Since the late 19th century, working-class neighbourhoods and communities have often been represented as ‘rough’, substandard, and marginal. Today, working-class people are frequently represented as either the victims or perpetrators of ‘antisocial behaviour’ in ‘no-go’ streets and estates. Council housing is viewed as accommodating people who have failed – or who society has failed. But as the memories here suggest, these claims are myths. The people who speak here demonstrate that many people aspired to the security that council housing – well maintained and funded – could provide in the postwar era. Many families had direct experience of the problems of private renting – little security, delapidated houses, and ever-increasing rents.
The need for council housing was great – and many people demanded it vociferously, agreeing with the 1945 Labour government that their role in winning the war entitled them to state help with housing. In Liverpool, Coventry and elsewhere ordinary working people squatted empty buildings in protest at ongoing homelessness or poor accommodation in blitzed streets. In some cities, many people were housed in ‘prefabs’ – temporary bungalows erected oin the late 1940s that lasted for decades. In some areas, like Liverpool’s Belle Vale, the prefabs proved surprisingly popular. Incredibly, despite their temporary status they were able to provide better housing than most of the city’s ‘slum landlords’. Councils like Liverpool provided funding and support, and the inhabitants were keen to make the most of this new opportunity and kept their houses and gardens in immaculate condition if they could.
Many, many people continued to live in poor housing conditions on cramped inner-city streets into the 1960s and beyond, though. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that wholesale ‘slum clearance’ took place in Liverpool and Coventry, and in some ways this proved unpopular. Social investigators and journalists found that many inhabitants would have preferred to be rehoused in their own inner-city neighbourhood, rather than being moved onto vast council estates on the city’s outskirts, miles away from work, shops and friends. Tower blocks were built which posed problems for older people or those with young children – particularly when the lifts were out of order. And in the early 1970s, government investment in council housing began to decline – and so did the conditions in these neighbourhoods. Lifts, concrete walkways, and public spaces weren’t well maintained. Often residents banded together to improve conditions themselves through campaigns for nurseries or community centres.
These initiatives were often missed, though, by middle-class suburban residents who felt threatened by the estates they saw being built on suburban green spaces near them. Residents of Woolton, near Liverpool, complained bitterly about the construction of council houses at nearby Gateacre and Belle Vale. Often their complaints were based on prejudice rather than fact: they did not know any of the residents but told journalists that council tenants were ‘rough’ and ‘dirty’. No community is perfect, but the memories recorded here highlight that many people were simply trying to make ends meet, keep a roof over their heads and making the best of the conditions in which they found themselves.
Nowadays, everyone is meant to aspire to own their own house. Many of the people whose memories are recorded here also wanted to own a place of their own – often because they became sick of council rules or the lack of space for their children in tower block flats, or the decline in public investment in housing in the 1960s and 1970s, or the isolation on council estates. But most simply could not afford to buy their own house. This didn’t make them less responsible or committed to their local community. The provision of social housing did make them less likely to experience the huge and frightening debts some of their children are now saddled with in the form of mortgages, and less likely to experience homelessness than many of today’s home owners will be in a recession.