Post-War Housing in Northern Ireland

(Talk by Ronald Green in 1945 on the Northern Ireland Housing Trust)

Housing is a problem which interests every single one of us from the cradle to the grave. There is no need, therefore, to apologise for talking about it at a time like the present. The trouble about it is that it is such an enormous subject that it is quite impossible within the limits of what even the best trained audience can stand to give anything like a comprehensive picture of the situation and of the means which can be devised to deal with that situation. The most one can do is to pick out a few of the highlights of the subject and to try and sum up at the end.

First of all as to the size of the problem, I often wonder whether anyone except the poor themselves and the few trained social workers who go among them realize what housing is like in the back streets of our cities, in the older parts of our country towns and in the picturesque little cottages that are so nice to whiz past in a motor car in the Ulster countryside. One has to fall back on figures to describe such a situation, but figures are a very cold and bloodless way of expressing the ill health, suffering and unhappiness which the housing conditions which the figures disclose must cost to the thousands who live in the houses.

Here then are some selected figures. They say that figures will prove anything but these are not cooked, they are merely picked out of a huge mass of statistics which all sum up to the same deplorable picture of housing conditions in Ulster.

There are over 300,000 inhabited houses in N. Ireland. Over 37,000 are unfit for human habitation but are inhabited today. By ‘unfit’ I mean unfit and not merely that the house is suffering from minor defects. In the present state of our housing a place has to be pretty bad before it earns that unenviable title. A further 74,000 houses are fit or could be made fit for occupation but are overcrowded, and again when I say ‘overcrowded’ I mean overcrowded. By that magic word I mean that when you have reserved one room in the house as a room for living and working in you do not count the place overcrowded unless it houses more than 1.5 people for each of the remaining rooms. On this basis there are in Belfast alone 139,000 people living at the rate of more than 1.5 people per room, and included in that figure are 71,000 people at more than 2 to a room; 21,000 at more than 3 to a room and 6,000 at more than 4 to a room. 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.

This distribution of unfitness and overcrowding is not evenly distributed at all, it bears almost entirely upon the poorer people. People are inclined to talk of the poor, the working classes, and so forth, as though they were some strange species of animal of unpredictable behaviour, with no rights and with a preference for wallowing in misery and filth. The attitude of far too many people in more fortunate circumstances is that of the naval captain who when asked to report on the manners and customs of a South Sea island reported simply -“Manners, none; customs beastly”. I will not labour the point except to say that human nature is very much the same in all walks of life. Everywhere there are people who make the most of housing accommodation and everywhere people who lower whatever standard they find when first they go into a house. The transferred slum dweller who is alleged, I think quite unfairly, to keep his coals in the bath, has his counterpart in the transient aristocrat who wrecks the furnished houses of suburbia and writes his character in cigarette burns and bottle marks all over the furniture.

But as I say, overcrowding and unfitness is a problem of the poor and of the very poor. Consider for instance the statistics for some of the Belfast wards. In Smithfield 65% of all the houses are either overcrowded or totally unfit; in Court 50% is the figure, but in the distinguished atmosphere of Windsor only 9% of the houses fall within this category. In Smithfield 3/4 of the population live in the 65% of overcrowded or unfit houses; in Court 2/3 of the population inhabit the half of bad houses; in Windsor no less than 15% of the total population occupy the 9% overcrowded or unfit houses. In other words, the worse the house the more people both absolutely and relatively will be found in it.

Let us look at the rural areas for a moment where there are 127,000 houses. Eighty-five thousand of those houses have no water in house or yard, that is, it has to be carried in buckets, and a surprising thing is that 35,000 of those houses have no water within 50 yards in the case of houses in villages, and 100 yards in other places. One would think that enough water fell both on the just and on the unjust in Northern Ireland to save the amount of carrying which is obviously revealed by these statistics. The ordinary urban consumption of water is over 30 gallons per head per day, but if all the water used has to be carried in buckets you can hardly wonder if the average consumption is a good deal lower in rural Ulster, with obvious and unhappy results. Of the 127,000 houses 107,000 have no better sanitation than an earth closet and 40,000 of these have no closet at all, or at any rate do not have the exclusive use of one for the family occupying the cottage. Ninety-six thousand have neither gas nor electricity.

I could go on with these figures for hours but surely I have sketched in with sufficient emphasis the picture I have tried to paint, and when I tell you that the figures total up to an estimated immediate need of 100,000 new houses you will not be altogether surprised. However, like all the figures, 100,000 just seems a nice round number, but in terms of bricks and mortar it means a very great deal of hard work and expenditure. For instance in no year between the wars did N. Ireland produce more than 6,000 houses and you will see that it will take a long time to get the houses we need at this rate of building. 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.

How are these houses to be built? first of all they will be built by the building industry unless some method of turning them out ready-made from factories can be evolved and I am sorry to say that as yet I see no sign of a successful permanent factory-made house. 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. It is to this curious trait of human nature that we owe the rash of suburban development which took place between the wars. No house could look quite like its neighbours and each had to be done up so as to attract the eye and only too often to conceal the defects of basic construction.

Thus was born what Mr Aneurin Bevan calls the marzipan school of architecture, heavily sugar-coated. But a great number of owners will sooner or later get through the coating to the shoddy pill underneath.

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. (Geometrical progression “If one can do what he can do, just think what two can do.) 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. It went far to producing the segregation of classes – the development of three quite different towns within the same area. first of all the high-class suburban development like Upper Malone, all mock Tudor, sham Jacobean (Stock Exchange Georgian); second, the closely-packed small modern houses of the Ormeau district, and thirdly and quite untouched by the march of progress, the old slums and rookeries of our back streets. Good people talked in horror of what came out of those areas after the bombing but what on earth did they expect in the way of behaviour from people existing in hopelessly overcrowded, small, dark houses 40 and 60 and 80 to the acre, with not a bath to the square mile and no way of heating water except on the kitchen fire?

As I say, even in peacetime the activities of the private owner were creating a very awkward housing situation and 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.

Fifty years ago when the doctrines of laisser faire and self help were at their maximum currency this would have been regarded as quite a reasonable and natural thing. The laws of supply and demand would have been left to operate and the poor and the very poor could go to the wall. “The poor are always with us” was a suitable text and the poem:

God bless the Squire and his relations

And keep us in our proper stations

very fairly represented popular feeling.

As I say I would be no party to the payment of a subsidy which would enable people to build houses and sell them to those best able to pay for them or to let them to tenants picked for their social stability and not their housing needs. If private owners will come in to help in rehousing the people who live in bad houses or under overcrowded conditions, then they will be very welcome allies.

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.

This august body was given the job of building 750 houses in November, 1943. By April, 1944 they had gone to the length of selecting a site. That is what is meant by local knowledge. By October, 1944 they had got as far as to submit plans for the first 88 houses to the Ministry of Health. By February, 1945 they placed a contract and in April of that year by superhuman exertions they actually got the contractor on to the site. He is slaving away and has completed 16 houses up to first floor level. Today the Corporation have put in an advertisement for the building of another 124 houses. Two years to take a site and start the building of 200 houses. 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 way of tackling the problem is through State intervention. I am not such a believer in the speed and efficiency of the Government as to advocate that the Government should itself start building houses. We are tied up with what is popularly called red tape, but which is really little more than the taking of precautions to see that nobody puts his arm into the till during the expenditure of public money. So instead of direct State intervention we set up a Housing Trust backed by State finance but run by people whose integrity and efficiency were completely above question. This is, in fact, a rather rare attempt to combine the virtues of public honesty and private enterprise. I think we may say that, as an experiment on these lines, it has already been a great success.

It has already in its possession the land for 2,000 houses and it has got more houses under actual construction in the eight months of its existence than the rest have been able to achieve in the past two years or so.

There on the one hand is the problem and on the other the machines which we hope will grind it down and dissolve it. Private enterprise, subject to adequate safeguards against shoddy building and anti-social practices in sale or letting. The Local Authorities moving with at present barely perceptible, but let us hope increasing momentum, and of course, gingered up by the prospect of elections in 1946; the Housing Trust working swiftly and efficiently with no object but to do good, if possible by stealth, and in any event at the utmost speed which can be obtained by the pooled efforts of organizers, technicians and builders.

Another important feature of the post-war housing programme is to see that reasonable standards of housing shall be observed. In 1917 the Tudor Walter’s Report on Housing made an authoritative survey of housing in England and Wales condemning existing practice root and branch, and laid down new minimum standards far in advance of anything hitherto considered necessary or desirable for ordinary workers. Those standards were abandoned in the bad years of depression in 1930 and after. That was in England but in Northern Ireland no more than lip service was paid to those standards and by 1925 they had been thrown completely overboard. From then until 1939 it was as though a competition had been introduced between speculative builders to see who could crowd the smallest houses on to the narrowest frontage. They did not quite achieve the heights of Victorian slumdom when nine feet frontages were achieved by taking the front door into the living room and leading the stairs up like an almost vertical ladder to a couple of small boxes above, but they did get down to fourteen feet or so. Houses built to these standards had certain minor defects as you may imagine.

For the future we want to see that every house has one decent sized living room, a scullery or kitchen in which it is possible to cook, wash up, turn round, see out of and breathe. All these are remarkable refinements on the small sculleries built between the wars. We want to see at least one decent double bedroom, a smaller room which is capable of housing two people and in most houses a third single bedroom. These standards are not popular with speculators, estate agents and others who derive financial or other benefits from the ownership of small substandard houses, but they are really the minimum for human decency and all right-thinking people should support them through thick and thin.

I spoke before of the blitzed areas and the people who had come from them. These people have seen their houses, if that be the right word, destroyed and they have overflowed into the country and into other parts of the city, where housing conditions are similar to those which they left behind them. In doing so they have aggravated the problem of overcrowding and unfitness. They do not want to live in the country and travel in to work; they are city people and they would like to live in the city again but there is no point whatever in trying to rebuild the little warrens which have been destroyed. The streets are too close together to enable two houses to be built back to back with any reasonable light to either and they are just too wide apart to make it economic to redevelop at one house where two previously stood.

What is needed for those areas is to replan them entirely taking the existing main road structure and basing upon it now communities built by reference to the area and not to the previously existing streets. Advantage could be taken at the same time to provide open spaces, children’s playgrounds and all the other amenities which are so badly needed in the densely packed central areas of the town.

In any event the building of large numbers of separate houses in these areas is a very wasteful use of land and it would be far better to use these valuable central sites to put blocks of flats on them. I know there is a prejudice against flats here but this will have to be overcome if Belfast is to become a civilized modern city and not a worn out relic of the industrial revolution.

The Belfast of the future must be built higher than the Belfast of today. The huge areas of mean, narrow streets and ghastly houses must be swept away in accordance with a well-thought-out long-term plan and the city must be rebuilt on formal pleasing lines with proper traffic arteries to carry its trade to and fro, with open spaces to give air and light, with public buildings to add dignity to the scene and with housing designed so as to give its people healthy living conditions under which to bring up their families in the new world to which we look with hope and apprehension.

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, but if the housing and planning programme of the Government is put in train on a long-term basis, pushed from above and supported from below by the ordinary decent citizen, then we shall have a city and a country in which our children and our children’s children can live a full and happy life.

See also