As it’s the centenary of the Addison Act, it’s worth focusing once again on what housing conditions would be like if left entirely to the market and why properly funded council housing is essential if we are to ensure that everyone has somewhere decent, secure and affordable to call home. Each of these three terms is of course complex in itself, and meanings remain contested, but these are not new concerns. They were all issues that the Sanitary Inspectors – who saw themselves very much as key to housing reform – were debating a hundred years ago. We need to see the housing system as a whole and for its role in social justice: what happens in one part of it has effects elsewhere, it is also tied up with the wider economy, benefits and costs to wider services, most notably health and social care.

Going back a century we also have to be mindful not just of a list of events and statutes, but how values, beliefs and morals informed decision making at national and local level. We also need to be aware of the shift from Inspector of Nuisance (linking nuisance to disease) to Sanitary Inspector (perhaps in some ways a more technical role). The terms however overlapped, with regional variations and gender differences, and there were other related posts such as Tuberculosis Inspector. It’s also worth mentioning that the term Sanitary Inspector remained until 1957 when it was replaced with Public Health Inspector, by 1974 became Environmental Health Officer and the most recent manifestation in 1999 as Environmental Health Practitioner. Then as now the role is wide and varied, but housing conditions have always been a key area of work.

The Addison Act did not of course ‘invent’ council housing or planned living environments but sought to provide major planning and funding to something that was already happening locally, albeit sporadic. One problem faced by the Sanitary Inspectors was that whilst they had powers to deal with poor housing conditions in private ownership, they did not have anywhere to house those displaced by their interventions. Where was anyone displaced by a Sanitary Inspector’s actions supposed to go that was any better (decent, secure, affordable) than where they were? With so many on low incomes or living in chronic poverty, rent level was crucial. The health effects of poor overcrowded living accommodation were increasingly recognised by Sanitary Inspectors and Medical Officers of Health alike, but alternative housing proved largely out of reach. Better housing was also likely to mean more expensive rents.

What had happened around 1900 at the Boundary Estate (pictured) provides a background to the ongoing challenges to the Sanitary Inspectors in their work. Sarah Wise’s excellent 2009 book The Blackest Streets shows the same issues we are faced with today in redevelopment schemes: challenges around ownership, compensation and compulsory clearance; loss of livelihood; loss of community; and gentrification, with the poor relocated elsewhere. Wise’s book indicates that Just 11 of the 5719 evicted from the Nicol residents moved into new flats and 34% couldn’t have afforded a single room on the estate. The new estate may have been attractive and up to date, but it did nothing to improve the lives of those affected.

The Boundary estate is still lovely. Its art and crafts aesthetic and still provides home to many, but that issue of ‘gentrification’ remains when dealing with areas of poor housing and how we try to create better housing and wider living environments. It is sustainable in that it has provided homes for almost 120 years, has a good layout environmentally, access to workplaces, services and leisure activities; all things that are needed for a thriving community. But what its history does show is that we need policies able to support those on lower incomes to create thriving places and communities. There are many other examples of council housing also built prior to – and indeed during – the first world war.

Scrutiny of the Sanitary Inspector Journals during the first world war in the lead up to the Addison Act reveals great variation in the views of the Sanitary Inspectors, ranging from those proposing eugenics and containment as solutions, and judging ‘the dirty tenant’ in very negative terms, to those who believed that housing should be available and affordable to all. Some Sanitary Inspectors saw housing as being about property and morals and not an area for state interference, whilst others took a different perspective and showed the knock on effects to health and other areas of the economy if we did not invest adequately in housing. Overall the Sanitary Inspectors were in favour of both new cottages as well as flats to improve health.

They influence of some Sanitary Inspectors at local level was powerful and there is one lovely example of a 1916 visit to look at some new council housing in Devon. Originally named Council Gardens, it emerged that the street was then apparently re-named after Mr Siddalls, the Sanitary Inspector, becoming Siddalls Gardens and I have @MunicipalDreams and @manfrommaralea and to thank for helping to uncovering this. What an unexpected find!

The arguments put forward by the more enlightened Sanitary Inspectors must have been very attractive to Addison, who was after all a doctor. Many of the papers included in the journals even a century ago look at the evidence, how poor housing affects health and the need for cyclical hospital care if better housing were not provided. Addison was familiar with the Sanitary Inspectors work and features in their Journal during and after the war. Then President of the Local Government Board, Addison met with a delegation to discuss more about what could be done. They discussed financial assistance to cheapen and accelerate the clearance and improvement of insanitary areas together with a re-housing obligation, with the then Housing Bill in progress. Shortly afterwards, Dr Addison – by the First Minister of Health – said that “The Sanitary Inspector is a hard-working and little praised official, who carries out much of the unpleasant work in keeping up the general level of the health services”. Well, not much has changed there in 100 years.

We’ve already looked at some Addison houses, and of course he had set momentum in progress. Between the wars there was major activity in slum clearance and redevelopment as the social documentary Housing Problems 1935 illustrates. At this time, we saw the growth of suburbia and modernist informed design. A second world war put housing on hold once again, but post war council house building was immense. By the 1960s local authorities had immense powers to completely redevelop areas and provide new housing for those displaced. Whilst some of the new housing was a great success, other schemes were not, and some concrete tower blocks in particular have since been demolished, whilst others have receiving listing status and have now become very desirable, although tenure continues to shift. Whist some welcomed their new council housing, for others it has not been the promised dream and some communities never recovered from the major clearance and redevelopment processes. Over the years policy has come and gone but the legacy of the Right to Buy remains, with some much once council housing now let out in the private rental market. Surely no one can think this is strategically or cost effectively a good use of housing stock.

It does feel like there is sea change in the mood around council housing. The various Addison Act centenary celebrations have helped shine a light on this and I was honoured to present at one such event. It was also great that the conference provided walking tours of some of the Homes for Heroes estates, and I took the opportunity to attend Becontree (shown here in photo). Despite the pouring rain that day, it was impossible not the be impressed by the ‘can do’ attitude of creating this new place and see so much influence from many garden cities and suburbs (more on this another time). Recently we have seen architect George Clarke’s campaign to bring back council house building receive huge impetus and support. Creative events have been happening at local level to bring the subject of housing to life for all (more on this in another forthcoming post).

It is ironic that 100 years on from the Addison Act the modern-day Sanitary Inspector – the Environmental Health Practitioner – is still struggling with poor privately rented housing conditions, insecure tenancies and expensive rents and what to do to help about any tenants who risk being displaced.

As we have previously seen, poor living condition prove extremely costly on so many levels and that in itself is a reason to build more council housing. But it is also far more fundamental than that: people need somewhere decent, secure and affordable to live simply so that they can get on with all the other parts of their lives.



Thanks to CIEH for permission to use documents

Wise, S. (2009) The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, Vintage.