Book Review  

Municipal Dreams: The rise and fall of council housing by John Boughton

Municipal Dreams: The rise and fall of council housing by John Boughton

Most of middle England talk and worry about property in one way or another. Hundreds of thousands of us live in council houses either privately or rented through the state, and we have all heard the phrases ‘a thirties’ or ‘a fifties’ house – but how did they all come to be?

This is answered in excellent narrative by John Boughton, a diligent and socially charged historian.

Mr Boughton has covered the UK’s housing struggle from the start of the nineteenth century to date, which is no mean achievement.

He has done so with a level of research I could not help but repeatedly admire as I followed the titular rise and fall.

The quotes he has unearthed bring life to what has been a battle between dreams and coffers for well over 100 years.


I do not want to think how many hours he spent reading historic journals and other publications to create this comprehensive and well written guide to a subject so dear to British hearts, but it was all worthwhile to this reader. 

Not satisfied with just sitting down to learn everything he could about his chosen subject, Mr Boughton has visited many of the sites he writes about.

As expected, there is a common theme of one political party championing the best outcome for council homes with generous budgets, and one party paring things back.

Wars did not help with labour shortage issues, but funding and materials were also in short supply, causing some councils to build to those constraints rather than to social issues.

Unintended consequences are laid bare, hidden by initial grateful reactions of tenants so glad to be out of where they came from, but listed with a good dose of reality – what were the councils supposed to do?

The context of personal and departmental battles are some of the highlights as the reader is unexpectedly left rooting for one over the other. The lofty ideals of designers now seen as folly is a repeated theme, yet understandable at the time.

The pace of the book is just right as moving between eras occurs just when you want things to advance. 

This is an excellently crafted history of one of the biggest issues faced by much of Europe over the last 150 years – if you want to know what the solutions to housing might be, you must look to the past.

To make the same mistakes as our forefathers could be the biggest crime of all, and Municipal Dreams is where you should start.

Nicholas Morrey is mortgage technical manager at John Charcol

Published by Verso Books