housing

   Housing in Britain has increasingly been dominated by one type, the owner-occupied, single-family dwelling in a suburb, in marked contrast to practice elsewhere in Europe. It is not however the only form of British housing, and emphasizing it masks the fact that housing has, for most of the twentieth century, been an extremely contentious issue and has been subject to huge and frequent shifts of taste and public policy. For example, between 1945 and 1969, 59 percent of housing construction in Britain was public, a figure rarely matched in the then communist countries of Eastern Europe. The picture has changed radically since 1979, but the story of housing since the Second World War is in many ways the story of public housing, and responses to it. Although the bulk of public housing (nearly twothirds) built since the war was of a traditional form, that is a type of cottage, either terraced or semidetached, the building form that has come to symbolize the reconstruction most is the modern tower block. It is also the form that had the greatest impact on existing street patterns, and the visual appearance of British towns and cities. Among the first examples built by the state were the Roehampton estate, designed by the then London County Council (LCC) in 1951, and the form of this estate established a pattern that would be followed elsewhere. The site was wooded, with some variation of level; the slim twelve-storey point blocks were arranged in groups, in a picturesque manner. They had balconies, and maximized the use of light and space; the land they occupied was open and available for public use. The pattern of multi-storey blocks in parkland was established here. By the mid-1950s however, mainstream Modern Movement thinking, which had informed the production of LCC architects, was under pressure from a tendency generally known as the new brutalism. Its best-known adherents, Alison and Peter Smithson, argued for a re-evaluation of earlier built forms, and in particular they showed an interest in established forms of working-class housing. Their research resulted in designs for ‘deck-access’ blocks, in which layered ‘streets in the sky’ would aim to recreate in a modern form the sense of community found in working-class terraced housing. The pattern was evidenced in the Smithsons’ own work at (for example) Robin Hood Lane, Tower Hamlets (begun 1968); the gigantic Park Hill complex in Sheffield also followed their example.
   But if the new brutalism had led to a reassessment of LCC practice, outside of London the high point block was the most characteristic symbol of reconstruction, and designs from the early 1950s were the most common form in the larger cities such as Birmingham, Salford, and (spectacularly) Glasgow. In these cities, housing production was led by local politicians, such as David Gibson, and the quality of the buildings themselves was of secondary importance compared to their speed of production. The extraordinary cityscape on the outskirts of Glasgow is testament to the drive of local politicians.
   If high point blocks were the most prominent housing type in the major provincial cities, a 1968 gas explosion at Ronan Point in the East End of London, causing its partial collapse and four deaths, was in many respects the downfall of the type, and the building of multi-storey blocks—of whichever type—declined sharply thereafter. In their place came a variety of alternatives. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Manchester built massive developments on the deck-access theme, most of which have since been demolished. In London there were various 1970s experiments on the theme of low-rise high density, in which features of more traditional forms of housing, such as individual enclosed gardens, made a return.
   Since the 1960s, the major changes in housing have been political rather than formal. The Conservative government elected in 1979 carried out its promise of allowing council tenants to buy their own homes; shortly after, local government was forbidden from building any more public housing. The provision of low-cost accommodation has increasingly become the business of private housing associations such as the Guinness Trust or the North British Housing Association. Such organizations, using a mixture of private and public funding, have come to be the major institutional presence in many British inner cities, taking over the roles previously assumed by local government. With a few exceptions, however, the form of their building projects has been conventional, in marked contrast with the state housing projects they replaced. Elsewhere in the inner cities, there have been many developments of high-income private housing since the late 1980s. The trend has been particularly marked in London, with areas close to the City most subject to redevelopment; elsewhere, there has been comparable development in areas such as Glasgow’s Merchant City, Manchester’s Whitworth Street corridor, Liverpool’s Concert Square and Birmingham’s Brindleyplace. In many cases, former warehouse or office buildings have been converted, sometimes to New York-style ‘lofts’, and where new building has taken place, it has often aped the style of these older buildings. Retail and leisure developments have frequently been a part of such schemes. The visibility, and commercial success, of inner city private developments does not however indicate a decline in the popularity of traditional forms of suburban housing. The overall numbers of professional people living in city centres remains small, and the vast majority of the new housing has been built for single people, not families. While the inner cities might have been the site of major change, the overall pattern since the 1960s has been one of continuing suburbanization, with resultant pressures on areas designated as green belt. Whatever new developments, both private and public, there have been in the 1990s, ‘housing’ for most of the population continues to signify a single family dwelling in a suburb.
   Further reading
    Glendinning, M. and Muthesius, S. (1994) Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.
   RICHARD J. WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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