The history of social housing in the UK goes back a fair way – last year the industry celebrated 100 years since the Addison Act. This Act saw the first use of public funding to build homes. 


The Addison Act of 1919 marked the first time government funding was used to build social housing. The Act aimed to build 500,000 new homes within 3 years. Architects at the time designed many of these homes with the family in mind, with large gardens. The main goal was to provide high quality homes in greenfield areas. Local councils began to compulsory purchase farms. This allowed one London council to build 25,000 houses between 1921 and 1935. The new homes provided over 100,000 people with gas, electricity, indoor toilets and fitted baths. Each home also had a front and rear garden. These houses set the standard, and had strict tenancy rules on maintenance, behaviour and pets.


As the housing shortage posed less of a problem, construction slowed. The government began to encourage slum clearances. The Housing Act of 1930 even allowed for the acquisition and demolition of privately owned homes. Most of these former slums were transformed into flats between 3 and 5 storeys high. The local authorities learnt from the cost of the early homes – cheaper alternatives were needed.

Councils started to use non-traditional building techniques. More affordable homes were also needed by poorer people. To solve this, councils reduced the size of these homes to offer lower rents. The 1000ft² 3 bed home of 1919 had shrunk to only 650ft² by the end of the 30s. Slum clearing was still the preference, and with the start of World War 2, steel and materials were redirected to the war effort. This meant construction ground to a halt.


Following the war, bombing had either damaged or demolished many inner city homes, making them unlivable. In England and Wales alone, 750,000 new homes were needed by the end of the war. With a shortage of materials and labour, the government relied on short term repairs, and ‘prefab’ homes. Specialist factories made these non-traditional homes in sections off-site. The contractor would then deliver and finish the property in a short amount of time. The homes included fitted bathrooms and kitchens, but were only expected to last 10 years.

Even with the increased spending on construction, the country was in the midst of a housing crisis. There were extensive waiting lists for any homes built. In Bristol alone during 1955, 42 families, on average, moved into new homes per week.

1945-1961 - Part 1: Non-traditional Builds

On the brink of an acute housing shortage, the nation needed a solution to meet the scale and cost of the problem. Specifiers of the time developed Precast Reinforced Concrete (or PRC). Using this type of construction, local authorities could build homes cheaply and quickly. These properties were also easier to build, which meant a wider pool of labourers could work on construction.

As PRC became more popular, different types emerged. Cornish, Wates, Airey, Woolaways, Unity and Reema to name a few of many. Unlike the previous bungalow properties, councils deemed these types as permanent houses and had a design life of 60 years.

For more information on these non-traditional properties, please see our dedicated History of Non-Traditional Housing post.

In the decade following WW2, councils had built 1.5 million homes. More than a quarter of the population were living in social housing by 1961. The housing crisis eased, the government turned to clearing remaining slums.

1945-1961 - Part 2: High Rise

Given the boost in population growth following the war, slums became overcrowded. New legislation allowed councils to compulsory purchase homes in more urban areas. These properties were then demolished to make way for more modern pre-fab mid to high rise flats. These properties needed GP surgeries, nurseries and play areas – yet in some cases these needs were not met. In Netherley Estate, Liverpool for instance, the new flats were poorly located. There were sparse job opportunities locally, and those with jobs faced a difficult commute.

The flats soon gained a reputation for being hard to live in, which meant they were hard to let. The council suffered losses from unexpected maintenance costs, as well as lost rent. Within 10 years of completion, the council began moving tenants out of the flats to re-home elsewhere. The flats were then demolished.

In 1956, government legislature limited subsidies to the replacement of slum clearances. With more funding for blocks over 6 storeys, over 500,000 flats were added to London’s housing stock by the 1960s.

1961-79 - Urban Expansion

In the 1950s and 60s, local councils looked to build more estates around the edges of cities, to avoid demolition in inner city areas. The rapid population growth had resulted in long waiting lists. To combat this, tenants often moved in before roads had been fully adopted and completed. With poor transport & access, and the slow addition of shops, offices and schools, residents often felt isolated. Councils widened city boundaries to include the new areas. People from inner city areas moved in to shorten waiting lists for housing. On these sub-urban estates, most of the houses were two storey semi-detached homes for larger families.

As the design and popularity of high rise flats improved, more were added to building plans. It was theorised that the smaller properties would be a good fit for the elderly, for young professionals or couples, and small families.

During the 70s, the housing shortage had eased. The focus of local councils changed to maintaining the quality of existing properties.

1980 Housing Act & Right To Buy

In 1980, the new ‘Right to Buy’ scheme forced councils to sell some of their housing stock. The number of council houses sold overtook the number built. Tenants passing the RTB requirements bought many of the better quality houses. Because of this, the number of available social housing properties began to fall.

Within 10 years, councils and local authorities sold 1 million homes across the country. while the presiding government set strict limits on council spending. Funding was limited to smaller scale projects, and this meant that no new housing schemes could be built.

In 1981, interest in purchasing council stock was rising. Surveys carried out on the PRC properties began to find structural issues. Tenants wanting to buy one of these homes found they couldn’t secure a mortgage. The 1984 Housing Defects Act gave tenants the right to demand the Council carry out repairs.

1985 BRE reports onwards

In 1985, the BRE produced reports on each house type. The reports exposed cracking and corrosion of the steel structures.

For more on this, see our dedicated post on The Challenges of Non-Traditional Refurbishment.

With the difficulties to buying these PRC homes, councils were left with homes of poorer quality that considered ‘hard to treat’. With the cost of repairs and maintenance daunting, new funds were secured nationally for various regeneration works. These funds often required councils to hand the reins to third parties. These included housing associations and registered social landlords. This idea proved popular in the 90s, and now around 25% of local housing authorities aren’t landlords themselves.

Local authorities were under pressure to improve the quality and energy efficiency of their housing stock – a pressure which continues today.

Share This