100 years of social housing: Islington Council lauds its 'beautiful' new council homes on anniversary of landmark 'Addison Act'
PUBLISHED: 08:26 31 July 2019
To mark the centenary of the 1919 Housing Act, which paved the way for the widespread roll-out of social homes, Islington's housing chief took us on a tour of flats being built on the Redbrick Estate, outlining what he says is the council's vision for the future of the sector. Lucas Cumiskey wore a hard hat (on the hottest day of the year)
Islington Council wants to "recreate the vision" of legendary Spa Green architect Berthold Lubetkin by building hundreds of "beautiful" council houses - 100 years after a landmark social housing act was signed.
A century has passed since Liberal health and housing minister Dr Christopher Addison, who later joined Labour and served under Clement Attlee, signed the 1919 Housing Act.
The "Addison Act", which stemmed from a desire to give soldiers returning from the First World War somewhere decent to live, pledged to build 500,000 homes over three years.
Only 213,000 homes were delivered as the economy buckled to depression and deflation in the 1920s, but this act is nonetheless regarded as the birth of low-cost council housing.
To mark this anniversary, Islington Council took the Gazette on a tour of the Redbrick Estate, in Old Street, where it's building a slightly more modest tally of 55 council homes due for completion in February.
Reflecting on the centenary of the Addison Act, Islington's housing chief Cllr Diarmaid Ward, clad in a hard hat and high-vis jacket as the mercury surged over 30C, said: "Council housing has transformed the lives of so many generations of families over the years, and it's a symbol of what has been achieved.
"It's all about political will. In Islington we have got that political will and the testimony is what you can see around the Redbrick Estate.
"We are building 550 homes between now and 2022, and it's all about transforming the lives of families in desperate need. If you have a suitable home, everything else falls into place.
"I have been housing lead [for Islington] since 2016. In that time we've had six housing ministers - that doesn't strike me as a government taking housing seriously. A housing minister should actually want to do the job."
The Addison Act, which was aided by government subsidies, handed local authorities the power to build council homes - and Cllr Ward is now calling on Johnson's Tory administration to "cut red tape" around building council houses and reform Right to Buy (RTB) rules. He argues this is the only way Islington Council can build enough homes to accommodate the 14,000 people on its housing waiting list.
Under the draconian Thatcher-era rules, councils only get 75 per cent of the money from RTB sales - and these receipts can finance no more than 30pc of a new housing development. Councils are also unable to combine RTB receipts with grants, and have a three-year window to spend them before the government takes the money. They also can't control how many houses they sell.
Cllr Ward added: "Council housing has never been subsidised in any meaningful way. And council housing, overall, pays for itself, so this idea that somehow council homes are a subsidy is not true.
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"It is the infrastructure London needs to thrive. If you want a thriving London economy, people need somewhere affordable to live."
Every new flat in the Redbrick Estate will have a balcony or access to outside space as per Islington's planning policies, and landscaped communal areas, newly planted trees and amenities such as (yet to be announced) retail units are included in the design to offset the inconvenience of noisy works to existing neighbours.
Reflecting on the difference just one new flat can make, Cllr Ward said: "The record so far is eight moves - because of one local let flat, suddenly you have eight families in the right size properties. It's called the chain of lettings."
The workers guiding the Gazette around the building site, and Jed Young, director of new build at Islington Council, said they were using high-quality and aesthetically pleasing bricks, flooring and other material to create desirable homes and make the community proud of its estate.
Cllr Ward added: "Lubetkin, who built the Spa Green Estate [and the Finsbury Health Centre], said: 'Nothing is too good for ordinary people.'
"We want to recreate that vision. In those days, the biggest architect department in the world was the Greater London Council.
"We want to build high-quality homes local people actually want to live in.
"In my view our developments look a lot better than most private developments about London.
"We want future generations to want to be proud of what Islington Council did in 2019."
During his cabinet cull on Wednesday last week, Boris Johnson picked Robert Jenrick to succeed James Brokenshire as secretary of state for housing, communities and local government - but what does Cllr Ward make of the appointment?
"The first thing I will say is I have never heard of him," he said.
"It's all very well Johnson wanted to set up a cabinet of all his allies, but If it's someone who knows nothing about housing it's no good for anybody."
Cllr Ward is equally unimpressed with Mr Jenrick's new understudy as housing minister, Esther McVey. He added: "I'm now going to launch a campaign: how long will it take Esther McVey to utter the words 'council housing'? I think at least a month. I'm not asking for much."
Cllr Ward ran a similar lobbing effort when Sajid Javid, now chancellor, had Mr Jerick's job. This 66-day Twitter campaign was about the housing and planning act, which sought to force local authorities to sell high value council homes that became vacant, for instance when someone died, to fund an extension of right to buy to housing association tenants.
This has been "kicked into the long grass".