80 years ago, in the 1929 General Election, for the first time a Labour MP was elected in Swindon. Who was he and what was his connection to Council Housing?
Doing some research on the history of Council Housing, I recently discovered a Swindon connection of which I was unaware. The first Council housing estate built in Swindon was Pinehurst, in 1919. It was the result of the Housing and Town Planning Act which was introduced by the then coalition government to address the housing crisis. The British rulers were worried about the potential radicalisation of returning troops combining with the growing independent shop stewards movement which had emerged during the war. They were fearful of a British version of Bolshevism emerging.
A “land fit for heroes”, said Lloyd George, had to be built upon their return. The action taken, however, would not measure up to the rhetoric. Yet the government knew it had to do something about the housing situation. During the war they had been forced to introduce legislation against profiteering rent increases by slum landlords, which had produced a wave of rent strikes.1
The Housing Act provided funding to Councils to build housing for the working class in the face of masses of slum dwellings and over-crowding. In Scotland, probably the worst example, over half the population lived in two rooms or less. In such a situation, Government Minister Bonar Law said, “if we did not make every effort to improve the condition of the people, we would have a sullen, discontented and perhaps angry nation…”
What I was unaware of was the fact that the man who introduced the Housing and Town Planning Act was Christopher Addison, a medical doctor, who would become the first Labour MP elected in Swindon, in 1929. He had first been elected to parliament in 1910 for the constituency of Hoxton, as a Liberal. He held various posts in the wartime coalition government becoming President of the Local Government Board in January 1919, transforming it into the Ministry of Health. He was the first Health Minister.
An investigation into the housing situation was carried out for the government by one Tudor Walters. His report called for a more comprehensive method of addressing the housing situation than 19th century legislation which had generally been ‘permissive’; that is, it enabled councils to act to address housing problems, but it was up to them whether they did or not.
“It is quite evident to those who have examined the facts of the case that special remedies are needed to deal with the acute housing difficulties that have arisen…It seems evident from these circumstances that, unless there is some supreme guiding direction, an adequate housing programme is not likely to be carried out, but that the shortage of houses for some years after the war will increase rather than diminish.”
In other words the state had to intervene or the shortage would get worse.
Addison oversaw the introduction of the legislation, accepting the proposals of Tudor Walters, which set minimum standards, such as 760 sq ft, and gardens provided. Writer Peter Hennessy said: “If any man can be thought of as the father of the council house it’s the thoughtful medical man, one of the quietly influential people of twentieth century government…” Historian AJP Taylor wrote that “he, more than any other man, established the principle that housing was a social service, and later governments had to take up his task”.
The key thing about the legislation was that it broke with the voluntary nature of previous Acts. Councils were obliged to make an assessment of housing needs in their area, and to plan to address those needs. It required local authorities to supply homes for rent with financial support from central government, which would supply the majority of the money.
As a result, between 1919 and 1922 170,000 houses were built by Councils, the first ever mass building programme. The intention was to build 500,000 houses, but the programme was cut short by a change in government policy. Addison was moved aside by Lloyd George in 1921, apparently for the crime of spending too much on the house building programme. Lloyd George apologised to the House of Commons for not having removed him the year before!
It was decided in July 1921, wrote Addison, “to set aside these engagements and to restrict assistance in the building of houses to a number of substantially identical with that arranged for at the end of the month of March, and, worse still, to ignore the obligations which the State had assumed under the law passed in 1919, whereby assistance would be afforded in the replacement or improvement of insanitary dwellings for some years to come, and to substitute a grant in respect of all the unsatisfactory houses in Great Britain, which, as will appear is of so trifling a character that it will not not suffice even to make good the amount of deterioration that is progressively occurring.”
(“The Betrayal of the Slums.”)
Addison resigned from the government when the money available for the house building programme was cut and grant money for replacing insanitary houses for the whole country was reduced to a trifling £200,000. He considered this to be a betrayal of those who had fought in the war. To explain his resignation and to campaign for action to address the housing crisis he wrote a book, ‘Betrayal of the Slums’ (which can be read on the internet at: http://www.archive.org/stream/betrayalofslums00addirich#page/12/mode/2up)
In it Addison pointed to the fact that tax-payers in the UK had to pay annually 87 shillings and 7 pence for ‘war services’. In addition the cost of expenditure in Mesopotamia and Palestine which was 11 shillings 2 and a half pence per head. In contrast the amount of tax per head for replacement or improvement of poor homes was the princely sum of 1 and a half pence per head!
Addison records the statistics and the conditions which constituted the lives of millions of working people. In Glasgow for instance more than half of the population (around 470,000 people) lived in ‘homes’ of one or two rooms. For the whole of Scotland the figure was over 2,000,000.
The commitment made in the Addison Act was abandoned in 1922. Then the Chamberlain Act of 1923 ended subsidies for Council housing, providing them only for private builders or for houses for sale. However, this first phase of Council house building set a precedent.
When Addison was elected as MP for Swindon he was asked to be a member of the Ramsay Macdonald government, though he was not given responsibility for housing. One of the reforms that this government introduced was the Greenwood Act (named after Arthur Greenwood, with whom Addison had worked closely in the wartime coalition government) which provided funds for slum clearance and the building of new houses. This was the basis on which the second round of Council house building took place during the 1930’s.
Addison’s papers are in the Bodleian Library, including the material from the time when he was adopted as the candidate for Swindon. He lost the seat in 1931 – he stayed with the Labour Party rather than going with Ramsay Macdonald into the National Government – regaining it for a year in 1934. He would become a member of the Atlee government.
I’m hoping to have a look at his papers relating to Swindon in due course.
December 9th 2009
1In 1916 Swindon Labour & Trades Council (the precursor to Swindon TUC) did some campaigning in relation to rent rises which were in breach of the rent controls which the government had introduced. They hired Lemon and Co to take up some test cases; they won six of them. The Trades Council called on Swindon Council to send out a circular to residents drawing to their attention the government legislation, as had happened in Newcastle. The Council refused at first but eventually conceded.