Survey London’s contemporary streetscape, and the more pessimistically minded might conclude that good-quality social housing has had its day. Instead, the capital is now riddled with countless new-build private apartment blocks, with the much-vaunted ‘affordability’ quota and council houses often relegated down dark side alleys or on another site altogether, if they are even built at all.

Space is at a premium, with ‘micro apartments’ suggested as a way of upping the amount of available housing. 

new book on council houses in London
Trellick Tower, 1968-72, W10, Erno Goldfinger, from The Council House

The irony is that Britain used to build some of the best and most generous social housing in the world, strongly influenced by European modernist design. By the 1960s, all council housing was governed by a set of official space standards that most modern developers would baulk at.

Writer and photographer Jack Young’s new architecture book The Council House brings together portraits of 68 of the capital’s most celebrated council house schemes, from high to low rise, scattered across London from north to south. 

Council houses, photograph by Jack Young
Dawson’s Heights, SE22, 1968-72, Kate Macintosh (Southwark Department of Architecture & Planning), from The Council House

Young writes unflinchingly about the teething troubles and social ills that frequently tainted the image of the new housing, but balances these with enthusiastic voices from residents old and new.

His excellent photographs veer between heroic celebrations of abstract forms and colour, and contextualising shots that really show how many of these buildings have grown and matured over time. 

The Council House, photograph by Jack Young
Lillington Gardens, SW1V, 1964-72, Darbourne & Darke, from The Council House

Although many of the featured buildings and complexes didn’t live up to their utopian promises, the landscape of affordable housing has changed beyond all recognition since they were built.

As a result, a whole new generation is discovering these structures for their generous space and light. As demolition becomes increasingly uneconomic, London’s 20th-century council housing has become an integral and essential part of the city’s fabric. §

The Council House, photograph by Jack Young
Spa Green Estate, EC1V, 1946-49, Tecton Group, from The Council House
The Council House, photograph by Jack Young

Sivill House, E2, 1964-66, Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin, from The Council House