Leeds nostalgia: First council houses in city date from 1898

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The subject of housing is never far from the news, with calls for more social housing being made in recent times in a bid to address what many see as a chronic housing shortage.

The underlying principle of council house provision is that historically the private sector was deemed unable to provide adequate housing for all and state intervention was required to ensure there was good quality affordable housing for low income households.

Leeds municipal housing began in 1898 when 10 terrace houses were built in Derwent Avenue, Holbeck. In the late 1960s, they were still tenanted and owned by the Corporation.

Back in the late 1890s, the then vicar of Holbeck sadly reported Holbeck only possessed two trees, both of which stood in the chuchyard. The area was heavily industrialised but great efforts were made to remedy the situation, particularly with the transformation of Holbeck Moor, which was transformed from a cindery waste into a pleasant oasis with gardens and trees. So Holbeck was at the centre of the council house revolution in Leeds.

The first real inroads into mass council housing came in the wake of the First World War. Local authorities were required by law to provide council housing after new laws were passed in 1919 and Lloyd George’s ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ campaign was sparked by concerns over the poor physical condition of army recruits.

In 1919, Parliament passed the ambitious Housing Act which promised government subsidies to help finance the construction of 500,000 houses within three years.

Despite the fact the economy worsened in the 1920s and funding had to be significantly cut, the act nevertheless established the principle of local authorities being responsible for housing provision.

More housing acts followed in 1924 and 1930; the latter saw legislation passed forcing obliging councils to clear slum areas.

But it was not until after Second World War that the age of the council house truly arrived. Early large estates included Wyther, Middleton and Meanwood and to begin with these were terraced houses but before long a different form of housing was embraced, in the form of multi-storey flats and maisonettes and even old people’s homes.

Seacroft is perhaps the most poignant example of how council housing utterly transformed an area, turning a far flung village into a bustling commuter hub and in so doing ushering in a new way of living. Slums were a common sight in Leeds right up to the 1960s, when they were still being cleared. One of the knock-on benefits of mass council housing was better health

The creation of council houses represented a shift change in how people lived and how they related to one another. It was one of the largest council estates in the area, if not the country. For many it brought huge benefits, including more space, modern, clean buildings and gardens in which they could grow vegetables.

The image below shows Beckett Park in the 1960s, highlighting the mix of council accommodation in the city. Of course, Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme changed the social and political landscape again by giving millions the chance to own their own home and pass on wealth.