John Wheatley and the Origins of Council Housing

Council housing has a rich history.  It transformed the housing conditions of millions of people.  It owed its origins to a small number of visionary pioneers.  In a special post, Steve Schifferes recalls the life of a pivotal figure, John Wheatley.

John Wheatley, a leader of the “Red Clydeside” group of Labour MPs in the 1920s, was a key figure in the development of housing policy in the UK, and the architect of the 1924 Housing Act which built nearly 500,000 homes in the interwar years and put council housing on a firm financial and political basis for the next 50 years.

At a time when the very concept of council housing is under unprecedented attack, it is useful to look again at Wheatley’s legacy.

Wheatley’s concern about housing stemmed from his own impoverished background as the son of an Irish miner in the Lanarkshire coalfields. Wheatley himself went down the pits at age 12, and lived in a one-room terraced house with his eight brothers and sisters, parents, and lodgers.  The children all slept together in a bed that was rolled out at night. There was only a communal toilet and water had to be hauled from a common tap. Wheatley later described the degrading conditions of such housing in his pamphlet ‘Mines, Miners, and Misery’, where he blamed the mine owners for dehumanising their workforce.

Wheatley managed to escape from the pits through self-education and eventually managed to become a successful businessman, setting up a printing firm which printed religious calendars and local papers. His financial success allowed him the freedom to carry out his political activities without interference, and he was able to subsidize the printing of leaflets and the organisation of meetings.

Wheatley had not started out as socialist but as an Irish Nationalist, and was a leading member of the United Irish League in Glasgow before he joined the Independent Labour Party in 1906. Wheatley was also a devout Catholic, and his first act was to set up a Catholic Socialist Society, to convince the Irish Catholic community that there was no incompability between religion and socialism. He ran foul of the Catholic establishment in the City, and in 1912 an angry mob converged on his houses to burn him in effigy for his heretical beliefs – an event he watched with equanimity from his front porch.

Wheatley soon became active in local politics, serving as a councillor for Shettleston, and when it was amalgamated with Glasgow, as leader of the Labour group on the City Council. Glasgow had the worst housing of any major UK city, with the majority of its population living in unheathly one or two room tenement blocks with little sanitation. Death rates for the poorer wards were very much higher than in the affluent West End. And housebuilding had virtually ceased as the “housing famine” increased, putting pressure on accommodation and rents.

From the outset, Wheatley argued that only the government could supply the answer to the housing problem by building reasonably priced housing for workers. He sought to capitalise on the successful activities of the Glasgow City council to help subsidise the cost of building such housing, proposing that the surplus from the municipal tramways be used to build “Eight pound (per year) cottages for Glasgow citizens.” 

What transformed the housing issue in Glasgow was the First World War. As a major munitions centre, Glasgow’s population expanded rapidly with an influx of workers to the shipyards and armaments factories. The result was a squeeze on housing, especially affecting existing tenants whose husbands were in the armed forces.  The ILP under Wheatley – despite its anti war stance – began agitating over the evictions of servicemen’s wives, calling the landlords the “huns at home.” By October 1915 they had built a mass movement, led by women, of rent strikers who prevented evictions and marched on the sherriff’s court. When the workers at the Parkhead Forge (led by a Wheatley ally, David Kirkwood) threatened to go on strike to support the rent strikers, the government conceded and introduced rent control throughout the UK for the duration of the war. 

Wheatley himself was always clear that rent control was a temporary measure due to the failure of the private rented sector, and the real answer was the provision of state-subsidised housing. In 1922 he was elected to Parliament, and in 1924 he had a chance to put his ideas into practice when he was appointed Minister of Health in the first Labour government.

There had already been two failed attempts to involve the national government in the provision of housing after the war – the Addison Act in 1919, which aimed at providing “Homes Fit for Heroes” but fell victim to the Geddes Axe and was cut by the Coalition Government as too expensive. In 1923 Neville Chamberlain introduced a housing act designed to subsidise private sector provision, but little housing was built.

Wheatley built the foundations of his housing policy carefully, first working to gain an agreement between builders and the building trades on the expansion of the apprentice system to ensure there was the workforce to expand housing production. He also sought agreement with building materials suppliers to limit any price increases, and carefully consulted the local authorities.  Under Wheatley’s plans, local authorities would receive long term 40 year subsidies to build council housing under municipal control with a guarantee against any losses.  Wheatley aimed to eliminate the housing shortage in ten years, with house building rising from 135,000 per year to 450,000 houses per year in the final year of his plan. Wheatley aimed at a high standard of housing suitable for skilled workers and available to all, “homes not hutches” as he called it.

Wheatley fell out with the Labour leadership under Ramsay MacDonald over his attitude to the 1926 General Strike, and due to his left wing views was not reappointed in the 1929 Labour government – and remained a fierce critic of its orthodox economic policy in the face of the growing world economic crisis. He died in 1930, just before the Labour government fell and the pound was devalued.

MacDonald joined a new National government dominated by the Conservatives.  That government abolished the Wheatley Act as too expensive and returned to a policy of slum clearance with its emphasis on the rehousing of “slum dwellers” in houses and flats of lower quality. This led to a number of rent strikes by existing tenants, who objected to having their rents increased in order to subsidize the rents of the new tenants, who at that time could not afford council housing.

Wheatley’s legacy lived on, however, through the post World War II expansion of council house building – and council housing became the basis for Labour’s rise to power in the major urban centres.

Steve Schifferes is Professor of financial journalism at City University.  Formerly a producer at London Weekend Television and a BBC journalist, he also worked at Shelter, the National Campaign for the Homeless.

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3 Responses to John Wheatley and the Origins of Council Housing

  1. Pingback: Housing the key achievement of the first Labour Government formed 90 years ago today | Red Brick

  2. Pingback: The Long and Winding Road | Red Brick

  3. Dan Filson says:

    It may be open to misunderstanding to say that the MacDonald government “abolished the Wheatley Act as too expensive and returned to a policy of slum clearance with its emphasis on the rehousing of “slum dwellers” in houses and flats of lower quality”, as this implies moving people into worse housing. The homes to which the slum dwellers were rehoused were generally surely of better quality than the slums but of lower quality than the public housing built after 1918 and up to that point. Am I wrong on that? Council housing remained solidly built through the 1930s as high unemployment meant that maintaining high workmanship standards was cheap. But outside where Labour ruled the councils, the emphasis from 1931 was on economy.

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