Noble attempts were made to set a new standard for social housing after the first world war.
To mark the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, prime minister David Cameron has urged people to darken their houses and place a single candle at their front door.
Personally, I think we have other well-established, moving and resonant ways to mark the sacrifices of 1914-18 without adding another.
But while the lights are on I might take a look around my house. As a ‘hero home’ it was the result of a brief post-Great War attempt to reflect the ‘gratitude’ voiced by solicitor-turned-prime minister David Lloyd George as the Armistice was announced.
The years 1919-1921 saw an attempt to set a new standard in social housing and its planning, as our legislators set about to make ‘Homes fit for heroes’ a reality.
This attempt was based on the report of a committee, set up in 1917 by Lloyd George, tasked with considering the methods and standards applied to working-class housing in a post-Great War housing programme.
Much planning law as we know it was established in part as a reaction against the laissez faire errors of the 1930s – but the committee’s report was at one level a short-lived attempt to head off the problems of poorly regulated growth.
The committee’s chair was Liberal MP Sir John Tudor Walters. Tudor Walters was also chair of the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, and the committee’s report, delivered a few weeks before the Armistice, sought to make the planning principles of the garden city movement the general experience of urban development, protected by statute.
What was demanded was clearly laid-out streets, sunny living rooms, and no ramshackle rear projections.
Tudor Walters specified: ‘Two-storied cottages, built in groups of four or six, with medium or low-pitched roofs and little exterior decoration, set amongst gardens, trees… and… have such a distinct character that it is hard to mistake them for anything else.’
The Local Government Board adopted nearly all the committee’s recommendations in its 1919 Housing Manual, underpinned by the Housing, Town Planning Act of the same year. The act included proposals to make preparation of town planning schemes compulsory for any town with a population over 20,000.
For a while the standards on space and quality set out in the report held up for local authority houses – though not for the speculative housing developments put up by private developers. (The latter tended to take these houses’ key features, and some of their style, and shrink them.)
The momentum behind this approach to housing came from the raw and recent experience of human sacrifice in the Great War.
It was an immediacy used by Lloyd George, Tudor Walters – and notably Dr Christopher Addison. Addison was a radical Liberal MP and wartime minister of reconstruction. As health minister after the war, he drove forward the 1919 act, known in local government and planning circles as ‘the Addison Act’.
That momentum was used to set high standards, and to accompany the ‘Homes fit for heroes’ scheme with generous subsidies. By 1921, it looked expensive and prescriptive to the Conservative majority in Lloyd George’s government. The scheme was dropped, and Addison was dismissed.
More modest subsidies returned in 1923 when Neville Chamberlain was minister for health. Ramsay MacDonald’s first government further increased these a year later. But nothing further matched the well-funded, well-planned ambition for housing that the near-memory of the Great War produced for that short period.
Instead, housing for heroes (and non-heroes) grew at an accelerating rate into the 1930s as private and local authority developments met housing needs that were ill-supported by the accompanying infrastructure – the private developments supported by the democratisation of mortgage lending.
As a reaction to the shortcomings of that growth came protection of the greenbelt, and a range of planning laws that look altogether more familiar to solicitors who deal with planning and property law.
In Britain, we still live in the shadow of the Great War and its monuments – for solicitors the walls of Law Society’s main public room, the reading room, included.
In the relatively few streets of hero homes that were built to the Tudor Walters model it is possible to see how more of Britain might have looked if the Great War shadow had crept over more of our housing.
And with the government reviving the idea of ‘Garden Cities’ earlier this year, you might be interested enough to take a walk down some of the streets built with the garden city in mind.
If so, I’ll leave the lights on so you can take a better look.
(I gratefully acknowledge information for this article drawn from Stephen Ward’s book Planning and Urban Change, Sage, 2004.)
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor