The big push – it’s time for a full-on housing offensive
In this special centenary blog, communications consultant and 20th century military history enthusiast Ian Hembrow FCIH focuses on some hard-won lessons for contemporary housing policy from the First World War.
In a few weeks, shortly after our future in Europe is decided, we’ll mark the centenary of one of our nation’s darkest days – one that’s shaped UK housing policy ever since.
Saturday 1 July 1916 was the first day of the Battle of the Somme in northern France. Conceived as ‘the big push’ to break the static stalemate of trench warfare, the campaign had achieved little movement in the front lines by the time it petered out in November, at the horrific price of more than a million casualties on all sides.
On the first day alone, 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed. Think about it: that’s like the entire population of a decent-sized modern place like Truro or Tewkesbury being wiped out overnight.
The shocking scale and concentration of these terrible losses were a major factor in forging the post-war government’s commitment to ‘homes fit for heroes’. The 1919 Housing Act introduced subsidies to build 500,000 houses within three years, and made housing for working people a national responsibility, delivered by local councils.
We’ve marched around and advanced in lots of different directions since then, of course, but this was how the model that’s shaped so much of our subsequent housing history started. And while all this was happening, members of the CIH’s forerunner, the Association of Women Housing Workers, were busy laying the foundations of a new profession.
Thankfully, there are welcome signs that after decades of indifference, the mood of the country is once again returning to this sense of housing as a top priority, with a crucial role to play in promoting our common interest.
The High Command in government has woken up to the imperative to do something radically different, and they’ve started to issue orders. But like their red-and-braid top brass equivalents far behind the action a century ago, they’re finding that communications are patchy and that the resources needed to secure a decisive breakthrough aren’t in the right place.
It feels like a recipe for history repeating itself: slow, limited advances, with frequent setbacks due to ill-advised decisions and tactics. But all is not yet lost – if we can resist the temptation to defensively dig in, and instead summon the spirit and materiel to launch a full-on, frontal supply attack.
If we really want to honour the memories and achievements of those who gave so much a century ago – on the battlefield, in Parliament, in council chambers and on early housing estates – we need a massive, determined and decisive push in 2016 and beyond.
This campaign to uphold our predecessors’ legacy demands the same sort of single-minded political resolve, some willingness to accept sacrifices and a few drops of the raw courage to make things better that fuelled the vision for decent, affordable housing in 1916. And it needs similar, pioneering innovation and technology to break with outdated methods, so we can find new and better ways of reaching our objectives at far lower cost.
It’s a current-day cause worth fighting for.