After their narrow victory under Winston Churchill’s leadership at the general election of October 1951, the Conservatives approached the task of fulfilling their pledge to build 300,000 houses a year in a spirit of trepidation. The target, as Churchill preferred to call it, had been adopted during a rebellion at the party conference in Blackpool the previous autumn. Harmar Nicholls, elected as MP for Peterborough in the election of 1950, made a passionate speech in favour of building 300,000 homes a year, which other speakers adopted with mounting enthusiasm.
Anxious consultations took place on the platform. Lord Woolton, the party chairman, turned to Rab Butler, chairman of the Conservative Research Department (CRD), and whispered: “Could we build 300,000?” David Clarke, the director of CRD, was consulted and said the target was technically feasible. Housing was at this time second only to defence as a political issue: all Tory candidates had made it a major commitment in their 1950 election addresses and CRD had produced lengthy policy papers on the subject.
Lord Woolton accordingly stepped onto the podium and surrendered to the will of the party with the words: “This is magnificent.” A new group was put to work in CRD to see what needed to be done. It concluded that to reach the target there would have to be
a large reallocation of shipping resources and foreign currency to obtain soft wood; a special increase of nine per cent in the output of the cement industry; almost one million tons of coal; and about 2,000 million bricks [this summary is taken from Tory Policy-Making: The Conservative Research Department 1929-2009, edited by Alistair Cooke].
The manifesto on which the Tories fought the 1951 election stated:
Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by crowded houses. Therefore, a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence.
After winning the 1951 election, Churchill summoned Harold Macmillan to Chartwell. Macmillan recorded in his diary what happened:
He asked me to “build the houses for the people.” What an assignment! I know nothing whatever about these matters, having spent 6 years now either on defence or foreign affairs. I had of course hoped to be Minister of Defence and said this frankly to Churchill. But he is determined to keep it in his own hands…Churchill says it is a gamble – make or mar my political career. But every humble home will bless my name, if I succeed. On the whole it seems impossible to refuse – but, oh dear, it is not my cup of tea…I really haven’t a clue how to set about the job.
This is disingenuous. Macmillan was not a housing expert, but he was a successful businessman who was a director of the family publishing house, Macmillan & Co, and of the Great Western Railway. In the 1930s he was a left-wing Tory rebel, who in 1936 took the drastic step of resigning the Tory whip. But during the Second World War Churchill gave him his chance, sending him first to the Ministry of Supply and then with high executive authority to be “Viceroy of the Mediterranean”. So Churchill was not appointing some callow newcomer to this vital post. Macmillan was 57. He was very clever, quick at transacting business, good at spotting the right experts and persuading them to work for him, and had an acute feeling for literature but also, as a successful publisher, for publicity. And although he was a devout Anglican, he possessed a streak of ruthless, or even unscrupulous, ambition, and an eye for his opponents’ weaknesses.
The last Labour minister with responsibility for housing, Hugh Dalton, asserted in his diary for 29 October 1951 that his own performance could not be beaten by Macmillan: “He won’t be able to build any more, if as many as I. My last month (September) showed more than 17,000 completed.”
But Macmillan had every incentive to exceed that rate, equivalent to the annual construction of 200,000 houses, which was the average that Labour had achieved in the period 1945-51. If he could demonstrate that the Tories were better than Labour at building houses, he would be in the running for the prime ministership. And at least in theory he could rely on the personal backing of Churchill, who insisted that the department, known as the Ministry of Local Government and Planning, be renamed the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in order to indicate the priority that Housing now took. (It is nowadays the Department of Communities and Local Government: the wishy-washy word “Communities” reflecting the fact that nothing like the same degree of political will is now focussed on housing.) Simon Ball recounts, in his book The Guardsmen, how Macmillan coerced Churchill’s continued support: “The government had so few positive policies to offer that he could threaten Churchill with the ‘terrible political implication of cutting the Housing programme’ [words found in Macmillan's diary for 15 July 1952].”
As D.R.Thorpe relates in his invaluable biography, Supermac, published in 2010, Macmillan knew he was not going to get the dramatic results he needed by relying on his Permanent Secretary, Sir Thomas Sheepshanks, whom he regarded kindly but ineffective. He deeply offended Sheepshanks by bringing in Sir Percy Mills, a self-made businessman, as Director-General to oversee the housing programme. During the war, Mills had been Controller-General of Machine Tools at the Ministry of Supply, where Macmillan developed complete confidence in him as a man who could deliver. Macmillan said the commitment to build 300,000 houses had to be treated as a “war job” and tackled “in the spirit of 1940″. Another self-made man who joined the team was Ernest Marples, Macmillan’s Parliamentary Secretary, who had built up a successful construction business, and was later as Transport Minister to open the first section of the M1 and close thousands of miles of railways. Evelyn Sharp, deputy to Sheepshanks and described by Macmillan as “without exception the ablest woman I have ever known”, also helped to drive the housing programme forward.
Mills quickly established ten Regional Housing Boards. Red tape was cut, brick-making vastly increased. Macmillan prevailed on Rab Butler, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, to provide the necessary funds. Butler was building up a rival who would within a few years eclipse him.
But although it came naturally to this wartime generation to give orders, much was also achieved thanks to the dismantling of wartime controls, which cleared supply bottlenecks for essential materials such as timber and steel, and enabled them to be bought at much lower cost on the open market. Macmillan also sought to encourage private house-building, for example by abolishing the Development Charge levied under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.
Toby Lloyd, director of policy at the housing charity Shelter, suggested to me that as far as housing was concerned, “the mixed economy seemed to work well”. For a period of about 20 years there existed a cross-party consensus that much more housing was needed and about half of it should be built by local councils. The more houses the state built, the more private builders built too: there did not seem to be a problem of “crowding out”. Lloyd and his colleagues have produced a graph which illustrates this point:
But Macmillan’s critics said that far too large a share of the nation’s resources was being devoted to housing, at the expense of factories and other forms of investment. Tories who took seriously the party’s commitment to create a property-owning democracy were also appalled that in Ball’s words, “Macmillan presided over a massive increase in council housing”. For this was “the quickest, if far from the best” way of increasing the number of houses. Macmillan “gave permission for as many ‘subsidised local authority houses’ to be built as there were applications.” Councils were allowed to borrow at very cheap rates, in order to build houses which would in time pay for themselves through rents.
Lloyd, at Shelter, pointed out that Macmillan’s achievement was not without its drawbacks: “The slight fly in the ointment is that not all of them were the best houses. Some of the most shocking tower-block monstrosities were built in that era.” Macmillan sacrificed quality to quantity. His houses were smaller than those built by Nye Bevan, who during most of the post-war Labour government had been responsible for both health and housing. Macmillan was much more anxious to be seen as progressive than to worry about the aesthetics of what he was doing. His decision in 1961, as Prime Minister, to sanction the destruction of the Euston Arch, in defiance of appeals from John Betjeman and many others, epitomised the ruthless philistinism with which he treated architectural questions. Some of the housing built at this time was so repulsive that to this day it makes people deeply suspicious of all new building.
Though one might also say that Macmillan was just yielding to the spirit of the age, or was so out of his depth that he just decided to approve of whatever seemed to be modern. In his diary for 12 December 1953 he wrote: “A tour round Sheffield. The architect seemed very good. Some new flats (on the hill) should be very good.” Many of the flats built in Sheffield in this period did not turn out to be very good. Macmillan himself sometimes recognised that things were not going well, especially when a scheme had not been started by him. Labour had set up 14 New Towns, and Macmillan described in his diary for 1 May 1952 a visit to one of them:
I went yesterday to the ‘New Town’ of Basildon – in Essex. This struck me as pure Martin Chuzzlewit. It was ‘Little Eden’ again [the disease-ridden settlement in America described in Dickens's novel]. What a mad venture – without any of the facilities. No water; no sewerage; no river to pollute (except the Crouch, which cannot be polluted because of its oyster bed), no industry – and jolly few houses.
Macmillan kept his and his team’s eyes firmly fixed on the numbers. As Thorpe relates, “Totals were displayed in the department along the lines of a cricket scoreboard.” In the first year when Macmillan was in charge, from 30 October 1951 to 31 October 1952, 240,000 houses were completed. In the next year, from 1 November 1952 to 31 October 1953, 301,000 houses were completed. In the calendar year of 1953, 318,000 houses were completed. As Thorpe remarks, “A red-letter day was 10 December 1953, when the three hundred thousandth house that year was completed.”
This was a tremendous achievement, which helped pave the way not only for the Conservative election victory of 1955, but for Macmillan to become Prime Minister in 1957 and win the election of 1959. The Conservatives had shown that in housing, they could provide more effectually for the welfare of the people than Labour had managed to do.
There are some lessons in this for the modern day. Macmillan showed that the ruthless application of political will, along with businessmen employed as fixers, could achieve a surprising amount. He had no qualms about arranging for the building of vast numbers of council houses: Labour was to some extent beaten with its own weapons. But markets were freed up too: the abolition of wartime rationing was the other clear success of this administration. It seemed natural to this generation of Conservatives when necessary to mobilise the resources of the state with wartime determination. Ministers demanded “Action This Day”. Modern government looks by contrast a very tentative exercise.
At the general election of 1955, the Conservative manifesto boasted:
our Party’s pledge to build 300,000 houses a year was derided by our opponents as impossible to fulfil. In fact, nearly 350,000 were built last year, and at least as many are likely to be built this year.
Labour had been well and truly trumped. No such boast is going to be possible in 2015, because no housing minister has enjoyed anything like Macmillan’s prominence, or anything like the support he got from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, local authorities, the Conservative Party and the wider public.