Today feels like an appropriate day to write a review of Municipal Dreams by John Boughton (Verso). I won’t publish it until tomorrow though, mostly because of the book’s title, which is one of the few things I don’t like about it.
Amidst today’s mawkish media coverage and hypocritical political hand-wringing, this book is a reminder that the Grenfell atrocity was the consequence of policies that, if not intended to kill, were designed to dehumanise.
Perhaps the best thing to say about Municipal Dreams is that it’s a very good read. John Boughton really knows his stuff, as anyone whose looked at his blog of the same title will know. But unlike some “experts”, he doesn’t show off to his reader. Instead, the book offers an accessible, but meticulously researched, account of a social policy phenomenon with huge contemporary relevance (especially today).
It’s a thoughtful, reflective and sympathetic history of council housing and its unique contribution to British society. Above all, it celebrates the true, inter-generational value of council housing, beyond, but not excluding, its architectural merits. The book also provides a thorough chronology of the sometimes bewildering array of government policies down the years that have attempted to balance investment in council housing against the interests of a private market that has consistently failed to build the homes we need.
Boughton also slays some myths about council housing. He demonstrates that:
“…council estates in their earlier years, and well into the post-1945 era, were the home of a (relatively) affluent and aspirational working class. Indeed, their success to a significant degree rested on just that. The true story of ‘Broken Britain’ is not failed council estates, but an economy that failed their residents” (p47).
Boughton shows that one of the reasons for this success was the generally high-quality of most 20th century council housing, much of which remains today, despite the prejudices of those who use design as a pretext for demolition. The book also illustrates that council tenants weren’t passive recipients of council housing, but fought for its creation and preservation. The estates they live on now have a narrower social demographic than Nye Bevan envisaged in his “living tapestry of a mixed community”. But as Grenfell reminded us, council housing is still far more diverse than the mono-tenure, monochrome suburbs against which they are often judged.
One of the most important lies nailed by Municipal Dreams is that council housing receives a disproportionate amount of government spending, compared to the private market, when in fact, the opposite is true. As Broughton says:
“…council housing is not, in any meaningful sense, ‘subsidised’. Construction loans are repaid and, in most cases, the homes themselves become an asset, not only to those who live in them but a financial – and income generating – asset to the local authority.” (p256)
This point has a particular relevance in the aftermath of the Labour Party publishing its housing policy green paper, with its half-hearted commitment to council housing and a general lack of an ambiious social vision of the kind described in Municipal Dreams.
Unfortunately, John Boughton tends to adopt too defeatest a tone himself. He doesn’t give quite the credit to grassroots housing campaigns of resistance as he might (the council homes built by the defiant Liverpool city council of the 1980s is a particular ommission) and he’s reluctant to attack the motives of those who have been hell-bent on destroying council housing. But I have a sense (although I’ve never met him) that John’s a nice bloke and doesn’t want to think ill of people. Today of all days, I don’t find that difficult!
In the end though, Municipal Dreams comes to praise council housing, not to bury it and is highly recommended.