Radio 4 series tells story of social housing in Britain

UK social housingThe history of social housing in Britain is being revealed in a new ten-part series by Radio 4.

Broadcast every weekday over this week and next, Streets Apart: A History of Social Housing sees academic and cultural commentator Lynsey Hanley examine the idea of Victorian-era model villages and explore how the Right to Buy policy changed council housing forever.

The first instalment couldn’t be more timely as Lynsey explores what the Grenfell Tower disaster means for both social housing and us as a society.

Lynsey argues Grenfell represents the culmination of the long story of how we have sought to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged in society through housing.

She talks to the Labour MP David Lammy about his upbringing. He tells her how social housing was once desirable, something people aspired to. But was the original dream of good quality housing for the poorer members of our society flawed from the beginning? Lynsey asks why we don’t have decent housing for all, avoiding the stigma of paternalism and segregation by income and status. Did an original flawed plan create a marginalised class of people set away in isolated estates?

Yesterday’s episode saw Lynsey visit the first ever council housing in Liverpool.

In 1842, Friedrich Engels went to work in his father’s Salford mill. Shocked by the poverty he saw, he penned his observations in The Condition of the Working Class in England. For Engels, bad housing was the poor’s unifying characteristic: “Every great city has one or more slums, where the working class is crowded together.” Ever since, his identification of a direct link between poor housing and poverty has guided social reform.

Those ideas found their first expression not far away from Salford, in Liverpool, where the Saint Martin’s Cottages - commonly thought of as the first municipal housing in the world - addressed the problems of Irish migrants fleeing the potato famine and living in appalling conditions in Liverpool’s cholera-ridden slums. Eldon Grove was an example of later social housing in Liverpool - once beautiful, it now lies derelict.

Lynsey Hanley visits the Saint Martin’s Cottages and Eldon Grove. She reflects on the fact that early ideas about council housing were aimed specifically at the skilled working class. This started a trend, which lasted right up to the end of the Second World War, that council housing would be aimed at the better off and socially better regarded strata of the working class. This kind of thinking about housing was based more on a pragmatic belief that workers would be happier if they had better living conditions than any more utopian ideal about providing everyone with safe and stable environments to live in.

The rest of the series will be available shortly after broadcast.

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