Policy Papers

Social housing and tenant participation

Peter Shapely |

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Executive Summary

  • The government has announced that building social housing is again at the centre of future policy.
  • Social (largely council) housing was a central part of social policy throughout the twentieth century up to the 1980s.
  • Local authorities, with central government legislation and finance, were responsible for huge building and slum clearance programmes.
  • Planners, architects, builders and government officials approved a range of solutions, including out-of-town estates, new towns, overspill estates, system-built designs and improvement schemes.
  • Policy was dominated by a top-down approach. It was influenced by professional and political ideologies, civic pride, financial restrictions and geographical barriers.
  • There was a lack of tenant consultation and participation. From the late-1960s, there was increasing tenant dissatisfaction as small groups across the country protested, and trust between tenants and local authorities eroded.
  • Tenant actions paralleled wider social changes which included an increased awareness of consumer rights and market choices.
  • The benefits of a policy which encourages 'inclusion' and choice were highlighted with the rebuilding of Hulme in Manchester in the 1990s.
  • It is important that the Hulme approach does not get hijacked by externally-imposed political timetables, professional or financial interests.
  • Equally, it is essential that the ambitious new target of a much-increased scale of house building announced by the government does not fall into the trap of previous administrations, but develops a strategy based on local consultation and participation.


The history of social housing for much of the twentieth century was shaped by politicians and professionals as they attempted to grapple with what seemed at times an overwhelming and massively expensive problem. Although there is merit in much of what was attempted, many mistakes were made. One of the underlying problems which led to some of the mistakes, especially after the Second World War, was the failure to ask tenants themselves about fundamental issues such as the design and location of new homes. Choice was never on the agenda. As the shifting social and political climate increasingly emphasized welfare and consumer rights, and as the new tower blocks and maisonettes built in the 1960s proved unpopular, tenant dissatisfaction began to increase. Now, the issue of social housing is again being moved to the centre of social policy. In July 2007, the new Prime Minister announced the government's plans for a fresh Housing Bill. He stated that 'putting affordable housing within the reach not just of the few but the many is vital'. Recognizing the importance of housing policy for much of the twentieth century, he pointed out that 'in two eras of the last century - the inter-war years and the 1950s onwards - Britain made new house building a national priority', and that from now through to 2020 the Government intended to support the building of a total of 3 million new homes. This would eventually mean creating an annual house-building target of 240,000 new homes a year. The announcement followed an independent review, commissioned by the Government and produced by Professor John Hills, The Ends and Means: The Future Roles of Social Housing in England, which, amongst other issues, called for greater attention to be given to the social-housing stock and for greater variety to be offered to future and existing tenants. The Report called for a change from an approach which simply established who was eligible for social housing to one which provided a series of options.

Hills' point about 'options' raises an important issue about housing policy and tenants. This article will look at the impact of housing policies in the twentieth century and will focus on the problem of tenant consultation and participation. Earlier policy was characterized by a top-down approach. It was created by politicians and professionals with no meaningful reference to the tenant. Even when the idea of participation and consultation became widely accepted as a way forward in the 1980s, schemes faltered. However, the City Challenge in the early 1990s, which led to a largely successful re-building of areas such as the notorious Hulme district of Manchester, has highlighted the possible benefits of a rigorous process of local consultation and participation. Future housing policies should not ignore these lessons and should seek out and absorb the opinions and aspirations of the 'consumer'- the tenant- before making the detailed policy decisions on sites, built forms and associated services.

Liberal and Labour over-ambition, 1920-1950

Under Margaret Thatcher, the role of local authorities changed from producer to enabler. The responsibility for low-cost affordable rented homes increasingly shifted towards the growing housing associations and other non-profit making organizations such as housing co-operatives. However, for most of the twentieth century the responsibility for the majority of social-housing projects lay with central government and local authorities. From the inter-war period until the 1980s, social housing effectively meant local-authority built, owned and managed housing. Along with the health service, housing was a central part of social policy and political thinking. From 1890, local authorities were given greater powers to clear slums and replace or refurbish existing homes. London County Council took an early lead in developing new estates, but it was in 1919 with the Liberal government's Housing and Town Planning Act that the local authorities began the first sustained drive to build low-cost subsidized housing. Christopher Addison's famous 'Homes for Heroes' programme was meant to provide quality houses for the working classes; for the returning soldiers who were told they had been fighting for a better future. The subsequent history of that Act provided important lessons which went unheeded with future housing acts and which, given the current Prime Minister's promise to increase completion rates to 240,000, should now give pause for thought. The 1920s showed that governments needed to be wary of making assurances they could not keep. Guaranteeing to build houses on an unprecedented scale was good for short-term popularity, but failure to meet high targets proved an electoral liability. Ambitious housing policies, which rely on large government subsidies, can be subject to economic fluctuations. The Addison Act soon ran into trouble. The target of 500,000 houses to be built in three years proved totally unrealistic.

Ultimately, less than half were completed and in 1923, with the Conservatives in power, it was replaced by Neville Chamberlain's Housing Act. This reduced the subsidies and placed greater emphasis on the private sector, though, in turn, it was also replaced in 1924 by the first Labour government's Wheatley Act. Subsidized general-needs house building under these latter Acts did manage to create an estimated 580,000 new homes by 1935, but it did not resolve the problem of increased demand. Neither did it answer the bigger problem of slum clearance. General-needs housing on new estates, often miles away from traditional town centres, were largely designed for the working classes, but the overwhelming problem of the slums remained virtually untouched before the 1930s. Greenwood's 1930 Housing Act was designed to address the problem. However, economic problems again had an adverse impact on clearance and replacement rates. Although an estimated 245,000 houses had been cleared by 1939, it was estimated that at least 472,000 slum houses were still in urgent need of demolition.

The whole process of building council homes and clearing the slums was driven by the desperate need to resolve a problem which had blighted Britain's urban areas since early Victorian times. Local authorities adopted an approach which paralleled the philanthropists' relationship with their recipients. Up to the 1960s, Britain remained a largely hierarchical society. People in charge 'knew best', whether they were politicians, social reformers or professionals. While there were many influences across the century at both the local and national level, from Howard, Unwin and the Garden City Movement to Le Corbusier and the Modern Movement, none of this envisaged meaningful consultation with tenants. Policy creation was dominated by a top-down approach. Social surveys carried out during the inter-war period suggested that although tenants wanted new homes, many were reluctant to leave their communities where they felt secure amidst the established family and neighbourhood networks and where they could easily walk to work. Moving people to new estates involved the destruction of existing communities, created a sense of dislocation and isolation as well as placing greater pressure on the family budget because of increased travel costs.

Nevertheless, although it was a painful process, subsequent surveys also suggested that most tenants eventually settled into life in their new homes. Tenants may have had little choice, but the fact remained that they were moved into far superior houses and, although there was no consultation, people preferred the dominant cottage design which was adopted by most local authorities. Moreover, they were no longer subjected to the exploitative private landlord. Social or council housing offered higher standards and basic rights. Trust between tenants and the local authorities, therefore, remained strong. Tenant passivity was understandable, and acceptable, while society remained hierarchical and while tenants believed in the promise of a better future. After the Second World War, the creation of the welfare state seemed to confirm that under government direction life would eventually improve for all members of society. However, governments and local authorities struggled to fulfill the vision of a New Jerusalem. There were numerous problems. Besides the legacy of the nineteenth-century slums, many cities had suffered considerable bomb damage. There were also labour and material shortages, as well as an impending economic crisis. Again a postwar reconstructionist government set unrealistically high targets which they then failed to meet. More successful was the more modest Conservative promise in 1951 to build 300,000 houses a year, with, again, greater emphasis on the private sector.

Conservative inferior provision, 1950-1970

Both post-war Labour and Conservative governments introduced a more radical approach based on developing New Towns and overspill estates. These were seen as the best way to shift thousands of tenants out of the slums. Both ideas were an extension of the out-county estates and Garden satellite towns of the inter-war period. Local authorities were faced with the problem of lack of available land and the high cost of land within existing borders. People had to be moved out to clear the slums. This was a Fordist approach, with large-scale developments seemingly offering a long-term solution to the inner-city slums. Cities like Manchester and Glasgow, frustrated as they were by the lack of suitable and available land within their own borders and the fact that they had become hemmed-in by the growth of the surrounding conurbation, built a series of estates outside their existing borders. It was not a simple process. Receiving authorities around the cities often resisted new plans, while many municipal local authorities such as Liverpool were reluctant to embark on what they viewed as a substantial loss of population (and rates).

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Conservative government was pressing local authorities to increase the pace of slum clearance. Government, professionals and commercial enterprises now drove the changes. Under Keith Joseph, the subsidy system was altered to encourage councils to adopt new system-built developments, including tower blocks, maisonettes and multi-deck access flats. These seemed to offer quick, efficient and cost-effective solutions to chronic inner-city decay. However, they embodied an even more non-consultative form of accommodation. While the new homes of the inter-war period were built without direct consultation, they were at least the type of housing to which most people aspired. Tower blocks were not welcomed by tenants. Initially, many local authorities were also decidedly cool to the new concrete developments. While some areas such as Liverpool and London had a long tradition of building blocks of flats, others continued to express a preference for cottage-style houses. However, the pressure to replace the slums and to use the new system-built designs meant few authorities could afford to ignore the modern solutions. Tenants were told what the new vision would mean to their lives: an end to overcrowding, decaying, insect-infested houses and lack of open spaces. Despite the resistance and skepticism of many local authorities, and despite the fact that surveys showed tenants had no particular desire to live in flats, it became impossible for councils in major urban areas to resist. The pressure came from the desire to clear the slums. Besides, designers and construction companies proved effective at selling their new modern dream. During 1955-1975, an estimated 440,000 flats were built, 90 per cent in urban districts, with the majority of tenants coming from slum-clearance areas.

However, in several areas the new dream rapidly deteriorated into a dreadful reality. Although the construction of many tower blocks and other system-built developments has proven to be reasonably solid, it also became apparent from a very early stage that several key projects were riddled with a number of serious, expensive and dangerous faults. Poor designs, inadequate materials and inferior construction blighted many buildings across the country. A catalogue of mistakes emerged from the mid-1960s and continued to haunt local authorities for over twenty years. The concrete was often of a poor standard, walls too thin, chemicals employed which eroded the steel, materials used which were unsuitable for the British climate and floor-to-wall connections were often substandard. The Inquiry into the Ronan Point disaster in Newham, in which an explosion destroyed 22 flats and killed four people only two months after its completion, blamed a series of design faults. This was only the start of a long list of expensive problems. Many developments, such as the Hulme Crescents in Manchester, became intolerable and inappropriate for families. Poor design, damp and insect infestations were made all the worse because of vandalism, crime and an inability of local authorities to carry out basic repairs.

Tenant action and tenant participation

From the late-1960s, a few tenants, who had largely trusted their councils to get on with the job of building a better Britain for all, began to show signs of increasing dissatisfaction and anger. Their opinions had never been sought in any meaningful way, but with the increasing disappointment of the new developments coupled with a series of proposed rent increases and, from 1968, with the possibility of securing grants for modernizing existing properties, some tenants began to voice their sense of frustration, either spontaneously or in small organized groups. Tenant dissatisfaction was not of course, an entirely new phenomenon. The 1891 London dock strike had been supported by a rent strike in the East End, while Glasgow had a history of tenant action and organization dating over eighty years. Similarly, in Leeds residents had formed a Tenants' Defence League to fight landlord exploitation in 1913 and 1914. Later, in 1934, the Labour council's radical rebate system in Leeds had led to a further rent strike. In the late-1930s there had been a series of campaigns by unemployed worker's organizations against high rents and evictions. After the war, tenant associations had been created on new estates and new towns across the country. This had led to the creation of the National Association of Tenants and Residents in 1948. Further rent increases in the 1950s, led to tenant action across the country. The United Tenants Association, for example, was formed in St. Pancras to fight the Conservative council's differential rent scheme.

Despite these examples of early activity, before the late-1960s tenant action was the exception rather than the norm. Post-war reconstruction plans were never effectively questioned or challenged. This began to change from the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s with the rise of consumer rights, the promises of welfarism and with people more ready and willing to question decisions made in their name. These changes paralleled an increase in tenant action across the country. In Sheffield, at least 23 tenant groups were formed to protest about everything from the lack of recreation facilities to changes to rent rebate schemes. Proposed rent rises were the biggest point of contention. There were a number of bitter rent strikes in London, Glasgow, Sheffield and Liverpool. Opposition to the rent-rebate scheme in Sheffield dominated council politics from 1967 to the early-1970s. Thousands of tenants joined the campaign, forcing the council to amend its scheme and leading to the retirement of many old council members.

By the late-1960s, residents in some clearance areas became organized in a bid to influence wider housing policy. In Sheffield, for example, plans for the redevelopment of Walkley led to the creation of the Walkley Action Group, which demanded partial rebuilding and improvement. Similar groups, such as the Manchester and Salford Housing Action group, offered well-organized and professional umbrella organizations to help residents fight the local authorities to secure resources for improvement and to prevent clearance. Although these groups could boast some notable achievements, they were not all successful. In the Beckton district of Newham in 1968, alarmed residents under threat of being re-housed in new high-rise flats joined together to form a petition against the proposals. They organized a fighting committee and a series of meetings and demonstrations. The council, however, refused to have any dealings with the committee. Tenants had no choice. They did not have any of the 'options' indicated in Professor Hills' recent report. This is what created so much of the underlying frustration. Tenants knew where they wanted to reside and the type of homes in which they would like to live, but they were ignored. Again, the scale of the problem facing local authorities made consultation difficult, but this top-down approach was creating long-term problems. People were forced into homes they had no say in designing in areas with which they had no connection. Tenants were placed in areas according to the local authorities' criteria. If a tenant refused an offer, they could be placed at the bottom of the waiting list or made increasingly worse offers, which would eventually have to be accepted because of the threat of eviction from their condemned property. They could even be taken off the list. For families who did not qualify for immediate re-housing under a clearance scheme, the situation was even worse. People dealt directly with the housing departments and councillors, but they were lone figures and, as such, unable to organize and act. Power lay with the council.

This authority was undermined by the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s. Poor policies, management and maintenance records damaged public confidence in the council. Tenants had never participated in the decision-making process, but had to live with the consequences. The shifting political climate meant that protests were being heard from various groups, some of which belonged to the political left or centre, some of which belonged to the right (especially those demanding the right-to-buy in the early 1970s), and many of which were not interested in traditional politics but simply wanted a decent home and service. A few local authorities recognized that this was not necessarily an ideological issue and were much more aware of the possible benefits of developing participation schemes. From the late-1960s and early-1970s, some housing departments in London showed a genuine interest in developing tenant-participation schemes. Research carried out by Anne Richardson in the mid-1970s led to the publication of a government-backed handbook on tenant participation in council-housing management. The handbook, Getting Tenants Involved, was designed to promote tenant-participation schemes across the country and, consequently, improve the quality of service. Richardson recognised that participation schemes provided a vital bridge between the council and tenant, allowing local authorities to gauge and absorb tenant opinions. Some local authorities experimented with schemes by holding discussion meetings, including tenants on advisory committees or giving them a place on the housing committees. It was a slow and fragmented process across the country. By 1975, a total of 46 local authorities had at least one tenant-participation scheme, including 70.6 per cent of all London boroughs but only 27.8 per cent of metropolitan councils. Only 11 schemes had existed prior to 1970.

Still, many local authorities continued to resist developing any schemes or, at best, merely paid lip service to the ideal of participation. However, throughout the 1980s, the political climate continued to change. A moratorium on council-house construction effectively marked the end of large-scale local-authority house building. Responsibility for social housing was shifted to other non-profit-making organizations such as housing associations. Increased tenant rights were protected as central-government legislation and finance often demanded greater levels of consultation. The value and benefits of extensive consultation and participation were highlighted in the 1990s with the City Challenge. In 1991, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, unveiled the scheme which would guarantee £7.5 million a year for five years, given to ten local authorities with the purpose of regenerating a run-down inner-city area. Fifteen cities had to compete with each other for the money.

The redevelopment of Hulme in Manchester

One of the most successful applications was for the regeneration of Hulme in Manchester. Fundamental to this new approach was the idea of creating partnerships between central and local government, private investors, construction companies, housing associations and tenants. The council no longer produced the houses but was responsible for enabling the process to work effectively between a range of agencies. Forging effective partnerships was not without its difficulties. However, there was too much to lose on all sides. Besides the government funding of £7.5 million, private-sector investment in Hulme by the end of the initial period was £81.5m and expected to exceed £200m by the end of the decade.

Central to the idea of forging partnerships was a commitment to extensive tenant consultation and participation. It was part of the government's belief in empowering the consumer as an individual capable of making informed choices. Tenant responses were themselves problematic but tenant participation emerged to become a successful part of the project. The council came to recognize participation as vital in giving residents a feeling of ownership, providing the whole project with a much greater chance of success. Participation took a number of forms, including house design, housing management, schools, shops, open spaces, and planning other facilities. Public meetings, weekly design workshops and newsletters kept residents engaged. The Housing Associations promoted tenant involvement in the management of the new homes while the government developed self-help schemes, providing financial support for organizations such as the Priority Estates Project. A primary objective of the strategy was to make tenants feel responsible for the upkeep of their community. All sides had to be included if the scheme was to be a long-term success. Tenant choice was taken to a new and largely unprecedented level. Not only did they have a say in the design process, in choosing facilities and in managing properties, but tenants were even offered a choice of properties, who they wanted as neighbours and in which direction they would like their new homes to face. They were given up to £1,500 for new furnishings and helped with removal expenses. Whereas the redevelopment of Hulme in the 1960s had been planned in offices by professionals and politicians removed from the district, the new Hulme was designed in a far more public and local arena. The redevelopment of Hulme was intended to be more sensitive to residents' aspirations. Follow-up surveys carried out by the Independent Monitoring Project showed a high level of tenant satisfaction and a generally strong level of future commitment to stay in the area.

The City Challenge in Manchester has highlighted the basic precepts on which a new, more successful policy can emerge, playing to the strengths of a consumer-dominated society and politics. Partnership was now the key. Local government was at the centre of the process, but to ensure success it had to work with the private sector, housing associations and tenants. People participated in every part of the process, an approach which generally proved successful and which should not be ignored. It is a process which allows people to feel empowered, to be stakeholders, to be able to make the choices which impact on their lives and to which, subsequently they are more likely to feel both connected and responsible.


Whist social housing in the twentieth century had notable successes, there were also a series of failures and disappointments which need to be remembered. Although governments need to avoid proclaiming overly ambitious targets merely in the name of political expediency, more fundamental is the need to keep closely in mind the importance of a strategy of active participation with residents. It was the absence of this which was crucial to the problems that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. People were detached from the whole process of clearing the slums, breaking-up established communities, designing replacement homes and re-building the communities. During the inter-war period, governments were able to get away with a non-consultative approach. The process of building new homes and clearing the slums still drew criticism, but people wanted decent cottage-style homes. The process of planning and designing became even more remote in the 1960s because governments, architects and commercial companies imposed a very different vision in the form of factory-built solutions. However, at the same time a more sensitive and assertive welfare-rights and consumer-rights citizenry was emerging. This was highlighted in the 1980s with Thatcher's Right-to-Buy policy, which represented a partial political catch-up with this changed citizenry, but of course did not address problems of the nation's social housing stock. Any new Brown initiative of massive building to address this problem must avoid a top-down, centrally-driven programme and must respect the participatory rights of citizens. Though it was possible to get away with this in the 1920s, the reaction to the 1960s initiative shows that citizens now need to be consulted. The lessons from the City Challenge, at least in Hulme, underline that, although it is a difficult process, it is also one which carries its own long-term rewards. Government must emulate this recent model and not be tempted to try to do things more quickly. The prime lesson of recent history is that there is no short-cut around the need for patient, genuinely local consultation and participation where housing is concerned.

Further Reading

Dunleavy, P. The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain, 1945-1975: A Study of Corporate Power and Professional Influence in the Welfare State (Oxford 1981).

Finnimore, B. House from the Factory: System Building and the Welfare State (London, 1989).

Glendinning M. and Muthesius, S., Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (New Haven, 1994).

Hayes, N. Consensus and Controversy: City Politics in Nottingham, 1945-1966 (Liverpool, 1996).

Larkham P.J. and Nasr, J. eds., The Rebuilding of British Cities: Exploring the Post-Second World War Reconstruction, working paper series No.90 (Birmingham, 2004).

Ravetz, A. Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment (London, 2001).

Tiratsoo, N. Hasegawa, J. Mason T. and Matsumura, T. Urban Reconstruction in Coventry and Japan, Dreams, Plans and Realities (Luton 2002).

Towers, G. Shelter is Not Enough: Transforming Multi-Storey Housing (Bristol, 2000).

Young K. and Garside, P. Metropolitan London: Politics and Urban Change 1837-1981 (London, 1982).


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