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Good intentions behind council estates

Social housing was a result of the vision of a remarkable Victorian lady who was horrified by the living conditions in London’s tenement blocks, says Simon White

There are a variety of views on the virtues or otherwise of council properties and local authority housing estates, but as lenders continue to tighten their lending criteria, less well off members of society are finding mortgages more difficult to obtain. And if these individuals own or want to buy a property, it’s likely to be council-built.

The origins of social housing can be traced back to a re-markable Victorian, Octavia Hill, who was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire in 1838.

In 1856, Hill moved to Marylebone in London and the abject state of the local housing stock inspired her to act.

Consider for a moment what living conditions were like in London in the mid-19th century.

Back then, the centre of the city mainly comprised tenement blocks with one and sometimes two families per room. Sanitation was non-existent and prostitution, violence and street crime were rife.

A London tenement block in the 1860s must have been a fearful place to live. And remember, this was less than 150 years ago, which puts today’s media hysteria about the collapse of society into context.

Enter Hill. In 1865, she bought three houses full of tenants in the Marylebone area using money provided by philanthropist, artist and social critic John Ruskin. In return, Ruskin received a 5% return on his investment from the rent.

In a short time, Hill was managing houses all over London. She was years ahead of her time, not only developing the idea of having reserve funds for repairs and maintenance but also requiring references from potential tenants.

She also kept detailed accounts and ensured that her properties weren’t overcrowded.

Hill’s greatest and enduring legacy is the Walworth Estate in south-east London.

In 1903, this 22-acre site was owned by the Church of England which intended to sell it, especially as the Times described the area as London’s most overcrowded slum.

But Hill saw its potential and persuaded the Church Commissioners to redevelop the area for social housing in return for weekly rents. Accommodation for 800 families was built and it’s still there today.

Hill was a visionary whose ideas changed the face of housing in the UK. Oh, and in her spare time, she founded The National Trust.


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