The Housing Schemes

By the middle of the 19th century, large parts of Wednesbury had been turned into an almost lunar landscape, due to the intense coal mining that took place in the area. The large reserves of coal supplied a vast number of factories, both in the Black Country and Birmingham, and led to the building of the local canal.

Most of the population lived in small, tightly-packed houses around the town centre, built in areas that were unaffected by mining. As industry began to dominate the area, people flocked to the town to find employment, and the population rapidly grew. This led to overcrowding, and poor, often unsanitary living conditions. By the early years of the 20th century the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that something had to be done.

In 1913 the Borough Council appointed a sub-committee to look into the shortage of housing and to report their findings to the Sanitary Committee at the earliest possible date. After 12 months the sub-committee came to the conclusion that its members were satisfied with the existence of overcrowding in the Borough, and the failure of private enterprise to provide houses for a certain section of the working classes. The Sanitary Committee then recommended that an application should be made to the Local Government Board for a loan of £5,240 for the building of 24 council houses at Hobs Road, Wood Green. This would have been a pilot scheme, enabling the council to accurately cost future housing schemes, and to discover any unforeseen problems.

The houses were to be built under the terms of part 3 of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. After a public enquiry, the scheme did not receive the approval of the Ministry of Health. The application was made at an unfortunate time, coinciding with the start of the First World War. It was rejected, but 21 houses were built in 1915 by a private firm.

The Town Hall and Art Gallery.

The shortage of housing nationally became so acute that in July 1917 the government decided to offer financial assistance to local authorities immediately after the war, to encourage the growth of municipal housing. In March 1918 a circular sent to local authorities outlined the terms of the proposed assistance that was (with modifications) included in the Housing, Town Planning Act of 1919.

In 1919 the council sent the results of a survey of housing needs to the Ministry of Health, under the terms of the 1919 Housing Act. It stated that for the estimated population of 32,089 there were 6,108 houses, of which 5,077 were of the working class type. Only an average of 32 houses were built each year between 1910 and 1914, and practically none were built between 1915 and 1918.

The 1919 Housing Act offered generous assistance to local authorities. Under the terms of the Act, no matter how many houses were erected, the loss falling on the local authority would not exceed the product of a penny rate. The incentive was too good to miss, and so the council immediately started a scheme to build 250 houses on the Wood Green Estate and 108 houses on the Manor Farm Estate.

Although work on the new estates soon began, the government subsidy only lasted for two and a half years, after which building work stopped. This was due to the effects of the recession, which led to the 1923 Chamberlain Act under which there would be no more subsidies for council house building, only for private builders, or buildings for sale.

When Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister in January 1924, he appointed John Wheatley as his Minister of Health. Wheatley's Housing Act which became law in August 1924 gave a higher subsidy for council house building, with a contribution from the rates. The Act offered a grant of £9 per year for 40 years for each house, but was subject to conditions, one of which was that local authorities contribute £4.10s.0d. per house per year, and that rents were not allowed to exceed pre-war rent. In order to obtain the £9 subsidy, the houses had to be let. If they were sold the subsidy was reduced to £6 per house.

Slum housing. The rear of 18 to 29 Hobbins Street.

Initially, little was done in Wednesbury until 1925 when the situation was noted by a government inspector, who was very critical of the poor housing conditions in the town. This resulted in questions being asked in the House of Commons by Alfred Short, the Borough's member of parliament, who came to Wednesbury and made a scathing attack on the council. The council took no action to remedy the situation until 1926, and only then because of the tempting government subsidy, and the lack of private sector building.

The government’s subsidy was again reduced under the terms of the Revision of Contribution Order of 1926 which stated that the subsidy for any houses built after the 30th September, would be reduced to £7.10s.0d. for 40 years. At the same time the local authorities' contribution was reduced from £4.10s.0d. to £3.15s.0d.

Between 1926 and 1930 a total of 206 council houses were built at Mesty Croft, 144 houses at Churchfields, 32 on the Holyhead Road, 26 in Wellcroft Street, and 16 in Edward Street.

The Housing Act of 1930 encouraged mass slum clearance and councils set to work to demolish poor quality housing and replace it with new build. Slum areas of housing existed in most inner city areas and were generally old, neglected and unhealthy places to live. Many of the houses, which had originally been built for workers during the period of rapid industrial development, were overcrowded and lacked amenities such as an adequate water supply, ventilation and sunlight. Using powers available under the Act to acquire and demolish privately owned properties, slum clearance schemes were put into action across the country. 

The 1935 Health and Housing Committee.

The Act introduced a five year programme for the clearance of slums, with designated Improvement Areas. Local authorities had to provide housing for those who lost their homes during slum clearance, and were allowed to offer rent rebates to those who needed special assistance.

By 1931 1,000 council houses were occupied, and in 1933 a slum clearance scheme saw the demolition of old houses in Queen Street, Moxley, Short Street, and Portway Road. The 1933 Housing Act ended subsidies for general housing, authorities were required to concentrate their efforts on slum clearance.

The 1935 Housing Act required every local authority to submit a programme of building and demolition aimed at eliminating slums from their area. The slum clearance programme in Wednesbury was enlarged, and by 1935 the number of houses that had already been demolished, or were about to be demolished reached 1,250; one 6th of all the houses in the town.

By 1944 there was an immediate need for 700 houses and so reclamation work began at Park Lane and Hobs Road, and a plan was put forward to build 1,420 council houses on 6 sites. At the time the total number of inhabited houses in the town had reached 8,409, of which 3,088 were council properties.

Post war council housing estates are found at  Park Lane, Old Park Road, Dingley Road, Crew Road, Friar Park, the Golf Course, Millfields, Dangerfield Lane (Lodge Holes), Mesty Croft, Cross Street and Balls Hill. Between the end of the war and December 1958 nearly 2,000 council houses were built, and in April 1959 the 5,000th council house had been completed. Over 2,800 houses and old age pensioner bungalows were completed after 1945.

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