Local Housing On A Balanced Budget

In the period from 1972 to 1975, Colchester showed that a substantial building programme could be achieved on a balanced budget. It also showed that monolithic council house schemes were unnecessary and a feature only of bad planning. Most of the council building of that time was seamlessly distributed into the general developments of both town and country areas.

Colchester could certainly have achieved the transition to a complementary strategy of open access housing within a period of less than ten years. With such an achievement, homelessness would have been solved at low cost and family overcrowding while waiting to buy, eliminated. With so short a period of transition development, the gradual maturity of a more optimal sized stock would have brought further reductions in cost and a powerful stabilisation of the local house price market.

Colchester

By 1970 local housing stocks were quite large. In Colchester 10,000 council houses served a population of 170,000, about 20% of all families. With a small building program, the majority of vacancies arose from natural movements in about 3% of the stock, or 300 vacancies per year. In normal times and with restricted access, this caused waiting periods of 6 to 12 months in Colchester. Such a situation was thought to be acceptable and a benign conservative town council administration chose a building program aimed at meeting the status quo. Prior to local government re-organisation, the conservative administration had a not insignificant building programme of between 100 and 200 houses per year. The housing committee was proud of high standards in council building and the welfare of tenants was a genuine concern. Government subsidy was quite small and rate subsidy had long since been abolished.


Terraced Houses at West Mersea and Greenstead (Colchester circa. 1975)

Nevertheless, the restricted concept of council housing had led to the gradual consolidation of significant social divisions in the structure of the town. Council housing was clearly distinguished in large estates, while the policy of restricted access endowed these areas of town with the concentrated disadvantages of low income and scarce resources. In addition to low income, these areas included by far the highest concentrations of old people and single parent families. The stress was transmitted to all of the local services. Schools, medical, care, social and community services were under resourced compared to other parts of the town.

The problems that were growing on large council estates established them as strongholds of Conservative opposition, which further polarised the development of social and educational infrastructure between geographical boundaries. In Colchester, the divisions broke all of the common ground, when local government re-organisation brought a change of power within conservative ranks as land-owners and farmers gained a majority over their town bred colleagues.

The period 1972-1975 suffered from unprecedented house price inflation and a corresponding large increase in the council house waiting list. The effects of Mr. Heaths Housing Act reduced access to home ownership by high prices and caused a great increase in applicants to the council waiting list. Colchester had a hung council, but for the first time in decades, Labour took control of housing policy with the support of a Liberal and three independent councillors.

Radical Policies

In-fill developments at Fingringhoe and a prize winning development in the Dutch quarter, Colchester

In spite of the fierce polarisation that now existed in the re-organised "town and country" council, a new housing policy began to address the root problems of council housing in Colchester. The most important objectives of the new policy were to increase the rented stock and at the same time, to distribute its location. The long-term objectives were to increase stock to a level, which would allow a policy of open access to the waiting lists and to reduce the waiting period to a minimum. The current situation was exceptional and the long-term objectives would be aided by a return to house price "normality".

In the 1970ís Colchester was identified in the County Structure Plan as a rapidly expanding commuter town. A huge area, north of the town was zoned for the planned expansion. By 1972, development companies were already involved in the first stages of the planning process. In difficult re-negotiation of the detailed planning stage with these developers, council officers acting on the new policy, were successful in obtaining five sites for council housing development. These changes provided the opportunity to include 1250 council houses in this very large new development of the town.

Even traditional Conservatives took every opportunity to oppose the opening of the waiting list to people born outside of the borough. Although the same argument was never applied to the massive expansion, which was taking place in private developments, entry to the waiting list was protected for the local deserving poor. By this time, all subsidies had been removed from Colchester council building and the stock was capable of sustaining significant building or purchase programmes. There was no reason to protect access from demand and a national policy could have imposed a duty to meet it.

In Colchester, the following main points of the new policy were implemented with a balanced budget:

The fact is, that in the 60s and 70s, council housing as a genuine and complementary alternative to ownership could easily have been achieved in places like Colchester.

Epilogue

In Colchester, the following period featured a change in political climate and internal divisions severely damaged the strength of the Labour Party. The housing programme, in the hands of a farmer, was cut to 25 houses per year. Four years later, the 1980 Housing Act removed the local control of housing policy. Colchester became a "flagship" leader for the sale of council houses and the interest yielded on capital from council house sales was used to subsidise 25% of the "local" rate.