Social housing: dystopia or utopia? A study of Finsbury, London.20 minute read

Finsbury is “crammed with history, not the history of kings and statecraft, but of the ordinary lives of ordinary people” (Tames, 1999: 7). Finsbury’s origins lie in hosting activities forbidden within the City walls. In the nineteenth and early twentieth-century poverty and overcrowding defined the area. In the twentieth-century, however, Finsbury council sought to transform the area, undertaking one of the most ambitious post-war rebuilding programmes. Today, Finsbury remains a deprived area and has been heavily affected by neoliberal policies. Finsbury’s unique history and high proportion of council housing demonstrates its value for the analysis of changing housing policy over the past century.  This essay argues that beliefs of the welfare state as a dystopia versus utopia have informed policies to produce palimpsestuous contractions and expansions of social housing from the eighteen-century to the present day.

Firstly, the theoretical foundation to this paper will be analysed to understand how discourses provide the justification of government policies, and how this can be challenged. Theory will then be applied to the case study of Finsbury. It is beyond the scope of this essay to assess every welfare-state policy in Finsbury, instead broad attention will be given to key changes, as well as a brief interlude into the Finsbury Health Centre, to understand how dominant discourses have affected the everyday. Finally, it will be argued that re-emergence of the welfare state as a dystopia has occurred, something that must be fought through genealogical interrogation of neoliberal dominant discourse, giving voices to the marginalised.

figure one, map of Finsbury.
Finsbury (Figure 1) is “bounded N. by Islington and Shoreditch, E. by Shoreditch, S. by the City of L., and W. by Holborn and St Pancras.” (Kent, 1937: 290). Finsbury’s history “lies deep and thick, layer upon layer” (Tames, 1999: 6). Consequently, this paper will assess Finsbury’s housing through de Groote’s (2014 :109) definition of palimpsest as the “ultimate metaphor for memory…writing and reading of memory that develops and traverses an iterative structure of layering.”


Although aspects of ethnography such as photographic engagement with Finsbury have been taken, I have primarily used a historical approach to this paper through writings of the history of Finsbury (Travers, 2015; Tames, 1999; White, 2007) and government policies towards housing. I chose this method above others because “historical contents alone allow us to see the dividing lines in the confrontations and struggles that functional arrangements or systematic organisations are allowed to mask” (Foucault et al, 2013: 7). Consequently, palimpsestuous readings of history are crucial to “making visible what was previously unseen” (Foucault, 1980), lifting dominant discourses to hear marginalised voices and understand how housing affects the every-day.


Foucault (et al, 2007: 8) defines ‘genealogy’ as the “coupling together of scholarly erudition and local memories, which allows us to constitute a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of that knowledge in contemporary tactics.” Genealogy allows an insurrection against centralising power-effects, setting free historical knowledges and enabling them to oppose and struggle against uniform ideologies (Foucault et al, 2009: 9). Ideology is defined as “a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts)” (Althusser, 1969: 231). Genealogy thus helps us challenge ideological ‘truths’ that conceal the reality of subordination, making the powerless feel as though they are acting under their own free will, when they are acting under systematic restraints (Cumbers, 2009: 465).

Furthermore, ideologies produce power because “it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together” (Foucault, 2009: 318). Power is “essentially that which represses” (Foucault, 2013: 15). Thus, by controlling meaning, ruling powers can adapt representations to persuade people into believing the state is acting in their best interests (Cumbers, 2009: 466). Consequently, subordinate groups appear to subscribe to dominant values. For example, UK politics is dominated by the Conservative and Labour parties, elections usually circling around the administration of capitalism through less or more public ownership (Storey, 2012: 82). It is through the genealogical challenge of tactics around truth and discourses, local knowledges and practices, institutions and economic inequalities, that power can be challenged and discourses adjusted. (Huxley, 2009: 257).

Moreover, “space is fundamental in any exercise of power” (Foucault, 2001: 361). Representations of space are teeming with knowledge, always relative and changing with dominant discourses. Thus, the palimpsestuous expansion and contraction of social housing in Finsbury reflects the changes of power in relation to the interests of the community. For example, in the 1940s-60s the image of Finsbury’s high-rise blocks represented social equality. Today, this representation has changed, branding council housing residents as ‘lazy’, as in the nineteenth-century.

Social housing as dystopia: pre-1914.

In the nineteenth-century the state’s dominant ideology was individualism, with a deep-rooted belief that property should be held in private hands (Thorne, 1982: 42). Consequently, almost 90% of households rented privately, often in slum-dwellings. Historically, Finsbury suffered from poverty and overcrowding. In 1861, Finsbury’s population was over 127,000, and roughly 45% of Clerkenwell and Grays Inn was in poverty despite only a small percentage not working. The lack of government action, bar slum clearance such as construction of Rosebery Avenue, resulted in persistence of low-quality accommodation. For example, in 1935 20.5% of the population of Finsbury were officially overcrowded, roughly nine people to a dwelling. A typical Finsbury house (Figure 2) with two rooms on each of the four upper floors and basement with two rooms would be occupied by three families sharing the facilities.

figure two, a typical early street house.
Figure 2: A typical early street house.

Those unable to pay market rent relied on the philanthropic ‘model dwellings’ that emerged in the 1840s. In Finsbury, Alderman Sydney Waterlow, built model dwellings in Mark Street (White, 2007: 430); and Octavia Hill, from 1864, built low-cost apartments for poor families (Thorne, 1982). However, “model dwellings demanded model tenants” (White, 2007). Although rent was low enough to pay, each tenement came with its own supervisor enforcing rules including drunkenness, sexual laxity and financial irresponsibility, threatening eviction to rule-breakers. Model dwellings were thus ‘Panopticon’, advocating a ‘displinary’ society of subjects (Huxley, 2009: 261). The aim was not merely to help the poor, but to make them ‘moral’. Thus, ‘good’ poverty submitted and conformed to the order of the day, bad poverty rebelling. In the 1800s, poverty thus signified punishment, “no longer part of the dialectic of humiliation and glorification but rather of the relationship of disorder to order and is now locked in guilt” as (Foucault, 2006: 57).

Social housing as utopia: the emergence of the welfare state.

The long-term failure of the private housing market to provide decent, affordable and sufficient housing for the working class during the nineteenth century was the main backdrop to pressure for reform that impelled local authorities to directly build and manage housing for rent in the early twentieth century (Hodkinson, 2010: 911).

The inter-war period

Throughout the inter-war period central government had a succession of policies in attempt to solve the issue of housing. Although they attempted to provide some sort of welfare to those unable to afford housing, by 1935 the orthodox view that the private sector should continue to provide the bulk of welfare persisted.

The radical Finsbury council, however, went far to tackle lack of welfare within their utopian vision of a welfare-state, challenging dominant ideologies and pushing the boundaries of the welfare-state far beyond what was known at the time. This supports Marx’s approach to historical change as “driven by the tensions between opposing forces, usually represented in the form thesis-antithesis-synthesis” (Cumbers, 2009: 462). By the late 1930s Finsbury was known as one of the most politically radical boroughs in London, described by some as “The People’s Republic of Finsbury”. As a result, what Finsbury achieved is a “symbol of pre-Atlee welfare in Britain” (Travers, 2015: 92), effectively using genealogy of ordinary people’s experience to change dominant discourses. Mayor of Finsbury Dr Chuni Lal Katial created the ‘Finsbury Plan’, “a comprehensive programme of social transformation with generous social facilities, including the health centre, educational and recreation facilities, open and green spaces and housing” (Jones, 2011: 94). To Bullock (1989: 47), the Finsbury Plan was a statement of class equality and entitlement: “even local authority tenants would be able to enjoy the kind of benefits and convenience that in the 1930s had been reserved for the affluent.” Thus, Finsbury council recognised the issues of the housing crisis for the working-class and cleared the ground for the new utopian projects of social housing and the welfare state.

Architect Berthold Lubetkin (Figure 3), born in Georgia in 1901 and deeply influenced by the socialist ideologies of the Bolshevik Revolution, is incredibly important to Finsbury’s social history. Finsbury council’s “large-scale intervention of the state into architecture and planning promised to deliver precisely the kind of socially directed architecture that Lubetkin had championed” (Allan, 2002). To Lubetkin, what was good enough for his private clients at Highpoint Village, Highgate was good enough for social tenants. Lubetkin’s challenge of the dominant traditionalism of the National Government housing policies, which he considered had abandoned its responsibility towards the working-class, resonates with Foucault’s genealogy. Lubetkin work consequently shifted the ‘truth’ within discourses, paving the way for the 1945 welfare state.


Figure three, architect Berthold Lubetkin.
Figure 3: Architect Berthold Lubetkin.

The Finsbury Health Centre (Figures 4 and 5) demonstrates the success of Lubetkin’s utopian welfare-state within Finsbury. Labour borough councils, along with a Labour LCC after 1934, played a key role in “making real what had been an amorphous health centre ideal” (Jones, 2011: 84). Up to this point healthcare, like housing, had been unequally distributed, but Labour’s vision stressed the importance of community responsibility for the service (Jones, 2011). The Finsbury Health Centre epitomised this vision; opening in October 1938, the public centre was funded through a tax base and controlled by the local council, which sought to provide both prevention and treatment for its citizens (Jones, 2011: 86).


Figure four, the Finsbury Health Centre, exterior.
Figure 4: The Finsbury Health Centre, exterior.(20th Century Society)


Figure five, the Finsbury Health centre, interior.
Figure 5: The Finsbury Health centre, interior (20th Century Society).


When it was built it “stood as a shining white rebuke to the decayed area of Finsbury” (Travers, 2015: 92), marking a new era. It pioneered ‘social inclusion’, Lubetkin stating that “anyone should feel free to enter without the need for membership or the intimidation typically associated with hospital buildings” (Carr, 2013: 116) (Figure 5). Thus, the Finsbury Health Centre was a shift away from Victorian individualism, an attempt to realise the Labour utopian vision of social welfare, paving the way for the National Health Service.


The post-1945 Keynesian government policies were based upon the vision of the utopian welfare state. Although the war left a severe housing shortage, strides to solve the housing problem were ideologically entrenched in the new Labour government.

The war had destroyed much of Finsbury’s housing. By 1945, 9,015 (91% of housing) had been damaged and it was estimated that the borough had lost 11% of its dwellings (Bullock, 1989: 48). For Finsbury, the election of a national Labour government, alongside Labour control of the LCC, strengthened the Labour local council.  Finsbury could now “attract considerable central government assistance to achieve not only an immediate improvement in housing conditions, but also to realise several housing plans that had been put forward in the mid 1930s.” (Bullock, 1989: 51).


figure six, Spa Green Estate on Rosebery Avenue.
Figure 6: Spa Green Estate on Rosebery Avenue




figure seven, King's Square Estate.
Figure 7: King’s Square Estate.

Finsbury’s rebuild ensured that housing catered for the working-class. For example, within the Spa Green Estate (Figure 6) on Rosebery Avenue. The council had commissioned Lubetkin to design the estate in 1938 was instead built between 1946-50 because of the war, as part of the “Beveridgean commitment to social welfare and decent housing” (Carr, 2013: 11). The Spa Green estate has been marked the “most accomplished metropolitan social-housing scheme of Britain’s first-phase of reconstruction” (Allan, 2002: 35). It “exemplified the promise of post-war housing” (Carr, 2013: 117) through its design which made for a pleasant life, the flats well-equipped and carefully designed. In all, Spa Green provided a “utopian and administrative solution to the problem of slum housing; above all it was designed to eradicate squalor, to provide a safe haven for those in need and would operate to integrate its residents into society” (Carr, 2013: 117). The new dominant discourse thus shifted representations of housing for the poor from the Victorian view of slums for the undeserving, or model dwellings teaching morality, to somewhere everyone, wealthy or not, deserved.

Unfortunately, due to post-war austerity, by 1951 housing had hardly improved, insanitary and overcrowding continued across the borough with only 230 dwellings completed (Bullock, 1989). However, the achievements made are still great because they marked a significant break from historical notions of the market and individualism. Thus, post-1945 housing policies went some way to building the framework for realising the utopian vision of council housing and created the high proportion of council flats that Finsbury is known for. For example, the King Square estate (Figure 7) built in 1961 hosts 419 dwellings in four different blocks (“Tower Block”, 2018). Without the utopian vision of the radical council’s Finsbury Plan, it is unlikely Finsbury would have had such a rich array of social housing, allowing central London space to be affordable for all. It was this ideological break from privatisation to giving a voice to the working-class which ensured that this could occur.

Spa Green is an excellent example of the palimpsestuous notions of utopia vs dystopia. Emerging as the child of Lubetkin, it has since been affected by the ‘Right-to-Buy’ and New Labour’s continuation of neoliberal policies – today over 50% of the estate is in private ownership, limiting Lubertkin’s utopian vision of suitable housing for everyone.


1938       Estate commissioned by Finsbury Council.

WW2      Work suspended.

1946       Work resumes.

1946       Aneurin Bevan lays the foundation stone.

1960/70s  Neglected refurbishment works.

1980       Right-to-Buy

1982       Refurbishment.

1997       New Labour take office.

1998       Received Grade II listing.

2005       Lessees argue against paying towards the £1 million costs of refurbishment on the grounds of neglect – rejected.

2005       At least one third of the flats had been sold, many sold on to Lubetkin Enthusiasts.

Today     Over 50% of the estate is in private ownership.

Council Housing as Dystopia: re-emerged

Over the last forty years, the ‘modernisation of social housing’ has been a shift from the ‘public housing model’ of the welfare state to the ‘social housing model’ of the neoliberal age (Malpass and Victory, 2010). The Conservative and New Labour governments shared an agenda to demunicipalise social housing provisions and residualise its role, marking a palimpsestuous return to the privatisation of social housing that defined pre-welfare state policy (Cole and Furbey, 1994).


The ideological commitment of the Thatcher Conservative government to reducing public expenditure led to the decline of social housing from the 1980s. Dominant discourse shifted from the role of local authorities as direct housing providers to privatisation, subsequently altering state-civil relations. The 1980s Housing Act (or ‘right-to-buy’) came into effect in October 1980, placing very few restrictions in the way of local authority tenants who wished to purchase their homes: the qualifying tenancy period was only three years and the price of purchase was the 50-67% of the market price. Between 1980 and 1991, 1.46 million sales had been completed, marking one of the biggest of Thatcher’s privatisation initiatives (Machon, 1987: 170).

Right-to-buy discredited the old utopia of the post-war welfare state, creating space for the emergence of the new utopia of property ownership (Carr, 2013: 120). Thus, the post-war government’s commitment to social housing was replaced with the view that welfare was counterproductive and dystopian, instead branding the Victorian individualist model as one which could bring affluence to the poorest. Knowledge and power models were altered, marginalising the poorest further. Instead of liberation, “those who fail to become effective consumers are the new socially excluded and the injustice of their position makes the stark realities of the neo-liberal/neo-conservative order patent.” (Carr, 2011: 520). Palimpsestuous notions of Victorian Panopticon control thus emerged, property ownership providing a “key method of governing individuals, working through their freedom. It prevents the descent to pauperism, as well as providing stability, responsibility, thrift, health, wealth and an example to others” (Cowan and McDermott, 2006: 180). Consequently, the ideological commitment to property ownership under the right-to-buy created new ‘truths’ which led to wide active participation of the destruction and discreditation of Keynesian-welfarist institutions (Peck and Thickness, 2007), and successfully obscured the knowledge of persistent market failure and structural inequalities within housing (Carr, 2011: 523).

‘New Labour’

New Labour continued the ideological narrowing of the social base of council housing. Through its ‘modernisation’/’marketisation’ which introduced greater consumerist behaviour and market-type governance (Hodkinson, 2010). The shift of knowledge through the discrediting of the post-war welfare state under the Conservative government required New Labour to reinvent the social project to fit dominant discourse (Carr, 2011: 525). New Labour’s 1997 manifesto stated: “New Labour is a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology. What counts is what works. The objectives are radical. The means will be modern.” (New Labour Manifesto 1997, 1997). These ‘means’ were the continuation of the transfer of responsibility for management of housing away from local authorities, continuing neoliberal discourse. For example, the ‘Decent Homes Programme’ which aimed to bring all social housing up to a minimum ‘decent’ standard by 2010 was funded through neoliberal means of transferring housing stock from municipal authorities; arm’s length management organisations (ALMOs); or through contracts with private firms over a period of 20-25 years (Carr, 2011). Consequently, New Labour “not only came to terms with the Right to Buy, which Labour had traditionally opposed, it enthusiastically endorsed owner-occupation and set itself targets to provide low-cost housing” (Carr, 2011: 528).

Implications for Finsbury

Living in Finsbury quote.

The impact of the decrease of the welfare state under neoliberalism was a direct assault on Lubetkin’s working assumptions. No more was what was good enough for his private clients at Highpoint good enough for the social tenants in Spa Green. The UK’s supply of social rented housing reduced by around 2 million homes (Hodkinson, 2010). Consequently, the use of council housing has shifted from the working class, to a “shelter of a last resort to those unable to go elsewhere” (Pacione, 2009: 198). This is problematic for Finsbury at a time when “gentrification has led to more conflict (over social exclusion) between the working-class population and the ‘Starbucks Coffee Crowd’” (Lees, 2000: 390).

Today, Islington Council (2013) has identified considerable poverty in Finsbury, particularly affecting children and older people that are more likely to live in social housing. Due to the right-to-buy, the patterns of tenure within social housing in the area is complex with three distinct groups: long-term and older residents who moved in when the estates were first built; newcomers whose claim to housing rests on council policy of allocating according to need, with a more varied BME and social mix; and those who have purchased their flats under right-to-buy and how have either sold their properties to new and relatively wealthy incomers, or who sub-let to occupants who can afford to pay the premium for central London accommodation. However, due to low savings rates and lower-than-average incomes in Finsbury, it is hard for many people to move into home ownership even if they want to, creating a backlog of households waiting for social housing.

For example, today 50% of Spa Green is in private hands, limiting the availability to those who are unable to pay market price for a flat in central London and increasing the waiting list. A two-bedroom flat in Bevin Court, too, sells for £500-700,000 (Rightmove, 2018). The result may be that those unable to afford the market price leave the area. This would be disastrous for Finsbury, and its history of social radicalism if “original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed” (Glass, 1964, p. xviii).

Where do we go from here?

The study of Finsbury’s history raises important consideration for housing policy in the future. It is incorrect to point to a single moment in history as creating the current welfare system, each policy has been formulated by dominant ideological discourses, marking a change or a return to the past. Consequently, it has been shown that nothing is inevitable. Rather, genealogies allow an insurrection against centralised power and knowledge, paving the way for change. Today, Islington Council’s ‘Finsbury Local Plan’ (2013) is attempting to overcome the structural changes affecting Finsbury since the decline of social housing and rise of gentrification. Over 2,300 homes have been built, phased between 2012-2017, as shown  in Figure 8. Through its vision “to provide a range of types and sizes of housing, promote social cohesion and realise the area’s potential to generate economic opportunities, including for local residents and businesses, through public and private sector investment” (Islington Council, 2013: 21) it is hoped that the working-class will remain.

Figure nine, mixed tenure housing.
Figure 9: Mixed tenure housing.

More generally, the unravelling of the post-1945 welfare state under neoliberal discourse has “seen a resurgence of the original problem governments tried to tackle more than a century ago” (Renwick, 2017). The welfare state is something that we should be proud of, but it is now a term of abuse. Consequently, at a time when more people are turning to food banks, a palimpsestuous re-emergence of Lubetkin’s vision of social housing is needed more than ever. The discourse of the welfare state as dystopia must be challenged through genealogy. By giving suppressed and marginalised voices a platform, we may be able to alter the power relations that perpetuate individualism, and allow a re-emergence of the utopian welfare state, for “it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together” (Foucault, 2009: 318).

Tara Petterson


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