The Lost Gardens of Orkney(4): The Council House

Today Housing is in crisis, rising rents, rising mortgages and not enough affordable housing being built. In the first half of the 20th Century the lack of quality affordable housing was seen as a major public health issue. Governments took action.

In this the fourth in the series Lost Gardens of Orkney, we explore the growth in Council Housing and the pride people took in their new homes and gardens.

After both World Wars 1 and 2 Housing was identified by Government as a major problem. After 1918 and the fear of civil unrest, perhaps even revolution, providing decent homes fit for heroes was central to government thinking. In 1919 the Addison Act made provision for local authorities to have state subsidies to build houses. This followed on from the 1917 Royal Commission on Housing of the Industrial Population of Scotland linking dreadful housing conditions with poor health.

The interwar years saw John Wheatley elected for the Independent Labour Party in 1922 and in 1924 he was appointed Minister of Health. He brought in The Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of 1924. This would enable the building of new council houses at affordable rates. John Wheatley wanted to see councils building ‘homes not hutches’.

The Wheatley Act ensured local authorities would receive long term, 40 year subsidies to build council housing under municipal control with a guarantee against any losses – 508,000 houses were constructed under the scheme. You can read more about John Wheatley here: Our Housing Heritage: John Wheatley – Red Clydesider and founding father of social housing

The Second World War put an end to housebuilding and also added to the problem as many homes were destroyed during bombing raids. Just as Government took action during the war to encourage people to grow their own food (The Lost Gardens of Orkney, 3: Allotments) so it did with housing. The Housing Temporary Accommodation Act (1944) aimed to provide enough homes for each family who required an individual dwelling. The provision of Prefabs was part of this Act. Planned to last only 10 years the few prefabs still remaining are now listed buildings.

During the 1945 General Election the Prospective Liberal Party Parliamentary Candidate for Orkney & Shetland, Major Jo Grimond centred his campaign around ‘The Four Freedoms’: Freedom from Want, Freedom from Squalor, Freedom of Opportunity, and Freedom from The Fear of War.

Grimond’s idea for Freedom from Squalor was all about housing. He wanted to see a dedicated Minister of Housing and one based in Edinburgh who would give his whole time to the job. He said: ” We must start at once using war-time methods and prefabricated materials.” He also wanted to see designs in housing specifically for Orkney.

Jo Grimond was not elected. The islands stuck with their Conservative Unionist MP Basil Neven Spence. It was not until 1950 that Grimond was to be elected.

Across the UK, however, people voted for change and in 1945 a Labour Government was returned. Huge reforms took place, including the creation of the Welfare State.

In 1949 the UK Government, through the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, awarded the allocation of 50 ‘Swedish’ houses to Kirkwall. Stromness Town Council had applied for 10 but failed to be allocated any.

The Swedish Houses were designed by the Department of Health for Scotland. They were 2 storey 4-apartments in blocks of 2. All the timber parts were manufactured in Sweden and shipped directly to Kirkwall. Timber was still rationed in the UK which was why Swedish materials could be used.

By October 1949 20 of the 50 Swedish Houses had been built in Kirkwall Town Council’s Lower Manse Park Housing scheme off Clay Loan with the rest to be completed by the New Year. As well as the facilities indoors, the houses also had garden ground. Local politicians criticised the timber framed houses saying they were unsuitable for Orkney and that the council should be building using locally quarried stone. Despite this people wanted them and the council used a system of allocation with the first 8 completed homes going to:

  1. Mr T.J. Barry, County Sanitary Inspector
  2. A teacher
  3. Mr Wm Maconachie, County Assessor
  4. A teacher
  5. Mr James Gibson, County Council Cashier
  6. A policeman
  7. Mr F.G. Cursiter, Registrar
  8. A teacher

Across Scotland between 1946 and 1951, 144,000 council houses were built.

In 1950, like councils throughout Scotland, Kirkwall Town Council decided to run a ‘Best Kept Garden Competition’. Local authorities were proud of their house building achievements and of the gardens tenants were creating around their new homes. The Orkney Horticultural and Industrial Association recommenced their annual competition and provided Orcadians with advice and encouragement through regular lectures.

In 1951 18 council house gardens were in the short list for the Best Kept Garden.

Best Flower Display went to: 1. James Moodie, 12 Laverock Road; 2. J.M. Urquhart, 1 Laverock Road; 3. Mrs Moodie, 21 Willowburn Road.

Best Vegetable Display went to: 1. Mr.R.O. Watson; 2. Mr J.M. Urquhart; 3. Mr MacKenzie, 7 Broadsands Road.

Mr and Mrs W.J. Heddle’s Cup for Best Kept Municipal Garden was won by Mr R.O. Watson.

Diplomas were also given by ‘Popular Gardening’ to the 18 gardens which had been short listed.

Success continued for in 1952 the 3 categories were again hotly contested.

Best Flower Display went to: 1. J.K.Moodie; 2. J. W. Cromarty; 3. J. M.Urquhart

Best Vegetable Garden went to: 1. R.O. Watson; 2. F.G. Cursiter; 3. R.B. Mowat

The Cup by the late Mr and Mrs W.J. Heddle for Best Kept Municipal Garden was won by J.K. Moodie.

The council house garden competitions were to be an important feature of local communities in Scotland until the selling off of huge numbers of council houses brought the locally owned housing stock plummeting.

It is interesting that today governments at local and national level are having to provide support for Food banks because of the cost of living crisis. The Office of National Statistics reported that 1 in 8 (12%) of households in the UK have no access to a private or shared garden. That figure is 13% in Scotland.

Orkney Islands Council’s planning regulations states that:

‘All housing development is required to have dedicated outside space or garden ground to meet the recreational and domestic needs of the residents’

It is conceded that this is not always possible within built up areas or conservation buildings – but of course that is where allotments have a role to play.

It is extremely disappointing that governments have been so lacking in imagination and future planning compared to the great Scottish thinkers of the past like Patrick Geddes and John Wheatley who saw quality housing and garden space an essential element of the wellbeing of citizens.

See also in this series:

Fiona Grahame

Categories: Uncategorized

Tagged as: , , , , , , ,

2 replies »

Leave a Reply