survival, and the war itself inspired a totally new crusading idea of the city – we would try and build a ‘New Jerusalem’ in the wake of its devastation. But instead of filling in the missing pieces of our existing urban jigsaw, we would continue the outward exodus.