Barnsley’s legacy of council housing will be marked with a centenary celebration as new homes emerge

In 1919, Britain was still reeling from the previously unimaginable losses of World War One and the words of Lloyd George’s ‘land fit for heroes’ speech, made months earlier, were still ringing in the country’s ears.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 23 April, 2019, 07:31
Some of Barnsley's first council houses were built in Gawber. This is Harry Road in its early years.

Barnsley had suffered as much as any town, with its ‘pals’ battalions decimated on the Somme battlefield, and work began to transform the politician’s rhetoric into reality, with the start of a council housing scheme which would transform society.

A century later, municipal housing remains a vital - if sometimes maligned - cornerstone of the public sector.

The old car and tethered horse may have gone but Samuel Square, Gawber, till provides decent homes for Barnsley people

When Lloyd George made that speech, housing for many was in pitiful state, with large families frequently living in back-to-back houses, barely for inhabitation.

The ‘one up, one down’ design of some left families crowded into just one bedroom and attic, with only one ground floor room, but in 1919 Barnsley’s local politicians took the ground-breaking step of introducing local authority housing.

They may have been spurred by Lloyd George's ambition but on a more practical level found they were compelled to make improvements due to legislation called the Addison Act, which recognised good homes were needed to promote good health.

Modern, clean, suitable houses – with the benchmark large gardens to allow vegetable production – were ordered and began to transform the town.

Old and new: Traditional Barnsley housing was replaced in large numbers by council homes like these at Cundy Cross

The mists of time, and a local authority re-organisation in 1974, mean records of were Barnsley first council house went up have been lost, but in that era the County Borough of Barnsley covered the central area and estates around Gawber Road and Wilthorpe are likely candidates as the first constructed.

Over the next two decades unsuitable housing was condemned and replaced with estates that are still recogniseable today and in just as much demand as they ever were, with around 7,000 people on the waiting list.

They heyday for building was the interwar and immediate postwar years, when the estate names which have become part of the Barnsley vocabulary – Kendray, Lundwood, Athersley and many more – were created.

Building dried up in the 1970s and stopped completely in the 1980s as Government support for building was withdrawn, but within the last decade has started again, albeit at a modest level.

Builders on the emerging Athersley estate take a break during the 1950s, with 'prefab' homes in the background

Now Berneslai Homes – the ‘arms-length’ management company which looks after the town’s council housing stock – is to celebrate the centenary with a special exhibition to mark the occasion, in August.

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Plans are still being drawn up but it will take place at the new Lightbox library building which will have opened weeks before that date in the town centre and will focus on the history of Barnsley's council homes through the decades, as well what the future may hold.

A key to the success of the event will be involving tenants to tell their stories and help to remove the "stigma" which is still associated with council housing.

Since 2002, council housing in Barnsley has been managed by Berneslai homes and the 'right to buy' scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher meant they took on 24,000 homes, against the 37,000 which had been held by the council in 1979.

Familiar sight: Harry Road around a century after construction

That number is now down to 18,500 and the organisation is working hard to stabilise numbers and improve the reputation of corporation housing.

Berneslai Homes Chief Executive Officer Helen Jagger said: "Council housing has been there to give people a decent home and a good environment. They add value.

"Something went wrong in the 1980s where council houses were not seen as adding value," she said, resulting in an unfounded "stigma" around the accommodation.

Previous Proud Tenant and Proud Estate initiatives have been run to help address that and it is hoped this summer's exhibition will help to put council housing back in the position the early 20th Century politicians who sanctioned its development intended.

'Right to Buy' was one of the best known policies to come from the 1980s Conservative Government and was hailed as a breakthrough at the time, opening up home ownership to those who had never dreamed it would be possible.

A generation on, the situation is much less clear cut, with many of those homes sold to tenants now in the hands of private landlords, which may not all operate to the same standards as their public sector counterparts.

The system has seen numbers of local authority homes in Barnsley halve since the the late 1970s, though demand for such homes remains strong.

All local authorities face the problem that money raised through council house sales cannot just be channeled straight back into building replacement housing, making it difficult to avoid a diminished housing stock.

In Barnsley, some houses bought in the 1980s have found their way back into council hands, after the deaths of their tenant/owners, with families selling back to the authority.

There have been too few of those to avoid a continuing decline in numbers, however, with around 150 a year currently being sold and replaced with fewer than 100.