The 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act was signed into law on 31 July 1919.
It was one of the most significant pieces of domestic legislation passed after the First World War and created a comprehensive, nationwide system of public housing provision for the first time, paid for largely by central government and delivered by local authorities and Public Utility Societies (Housing Associations in today’s terminology).
These principles dominated the country’s housing sector for most of the 20th century (although the generous subsidies of the 1919 Act itself only lasted until 1921), until the 1979 election created a different set of priorities.
The housing created under the Act – generally low-density estates of large, cottage-style dwellings arranged in either semi-detached forms or short rows – became the default architectural format for a large percentage of all council housing.
The design guidance that shaped this kind of architecture was contained in the Tudor Walters Report of 1918, which preceded and informed the Housing Act. The report was the culmination of decades of debate about the provision of working class housing prior to the First World War.
The suggested Tudor Walters designs, as translated into the Manual on the Preparation of State-aided Housing Schemes in 1919, were heavily influenced by key figures in domestic architecture and town planning.
Raymond Unwin (an important figure on the Tudor Walters Committee) and Barry Parker had designed famous private schemes before the war such as New Earswick village in York (for Rowntree’s chocolate factory workers) and Letchworth Garden City, one of the key inspirations for a housing reform movement both inside and outside of government that promoted a future of healthy, spacious homes set in verdant landscapes far from the decaying core of England’s large and dirty 19th century towns and cities.
Internal facilities were considered just as much as external appearances, and the space standards (large three bedroom houses were the most common type recommended and built) and amenities such as indoor toilets, baths and hot water plumbing were key aspects of the drive to permanently raise the standard of working class housing.
Previous legislation hadn’t fully grappled with the enormous problems created by private sector provision of working class housing for rent as the urban population soared and the poor quality housing that so many relied on became increasingly insanitary.
Too much work was left to philanthropic bodies, whilst local councils struggled to clear insanitary areas or build new housing with the limited funds and legal powers at their disposal. The Tudor Walters Committee suggested that pre-war shortages combined with a complete lack of building during 1914-18 meant that a minimum of half a million new dwellings were required.
The 1919 Housing Act was the first time that direct funding by central government was agreed to be the only workable solution to fulfil this need.
For local authorities to agree to build, they had to be convinced that the financial risk to them was minimal. After a good deal of disagreement about this during wartime, President of the Local Government Board Auckland Geddes MP persuaded the Cabinet in December 1918 that every dwelling built under the proposed new scheme should be subsidised directly by the Treasury above the level of a penny rate, so that the costs borne by local government finances could be as low as possible.
When Christopher Addison MP took over as President of the Local Government Board in January 1919, he put in place some key provisions to sit alongside this very generous system of subsidies – under Addison’s new Act, local authorities would only have three months to put forward new housing schemes in their area, and if any scheme was deemed to be inadequate or unsuitable in some way, then the Local Government Board could compel them to submit again.
All of this meant that, for the first time, many local authorities completely unused to building housing were suddenly to do so under the carrot of subsidies and the stick of central government compulsion.
The Architectural Review suggested in 1919 that because of this novel situation ‘the whole nation has had its interest in housing quickened as never before, so that there is scarcely a parish in the whole of Great Britain that has not a committee of men and women considering the question of housing with keenness and intelligence.’
In practice, this meant that local councils were dependent on their existing Borough Engineers to draw up estate plans and housing designs using the approaches suggested by the 1919 Manual, whilst others employed private architects, mostly local, to work on this brand new area of public building.
The results were remarkable. Across the country, relatively high budgets combined with architectural responses that mixed the national ‘Tudor Walters’ guidance with some local ideas, created many high quality housing schemes.
Buddicom Park Estate, Chester, Cheshire
Though this was Chester’s first substantial public housing scheme, plans for it pre-dated the new Housing Act. The notable town planner Patrick Abercrombie (who went on to rebuild the centre of Plymouth after the Second World War) had devised a 12 acre site plan for the Council prior to 1914, and before he became Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool, so work under the new Housing Act was able to begin right away to a revised plan in 1919.
Abercrombie used a generally formal layout and also favoured more formal housing designs than the Manual. Together with the local Housing Committee he selected architect James Strong to design houses on the estate in an ‘urban cottage style’.
Strong used decorative diapered brickwork to echo the vernacular features on 19th century estate buildings on the Duke of Westminster’s nearby Grosvenor Estate, and introduced a style that was distinctive and which responded to local traditions.
Sunray Estate, North Dulwich, London
Designed by HM Office of Works under Sir Frank Baines the Sunray Estate was built by the Labour and Trades Council who provided direct labour for Camberwell Metropolitan Borough.
The land owners, Dulwich College estate, had previously attempted to develop the site as philanthropic housing with a scheme designed by Edwin Hall, but due to lack of resources leased it to the council who built the scheme under the 1919 Act, retaining Hall’s road layout. In addition to 240 houses, six blocks of ‘cottage’ flats (one dwelling per floor, with an external appearance of normal houses) and three-storey block flats were built.
Frank Baines and the Office of Works had built munitions workers’ housing during the First World War in a very high quality Arts & Crafts style, notably at the Well Hall Estate for the workers of Woolwich Arsenal.
Baines believed very much in the benefits of mixing low-rise flats with houses to provide for different needs and create a social mix, arguing with Raymond Unwin on this point and resigning from the Tudor Walters Committee when this was not accepted as official design guidance.
Haig Avenue/Beatty Road Estate, Southport, Merseyside
Southport Borough Council began building under the Act in 1920 with lay-outs and designs by A E Jackson (Borough Engineer) and H E Ford (Engineering Assistant). Design guidance from government included strong encouragement to experiment with new materials and forms of construction, and the council employed contractors the Unit Construction Company to build in high quality concrete blockwork.
The method saved on brick (still in short supply following the war) but also enabled unskilled labour to be used as the methods of construction were simpler than brickwork, further reducing costs. Three basic types of concrete block houses (parlour, non-parlour and cottage flats in single, detached and short rows) were provided with variety introduced in the grouping, detailing, finish and roofing material (slate and tile). Although many examples on the estate have been painted, some have not and their survival as visible concrete dwellings from such an early period is rare nationally.
Mile Cross Estate, Norwich, Norfolk
Mile Cross was built as a ‘showcase’ estate, and the City of Norwich employed well-known town planner Stanley Adshead, a former Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool and the first Professor of Town Planning at University College, London, to create the master plan.
Adshead appointed four local Norfolk architects to design the housing: Stanley Wearing; A F Scott; George Skipper and S J Livock. Adshead also partly provided the design of 184 experimental steel-framed Dorlonco houses (by Adshead, Abercrombie and Ramsey), simple Neo-Georgian cottages finished in brick and render over the hidden steel structure, and built around Civic Gardens, Bolingbroke Road, Chambers Road and Marshall Street.
The formal layout was focused on the wide axis of Suckling Avenue (with ‘architect designed’ houses at key points along the boulevard), culminating in a mushroom-shaped close, Civic Gardens. These wide tree lined roads contrasted with notably narrow side roads with simple footpaths running between front gardens that seemed to take the rural lanes of East Anglia as their inspiration.
Hillfields Estate, Bristol
Hillfields claims to be the earliest of the municipal cottage estates initiated under the 1919 Act as part of the ‘National Housing Scheme’ – various other estates make this claim but Hillfields is the only one to be commemorated as such with a memorial plaque (in Beechen Drive).
Not all houses were for council tenants: those on Maple Avenue were built in 1922 for the benefit of employees at E S & A Robinson’s nearby paper mill, who were able to purchase them. The earliest section of the estate was treated as a demonstration area, with a variety of house types constructed following an architectural competition, in collaboration with central government. Representatives from other authorities were invited to come and view the properties to discuss the merits of each house type (for example build cost and layout), and the Europe-wide Inter-Allied Housing and Town Planning Congress visited the estate in June 1920.
Walker Estate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear
In 1919 a competition was held for a new housing area of 122 acres at Walker, Newcastle, won by F L Thompson, R Dann and S P Taylor of London. Their proposal was for an informal layout with allotments, recreational facilities, library, clubhouse and shopping centre (at Welbeck Road/Ronan Avenue).
The houses and cottage flats were semi-detached or in blocks of four, built of brick or rendered concrete. Known as ‘Walker Garden Suburb’ when first built, the estate was seen as a model of its kind. Today, the estate has very good survival of front gardens, concrete fencing and privet hedges that all help to maintain its appealing cottage estate character.
As in many of the 1919 estates, the range of housing types (those with and without a parlour, and cottage flats) and intelligent arrangement of housing groups help to reduce any sense of monotony. A small green with a war memorial facing Walker Park is the most formal element of a low density design with a garden suburb character.
Written by Matthew Whitfield, Architectural Investigator at Historic England
Header Image: Sunray Estate © Historic England DP186810