Build it up, sell it off

The rise and fall of social housing

Full print version, including charts and tables

Provision of social housing started in the late 19th century when the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act allowed London’s local councils to build houses as well as clear away slums.

In 1896 London County Council developed the first council housing in Bethnal Green.

The 1900 Housing of the Working Classes Act extended the 1890 Act to places outside London and by the outbreak of WWI about 24,000 units had been built. All local authorities have been required by law to provide council housing since the 1919 Housing Act.

The proportion of social housing stock increased from around 1% of housing in 1911 to 10% by 1938. Then, following WWII, around a million homes were built under the post-war Labour Government, over 85% of which were social housing. Much of this house building was to replace homes bombed during the war.

The house building boom continued when the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, but the emphasis shifted at the end of the decade towards slum clearance, as millions of people were moved from rundown inner-city terraces and re-housed in purpose-built new towns or high rise flats, being introduced to the joys of indoor toilets, front and rear gardens, and landscaped estates.

Throughout the 1970s social housing accounted for around 30% of the dwelling stock in England. Since the introduction of ‘right-to-buy’ schemes in 1981, which entitled council tenants to purchase their homes at a discount price, social housing stock has diminished. The scheme, which proved a cost-effective way of renovating dilapidated estates, was partly responsible for the increase in owner-occupiership from 55% in 1981 to 67% a decade later. But together with limitations on local council house building, it also caused a dramatic reduction in local authority housing stock, from 5m in 1981 to 1.7m today, a level last observed in 1961. Most new houses after 1981 were built by housing associations, and today there are more of these (2.3m) than traditional local authority council houses.

Crash pad: 5m council houses were built between 1946 and 1981, but only 250,000 have been built since.
The chart shows the number of houses built in each year since 1946, by sector.
The chart shows the number of houses built in each year since 1946, by sector

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