Housing in Britain (in 1989)

Cities and homes

by Gwydion M. Williams

The major cause of homelessness is the perfectly normal and reasonable desire of ordinary people to live in slightly better homes. Peoples’ needs and desires exceed the actual supply of living space. People seek a room of their own instead of staying at home; a bedsit instead of a single room; a flat instead of a bedsit; a small house instead of a flat; a larger house where their children can each have a room of their own. None of these are unreasonable desires; people tend to look for a little bit more than their parents had. But the net result is a housing shortage.

Housing in Britain has always been allocated on a market basis. Council housing can moderate the effects of the market, but does not abolish it. If every council in the country were able to provide good basic accommodation for everyone who wanted it, there would still be a market mechanism to sort out who got the accommodation that was more than basic. As things are, the “needs” of people in the top and middle regions of the market produce a downward pressure. This can squeeze out some of the poorer people entirely.

Markets respond to the price that people are able to pay. This has something to do with needs, certainly. But the poor or unemployed have only so much money to spend, and most of it is spent on necessities anyway.

People with high incomes have a much greater freedom to spend more on securing the sort of housing they feel they need. If the price of housing goes up, they can cut down on holidays, entertainment, cars etc in order to meet that price.

Poorer people have much less they can cut down on. They cannot meet the market price, even though the alternative is homelessness or poor “bed and breakfast” accommodation.

The fall and rise of Inner London

London shows this pattern very well. The media have focused attention on Docklands, where groups of very rich people are displacing groups of much poorer people from an area that is, geographically speaking, quite desirable. This is an extreme example of the process.

In any case, the gap between the new and the old is not absolute. A large number of the rich Docklands people are themselves Eastenders by origin. In many ways, being a successful stockbroker is not so different from being a ‘successful trader on a market stall. The stock exchange itself originated as a street where share dealers met informally to trade. The two forms of trading have more in common than either would have with, say, working in a factory or being a clerical worker.

But the important things are happening outside Docklands. Over a great many years, there has been a flight from the centre towards the edges by the richer elements of the society. Better transport has enabled people to commute over very long distances. But there is nothing inherently wrong with the inner cities. Areas like Islington have quite easily bounced back. becoming desirable and expensive areas once again. Large parts of Hackney show the same pattern. In another decade or so, the run-down housing around Kings Cross may follow. And in time, some people will realise that all the despised high-rise blocks could be very nice if they were looked after and tended well.

How public housing was messed up

The problem with public housing is that, although it is supposed to meet public need, it was designed and selected by people who usually had no intention in living in the monstrosities that they created. The old terraced houses could have been improved and modernised; if necessary pairs of terraced houses could have been merged into decent-sized units. But the councils had their own priorities, which had little to do with what people actually wanted.

Since the time of H. G. Wells, if not before, reformers had been dreaming of cities built on what the planners regard as rational lines. Left to themselves, people will make for themselves some semblance of a home, distinct from other people’s homes. Left to themselves, or allowed to choose freely, they will opt for complex shapes and lots of detail at the human level of things.

A lot of “modernist” architecture goes back to Le Corbusier, who defined a house as “a machine for living”, in the same way as a car is a machine for driving, and an aeroplane is a machine for flying. He therefore designed housing that was fine for one particular way of life – basically the France of his day.

That some people might have good reasons for not wishing to live like Frenchmen was not an notion that would have occurred to him. And his various imitators have just picked up the ideas as a fashion, without bothering to think out what they actually meant.

A house is not “a machine for living”, any more than a rosebush is a machine for growing roses. Cities grow from small beginnings, and on occasions they grow very harmoniously. People want to live in homes, not machines.

A home of one’s own

The “modernist” type of city is in fact a very crude and simplistic idea. The geometries of a tower block are fairly simple – a series of cubes stacked on top of each other. A building like St Pauls Cathedral, say, includes a host of much subtler and more complex geometries. It comes closer to the intricate geometry of something like a tree.

It is only with recent advances like Fractals and Chaos Dynamics that geometry can come close to accurately describing a tree. Until then, it was not possible to prove that things like the average office block or the Barbican Centre in London had missed out on something quite essential. Many people felt that something was wrong, but they could not say quite what.

Look at the South Bank arts complex in London, and you’ll get the immediate feeling that it is wrong in some very basic way. In my view, the most important thing missing is interesting small details at sizes smaller than a couple of yards. It is also blatantly out of tune with the English climate. The concrete is now blemished with ugly stains, and pools of water collect in the useless and unusable “piazzas”.

Much the same is true of the Barbican – parts of which are now being demolished. Comparing the Barbican with some of the Roman walls and medieval churches that it now surrounds, one wonders just what the architects were thinking of. Perhaps it looked fine as a small sketch or as an architect’s model. But the fact is, the speculative builders of the 19th century, who made crude copies of upper-class houses, created something very much better than the highly-educated and highly trained architects of today.

Most of what the councils built were disasters. Even when they chose to build fairly conventional houses, they created vast and depressing “housing estates”, acres of housing without shops or pubs, and with nothing to distinguish one locality from another.

The great defect of most public housing is that the planners thought that they knew what people wanted better than the people themselves did. And that in fact they did not know better. People as they actually existed had needs that the new buildings simply didn’t meet.

Correcting the balance

Recently, there has been a swing back towards buildings that are more on the human scale. Some oddities like the Lloyds Building are still produced, based on an intricate architectural theory that has clearly incorporated some subtle but fatal misunderstanding of what a building should be. But there are also some rather better buildings going up. They have attractive brickwork, and recognise that flat-roofed buildings were developed for climates that are warmer and less rainy than the English one.

A much more basic problem remains, however. The south-east is getting ever more overcrowded, while other parts of the country have rather more room but too few jobs.

When modern computers and communications were first developed, there was a widespread belief that it would lead to decentralisation. It was no longer necessary for people to come together in a single place.

In fact, the very opposite happened.  It was equally possible for everything to be run from a single centre, using the new technology. And by and large this was the option that was chosen.

The exact reason for this is hard to discover. It may be due to the importance of personal contacts, face to face contact. A company with offices in London is well placed for contacts with politicians, civil servants, bankers and other companies that have offices in London. Or it may be cultural; London is seen as the really important place; the rest of the country is simply “the provinces”. In any case, there is a clear imbalance between London and the rest of the country.

Other countries avoid such extremes. West Germany [in 1989] works fine with Bonn as its capital, though it maintains the fiction that this is only temporary until Germany can be re-united. Russia has Moscow and Leningrad. The USA has Washington and New York, as well as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco etc. A similar pattern exists in Canada and Australia their capital Cities are relatively small. And the Japanese have been giving serious thought to moving their capital from Tokyo.

In the 19th century, wealth was created in the new industrial cities – especially the Liverpool-Manchester complex. There was even talk of shifting the capital away from London, and this would have made a certain amount of sense. (In terms of the whole British Isles, Manchester is central, not northern. It is quite a bit nearer to Lands’ End than to John O’Groats. By road, it is 188 miles from Cardiff, 197 miles from London, and 214 miles from Edinburgh.) But it failed to happen; Liverpool and Manchester have lost ground, while London has waxed ever stronger. Even the Manchester Guardian moved down south and became the Guardian.

There seems little point, this late in the day, thinking about trying to get the capital of Britain shifted away from London. There are more important political tasks, even if one accepted that the benefits would outweigh the costs. But a constant battle should be fought to prevent London becoming too bloated. Some Civil Service jobs have been moved out over recent years, but not enough.

It is absurd that a third London airport is being imposed on the south-east. The sensible alternative would be a big new international airport somewhere much further north. At present, most travellers from the north have to come to London in order to get to most other destinations.


In this article I’ve tried to cover aspects of the housing situation that have not been covered by other people in earlier articles. This article is intended more as a supplement than an alternative. I would certainly agree with Angela Clifford’s proposals for a Ministry of Housing and the rapid building of basic accommodation etc. (L&TUR 2). My worry is that solving London’s housing crisis, in the absence of other measures, would simply pull more people into London, and make other problems worse.


This article appeared in March 1989, in Issue 10 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  ‘Walter Cobb’ was a pen-name.

For more, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazine-001-to-010/.