The Long Abstract.
This thesis argues that the period between 1933 and 1939 was crucial to an improvement in the lifestyle and living conditions of lower-paid workers in England. The catalyst for change was the construction of over two million low-priced houses built during this time. The majority of these homes were acquired by mainly lower-paid and working-class people. The lower-paid who bought these homes adopted values which were to effect changes in the political and economic structure of post-war Britain. These people of indeterminate social class living in the new light industrial areas on the outskirts of London, helped to create a different Britain. The thesis examines the relationship between the willingness of the building societies to lend money, the need and the ability of the working-classes to borrow, and the manner in which the speculative builder constructed houses which the lower paid could afford. The thesis is not written as an apology for the manner in which the houses were built nor a justification for their standards.
The thesis shows that there was a difference between the houses provided by the speculative builder for the working-class to buy and that offered by the institutional providers and planners who supplied homes for the working classes to rent.
Rises in real income, a cheap money policy, and lower material costs were to make the boom in low-cost houses for the working classes possible. Also helping were low labour costs and an erosion of the profitability of agriculture, the latter resulting in relatively low land costs. The banks were willing to lend and there was a substantial level of undrawn savings which had accumulated in the Building Societies. In addition, there was employment for some sections of the working classes in the new industries and this gave them the confidence to enter into the long-term commitment of a mortgage. Finally, there was a shortage of low-cost homes to rent, forcing the working classes to buy.
The expansion of house building which began to have its effect in the summer of 1933, produced the first sign of economic activity leading away from the depression. To build the houses the developer/builder required capital. The problem of finance, for the developers, was solved first by the clearing banks, and in the later part of the 1930s the stock market provided money for the larger developer/builders. The banks' balance sheets were strong in the 1930s, and they were eager for new customers. House building and contracting make an impact on the landscape and can be seen as a visible sign of activity. These loans represent a short-term investment for bankers. All the big banks made good profits during the 1920s and 1930s which they were willing to invest. Deposits lent to builders meant that houses could be built and sold and the loans repaid and the banks made profits; the circle was short lived. Once the banks had provided funds for house building the building societies financed the purchasers.
Chapter One covers the manner in which the financing of the contractor and the purchase of the houses was arranged. The close relationship between the speculative builders and the building societies will be explained. The prosperity produced within certain sections of the working-class economy during the run-up to World War II which, co-incided with an over production of houses, probably prevented a slump in the house-building industry and financial losses by the building societies, the banks and the speculative builders.
The second chapter deals with the growth in the building societies and the change in their attitudes. The most important and fundamental aspect of the boom was the manner in which it was financed and the separate and distinct parts played by the banks and the building societies. Without the expansion of the lending by the societies at this time the current high level of home ownership would not have been achieved. The building societies expanded to meet the need, lending each year three times more in a ten-year period, from £47.5 million in 1925 to £136 million in 1935 with the numbers of borrowers going up in a similar ratio from 554,000 to 1.4 million over the same period. From 1920 to 1940 the number of societies dropped by 25 per cent while their assets went up almost nine times and their lending figures leapt from £25 to about £90 million. The move from the high interest rates in the late 1920s to the much lower rates of the mid-1930s was of crucial significance and helped to trigger this expansion.
Such a record was not achieved without some excesses, such as aggressive inter-society rivalry, exaggerated advertising claims, over-generous commissions for agents and links with builders' housing pools. The manner in which the building societies lent, the influence of the pooling system and the effect of the residential mortgage insurance cover provided, will all be discussed. The larger societies were headed by strong, egotistical chairmen who felt that they were engaged in a crusade to assist in providing housing, especially for the lower-paid workers. This expansion would, at the same time, increase their reserves and profits. The housing subsidies in the period after 1919 and their cost to the Exchequer is discussed. It will be shown that the effect of subsidies was to provide houses for the middle and upper working classes and not the lower working classes. The lack of available municipal housing in areas where there was work for the working classes was another reason why they were attracted to buy from the speculative developer funded by the building societies. The government did try to harness the funds of the building societies in order to build houses for rent. The Housing (Financial Provisions) Act 1933 intended that the building societies and the local authorities would work together to build the houses which were required. This thesis examines why the Act was not a success.
The next chapter will show how the move to the suburbs was predominantly undertaken by the skilled and semi-skilled working-class people. These were the people financed by the building societies. This class was described as 'the lower paid classes' by Sir Harold Bellman, the Chairman of the Abbey Road Building Society during the 1930s, and this is an appropriate term for the class of people who were housed by the speculative developers of the time.
Chapter four shows the high the level of ownership of the new homes by working-class people and contrasts this with the conclusions of Swenarton and Taylor who showed that the middle classes were the main purchasers of new houses at this time.
Chapters five and six discuss the manner in which the speculative builder/developer built the estates of the 1930s. This work concentrates on the small, cheaper house selling at around £500 in areas such as Hayes and Harrow in Middlesex and not the larger house which sold for say £750 in areas such as Mill Hill and Pinner. The research material has been enhanced by interviews with senior directors of the building society movement and speculative contractors who were actively involved in the housing boom of the 1930s. Interviews were also carried out with people who had been original purchasers of low-cost houses.
The most successful house type built in the 1930s was the semi-detached. The origin of the design and some of the different variances will be explored. The speculative builder evolved a house which externally had design clichés from 'Olde England' but used construction techniques that had been de-skilled, making it easier for him to erect them without the need to use craftsmen. Builders built what they thought the customer would like. If it sold, they built more. These houses were on the surface very basic: they were cheaply built and the use of relatively poor quality materials, unskilled labour and subcontracting was widespread. However, the houses sold fairly quickly and have stood the test of time well. The result was that builders profited, banks were repaid, houses were bought and the new owners and the building societies' investors were satisfied. These chapters will show how it was possible for a large number of new homes to be designed and built by small firms of speculative builders using largely unskilled labour. In the 1930s the building industry was not necessarily a capital intensive one. Money was borrowed for land, and plant and equipment was hired. Labour was paid on a weekly basis, suppliers gave credit and much of the work was performed by subcontractors who also worked on credit. The management of the projects was run from home or a small office with most of the professional services provided by self-employed surveyors, estimators and designer/architects.
The summary reviews the conclusion that the working classes were the main beneficiaries of this building boom. In the new suburbs, thanks to the design of the semi-detached house type there was privacy and the accommodation was self-contained. In the old cities it was usual to live close to other people in houses which were multi-occupied. There were often older family members very nearby, with older established attitudes. Very little of the old attitudes and values were transferred to the suburbs with the owner-occupiers; in contrast to those moving to council housing who were often moved with their neighbours and their families.