Friday, 25 November 2011

Municipal dynamism

I subscribe to a daily email from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) database. (By the way, if you hold a library ticket for Neath Port Talbot - or most other public libraries for that matter - you can look up the ODNB database free of charge, either from a computer in the library branch, or from your own at home. Ask a librarian for details.) These messages consist of a single biography, usually tied to an anniversary of birth or death. Today's is a bit different. The anniversary is that of the extension of Birmingham in November 1911, for which John Nettlefold, industrialist and housing reformer, was largely responsible.

John Sutton Nettlefold was born into the family firm. He ran their steelworks in Rogerstone for three years, but  left the company (which eventually formed the "N" of GKN) to become managing director of Kynoch Ltd in Birmingham, the name living on in IMI Kynoch plc. He married into the Chamberlain dynasty and became a Liberal Unionist (i.e., the branch of the party which opposed Gladstone over home rule for Ireland) member of Birmingham city council for the Edgbaston-Harborne ward. The ODNB entry goes on:  "As chairman, from 1901, of the council's newly created housing committee he played the dominant role in developing the city's housing policy. Nettlefold's particular concern was to relieve overcrowding in city centres. He set his face against the existing model of providing housing for the poor, which involved slum clearance in city centres, both because this encouraged landlords to neglect their property in the expectation of compensation, and because of the expense it imposed on ratepayers. Rather, he believed in dealing with unfit houses on an individual basis, by requiring that landlords ensure that their properties were fit for human habitation. Under his leadership Birmingham's housing committee dealt with 4000 houses in this way between 1902 and 1907. He also rejected municipal house building as a solution to the problem of poor housing, since this required subsidy by ratepayers to keep rents low. Municipal housing, Nettlefold argued, amounted to charity on the rates.

"Nettlefold's distinctive scheme for remedying the housing problem was radical, but not socialist. It relied on private builders, yet involved a degree of intervention by local authorities and was linked to the emerging concept of town planning, of which he was a pioneer. His ideas were set out in his two books A Housing Policy (1907) and Practical Housing (1908). One influence was the garden city movement, but the model upon which he most directly drew was the town extension plan, a German concept made known in Britain by the Manchester philanthropist Thomas Horsfall in his book The Improvement and Dwellings of the People (1904). This offered a model of low-density housing, with a plentiful supply of open spaces and adequate amenities, located on the outskirts of cities, but with good transport links to the town centre. [...] he organized the Birmingham Playgrounds, Open Places, and Playing Association on the model of a Chicago organization which had insisted on the provision of playgrounds as a municipal function, important in forming children as citizens."

"Nettlefold proposed to bring these ideas about by allowing the purchase of land by councils, who would lease it to private builders to build houses for rent. He sought new statutory powers to enable the planned development of undeveloped land within city boundaries, making possible the planned development of entire districts. At the same time he proposed relaxing building by-laws, which he believed unnecessarily inflated building costs. His emphasis was on the development of the estate as a whole, to ensure adequate light, air, and ventilation, with plenty of space between houses, and gardens at front and back. His ideas were applied in the development of Moor Pool estate in Harborne, on 54 acres of land two miles from the centre of Birmingham. In 1907 Harborne Tenants Ltd was established to promote the erection, co-operative ownership, and administration of houses on this land, and at the same time the Harborne Society was formed, with Nettlefold as its chairman. A firm of local architects developed the site, where 500 houses were built at a density of 9.25 houses per acre, and the tenants were co-partners as well as tenants of Harborne Tenants Ltd.

"Any wider application of Nettlefold's plans, and in particular the town extension plan, required legislation to give local authorities town planning powers, and through his involvement in the Association of Municipal Corporations, of whose planning committee he was the chairman, he lobbied for town planning legislation to give local authorities power to control the laying out of land for housing within their boundaries. He was the leading speaker in a deputation from the association that met the [Liberal] prime minister, Campbell-Bannerman, and the president of the Local Government Board, John Burns, in August 1907 to discuss the planning of suburbs. Planning was necessary, he argued, to prevent 'the haphazard extension of towns' creating 'new slums' (The Times, 26 Oct 1907)." What emerged was the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909, too limited in its scope to meet Nettlefold's ambitions, but a step forward.

It is interesting to see the birth of strands of thinking on housing which continue to this day in both progressive Conservative (a party which most Liberal Unionists finished up in) and Liberal Democrat policies. He rejected centralised socialist planning, but embraced cooperation. He also realised that councils had to provide a driving force and that the excesses of private landlords had to be curbed.

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