HOUSE PURCHASE DEPARTMENT:
THE ASSISTED HOUSE PURCHASE SCHEME
In 1876, Birmingham City Council banned the construction of back-to-back houses, as they were permitted to do by the Public Health Act of 1875. By this date there were some 50,000 of these dwellings in Birmingham - built from the late 18th-Century onwards to house the city's rapidly expanding population that had been attracted to find employment in the factories that were being established during the Industrial Revolution. For the whole of the 19th-Century, back-to-back houses were the cheapest possible housing for the impoverished, industrial working class.
Back-to-back houses shared party walls on three sides with the front wall having the only door and windows. Most houses were only one room deep, with the entrance being either from the street or from an inner yard (or 'Court'); they had two or three storeys and, sometimes, a cellar to store coal. Construction was generally sub-standard with poor ventilation and sanitation. A Court of fourteen houses would share seven (or less) toilets and often just a single tap to supply water. As a consequence, the tenants suffered with health problems; for example, in 1899, 3,400 children died in Birmingham before their first birthday. A child was almost twice as likely to die if raised in a back-to-back house than a terraced house. Epidemics of diarrhoea, measles, diphtheria, smallpox and typhoid were regular occurrences.
Although Birmingham's back-to-back houses provided a very poor standard of accommodation, they often compared favourably with the rural cottages that the residents had given up when moving to the city to seek work. And they also provided better living conditions than other towns: in Manchester and Liverpool back-to-backs were often occupied by two or more families, including the use of a cellar as accommodation.
Further legislation in 1875 included the Artisans' and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act which allowed local councils to buy up areas of slum dwellings in order to clear and then rebuild them. Councils were not compelled to take action and, due to the obvious cost involved, few did. By 1881, only 10 out of 87 towns in England and Wales used their permitted powers. The most notable major redevelopment occurred in Birmingham due to the leadership of Joseph Chamberlain; his Improvement Scheme of 1875 cleared some 93-acres of the town centre. Over 850 dwellings were removed, but they were mostly replaced by commercial development including the creation of Corporation Street and the Victoria Law Courts.
The Corporation fell short in building housing for the working-class families that had been displaced by Chamberlain's scheme. Though Chamberlain had actively indicated that this would be a prime concern of his Improvement Scheme, the Corporation was prevented from fulfilling his intentions because the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act forbade authorities from building without the permission of the Local Government Board, which was not forthcoming. Significant criticism was levelled at the Improvement Scheme for failure to find adequate housing for those displaced, but subsequent investigations seemed to indicate that many of the poor preferred to move to lower-priced housing (despite its substandard sanitation) rather than to move to new housing that was priced higher. New dwellings let at between 5s. 6d and 7s. a week, were well beyond the pocket of those who had previously lived in the area. In 1884, there were still some 27,000 families in Birmingham paying a rent of less than 3s. 6d. per week.
Building bye-laws passed to improve the standard of dwellings raised the cost of building and lessened the density of housing - the new regulations resulted in only nine houses in an area where about twenty had previously been built. Improved sanitation led to an increase in the population and by the start of the First World War there was a national housing shortage of over half-a-million. Lack of building during the War exacerbated the situation and, by 1918, 43,366 back-to-backs housed 200,000 people in Birmingham. David Lloyd George's slogan for the General Election of the same year ("homes fit for heroes") set the attitude for the post-War years, in which local councils, supported by government subsidies, were to be the main agents in providing housing.
The Tudor Walters Report on housing was produced in November 1918. Its recommendations set the standards for council house design for the next 90 years. A parlour house was to be 1,055 square feet and a non parlour house to be 855 square feet. In the climate of 1918, 85% of the houses needed to be three-bedroom and 15% to be smaller or bigger. Prior to the War, the ratio had been 40%/60%. The report stipulated that the three bedrooms should be 150 square feet,100 square feet and 65 square feet. A parlour of 120 square feet was seen to be adequate – in effect 12 by 10 feet; it was a quiet room for reading, writing, a sick relative or formal entertaining of non-family visitors.
Birmingham led the way nationally in constructing council houses when the City Council decided to build modern housing to re-house families from the inner city slums. Boundary expansions which brought areas including Aston, Handsworth, Erdington, Yardley, and Northfield within the city's boundaries provided extra space for housing developments. By 1939, almost 50,000 council houses had been built across the city within twenty years. Some 65,000 houses were also built by private contractors for owner-occupiers. New council estates built during this era included Kingstanding, Weoley Castle, Pype Hayes, and the Stockfield Estate at Acocks Green.
When the legislation to establish the BMB was passing through Parliament, Neville Chamberlain used the expectations that "homes fit for heroes" would be a post-War priority to ensure that the legislation establishing the Bank included the power (unusual for a savings bank) to make loans for house purchase.
From its commencement on September 1st 1919, to March 31st 1923, the Bank made over 1,500 house purchase advances for the sum of £433,248, demonstrating that the Corporation had an in-house facility capable of administering mortgage loans. Therefore, when the City's Public Works and Town Planning Committee (on October 24th 1922) recommended to the City Council that the tenants of municipal houses be offered the opportunity to buy the houses in which they resided, the Bank and Estates Committees were tasked with devising a scheme to implement such a scheme, including the provision to make the purchases by way of mortgage.
Consequently, the Bank's General Purposes Sub-Committee and the Estates' Finance & General Purposes Sub-Committee presented a draft of a JOINT REPORT to be submitted to the City Council to the Bank Committee on December 15th 1922.
In addition to the proposals in the draft report the Sub-Committees were of opinion that the following further proposals should be adopted and included in the report:
(1) The Corporation to erect a number of houses of selected design, and offer the leasehold interest for 99 years in each case. (Although 75 years is the usual term for Corporation leases, the general practice in BIRMINGHAM has accustomed house purchasers to get a 99 years lease and this term is suggested.)
(2) The Corporation to develop lands already possessed, create building plots and lease such plots to those desirous of building, at a ground rent sufficient to give a five per cent return on the cost of land development, or such other percentage as may be agreed.
The Sub-Committees also considered that a recommendation should be made to the Public Works and Town Planning Committee that it was advisable that that Committee should erect a certain number of houses of selected design which the Estates Committee could be authorised to offer on lease for 99 years. Accordingly, the views of the Public Works and Town Planning Committee were sought, and their reply was as follows:
With regard to the first suggestion, ie the erection by the Corporation of a number of houses of selected design - the Public Works & Town Planning Committee point out that they have already obtained the authority of the Council to erect during the next two years as many houses as possible so long as total financial loss does not exceed the produce of a threepenny rate, covering the above period of two years, that these houses will be available for sale, and that they consider this would meet the recommendations of your Sub-Committees on this point. They stated that they could not undertake the erection of any particular class of house for sale, but that they were erecting houses in various parts of the City which in their opinion would offer a ready sale.
On the suggestion that the Corporation should develop lands already possessed, and create and lease building plots, the Public Works Committee state definitely that they cannot agree to this. They informed your Sub-Committees that they had decided to utilise for their own programme of building, the land which the Corporation possessed, and which in their opinion was suitable for development, but they would have no objection to the Estates Committee leasing other Corporation land to builders for the erection of houses provided any such proposals were first submitted to them. They particularly desired that no scheme should be placed in hand which would involve the Corporation in heavy expenditure on road and sewer works.
After the Bank Committee had made some amendments to the JOINT REPORT, they resolved that the Ministry of Health be approached with a view to prices being fixed at which the various types of houses erected under the Assisted Scheme (subsidies provided by the Government under the Housing, Town Planning, &c Act, 1919) may be sold, and that Alderman G Cadbury Junr be requested to present the report to the City Council.
The JOINT REPORT was considered by the City Council on January 9th 1923: