Building Homes Fit For Heroes

Today’s guest blog comes from Cllr Paul Smith, cabinet lead for housing.

paul smith

Council housing has shaped Bristol, literally. After two World Wars, the city expanded to house a growing population relocating from the slums. The last expansion of the city boundary was to bring in the new estates being built in Hartcliffe and Withywood in Bristol.

Bristol’s first council housing was built in 1905 in St Werburghs, however at that time Bristol Corporation was a reluctant developer of homes. It took a World War and national government instruction to force its hand. In May 1918 the council bought private land in Hillfields, Sea Mills, Knowle and Horfield to build whole estates for when the war ended.

In 1919 the Housing, Town Planning Act was enacted, which set the financial systems in place (and the compulsion) for councils to build homes at scale. Promoted by the Secretary of State for Health Dr Addison it later became known as the Addison Act. It is this law which we are celebrating this year. The council housing then was built at the highest standards, in both quality of build and size. It was also more expensive to rent than the Victorian slums it was to replace so it housed the wealthier working class families.

Over the following decades, council housing was a battleground for the differing ideologies of Conservative and Labour governments. The big issues were quality versus numbers and, housing for everyone versus a priority for the poorest and most vulnerable. In the 1980s, the right to buy option changed the face of council housing in Bristol again. Prior to the 1980 Housing Act which brought in the discounts, Bristolians could buy their council house, for the full market value and with a council guarantee of a replacement. However since the right to buy policy we have seen the number of council owned homes fall by over 20,000. From a third of all Bristol homes at its peak, council housing now makes up only 13.5%. An increasing proportion of those homes sold are now private rented homes with rents 2 or 3 times the level of council rent.

This anniversary is particularly fitting as Bristol has started to build council housing at scale again. Reflecting the earlier ambition, the stock built is hoped to be among the best housing in the city. In this year we will also be consulting on how council housing is allocated to look at whether we can both eradicate homelessness and be able to offer social housing to a broader range of people on low incomes.

What shape will this celebration take? On 4th June 1919, Dr Addison helped plant a tree in Sea Mills, so 100 years later we will be inviting the community to celebrate the birthday of that magnificent Addison oak tree. Then later the same day we will plant a new sapling on our new council estate in Ashton in south Bristol. There will be three new books: a history of council housing in the city, guided walks around some of our estates and one of essays written by people who have grown up in council housing, sharing what it meant to them. The Festival of the Future City programme in October will have a day focussed on issues around the history and future of council housing. The Architecture Centre’s very popular annual event Doors Open Day will also highlight council housing. On three of the estates Hillfields, Sea Mills and Knowle local history projects are already starting. Libraries are also being supported to produce local displays and Bristol Archives is are currently being trawled for relevant information and documents.

This centenary is a great opportunity to discuss what sort of city we want and to increase our understanding of how the housing crisis developed. We are very grateful to Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England in their support for this important celebration. You can follow the latest developments using the hashtag #HomesForHeroes100 on social media and the Festival of Ideas Facebook page.

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