The History of Affordable Housing In London

London is known as one of the least affordable cities in the world to live in, and getting access to the capital seems to have always come at a high price. In the days before social or council housing, options were severely limited to those who did not inherit property. But changing governments, as well as a couple of world wars, has shifted the focus of affordable housing back and forth between capitalist and socialist ideals throughout the decades.

Affordable housing in Victorian Britain

The onset of the industrial revolution caused a massive migration to larger cities, as people uprooted their families to cities like London in search of new factory-based jobs. In order to accommodate the influx, worker accommodation was hurriedly built by private companies and gave little thought or care to comfort, quality or safety. This was the birth of the classical slums of ‘Dickensian’ Britain.

Victorian London streets with terraces. Image source: Gustave Doré, 1872

These cramped quarters - still colloquially referred to as a “one up, one down” - would typically consist of just two rooms, with water coming from a communal pump and toilets located outdoors. However, these were not the worst conditions to live in at the turn of the century.

Workhouses were provided for those with no other option, seeming to many as hardly being a step above prison. Tenants were required to work 12-hour days to earn daily food and a serious social stigma surrounded living there, they reflected the Victorian notions of a ‘feckless and lazy poor’.

Workhouses were seen as a last resort for poor families during Victorian Britain.  Image source

Affordable housing post World War I

The end of World War I was the beginning of the age of private home ownership. While at the time as much as 80% of the population rented their homes from private landlords, it was a strong focus of then-prime minister David Lloyd George to turn Britain into a "land fit for heroes". In 1919 the government passed the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 (The Addison Act), providing subsidies for local authorities to build council houses.

The cost of constructing these new homes was shared between tenants, the Treasury, and local councils, revitalising entire boroughs of London such as the Essex towns of Barking, Ilford, and Dagenham in which nearly 30,000 new homes were built by the London County Council.

Despite the 1921 economic recession, the 1920s saw nearly half a million council houses built, alongside a further 500,000 built by the private sector.

World War II

The impact of World War II on UK housing was especially felt in London, decimating many urban areas while bringing house-building to a standstill. With money tight and construction materials in short supply, regeneration was particularly slow, but the joint health and housing minister at the time, Aneurin Bevan, insisted council homes be built to high standards.

Development of social housing all but stopped during the ravages of World War II. Image source

This lead to the inclusion of ‘prefab’ housing which was very easy to build and designed to be temporary, and some 150,000 homes were built in this fashion in order to alleviate the housing shortage. With one million new houses built between 1945 and 1955, as well as an on-going slum clearance, approximately 900,000 people were moved out of slums and into quality affordable housing.

There was an increased stigma with council housing, especially in inner-city tower blocks which were built in the 1960s, but by the 1970s and 1980s had become associated with high crime, vandalism and drug use.

The Thatcher Era

House prices rose and fell intermittently following the second world war, with the next major shift in council housing coming at the start of the reign of the UK’s most notorious prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The concept of offering tenants the right to buy their council homes was an idea originally rejected by the Conservative government but was pounced upon by Thatcher who made it the centrepiece of her political campaign. Those who took advantage of this offer saw the value of their property surge in one of Britain’s biggest housing bubbles, the Lawson boom. During this period house prices rose by 16% in 1987, and a further 25% in 1988

A bubble is - predictably - followed by a bust, and the housing bust of the 1990s left a record number of people with their homes repossessed and interest rates being raised to 15%.

The credit crunch of 2008

The turn of the century saw yet another property bubble, with the average house price more than doubling in less than a decade, from £100,00 in 2000 to £225,000 in 2007. In addition to selling council homes, there was a steep drop in the number of homes being built by local authorities.

The drop in social housing was, in a sense, taken up by private enterprise. Add to that the deregulation of the finance sector in previous decades, and record house prices were seen in London and the UK as a whole.

Previous housing price bubbles were corrected by recessions, but since 1993, house prices have continued to rise faster than inflation and real wages, leading to record-breaking disproportions in the ratio between house prices and earnings - particularly in hotspots such as the south and London.

London Affordable Housing Challenge

The Bee Breeders Affordable Housing Challenge series turns its attention to London, tasking participants with devising creative solutions to the complicated crisis in Britain’s capital in the London Affordable Housing Challenge.

The city’s property prices have increased at an exponential rate with no signs of stopping, making the act of buying a home a pipedream for all but the incredibly wealthy. As the latest in a series of architecture competitions inviting architecture enthusiasts from around the world to create solutions to the affordable housing crisis, Bee Breeders are searching for innovative and adaptable designs that could be incorporated into London’s iconic skyline.

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