The Houses that Mac Built

Already, before the war, housing was a big issue (see the film Housing Problems in a previous post, Newtown Neurotic). Labour, despite the problems of the building programme in the context of past-war reconstruction, managed to build 600,000 new council houses. That is the context of the famous 1950 pledge by the Conservatives, at the 1950 Party Conference, to build 300,000 houses a year. This was a popular commitment.

Restrictions on the construction of housing, necessitated by curbs on imported raw materials to help the balance of payments and, later, cuts in public spending had been unpopular with voters.

The first Minister of Housing in Churchill’s government was Harold Macmillan (1951-54). Macmillan had made his name as a reforming or social Tory (he even toyed with crossing the floor to Labour), with a strong commitment to social reform.  His housing policy fitted Churchill’s consensus politics (and his old coalitionist tendencies).  Implementing it was more problematic, as these cabinet papers from Macmaillan from 1952 and 1953 reveal.

Click to access cab-129-53-c-52-216-16.pdf

Click to access cab-129-54-cp-52-299.pdf

Click to access cab-129-58-c-53-23-23.pdf

260,000 houses were completed in 1952 and in 1953 the target was exceeded. 318,750 houses were built. Four-fifths of the new houses were built in the public sector. These were the solid, well built 1950s council houses that did as much to improve the lives of millions of working class people as any other measure of social reform (see the post on my council house).   New towns like Harlow provided new lives for thousands of East Enders.  A forceful if colourful junior housing minister, Ernest Marples, was instrumental in the housing drive, if not exactly squeaky clean (see below).

It was Macmillan, however, who took much of the credit and his record as Minster of Housing made his political career.

By the time Macmillan was heading for the Ministry of Defence in 1954, the government view was shifting, towards lifting rent restrictions and the private sector, as this cabinet minute shows.

The Minister of Housing said that deferment of the Rents Bill
was regrettable but inevitable. As he had informed the Cabinet on
16th April, it was his intention to shift the emphasis from the building
of new houses to the repair or demolition of old houses once the 
300,000 target had been attained. 


The other story of housing in the 1950s reflects the ‘Never Had  It So Good’ boom.  House ownership went from 31% to 44% of all houses: the 1950s semi is as much a feature of suburban Britain as its 1930s predecessor.  Private renting, for all the government’s ambitions, declined from 52% to 31%.

The boom in both privately owned and council housing in the ‘fifties changed the face of Britain. How familiar are houses like these council and private estates in almost every, town and village?

There is an excellent article on Tory housing policy in the ‘fifties from Conservative Home. You can read it here.

The same site has an excellent article on Ernest Marples. you can read it here.

3 thoughts on “The Houses that Mac Built

  1. Reblogged this on RGS History and commented:

    The latest repost n post-war housing policy


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