History: 1860s-1964

The birth of co-ownership

Co-operative or shared ownership of housing wasn’t a radical new idea forged in the 1960s. In England it dates back to Queen Victoria’s reign, at a time of jubilees and world-spanning empires.

While the American Civil War raged and Abraham Lincoln’s determination to end slavery finally won the day across the Atlantic, Britain was already taking the next steps to confirm individual rights and freedoms. The 1860s and 70s saw the creation of modern trade unions, while Parliament introduced universal education and asserted the rights of women in marriage.

Bandit's Roost (Jacob Riis)
Slum living - "Bandits' Roost" by Jacob Riis©

While the class divide was still very evident, the first tentative steps towards broadening home ownership were taken in the Lancashire mill town of Rochdale.

Small beginnings

The first housing provided by a co-operative was built in Spotland Road, Rochdale by the Rochdale Pioneer Land and Building Company in 1861. In 1869 this was taken over by the main Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers which itself had built 84 homes for members in the town two years earlier.

By the end of the Victorian era - marked by the venerable monarch’s death in 1901 - the voice of the ‘working man’ was strengthening, and in the 1906 General Election 29 Labour MPs were elected. It also saw those responsible for designing new housing beginning to consider the quality of life of those who would live in them and the surrounding environment.

The tenant co-partnership movement in the early 1900s signalled the second wave of co-operative housing development. This started in 1901 with the founding of Ealing Tenants Ltd.

The first ‘tenant co-partnership co-operative’ was built at Brentham Garden Suburb in Ealing. The name reflects the growing influence of the garden city movement pioneered by architect Ebenezer Howard. Prominent examples of co-partnership housing are at Hampstead Garden Suburb, now one of the most expensive parts of London, and Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire.

The impact of war

Political poster from the 1920sAlthough World War I interrupted the development of co-partnership housing, peacetime saw legislation which gave it the same government aid as council housing. However, co-partnership slowly became side lined as most councils chose to build for themselves. The co-partnership investment model requiring a mix of tenant and private investment failed, as investors were often over eager to see a quick return for their money which led to pressure to asset strip and sell the homes.

The period between the global conflicts in the 1920s and ‘30s saw huge social changes in the UK. The first Labour governments were elected under Ramsay Macdonald either side of the General Strike (1926) as those who had suffered in World War I voiced their demands for a better place in a rebuilt Britain. The traditional class divide of masters and servants was breaking down as the old order gave way to a more inclusive society.

This in turn led to the establishment of two dominant forms of tenure in the housing market – council housing for working people and the growing popularity of home ownership for the emerging middle classes.

Growth of ownership

London after bombing during World War II
London during the Blitz in World War II

From the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, the UK’s public housing policy focused on developing these same two areas of tenure. It encouraged individual home ownership through mortgage tax relief and the creation of a growing portfolio of council housing. In the 1970s this peaked with one in three homes being in council housing.

Under co-operative ownership, residents paid a monthly rent to service the mortgage borrowed by the builders of their homes. The loan was made affordable by mortgage tax relief and when members moved out they were entitled to a premium payment.

Political divide

Council housing was, however, about to become a major political background as the clamour for the individual’s right to buy became a focal point for a sea change in British politics.