Overspill from Bristol more than quadrupled the city’s population in the 1950s.
Bristol’s council house- building – which really got into its stride in the 1920s – marked a complete break from the style and layout of the old, privately-built neighbourhoods like Bedminster and Easton. These low-density, cottage-type houses – built in pairs or short rows with sizeable gardens – contrasted strongly with the old Victorian terraces. These municipally-built properties were generally of better quality than anything that could be offered to families in the private rented sector and, indeed, were often superior to affordable owner-occupied housing.
The growth of Victorian Bristol had gone largely unplanned and this led to high-density neighbourhoods – such as the infamous courts – where many people dwelt in grossly overcrowded, and often insanitary, conditions. Local councils had the authority to build houses for the needy but most chose not to – they preferred to leave it to private developers. This seemed to work well enough – until the late-Victorian building boom ran out of steam just after the turn of the last century It didn’t recover for some 20 years, but despite this the Corporation was reluctant to become directly involved in housing issues. But, from 1905, and in the years leading up to the First World War, it was decided to build 70 or so tenement-type dwellings. Located in Fox Road, Mina Road (some still remain), Chapel Street, Braggs Lane, Millpond Avenue and Fishponds Road, they were used to rehouse people displaced by road- improvement schemes.
The Great War changed everything. Construction work virtually ground to a halt and, in the general election of 1918, housing became a hot potato, giving rise to Lloyd George’s famous promise that he would build ‘homes fit for heroes’. Local authorities, so reluctant to act in the past, were suddenly thrust into the forefront. In Bristol, where the housing shortage was estimated at 8,000, a committee was soon set up. This body initially considered building five ‘village suburbs’ – in Bedminster, Fishponds, Horfield, Westbury and St George, but, in the end, decided to construct just 5,000 estate homes. Although the 700 acres needed were soon purchased, building work couldn’t start until the Government resolved the thorny question of subsidies.
During a period of high costs this was the only way houses could be built but still let out at affordable rents. An Act the following year introduced a generous subsidy arrangement – costs being shared between tenants, rate-payers and the Treasury This practical, three-way approach to finances, was to survive for more than 60 years. Work soon began in earnest on four estates – Hillfields at Fishponds, Knowle West, Shirehampton and Sea Mills – and in the summer of 1920 the first tenants moved into newly completed houses in Hillfields’ Beechen Drive. Costs, compared with the much cheaper pre-war years, were very high and this inevitably gave rise to rents that were considered expensive at the time.
Large contracts were awarded to reputable local firms Cowlin and Wilkins and the quality of building was excellent. Many of these dwellings were ‘parlour houses’, which meant that they had two living rooms, a mark of status at the time. In Hillfields more than 70 per cent had parlours. In these early years council housing was meant for ordinary workers and their families, but of course incomes varied, and those who were offered higher rent houses tended to be the ones who could afford it. In later years the council came under increasing pressure to build cheaper and smaller homes that could be let to lower income families.
To manage these estates the Corporation introduced a system of weekly door-to-door rent collection. In 1936 it was reported that, although a third of tenants were in arrears, in the last 16 years only one penny in every £100 of rent due had failed to be collected. The 1919 legislation came to a close two years later and this meant that the Corporation had only been able to complete just over 1,000 of its planned 5,000 homes. But new Housing Acts soon provided further opportunities and another 9,000 houses were constructed during the next decade.
The early estates were finally completed and new ones started at Horfield, Bedminster Down, St Anne’s, St George (Speedwell) and Southmead. Yet another Act, in 1930, required authorities to draw up plans for slum clearance, and under this legislation Bristol built more than 3,000 houses. Hillfields was the biggest of the early estates, but the largest overall were at Bedminster and Knowle, which eventually grew to more than 6,000 houses with a population of more than 27,000 – as big as a small town. A report in the late 1930s noted: ‘At Knowle Park are (to be found) the expensive 1919 and 1923 Act houses… and the more prosperous tenants. Next comes a wide band of 1924 Act houses at somewhat lower rents. Filwood Park … contains large numbers of slum clearance (dwellers). It was on this estate that the first houses were built under the 1930 Act, and to which (came) families from the oldest and worst slums.
Finally, at the extreme western end of the estate… are a number of houses provided for families who were previously living under overcrowded conditions.’ The Bedminster and Knowle estates went up between 1920 and 1939. Horfield was started in 1925 and Southmead in 1931, on part of another major land purchase of 700 acres. About three-quarters of all the council houses and flats built in the city up to the outbreak of war were for general housing need rather than slum clearance. Later, new houses, centred on Filwood Park and Southmead, were, however, meant basically for tenants whose homes had been deemed unfit to live in. , The first houses to be demolished were at Eugene Street (behind the BRI) where, in 1923, could be found 112 families, consisting of 508 people, living in just 88 dwellings.
In order to rehouse these people the council decided to build some three-storey flats at Lawford’s Gate, off Old Market. Others were rehoused on the same site, again in three-storey flats, which are still there today. Later, in 1929, before the area was rebuilt with 60 two-storey houses, a Dings slum clearance policy meant families moving to new houses in St Anne’s. It was the Dings re- development that was famously visited by the Prince of Wales in 1934. Not all of these houses were traditionally built. At Sea Mills the council experimented with steel and concrete (known as Dorlonco houses) and under the 1924 Act more than 1,100 Parkinson concrete houses were built here and in Horfield. The majority of these lasted for more than 60 years but, in the end, proved to be less durable than conventional brick homes.
Between the wars the Corporation built an incredible 15,000 dwellings, nearly all with three bedrooms. Amounting to 40 per cent of all new housing this policy may have helped to reduce inner-city densities but it also meant that a substantial number of working-class families, many of whom had spread their roots in the city for generations, were moved into new, strange, out-of-town suburban neighbourhoods. Although they now had superior housing, many of these families faced increasing rents as well as increased travelling costs. But council housing in the 1920s and 30s wasn’t seen as a cheap option and wasn’t meant to be targeted at the least well-off. But the more affluent concentrated in the most expensive areas, while the less well off were given the cheaper homes.
Even so, there were an appreciable number of families, perhaps as many as a third, burdened with rents which were really beyond their means.
AFTER the end of the war in 1945 2,500 permanent new council homes planned for Lawrence Weston got the go-ahead and two years later came approval for 2,000 more at Henbury, where much farmland had been bought by compulsory purchase order (CPOs). There was now a more comprehensive approach to the planning of these estates, with the ‘ Corporation trying to make provision for more than just family housing. The first schemes specifically designed for elderly people were implemented and provision made for such amenities as pubs, shops and social facilities. At this time a serious shortage of building land within the city boundaries led the council to make an application to the Boundary Commission to double the size of the city.
The plan, allowing for a population of 600,000 by 1971, envisaged the development of 17 new ‘neighbourhoods’, each containing about 10,000 people. These ambitious plans came to nothing but major parcels of land were brought within the city boundaries anyway, which meant that new building could go ahead in Hartcliffe, Withywood and Stockwood. The first tenants to move onto the Hartcliffe estate in 1951 were Mr and Mrs Jenkins, and their four-year-old son, Toby They occupied a Cornish unit at number 28, Coleshill Drive, and were soon joined by hundreds of other Dundry slope pioneers. These new homes were greatly welcomed by the people on the waiting list, but there were many drawbacks.
Most families then were without cars and both the distance from the city centre and from places of work caused problems. An inadequate bus service certainly didn’t help matters and people were often moved onto the estate before roads and pavements were finished. There were many reports in the Bristol Post about the deep mud that residents had to plough through. Of the 10,000 new homes provided in Hartcliffe and Withywood, two-thirds were houses and the rest flats – in a mix of low and high-rise blocks. Just like Bedminster and Knowle before the war, these estates turned out to be as large as some small towns and although the population was largely composed of young families, schools, shops and other community facilities were slow in arriving.
The first school opened in 1952, but Withywood Secondary didn’t open until 1959, with Hartcliffe Secondary following in 1960. In 1952, reflecting the new enthusiasm for comprehensive neighbourhood planning, the council published its first development plan. This recognised that an alarming 10,000 houses were unfit for human habitation, with a further 25,000 being sub-standard. The first area to be tackled was around St Mary Redclitfe, where there had been plans for slum clearance back in the 1930s. In December 1954, the first new block of flats, Canynge House – built by the company which had constructed some of the very first council houses, Cowlin’s-was opened with some ceremony. These flats contained the plant that would eventually provide heating and hot water to another 350 dwellings in the area.
This district heating scheme wasn’t the only innovation – other novel features were a communal laundry with creche, a doctor’s surgery and stores for bikes and prams. In September 1952 – under ‘slum clearance’ orders – the redevelopment of a large area of Barton Hill, between Lawrence Hill and the Feeder Canal, was started. Although most of these houses were old and lacking in modern amenities, there was a sense of resentment about the use of the word ‘slum’ to describe a neighbourhood where the residents regarded themselves as ‘respectable working class’. The rehousing of Barton Hill, as described in Communities In The Making by Hilda Jennings (the warden at the University Settlement in Ducie Road at the time) shows very clearly the pros and cons of redevelopment.
The people got modern houses, with all the amenities’that they lacked in their old homes, but the price they paid was the break-up of their communities and, in the majority of cases, a disruptive move to a far-away estate about which they knew little. It was just not possible to rehouse all the residents in the same locality, nor to rehouse them all together. They had to be offered the new homes as they became available, with the result that many ended up in Hartcliffe. – This was, of course, the antithesis of Barton Hill, being right on the edge of the city, unfinished, muddy and lacking in community spirit.
The redevelopment of the Barton Hill area illustrates the contrast between the old Victorian terraces and the high- rise blocks that were fashionable among the architects and planners of the time. Fifteen-storey Barton House – which, when it was completed in the summer of 1958, was the tallest block of flats outside London – did at least provide an opportunity for people to be rehoused in the same neighbourhood.
The year 1958 saw a clearance programme which included plans to demolish half the houses in Easton and, in the longer term, the demolition of 24,500 dwellings by 2001. Ironically, the scale of the clearance and the increased use of high-rise flats were a direct response to the Government’s subsidy system. This, going to those new homes built to replace those lost to slum clearance and for blocks of more than six storeys, goes some way to explain why high-rise blocks were built on outlying estates such as Hartcliffe and Lawrence Weston as well as on inner-city sites. Altogether, 1,462 flats in high- rise blocks were built in these outer suburban locations.
The Right to buy – SPECIFIC provision for the elderly didn’t feature in Bristol’s early plans for council housing. The city’s first scheme, in 1950, was Port Elizabeth House on Southmead’s Greystoke Avenue – but there was such a pressing need for family homes that the elderly continued to be a low priority. Early provision was simply rows of bungalows, catering to those who were still fit and active, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the idea of warden-managed sheltered housing began to make its mark.
Here the elderly could live independent lives within self-contained flats but at the same time have a sense of community and the reassurance that help was always near to hand. This type of housing scheme, developed throughout the 1970s and 80s, became very popular. As the first generation of tenants grew older and their children started looking for family homes, it made good sense to provide housing that would release their spacious three-bedroom houses for younger people’s occupation. Bungalows and flats built specifically for the elderly were also exempt from the ‘right to buy’ legislation and wouldn’t, therefore, be removed from the housing stock.
It was once assumed that bungalows were best for older tenants – but now .it seems that, for some elderly people anyway, living in a high-rise block could be an attractive alternative. Gaywood House, Bedminster, and . Moorfields House, Redfield, have both been successfully converted in this way with a further 20 blocks designated as ‘elderly preferred’. But Government legislation has meant that no new homes have been added to the existing 2,250 elderly people’s flats and bungalows for the last 15 years except through partner organisations involved in social housing. By 1981 the council in Bristol owned 47,903 houses and flats as well as nearly 900 prefabs and, seeing no reason why new building programmes shouldn’t continue, it had, some years previously, published a discussion document.
Although 560 new homes were completed in 1978 the programme went into decline – three years later it was down to 254. Then new building was effectively brought to a close by Government restrictions and the emergence of a philosophy that local authorities should act as ‘enablers’ not providers of housing. A new era was at hand. Local authorities had always been able to sell houses, but until the introduction of the ‘right to buy’ legislation in October 1980, they weren’t forced to. Bristol had sold approximately 300 before 1938, but in 1960 launched a scheme encouraging tenants to buy People were able to purchase pre -war non-parlour houses for little more than £1,000, and a parlour house for about £1,400 – bargain prices even in those days. Then, between 1960 and 1979, nearly 6,000 houses were sold, half of them in 1972 and 1973, when a Conservative-led council increased the maximum discount to 30 per cent.
But, apart from those two exceptional years, the construction of new homes always exceeded the numbers sold. The introduction of the ‘right to buy’ legislation proved a watershed in the history of council housing, bringing to an end a period of continuous growth, and ushering in a process of decline. In 1980, the council was controlled by Labour and, although the party tried hard to resist the Conservative legislation, their hands were tied. Discounts of up to 50 per cent were available and, with substantial demand from tenants wishing to take advantage of the scheme, by the summer of 1982 more than 5,000 had applied to buy At first very few flats were sold, but in 1984 the Government increased the discounts on them in an attempt to boost sales.
The success of the scheme has seen the Flats: High-rise developments made good homes for some elderly tenants total number of council houses and Hats fall by a third. The effect has been to reduce the choices open to potential tenants and to reduce their chances of obtaining a house with a garden – the sort of home that they would buy if they could afford it. But for the people who were lucky enough to be in the right home at the right time it was like a gift from heaven. Investing in improvements and extensions many ex-tenants now own homes which have appreciated substantially because of the buoyant market. Some former council houses, bought for under £10,000 25 years ago, are now worth , £150,000 or more. But for one particular group of buyers things went horribly wrong.
These were the former tenants who had bought PRC prefabricated houses which were then shown tote at risk of becoming structurally unsound. These concrete properties were then between 25 and 55 years old, and had been expected to last for many more years. But it was discovered that many types had problems caused by corrosion of the metal reinforcing bars and couldn’t be re-sold because mortgages weren’t forthcoming. Bristol just happened to have sold more of these houses than any other local authority, and the council was required, by legislation, to repair them. This meant rebuilding the outside walls and gave rise to the odd sight of pairs of houses where one, privately owned, had been re-clad, while the other, still council -owned, hadn’t.
The focus has now shifted from new building to modernisation and improvement of the existing housing stock. Replacement of old-fashioned and worn- out kitchens and bathrooms has been underway for a long time, and is a routine part of the work of managing housing assets over their lifetime. In a radical move, a number of older high- rise blocks in Lawrence Weston and at Barton Hill have been demolished and re-developed by housing associations as low-rise homes. In other areas blocks developed as late as the 1970s have been demolished or substantially remodelled to make them more suitable for present day needs.
These days the council works with a number of partner organisations. In Horfield, for instance, the 1920s estate included 658 concrete houses (Parkinsons) that needed replacing. The council, unable to undertake the work itself, set up an independent body, Bristol Community Housing Foundation (BCHF), to oversee the project. BCHF is working with a private builder to carry out a redevelopment that finally will see more than 1,000 new owner-occupied and rented homes.
In the past 17 years many local authorities have decided to sell all their housing stock, usually to newly-created housing associations, and the Government has actively encouraged this. Bristol, however, has always favoured hanging onto its housing. The present government has required local authorities to conduct a review of their housing options and all are expected to meet a ‘decent homes standard’ within the next five years. Having now completed this process, the council has decided, with Government approval, to continue with its policy of retaining its housing stock.
This brings to an end a long period of uncertainty and means that the council can now, hopefully, embark with confidence on a second century of providing good, affordable, rented housing for the people of Bristol.
Tagged: , bristol overspill , council houses , council housing , council estates , knowle west , southmead , patchway , social-history , hillfields , Hartcliffe , Barton-Hill , Easton , Bristol-Social-History , Sea-Mills , The-Dings