IN the UK only seven per cent of households live in a council house or flat. In the North-East of England about a fifth of people live in council housing with an additional 11 per cent in social housing provided by housing associations. In the 1960s it was over a half. Yet council housing or social housing may be on the cusp of a renaissance as the Government at last recognises that Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis.

There’s nothing new about homes being provided by the state. Local council housebuilding on Tyneside began in Newcastle in 1904. The sector even today displays a huge variety of types of houses. With the advent of the First World War, housebuilding ground to a halt. By 1918 there was a housing shortage of 600,000. The post-war Government committed itself to a policy of “homes fit for heroes to live in”. The Addison Act of 1919 took central government into public housing for the first time. It required all councils to spell out what homes were needed to make up the shortfall and offered subsidies to build them. More than 200,000 new homes were built. In 1923 the Chamberlain Act brought in a revised policy which saw 400,000 houses built.

A third Act by Labour Minister John Wheatley in 1924, although offering half as much subsidy as Chamberlain, still managed to produce half a million council homes. By 1930 Greenwood, the Housing Minister, unveiled an extensive programme of slum clearance, which was only temporarily halted by economic measures after 1931.

Although four million homes were built throughout the inter-war period, most were built by the private sector. For the historian John Boughton in Municipal Dreams, council housing largely benefited the respectable working class. Many low-income families couldn’t afford even the subsidised rents.

Yet some of the most attractive council housing is in the “cottage estates” built in the 1920s, such as the High Heaton and Pendower estates in Newcastle. In contrast, one of the former problematic estates was Meadowell in North Shields, an estate of mostly flats, built to reduced standards in the 1930s to rehouse the population of the riverside slums.

Housing was a key political issue in the 1945 general election. Four out of ten voters listed it as the major issue. Both parties pledged rent controls, but Labour under Nye Bevan promised five million new homes. The 1946 Housing Act introduced generous subsidies, and gave local councils the lead responsibility for construction. Bevan put quality before quantity. The Labour Government under Clem Attlee rolled out an ambitious public sector housing programme. Some 804,921 council homes were built between 1945 and 1951 – 190,368 in 1948 alone.

Several of the post war new council estates contained community centres, shopping precincts, schools and libraries.

THROUGHOUT the 1950s there was a big increase in house building. The Conservative Minister Harold Macmillan was determined to outdo the previous Labour government’s record. Backed by the PM Winston Churchill, he devoted his energy into what he dubbed a “national housing crusade”. He managed to build 327,000 council homes in 1953 and 354,000 a year later. The worst of the housing shortage was over. In the early 1960s poverty and homelessness surfaced and became the key focus of the 1965 drama-documentary Cathy Come Home, which cast a spotlight on overcrowding, slum housing conditions and homelessness.

The newer, cheaper method of building was to “build into the sky”, which climaxed with the construction of high-rise blocks of flats coupled with high-density housing in the 1970s. As the academic Brian Lund notes, much of it was so poor in quality that a decade later some blocks were already being demolished. In Newcastle, reaction to high-rises blocks, home to 4,000 tenants across the city, was mixed. For some they were deeply unpopular. Older residents blamed the blocks for the demise of community spirit. For other tenants, they proved popular.

By the 1970s, council house building on Tyne and Wear and County Durham followed the national trend of a return to low-rise and more traditional building, often in inner-city redevelopment neighbourhoods.

With Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy in 1981 more than 1.8m council tenants have bought their homes. This saw the slow death of local authority homes. Few were replaced. Not-for-profit housing associations are now the main provider of social housing for those in need.

Council home builds have ground to a halt. Only 3,000 were built last year. There is pressure from Shelter, the housing charity and the Local Government Association (LGA) for central government to commit to an affordable house-building programme of a million homes by 2022. With housing at the top of the policy agenda, there is hope that we might be about to see a renaissance in social housing to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

lStephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and writer