In 1903, John Burns, the local MP, formally opened Battersea Metropolitan Borough Council’s new Latchmere Estate. He expressed his ‘delight that one of his ideals of his early days had been realised, the securing of happy, healthy homes for sober and industrious workmen.’  Whilst we might now find that latter phrase discomfiting, I believe his call for ‘happy, healthy homes’ resonates as powerfully today as ever and, for that reason, I’m very pleased to support the TCPA’s new campaign for a Healthy Homes Act.

Burns himself would go on to play a significant role in promoting high quality housing when, as President of the Local Government Board, he secured the passage of the 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act. It was an attempt to supersede well-meaning but unimaginative sanitary bye-laws which dictated rigid building lines and wide streets whilst, unintentionally, restricting gardens and open space. Hampstead Garden Suburb was the model and some of the best local authority ‘cottage estates’ of the day came close to emulating it.

Local government hasn’t got everything right in the design and construction of social housing over the years but, in general, the public sector has a proud record of promoting and implementing high standards. The Tudor Walters Report, issued in 1918, famously advocated cottage homes with front and back gardens at no more than twelve to the acre. Less well-known is its recommendation of, in contemporary parlance, environmentally friendly policies to promote good public transport links and district heating schemes.

The commitment to ‘homes for heroes’ would falter as the interwar version of austerity kicked in but a second world war instigated the return of a Labour government committed, in the person of Nye Bevan, Minister of Health and Housing, to the highest standards of public housing.  Bevan contended that ‘while we shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build … we shall be judged in ten years’ time by the type of houses we build’. To that end, he raised space standards by a third and insisted that three-bed council homes should have – unprecedented luxury for the British working class – not just one inside toilet but two.

The ‘New Britain’ emerging from the detritus of the past and the destruction of war was represented in the ‘Live Architecture Exhibition’ of the 1951 Festival of Britain, fittingly located in Poplar, an east London redevelopment area.  A Building Research Pavilion demonstrated the best of what modern technology could bring to house design whilst its counterpart ‘Gremlin Grange’ – a mock-up of a jerry-built house – was intended as ‘a full-sized demonstration of how things may go wrong when scientific principles in building are ignored’. A Town Planning Pavilion and, most practically and powerfully, the new Lansbury Estate, illustrated the ideals of neighbourhood and community which were to inform post-war reconstruction.

When, by the mid-1950s, Britain’s physical and economic recovery from war was largely complete, the country looked again to clear slum housing – still prevalent on an enormous scale (almost half of British households lacked a bathroom) – and rehouse its population. For all the laudable ambition of the mass public housing programme which followed, it was sometimes poorly designed and, more particularly, badly built. The errors of the system-building drive of that era should stand as a warning to those who currently advocate, in a deliberate rebranding, Modern Methods of Construction.

For all these failings, isolated in practice, the commitment to raised housing standards persisted. The Parker Morris Report of 1961, tellingly entitled Homes for Today and Tomorrow, was predicated on the rising living standards and increased expectations of the day. The most important aspect of the Report was its emphasis on ‘usability’ – that living spaces as a whole should be warm (central heating was to be the new norm) and adaptable to current life-styles.

The Parker Morris standards were applied to the New Towns in 1967 and all public housing in 1969. Anthony Greenwood, the then Minister of Housing, was clear that he saw this as something that the private sector would emulate and he expected ‘even higher standards in the future’.  In that, of course, he was mistaken; he could not foresee the assault on both public housebuilding and the regulatory role of the state that occurred from the 1980s. The Parker Morris standards themselves were abolished by Mrs Thatcher’s government in 1980.

The rise of a weakly controlled private rental sector and the prevalence, at the cheaper end of the market, of a low-standard and poorly designed and constructed speculative private building sector since then reminds us that we have much to learn from the past. At present, in the small revival of social housebuilding that is currently taking place, local authorities and housing associations are in the forefront of creating the imaginatively designed housing schemes that the new challenges of building sustainably demand.

The TCPA’s campaign to ensure that people’s health, safety, wellbeing and life chances are protected through the built environment rather than, as is too often the case, jeopardised by it, is timely and necessary and I offer it my whole-hearted endorsement.

This article was written by the author and historian John Boughton as part of a series of expert blogs for the TCPA's Healthy Homes Act campaign. John's latest book, Municipal Dreams, charts the rise and fall of UK council housing, arguing that by losing the promise of good homes for everyone we risk endangering all of society.