Squalor: Council housing is in retreat and the private rented sector out of control

No one wrote squalor like Charles Dickens. Just as society was waking up to the risks – individual and public – of the urban slums of industrial Britain, Dickens captured the images and seared them into a nation’s consciousness. From chronic overcrowding to dilapidation to insecurity to filth, ‘I hope I have taken every available opportunity to showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor’, he wrote, in the preface to Martin Chuzzlewhit.

There were changes throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1885, the first great wave of what we now call housing associations, led by Peabody and Octavia Hill. Though it took two world wars to give the impetus that ensured William Beveridge’s critique of squalor translated into a postwar council housing programme and the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 which finally transformed the living conditions of the poor. Twenty years later, the private rented sector was rediscovered with a new generation of slum landlords making their money from squalid homes. The second wave of housing associations was born in the 1960s and 1970s, as these slums were themselves taken over by the likes of Notting Hill Housing Association and Paddington Churches, and their many equivalents. The battle against squalor was being won.

And yet no story is ever wholly finished, and what was won can so easily be lost again. Today council housing is in full retreat – 170,000 council homes fewer than 2010 alone, new building of social housing down by over 90 per cent. Once again the private rented sector is, as a deliberate consequence of government policy, housing low income and often vulnerable people in numbers.

The bottom end of the private rented sector, where the poorest are forced to seek homes, traps people into homes with hazards that damage health. According to the latest English Housing Survey, 16.8 per cent of private tenanted properties have what are described as category one hazards under the Housing Health and Safety Ratings system. That is 756,000 households, over a third of which include children, with a further 244,000 in social tenanted properties. A million properties altogether, containing three million adults and children, live in rented properties that present a serious risk to their health and safety. I have been in flats where the damp air hits you like a punch in the chest, black wall coverings come away in your hands, water pours through the roof and carpets rot underfoot. I have seen families in homes where the ‘kitchen’ shares space with the toilet. Seen whole families sleep in one room because two are un-useable due to collapsed ceilings that has left rubble piled on the floor and electric wires hanging loose. And sadly, the stripping back of local government has reduced their ability to act at a time when they are more needed than ever.

I am bringing a private member’s bill into parliament soon to give tenants greater legal rights in such circumstances but we need far more.

Beveridge knew that decent, affordable council housing was central to his goal of tackling squalor. He was right then and the case is as strong today.


Karen Buck is member of parliament for Westminster North


The December 2017 edition of Progress magazine has a Beveridge at 75 focus. Read other articles in the series, including on the other four ‘giants’ and how they fair today, now.