Opinion Articles

After Grenfell, what can we learn from the housing policies of the 1970s?

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In addition to killing 79 people (the official toll at the time of writing), the disaster at Grenfell Tower in west London has displaced hundreds of former residents. The government pledged that all survivors would be re-housed locally, but the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea already struggles to find local accommodation for homeless families, despite the vast wealth of many of its residents and its own considerable resources. Housing inequality is one of the most salient political issues in London. For several years activists have argued that housing policy, welfare reform and estate regeneration schemes have displaced low income families from the inner boroughs to outer London and beyond. The Grenfell disaster has amplified calls for a new approach to the housing crisis. In the week after the tragedy, Jeremy Corbyn proposed that the state should requisition or compulsorily purchase empty luxury properties in the south of the Royal Borough to provide local accommodation for survivors. Although the Labour leader’s idea was swiftly rejected by the government, a YouGov poll conducted on 16 June found that 59% of British people supported the proposal. This suggests that, in certain circumstances at least, the public might countenance a more interventionist approach to housing policy.

The idea that the government might bring private property into public ownership to meet housing need certainly goes against the grain of housing policy since 1980. But a longer view of British history reveals that this principle is not an alien one. In the 1970s, local authorities purchased private residential property on a massive scale to expand the stock of social housing. In the two years to April 1976, councils and housing associations purchased 60,000 properties for this purpose. These houses and flats were modernised and let to families on the housing waiting list. The majority were bought by agreement, but councils also used compulsory purchase powers when landlords persistently refused to modernise their properties. Municipalisation, as it was known in that decade, was not simply the preserve of the radical left: it was carried out by councils under Labour and Conservative governments. In both 1974 general elections Labour advocated municipalisation under the moderate leadership of Harold Wilson.

London councils embraced municipalisation with particular vigour. Between 1973 and 1977, Islington Council alone purchased 4,000 private residential properties. This was partly a response to the intensity of the housing crisis in 1970s London. Homelessness, overcrowding and poor housing conditions were widespread problems. Tens of thousands of people were on the waiting list for council tenancy. As the public building programme struggled to keep up with demand, buying private residential property allowed councils to expand their housing stock rapidly.

In inner London, municipalisation was also a response to gentrification. From the 1960s, the social character of many inner London neighbourhoods began to change as middle-class professionals purchased nineteenth century properties for conversion into family homes. In the 1970s, community activists argued that gentrifiers were displacing working class residents, exacerbating the housing crisis and transforming entire neighbourhoods into wealthy enclaves. Activists lobbied local authorities to purchase properties in gentrifying areas to preserve the supply of low cost housing available to working class residents. These calls were heeded in Labour-run boroughs like Islington and Camden. In the politically charged atmosphere, some landlords were relieved to sell to the council.

If municipalisation allowed Labour councils to pose as the proud defenders of working-class communities, councils also pursued the policy for more hard-nosed reasons. While gentrification tended to reduce the population per acre, municipalisation allowed councils to maintain high residential densities in areas where building land was scarce. A large Georgian house that might otherwise have been occupied by a professional couple could be converted by the council into three self-contained flats. As the pressure to pare back public spending intensified over the 1970s, modernising older properties became an attractive, cost-effective alternative to wholesale redevelopment. The collapse of the early 1970s property bubble in 1973 made municipalisation more affordable.

Municipalisation was exceedingly popular among local residents. It gave private tenants the opportunity to remain in inner London with a council tenancy in modernised property. Families on the housing waiting list benefited from the thousands of new flats and houses which were made available. The policy helped to maintain a degree of social and ethnic mix in inner London neighbourhoods that at one time looked as though they might be wholly gentrified. As a result of the policy, Londoners from varied backgrounds lived, quite literally, side-by-side. London historian and former Chief Executive of the London Borough of Hackney Jerry White argued that the combination of housing tenures on a single street ‘proved a more dynamic, adaptive and tolerant environment than the council estate.’

The municipalisation drive petered out in the 1980s as property prices began to rise again and councils were required to cut back their housing programmes. Today, most local authorities do not have the financial resources to purchase private residential property on a large scale. In London, the massive real terms increase in the cost of property would make a municipalisation programme more expensive than it was in the 1970s. Recent housing legislation, which requires councils to sell high value council housing to fund an extension of the Right to Buy, threatens the legacy of the 1970s municipalisation policy. Meanwhile, the spiralling cost of London housing is eroding the social diversity of inner London.

However, in the aftermath of the 2017 General Election campaign and the Grenfell disaster, there are signs that the 35-year consensus on housing policy is fracturing and space for new ideas is emerging. The high cost of housing and the insecurity of private tenancies make social housing a hugely attractive proposition, especially in London. The 2017 Labour Party manifesto promised to loosen controls on council borrowing to enable the construction of 100,000 social homes a year. Despite the high cost of property, the low cost of borrowing could make purchasing residential property a viable option for councils. Municipalisation could, once again, become a policy option for local authorities.

Indeed, the Grenfell disaster has already prompted local authorities in London to consider the potential of private property as a source of social housing. On 21 June, the government announced that about 250 Grenfell survivors will be re-housed as social tenants in 68 flats of a luxury development in South Kensington purchased by the City of London Corporation. As the range of politically acceptable housing policy options begins to widen, this could mark the rediscovery of historic approaches to providing low cost housing and maintaining social diversity in major cities.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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