'Lack of ambition to build homes on a big scale is striking.'
Governments have met the housing needs of the nation under much more challenging economic conditions than those we have today, says historian, writer and broadcaster David Olusoga in this exclusive comment piece.
TV loves houses. Two of the post popular history series of recent years have been about our homes. In 2012 BBC 2's Secret History of Our Streets explored how changing patterns of wealth, combined with lamentable post-war planning policies and, more latterly, the house price boom that had transformed six streets in London. Earlier this year came a series I presented, A House Through Time, which told the history of a single house in Liverpool through the people who had lived there from the 1840s to the present day.
On both occasions those of us who work in TV, on both sides of the camera, were astonished at the reaction. Both Secret History of Our Streets and A House Through Time did far better in viewing figure terms than might have been reasonably been expected and both won appreciative, sometimes glowing previews and reviews. A House Through Time retained a loyal audience who were willing to watch four hours of TV that involved neither celebrities nor exotic locations. Instead what they got was one house, over 180 years. A succession of simple human stories; the of ups and downs of family fortunes, tales of social climbing and lost wealth, comings and goings, life and death.
What was really striking about the response to the series was not just the scale of the audience, or the warmth of the reviews, but how emotional the reaction of the public was. Many of the letters and emails we received spoke of personal and familial connections to streets and districts of British cities, links that had been severed by the house price boom. Such letters described how the streets in which people had been brought-up had been pushed permanently far beyond their financial reach. Some of those who wrote-in talked of painful regret, of moves from one city to another that had suddenly and permanently been rendered irreversible. They described how families had been torn apart by the unprecedented and unexpectedly rapid rise in property prices.
What these letters and emails together demonstrated is that few subjects elicit more emotion than 'houses', and few issues are vexed and divisive than housing policy. What the success of these programmes about homes and housing perhaps also demonstrate is that the audiences of today are coming to understand that the housing crisis of today is merely the latest chapter in a longer British crisis.
For almost two centuries there has been some form of housing crisis in the UK. It's roots lie in the early 19th Century, when rapid urbanisation created elegant houses, like the one featured in A House Through Time, but also the slums that were the shame of successive generations of British politicians and the obsession of Victorian social reformers. In some ways Britain continues to pay the price for being first - the first industrial nation, the first majority urban country and thus to have to grapple with the social convulsions caused by such seismic social change.
The story of the 20th century, when it comes to housing, is the story of the nation attempting to deal with the problems inherited from the 19th-century. The first real political effort to clear the Victorian slums and provide Britain with housing stock that matched demand came after World War One when the Liberal government of David Lloyd George famously set out to build ‘Homes for Heroes’, through a vast programme to build social housing. That wave of construction was in part motivated by the conviction in government that poor housing was not just a social concern but a matter of national security. Mass war time recruitment had revealed hundreds of thousands of urban, working-class men to be of poor health, a consequence of inadequate nutrition but also of lives spent living in slum housing. As it was said at the time, referencing the grades used to define army physical fitness, 'you cannot expect to get an A1 population out of C3 homes'.
Despite huge levels of house building that was achieved between the wars when the Great Depression arrived the building programme was scaled back and the flow of new houses began to dwindle. History repeated itself after the Second World War when again a new government - this time Labour - sought to create a 'New Jerusalem'. What we tend to remember about that moment when the Welfare State was created is the formation of the NHS. But housing was another central plank of the post-war social revolution, with a vast building programme being embarked upon. Yet once again economic reality - in the shape of the financial crisis of 1947 - got in the way of optimistic, perhaps even utopian planning schemes.
What is arguably most striking about the current housing crisis is the lack of utopian thinking, the absence of grand projects for the creation for new towns or vast programmes of slum clearance. Twice, after two world wars, British governments that faced far more challenging economic conditions than those that have confronted the governments of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have harnessed state power and private energies in efforts to meet the housing demands of the nation. Somehow and for some reason our generations appear to lack comparable vision or a similar drive. We struggle, it seems, to imagine let alone set out to build a 21st century New Jerusalem.
- David Olusoga is speaking at TAI 2018, for more information and to view the full programme click here