After the euphoria felt when the Second World War finally ended, the country was confronted by the challenge of enabling families across Britain to return to something resembling a normal life. When the new Labour government was elected in 1945 they had a whole host of problems to tackle, all needing urgent resolution.
One of these was housing. Even before the wartime bombing, which decimated many towns and cities, thousands were housed in back-to-back Victorian terraces, with an outdoor toilet shared by several families, windows that let in as much cold as they kept out, and damp running down the walls. As well as the ‘slums’ more than 700,000 homes were now uninhabitable due to the bombing in London alone.
National and local government discussed the possibilities. It was clear that a significant housing programme was needed. With such large numbers of people made homeless by the Blitz, one of the arguments was for quantity over quality. More families could be accommodated in central city areas if blocks of flats were built, rather than individual houses. Many surveys were carried out, both during the war and immediately after it, trying to establish British people’s attitudes to housing. The majority view was that families wanted privacy above everything else.
‘…people want to breathe and move, to be rid of neighbours’ wireless, and the clatter of early-risers and late-bedders…
After six years of war, when many families had frequently shared the confined space of air raid shelters, and children were uprooted from everything they knew during the mass evacuations, it is perhaps no surprise that all people wanted was their own private space, with perhaps a little back garden for vegetables and a few flower borders in the front.
Such was the desperate need for homes that thousands of ‘prefabs’ were built, using prefabricated materials, designed to be ‘temporary’. Feelings were mixed, some felt ashamed to live in the properties that from the outside looked like ‘pigsties or hen-houses’ according to one commentator. Others, however, were delighted that at last they had hot and cold running water, a fitted bath and an indoor toilet. Such facilities – now taken for granted by so many of us – were a true delight.
Meanwhile, those who were tired of waiting for somewhere to live chose to take things into their own hands. The squatting movement gathered pace during the summer of 1946, with calls to create a National Federation of Squatters. Although such a federation never came to pass, squatters choosing to take over disused military camps became the topic of debate in Parliament. By October 1946 some 1,000 camps were being occupied by almost 40,000 people. Here, in response to a question about what could be done about the “so-called squatters’ camps” Aneurin Bevan, the then Minister of Health (also responsible for housing) explained…
The Government, however sympathetic to the plight of individuals, are bound to condemn the action of squatters in taking unauthorised possession of these premises. In some cases, they have invaded camps which cannot be released for housing purposes. In others they have occupied camps either unsuitable for housing or requiring uneconomical works of conversion and adaptation. Further, where the camps are such as can be suitably taken over by the local housing authorities, the squatters have in many cases jumped the claims of persons higher on the local authorities’ lists of applicants for houses. Where squatters have occupied camps which cannot be made available, or are unsuitable for housing, it will be necessary for them to move.https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1946/oct/10/disused-camps-and-huts-squatters
Over the next four years some 850,000 new homes were built, some in ‘new towns’ (of which more in a subsequent post). Not all had the little patch of green outdoor space desired by so many, but it was a start. The first step in giving people a chance to create a new life for themselves, provided of course they had a job…because employment was the next big challenge – something I will look at in a future post.