Blog Post

Labour’s housing promise must invoke the spirit of 1945

Recent statements by both Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy about the need for more housebuilding, especially more council housing, together with a commitment to offer new protections for those in rented accommodation is, on the face of it, encouraging  news.  However, we await with interest the detail on Labour’s housing plans, notably how a future Labour government intend to reform the planning regime, which Labour says is necessary to facilitate its future housing programme. 

The next Labour government will inherit a housing crisis of mammoth proportions. The number of households living in inadequate and temporary accommodation is rising exponentially, whilst rough sleeping numbers continue to increase. Thirteen years of Conservative inaction and neglect on housing, particularly the gross under-provision of affordable and social housing has left Britain facing a housing crisis comparable to that of 1945. A future Labour government must be bold on housing in both quantitative and qualitative terms. A major housebuilding programme will not only provide the much-needed homes for families and individuals, it will also contribute significantly to Labour’s plans to grow the economy.  

The parallels with 1945 are substantial. The post-war Attlee government was not only bequeathed a housing crisis, it inherited an economy in almost total meltdown. Indeed, in 1945 the economist John Maynard Keynes described Britain’s economic plight as a ‘financial Dunkirk.’ Despite this, the 1945-1951 Labour government built over 1.2 million new homes including more than one million council houses. Nonetheless, the housing record of the post-war Labour government is not without its critics, with some housing specialists and historians describing it as both an underachievement and a welfare state failure. In my essay published in Labour History Review (April 2022) Labour History Review Volume 87 (2022), Issue 1 – Society for the Study of Labour History ( I challenge this notion and argue that Labour’s post-war housing record, if assessed on the basis of both the quantity and the quality of the houses constructed, in addition to the political ideology that underpinned the housing programme, far from being one of underachievement and failure, was one of radical and progressive achievement. 

The housing promise, contained in Labour’s manifesto for the 1945 general election, Let Us Face the Future, was bigger on rhetoric than it was on specifics. However, an analysis of the relevant documents of the period, reveals that Labour’s housing ethos was based on four broadly defined policy areas: quantitative performance; affordability; qualitative performance; and planning and control of land use. As we have seen, when Labour left office in October 1951, it had presided over the construction of more than 1.2 million new permanent dwellings. In addition, a further 490,000 units of accommodation of various types had also been provided, including more than 157,000 temporary prefabricated bungalows.  Moreover, the Labour government, in an attempt to make council housing more affordable, introduced a generous housing subsidy that increased the money value of the Exchequer contribution from a ratio of 2:1 to 3:1 payable over 60 rather than 40 years, easing the financial burden on local councils. The subsidy was seen also as an incentive to local councils to boost quantitative output.

Although the post-war Labour government’s priority was focused mainly on housing in the public sector, it nonetheless introduced legislation to protect tenants in the private sector. Such measures included the introduction of rent control on new houses built for private let. Such houses had been exempted from rent control during the period 1919 to 1939. Tenants of furnished properties were afforded protection by the introduction of rent tribunals. In addition, rent tribunals could extend the security of a tenant’s lease on a rented property and review payments made by the tenant to the landlord in respect of accommodation, furniture, and other items. The rent tribunals were given powers to recover excess payments, by way of a reduction in rent.  The Attlee government acted robustly to afford protection to tenants renting in the private sector.

The post-war Labour government set about ensuring that housing standards, particularly in terms of space, facilities and equipment were implemented in the new permanent dwellings built by councils across the country. Crucially, the provision of high qualitative housing standards provided a vehicle by which the health and wellbeing of tenants could be enhanced. Labour took its lead from the seminal report Design of Dwellings (more commonly known as the Dudley Report), that in 1944 recommended much improved housing standards in houses built post-war by local authorities. A standard three-bedroom house built in 1948 was typically one-third larger than its 1930s equivalent. Such houses contained two toilets, which was at the time considered a great luxury. High standards were guaranteed by way of the application of tight control over housing plans by the regional offices of the Ministry of Health and by attaching conditions to the approval of housing subsidy from the national Exchequer. 

The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was arguably one of the most radical pieces of legislation affecting housing. The passing of the 1947 Act fulfilled Labour’s manifesto commitment to implement a full programme of land planning and the pledge that housing should be dealt with in relation to good town planning, including pleasant surroundings, green spaces, and attractive layout. This more strategic approach to planning offered support to the concept of neighbourhood planning including improved housing and community standards.  The statute was ideologically radical in that it vested the control of land use in public hands.  The 1947 Act became the foundation of modern town and country planning in Britain, and together with the New Towns Act 1946 created a system of land use control and a machinery for positive town construction. The creation of new towns facilitated by the 1946 Act not only provided a further vehicle for the building of public sector housing for rent, it enabled the creation of more heterogeneous communities. In this respect planning, as a means to enhance and shape society was crucial to the success of Labour’s housing programme.

The ideology of the welfare state, epitomised in its defining features of the malleability of society, economic intervention by the state, universal provision and the health and wellbeing of citizens, were inherently present across all four major areas of Labour’s housing policy aims: quantity, quality, affordability and planning and the control of land use.  Ideologically, the post-war Labour government could and perhaps should have gone further by, for example, bringing the private rented sector under public control. Labour seriously considered such a course in 1948, but most probably rejected the proposal not on ideological grounds but on grounds of financial economy. However, Labour did legislate to make council housing ‘universally’ available for general needs by way of the Housing Act 1949. The 1949 Act was ground-breaking in that it removed the stipulation that council housing should be designated as working-class housing, a provision that had featured, in various forms, in every previous housing statute enabling the provision of housing by public authorities. 

Labour’s housing promise at the next election must invoke the spirit of 1945 by committing to a housing programme of significant proportions in terms of quantity and quality, underpinned by a progressive planning regime and a housing ideology dedicated to helping those in the greatest housing need.

Dr John Temple is a retired housing professional, specialising in community investment initiatives and tenant involvement. He served as a Labour councillor between 1981 and 2004 and was Deputy Leader of South Tyneside Council from 1997 to 2004. He received his PhD from the University of Sunderland for his assessment of Labour’s housing record, 1945 to 1951.

Blog Post

Building the New Jerusalem – How Attlee’s Government built 1 Million New Homes

Everyone knows that Clement Attlee’s 1945-1951 Labour Governments created the NHS, brought the coal mines and railways in to public ownership and gave India and Pakistan independence. But one of Attlee’s lesser celebrated achievements was building one million new homes at a time when building materials were in short supply and when the construction labour force was reduced to a third of its pre-war size.

From a slow start in 1945 -1947, new housing completions averaged around 200,000 a year for the next four years from 1948 -1951. By 1951, a total of 1,016,349 new homes were built, of which 806,857 were new Council houses. On top of that, 156,623 ‘prefabs’ were built, many of which provided decent and much-loved homes for many years to come. In addition, hundreds of thousands of existing homes were repaired and converted in the six years after the war.

Michael Foot rightly claims, “This achievement was no small one in the first years after the war when the country was also engaged in a big factory-building programme. It far surpassed anything achieved in Britain after 1918 or in most countries after 1945”.

However, despite the heroic efforts of Aneurin Bevan and his colleagues, more could have been achieved had Labour stuck to its Manifesto commitment and created a separate Ministry of Housing and Town Planning. Attlee gave Bevan the job of ‘slaying’ two of Beveridge’s ‘five giants’ – Squalor (caused by poor housing) and Disease (caused by inadequate health care provision). As Nick Thomas-Symonds argues:

“Having the same Cabinet minister responsible for both the creation of the NHS and housing the nation after the destruction of the Second World War was more than overload. It left Bevan to deal with the intricacies of both sides of his department when either half in itself would have been too much for a single minister.”

Should the housing building programme have been led by a ‘National Housing Corporation’, as Douglas Jay had recommended in the first few months of the Government, rather than by the local authorities, many of which had little experience of building new homes at scale.

Certainly, a national organisation with regional offices would have made planning, direction and control easier, but it could also have taken some time to establish. By harnessing the experience of the big city housing departments in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, which had been building new out-of-town estates for over a decade and more, Bevan was able to combine real expertise with local knowledge.

The downside was that outside the big cities, experience was strictly limited with many local councils simply unable to move quickly. Overall, perhaps a key factor in this debate is that, six years later, Harold Macmillan was able to build 300,000 houses a year based on the same local authority ‘delivery system’ established by Bevan.

Should Labour have been more pragmatic and built more homes at lower standards, as Macmillan did during the 1950s? The average new three-bedroom Council house increased in size, from 860 square feet in the pre-war period, to 1,026 square feet in 1946, to 1,055 square feet in 1949, falling back to 1,032 square feet in 1951 and down to 947 square feet in 1952.

By 1959, the average size of a three-bedroom Council house had fallen to 897 square feet. Bevan was surely correct to increase space standards, remaking famously in Margate on 22nd May 1947, “We shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build. We shall be judged in ten years’ time by the type of houses we build”.

There is little doubt that the new, larger Council houses built in the years immediately following the Second World War were some of the best ever built and have stood the test of time. In 1950, the first four blocks completed on the Churchill Gardens estate in Pimlico won Festival of Britain Architectural Awards. It wasn’t just the architectural critics who praised the flats. In 1962, tenants in the ‘posh’ private flats in Dolphin Square next door opposed a rent rise arguing, that “many of the flats are not as nice as those put up by the Council in Churchill Gardens opposite”.

Other post-war estates were similarly feted. In 1998, English Heritage listed the Spa Green estate in Finsbury as Grade II*. The Survey of London describes the Spa Green Estate as ‘heroic’. Nikolaus Pevsner called it ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time.

Perhaps where Labour’s lofty ambitions most obviously failed was in the goal to create new communities where the ‘spirit of companionship’ would flourish and “wartime sentiments of social solidarity and shared purpose could be maintained and strengthened in the post-war world”. Aneurin Bevan harked back to the time where “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street”.

Similarly, Lewis Silkin’s ambition that class distinctions would fade away in the New Towns was never achieved. He hoped that “different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated” and that after attending a town centre event, “When they leave to go home I do not want to see the better-off people to go to the right and the less well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other, ‘Are you going my way?’”.

There can be no denying Labour’s fundamental achievement to meet the aspiration of very many working class families to live in high quality affordable housing – which the Conservatives followed with great success over the next 13 years. The lives of so many working class families – who had been ignored by every previous Government – were transformed for the better.

As the historian Kenneth Morgan so clearly concludes:

“The rehousing of several million people in new or renovated houses, at a time of extreme social and economic dislocation, was a considerable achievement. Housing, therefore, deserves its honoured role in the saga of Labour’s welfare state.”

His book, ‘Building the New Jerusalem: How Attlee’s Government Built 1 Million New Homes’, is available in paperback and Kindle

All royalties will be donated to Foodbanks in Westminster.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Paul Dimoldenberg</span></strong>
Paul Dimoldenberg

Paul Dimoldenberg was first elected to Westminster City Council in 1982. He was Leader of the Labour Opposition Group from 1987-1990 and from 2004-2015.

He is the author of ‘The Westminster Whistleblowers’, published by Politicos in 2006, which tells the story of the Westminster ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal of the 1980s and 1990s. He also has recently published Cheer Churchill. Vote Labour.