In 2019 the provision of appropriate affordable housing and the problems of homelessness were issues for politicians at a national, regional and local level.

In the general election the issue of the supply of houses both in the private sector and in social housing, together with strategies to eradicate homelessness within a specified timeframe, were an important part of all the political parties manifestos. In domestic political terms only the National Health Service was seen as more important.

 Regionally the eradication of homelessness has been one of the  headline targets of the Mayor of Greater Manchester since his election in 2017.  In addition in 2019 the updated Greater Manchester Spatial Framework was published. This provided, among other things, a plan for the provision of housing across the region. The original plan was criticised for the amount of green belt land that was to be used for this building programme so the updated plan proposes the utilisation of more brownfield sites.

At a Manchester City wide level most of the city’s original council housing is now managed by Housing Associations about 65,000 dwellings or 30% of its housing stock.  Some Social Housing has been sold to its tenants through the right to buy scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. The council, however, retains the right to set the priority groups for the allocation of such properties. In late 2019 the City Council produced an overhaul of its social housing policy to prioritise the most vulnerable residents which it categorises as the homeless and those living in overcrowded houses. Councillor Suzanne Richards, the Executive Member for Housing and Regeneration, has stated that the demand for Social Housing is going up and the number of homeless people is increasing but the housing stock is decreasing because of the right to buy scheme. The City is also offering money to Housing Associations to buy back houses that have been bought under this scheme and make them available for rent. 

In 1919 the world was a very different place. The Great War had just ended and soldiers were starting to come back home. They were promised a world ‘fit for heroes’. This was a country where there was no National Health Service, where the issue of homelessness was not on the political agenda and where there was no such thing as ‘green belt’ land. People particularly the working classes were used to living in what we would consider cramped conditions with 3 or 4 families living in one house with no indoor plumbing. Young people generally stayed at home until they married and even then young couples often lived with one set of parents for some time.  However for the 20 years before the war there was a growing understanding that living conditions could impact on people’s health. This was exemplified in the ‘Garden City’ movement which promoted the advantages of living in less crowded environments, away from industrial developments with fresh air helping to promote good health. It was one of the drivers for the development of Town Planning as a separate discipline.

The issue of health had a direct impact on the way that housing policy developed after the war. During the war all potential recruits for the army were given a medical examination which was the first  systematic information about the nation’s health had been available.  The picture was not a good one and many young working class men were rejected on medical grounds. While part of the problem was undoubtedly the fact that medical treatment was not free and therefore treatable conditions were neglected, the Ministry of Health identified poor overcrowded housing as a major issue. As a poster at the time stated:  ‘You cannot expect to get an A1 population out of C3 homes.’ A parliamentary commission report of 1917 led to the Minister of Health, Christopher Addison, passing the Housing Act of 1919 which is often referred to as the Addison Act. This was a formal directive for local authorities to build houses for the working classes to rent with the facility for the Authorities to borrow money from the government at a rate below the commercial rate. The target nationally was to build 500,000 houses within 3 years.

How did the City of Manchester respond to this initiative?

Councils had had powers to build houses since the 1890 Housing Act. These powers were discretionary, there was no facility for borrowing money and the developments were not specifically for the working  class. Some councils did not use these powers but Manchester built its first council property in the 1890s the Victoria Building, a five storey tenement block on Oldham Road. The City also embraced the garden cities movement by building the Burnage garden village in 1905. The Addison Act allowed the city to look at an overall plan for the city by identifying current need and projecting future need.

The council established a Housing Committee by a formal resolution on November 10th 1919. It had its first meeting on 10th December 1919. The minutes of this committee provide a commentary on the issues faced by the council in the post war period and how these were resolved.

It was estimated that the City needed 17,000 dwellings immediately, based on the population in the 1911 census, and an average of 2,500 dwellings annually to keep pace with the projected growth in the population. The immediate target was not achievable so the 2 target figures were aggregated to give an annual figure of 6,750 houses per annum.  

The initial issues can be summarised as follows:

 Finding land available for building

  Deciding on the type of dwellings to be built

  Recruitment of companies to build the houses

  Organising and overseeing the builds

To enable these functions to be undertaken efficiently one of the first actions of the Committee was to set up a series of sub committees:

The Site Committee had 5 members

The Layout, Design and Building Committee had 9 members

The Audit Committee was in effect the whole Housing Committee

There was also a Women’s Advisory Committee which was to advise on the interior fixtures of the dwellings.

The Council under the guidance of the City Architect had been buying land under existing regulations before the Addison Act came into force. There were no large pieces of land within the city boundaries available for building. Most of the pieces of land would sustain between 200 and 450 houses. The first areas to be bought were the Hill Lane area in Blackley, the Gorton Mount Estate and land at Belle Vue. Further pieces of land were soon added to the list: land at Rusholme and Fallowfield, Newton Heath, Catterick Hall Estate, Fog Lane and Abbey Hey Lane.

The organisation of the work for all these sites was the impetus for the appointment of a Housing Director in January 1920 and the development of a Housing Department. The committee also took up the government’s offer of financial assistance and borrowed the sum of £56,748 and it named the group which would have priority on the housing list – people with psthisis, an old term for tuberculosis.

Initially the City contracted both local and national building companies such as Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons to undertake the work. There was much discussion about the type of houses to be built. The traditional type of house was brick built but there were issues with this up to the mid 1920s. Although there was an adequate supply of bricks there were not enough skilled bricklayers. Some local bricklayers had been killed in the war while others were still not demobbed. There was a system of concrete building called the Clifton Ewart system which was not cheaper than a brick built house but could be constructed more quickly. Manchester used this system to some extent but preferred the traditional system of brick built houses.

The issue of bricklayers led indirectly to a major development in the way that the City produced its houses. Bricklayers were expensive because of their scarcity but the City thought that the external companies were charging them too much both for these and other tradesmen. They decided that it would be cheaper and more efficient to employ the labour directly. This became known as Direct Labour which eventually became Direct Works. This had its own subcommittee of the Housing Committee and had 7 members. There was still competition for the bricklayers who were often poached by companies building luxury houses. Manchester countered this by offering all their building operatives pay for ‘wet time’ which meant they were not just paid for the hours that they worked but had a weekly wage irrespective of the weather. This led to a dispute with the National Building Trades Employers but Manchester carried on with its policy. To ensure a constant supply of labour it also started an adult apprenticeship scheme for men aged between 19 and 26 which  was outside the age range for traditional apprenticeships.

Other staff developments in 1920 included the appointment of a Builders Quantity Clerk to assist in getting out the quantities of materials for the Direct Labour scheme. The Department also requested a car in order to save time in visiting the increasing number of estates dotted across the City.

By 1920/1921 Manchester had areas designated for building, an infrastructure including a Council Committee with sub committees a council department to oversee this work together with their own labour force, the facility to borrow money from the government and prioritised tenants. However the supply of houses did not meet the demand. The City needed more land.

The proposed solution was to buy a large piece of land in the south of the City which included land within the county of Cheshire. The land was then designated as agricultural land which was an important consideration since agricultural land sold for £8 an acre while urban land cost £34 an acre. The City asked Professor Patrick Abercrombie to produce a feasibility study on all aspects of the proposed scheme. Professor Abercrombie was born in 1879 in Ashton on Mersey. He trained as an architect and became the Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool in 1915. He later gained an international reputation for his work in the replanning of bombed cities after World War 2. The plan for London became known as the Abercrombie Plan which proposed a ‘green belt’ around the city with people being moved to live beyond this belt.

In the 1920s the feasibility plan for Wythenshawe looked at the landscape, transport possibilities, water and sewerage, density of housing and an overall plan. All departments of the Council were involved in the response to this study and the eventual planning for the estate. These included Education and Health. The City was keen to provide a healthy environment for its young people with educational opportunities for them to progress. The environmental issues were to have plenty of green space and houses with gardens which mirrored the prewar Garden City movement. Wythenshawe was the only council developed garden city in the country. 

The Abercrombie Report was welcomed by the Council and plans were made to begin the work. There was one issue that needed to be solved before this could happen. Transport links to this area south of the city were quite poor so it was decided to build a major road from Northenden to the north of the proposed area before the sale of the land in order to speed up the process. However, this would  have joined the agricultural area with an urban one changing the designation of the land and therefore affecting the cost. It was decided to postpone the building of the road until after the sale of the land was completed thus enabling the City to buy the land at the agricultural price.

Part of the current Wythenshawe estate was built in the 1920s and 1930s but was not fully developed until after World War 2 when the City’s need for housing again became acute. In subsequent decades the population continued to increase but the City had very little land on which to build. This led to the overspill projects of the 1960s and 1970s where the city bought 6 large pieces of land from neighbouring authorities in order to provide council housing for its residents.

The landscape of social housing may be different from 100 years ago:

National priorities – health/homelessness

 Priority groups – psthisis/the homeless

Land designation- agricultural, urban/green belt, brownfield

Responsibility for social housing – Local Authorities/Housing Associations

Names for such houses – council houses/social housing

What has not changed is the need for good affordable properties for rent. The City of Manchester is about to embark on a new chapter in this story. It has provided a piece of land in North Manchester for the architect George Clarke to build a modern council housing estate. The Silk Street Project, as it is known will start in 2020 and will be the subject of a television series on Channel 4.

Blog written by Archives+ volunteer Mary Connery.