It certainly wasn’t all perfect, but between 1935-1941 one million council houses were built, a tax-funded system of benefits for the poor, sick and disabled was set up and the NHS was established as a pioneering project in nationalised healthcare. By 1979 (with Margaret Thatcher in number 10) 42% of the population were living in council-owned homes, but more often than not these were badly designed, poorly constructed and in sore need of attention.
Lynsey Hanley’s book Estates: An intimate history explores how politics and policies have shaped our attitudes to social housing over the last 70 years and asks the question: when so many people today will happily rely on the state for health care and education, why has the social housing project been such a failure?
Finishing this book last night,on the eve of election day, reminded me again why it is that I’m voting Labour. There’s no point wading deep into the metrics of inequality here when so many have done it before. We all know that the housing crisis is one of the biggest dilemmas facing whichever government is in power. House prices are skyrocketing as homelessness is increasing. Right now there are over a million people on the waiting list for a council or housing association home, but the government aren’t building homes: they’re letting private developers do it and flogging the lot on the international market to investors.
A lot has happened between 1945 and 2017, but with the country heading to the polling booths today, it’s hard not to draw parallels between then and now. Austerity measures, climate change, the housing crisis, Brexit and the recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester has many people, myself included, feeling worried and uncertain about both our own security and the future of Britain (and the world) generally. The wave of populism that has seen Jeremy Corbyn exceed expectations during the campaign means that the polls are showing a tantalising diminished Tory lead. Like how the actions of the government in the mid 20th century are still shaping our society now, Brexit and the decisions made when it comes to housing need and the NHS could shape the economy and society for generations.
Finding ourselves at this crossroads, it almost seems too dangerous to hope that once again the public might take a leap of faith, but whilst the future is being decided it’s nice to revel in it for a little while.