Thanks to national population growth and the Industrial Revolution, the number of residents in Nottingham grew rapidly between 1780 and 1841 – so much so that by 1841, 52,220 people were managing to live in the same area that had been populated by 17,200 in 1780. Some say cosy, others say overcrowded.
With some of the worst slums in the country, the city was in desperate need of expansion. While the wealthy middle classes left the Georgian streets of Low and High Pavement for the Park Terrace and the Ropewalk, and the affluent working classes moved to Carrington, Sneinton, Basford, Lenton, Radford and Hyson Green, poorer workers were stuck in the 7,000-odd back-to-backs that ran from Narrow Marsh to Sneinton and The Rookeries – the medieval lanes between Long Row and Parliament Street. The majority of these had no kitchen, poor ventilation and up to forty houses shared a privy – that’s a toilet to you and me – and a standpipe. As you’d imagine, the cholera epidemic had a field day in these parts back in 1832.
But what’s a city to do? Well, an Enclosure Act allowing the city to grow beyond its limited parameters in 1845 was a good starting point in 1845. And then, social housing. In 1876, Nottingham was one of the earliest authorities to build council houses. Starting small, with a few stumbles along the way, it was in the interwar period that we went hard, building 17,095 council houses and clearing the Narrow Marsh and Carter Gate slums. Aspley, Bulwell Hall, Bestwood and Broxtowe estates were built, and all new houses had hot, running water, gas, electricity, flushing toilets and gardens.
After WWII ended, we were straight back on it and Bestwood Park, Bilborough, Strelley and Clifton became part of our landscape in the fifties. By the sixties, the focus was on building up rather than out and the pre-1845 enclosure neighbourhoods near and in the city were developed with high-rises. The popularity in building them only lasted a decade, and in the seventies the council focused on the low-rise redevelopments of St Ann’s and The Meadows, and the iconic, love-them-or-hate-them Victoria Centre Flats in 1972.
By 1981, just under half of Nottingham’s population were living in over 50,000 council homes. In 1980, though, thanks to a certain little lady, residents of council homes were given the Right to Buy. Brilliant. Over 20,000 council homes were bought, giving people a chance to own their own homes. Unfortunately, Maggie didn’t deem it worthwhile to put the money back into more social housing, and in the eighties only 2,500 homes were built in Nottingham, which led to a housing crisis with property prices – excuse the pun – going through the roof.
Cracks were beginning to appear elsewhere too. The rushed planning that took place with estates such as the Hyson Green flats, Balloon Woods and the Lenton Flats meant that they weren’t quite the community paradises they’d envisaged, and social problems within these estates became unmanageable.
By 2001, any council house developments had all but ground to a halt. Then came Labour’s Green Paper of 2000, which allowed housing departments access to more money so long as their housing services were converted to arm’s-length management organisations. There were concerns that this was the start of privatisation for council homes, but equally, people saw hope that local authorities would have more autonomy. Nottingham City Council faced claims of inappropriate distribution of homes to employees, their relatives, partners and friends between 2003 and 2005.
However, Nottingham City Homes was set up in 2005 and now, ten years down the line, they’ve developed a programme for 400 houses to be built, the removal of the Lenton Flats and Radford deck access flats and the refurbishment and energy efficiency measures in Clifton, Bulwell Hall and the Sneinton high-rises.
Private renting is at its highest since the pre-war era and council houses are no longer the dream of the future they once were, but Nottingham is a city that has been shaped, developed and grown on these homes.
Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses, £9.99, available from Five Leaves Bookshop.