The importance of history to future housing strategy

Winston Churchill remarked that: “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”


This quote is particularly pertinent in an age of growing populist right-wing movements that, in some respects, mirror those of the 1930s that led to the Second World War, the Holocaust and the partitioning of Europe. Yet is seems that many of us need to relearn these lessons in the face of the alt-right, democracy under threat, Trump and Brexit.

Learning from the history of housing is important too. Exploring the causes of housing crises, and which policies and practices helped to resolve these crises, can enable us to scope a rational and effective housing strategy for the future. It also helps us recognise when housing approaches are pushing the nation in the wrong direction: the ‘reinvigoration’ of the Right-to-Buy and its extension to the housing association sector is a case in point.

History, then, is not just about what happened, but also about considering why something happened. But convincing interpretations of the past, based on a range of evidence, is a skilled endeavour, and one that takes time. John Boughton’s well-read blog and meticulous study of the history of council housing – ‘Municipal Dreams’ – is exemplary here.

That’s why I believe it is time for a new history of housing associations, which became major actors in the UK’s housing terrain from the Housing Act 1988 onwards, and are now the main providers of social and affordable housing.

Yet for much of their history, and certainly before the Housing Act 1974 provided significant levels of public funding for the first time, they were relatively minor players; albeit innovative ones that helped to ‘fill the gaps’ left by council housing and the private sector.

While housing associations appeal to deep roots, stretching back to the early 19th century (some claim to the Elizabethan Alms-houses), their history has actually been ‘discontinuous’, as stressed by housing academic Professor Peter Malpass. In fact, new ‘waves’ of housing association formation have occurred to confront housing crises in discrete historical epochs for at least two hundred years.

These ‘curious entities’ – neither public nor private bodies – have been categorised throughout their history as model dwelling companies; endowed charitable trusts; public utility societies (or the shortened housing societies); housing associations and trusts; registered social landlords; and today’s anodyne registered providers. The terms ‘social landlord’ or ‘social housing provider’ are also still in common usage.

They have also been seen acknowledged as ‘hybrid’ organisations – suspended between state, market and community; although being responsive to tenants and communities has been in retreat for some time.

So why a new history of housing associations now? A number of anniversaries are currently being marked.

First, it is almost 200 years since housing associations, in the form of new model dwelling companies, first started to provide homes for the ‘industrial working classes’. And about 130 years ago, Octavia Hill, who largely founded the housing management profession, began her housing crusade.

Second, and also 130 years back, philanthropic housing societies were established to provide housing for the respectable ‘working classes’, providing investors with a small return – commonly known as ‘5% philanthropy’.

Third, a century ago,  a new wave of housing societies was founded from the end of the First World War in 1918, in response to the government’s social contract to returning soldiers from Flanders to offer ‘Home Fit For Heroes’.

Last, it has also been 30 years since the introduction of the Housing Act 1988, which, by and large, created the modern housing association sector, with the introduction of Tenants Choice, assured tenancies and mixed public-private funding, leading to the eclipse of  council housing.

If housing associations are to remain central to achieving housing policy objectives into the future, their past should be seen as a key resource on which to draw, as well as a lodestar for new development and innovation, new forms of localised democracy and responsiveness, the involvement of tenants and communities, and ending homelessness and rough sleeping.

You can read the blog on housing association histories here.