Post-War Housing in Northern Ireland – a guest post by Michael Green

In the early 1920s, my grandfather’s business failed, so that my father had to leave school and abandon his ambition of attending university. He joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service as a Junior Clerk. Nearly 50 years later he retired as a Permanent Secretary. He died fairly soon after retiring, and when going through his papers I found drafts of a number of his speeches and radio talks. Most of these were non-controversial, but I found one extraordinary speech on housing from 1945. I understand that he played a significant role in setting up the Northern Ireland Housing Trust. Its overt objective would have been to supplement the provision of public sector housing by local authorities, but I suspect its covert objective would be to build homes that would not be allocated on purely sectarian lines.

The full text of the speech is here (link). I don’t know where or to whom it was given, but I can hear his voice throughout it.

Perhaps some of what he said has not stood the test of time, but the same problems he was addressing 70 years ago have come back today. The solutions have been forgotten.

He first addressed the size of the problem. Of 300,000 inhabited houses in N. Ireland, over 37,000 were unfit for human habitation but were inhabited. A further 74,000 houses were fit or could be made fit for occupation but were overcrowded, though

“ It is a measure of social progress to be able to report that there are only 1,850 inhabitants of Belfast living at more than 5 to a room. This is probably what Dr Thomson, the former M.O.H. of Belfast meant when he said that there were no slums in the city.”

The worse the house, the more people both absolutely and relatively would be found in it . The estimated immediate need was for 100,000 new houses, but in no year between the wars had Northern Ireland produced more than 6,000 houses. At that rate, it would take a long time to get the houses needed.

“How long it will take at the Belfast Corporation’s rate of progress I leave to the astronomers who think in terms of light years rather than in the brief calendar of human affairs.”

70 years later we are creeping back to the same shortfall, but without the will to correct it. I sometimes think that the surest way to be elected to local or national government is to promise that no new homes will be built in your ward or constituency.

Could the private sector be the solution?

“The crux is not, who is to build the houses, but who is to pay for them and own them once they are built, and there are only three parties who can compete for that doubtful privilege. They are, the State, the Local Authority and the private owner. Between the wars four-fifths of our houses were built by private owners and it is not unreasonable to ask why they should not build the same proportion of the houses which we now so desperately need. This is a question which probably generates more heat than any other connected with housing, and like all forms of heat it generates smoke which confuses the issue and leads to muddled thinking and muddled talking. Let me state the proposition, I hope impartially, in elementary terms. The private owner is neither a fool nor a philanthropist. If he builds a house he wishes either to occupy it himself, or to sell it, or let it to someone else. The man who commissions the building of a house for himself is in a small minority. He probably has some money and he knows or should know what he is doing. In his case the motto of ‘caveat emptor’ applies and we need waste no sympathy or time upon him. Next let us consider the man who builds a house to sell; his ambition is to complete the house, complete the sale, draw his money and go and build another house. He has no long-term responsibility for the structure which he builds and indeed the pressure upon him is to build something which looks nice rather than something which is durable.“

“The third Case is that of the private owner who builds houses to let. Because he has built to let he retains an interest in the building and is responsible for seeing that it is not a wasting asset; you will ordinarily find, therefore, that houses of this kind are better constructed than the more pretentious erections of outer suburbia and that they are more largely devoid of ornament. But even there the trouble is that the wise private owner chooses his tenants not for their housing needs but for their ability to pay rent and to refrain from damaging the structure. He will take a rich tenant rather than a poor one and a childless tenant rather than one that has a quiverful of innocent but destructive children…”

“…The result, therefore, of his activities is not one to take the overcrowded portion of the people from the very bad homes which they occupy. He simply skims the cream from the top of the jug. Thus, the threefold activities of private enterprise tend to house first the man who can commission his own house, those who are financially able to buy a house, so to speak, off the peg, and thirdly the financially strong and well-paid childless section who are best able to pay rent. Even in peacetime this was an unhappy tendency.“

Still true today.

Another problem that has returned is the cost of housing relative to wages.

“The enormous increase in building costs which has followed the war emphasises this to a very much greater degree. building costs are at least double what they were pre-war but wages have not risen to match, and it follows that the rents needed to repay present building costs for the sale price of houses built today are quite out of proportion to the ability of people to pay. Houses built under these conditions will, therefore, go to people with an income level far above that for which the houses were originally built. “

“What is the remedy? A subsidy to bridge the gap between ability to pay and current costs. If that subsidy is put into houses which are sold the builder has no incentive to put good workmanship into his job because he gets the subsidy and the sooner he can get another house started the better he will be pleased. Again, if the subsidy is paid and the house let to a person chosen by the builder the house will go to the most socially desirable, that is to say, the man with money and no children. “

The position then is that at present private ownership can and will do nothing to meet the direct need shown in the statistics. What it will do, if given a free hand, is to build houses to be sold to those who can pay for them irrespective of need, and if confined to letting the houses the choice of tenant will be, not on the basis of solving the social problems but of getting solvent respectable tenants.“

Again true today

“Now could we consider what Local Authorities can do in the way of housing. First of all it should be made clear that they are the housing authority for each area and on them is laid by Parliament the duty of seeing that people are properly housed. They are armed with a formidable medley of powers under which they can stop the ordinary citizen from doing practically everything that he wants to do and under which they can themselves initiate reforms of all kinds. Local Authorities are elected by the people of their areas and they should reflect the popular will. If I am any judge of people’s wishes, at the moment they want houses and they want them quickly. Government Departments are slow. Our own society is not notorious for the speed with which it moves but both seem to me to move like jet-propelled planes when compared to the progress of some local authorities, and in particular, our old friend, the Belfast Corporation.”

(That Corporation had been tasked with building 750 new houses. After nearly two years, 16 had been partly completed.)

“It is little wonder that people complain of slowness and talk despairingly of ever getting the houses which are needed built, and yet the Corporation are trying to do what the city needs. They are building houses for workers who need them; not for the middle class, who can afford to buy them. It is essential that there should be in these times of unbalanced economics of housing, houses built by public authorities to be let at rents which match the general level of workers’ wages and which can be let on a basis of need.

The third approach was State intervention at arms length – The Northern Ireland Housing Trust. In 8 months it had got more houses under actual construction than the rest had been able to achieve in the past two years .

“..backed by State finance but run by people whose integrity and efficiency were completely above question.” (a Quaker connection).

Finally, he described the first introduction of proper housing standards after WW1 (the Tudor Walters report) and their subsequent collapse. We still have the conflict between affordability and acceptable standards, though the reasons and solutions may have changed.

“…I remember after the last war the extravagant promises that were made. Mr Lloyd George promised, for instance “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” I am promising no homes for heroes; only heroes could live in the homes that were provided as a result of the wild promises made in 1918…. “