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Peabody Trust set up to house the ‘deserving’ poor

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Issue 2349

One of London’s biggest housing associations today is the Peabody Trust. 

Its story starts in 1862 with a donation from American banker George Peabody to start it off and an Act of Parliament to make its role official.

By the mid 19th century London’s growing working class had the establishment scared. Housing reforms were motivated less by the effects of poverty on people’s health and wellbeing than the bourgeois fear of slums breeding crime and insurrection.

The official response was to clear out poor districts. But with the need to be near their work, those evicted often ended up in the same conditions less than half a mile away.

So from the 1840s onwards philanthropists began to set up “model dwellings” to change the way poor people lived. Peabody took that to a new scale.

But rising land prices quickly led Peabody and the others to set higher rents. And even when the rent per room was cheaper than the slums, families weren’t allowed to share. 

Nor could they make extra money by doing other people’s laundry or taking their work home.

These rules excluded the poorest workers. Others put them under humiliating scrutiny—tenants had to be vaccinated, tidy and in bed shortly after 11pm. 

They couldn’t keep dogs, let their children play in the corridor or even hang up pictures.

“We house the deserving class that wants accommodation,” said Peabody Trust boss Robert Vigers in 1881. “There are some people that are so low, that they could not live with their people.”

Council housing is in a pickle

Eric Pickles’ Localism Act in 2011 upped the pressure on councils to transfer stock, by lumbering them with £30 billion of housing debt.

He said that this would force them to plan “sustainably”.

But the building costs of most council housing has already been paid back in rent many times over.

Pushed out to arms length

housing that is owned by a council is often run by an Arms Length Management Organisation (Almo).

These were launched in 2000 and now manage over a million homes—more than half of Britain’s remaining council housing.

This can be a stepping stone to privatisation. 

Last year campaigners got several Almos brought back in-house, including Sheffield—the biggest Almo in England.

Glasgow moves to second stage

Glasgow council transferred its entire stock of housing in 2003.

The Glasgow Housing Association has more than 50,000 tenants.

Now it has begun a “second stage transfer”, spinning off some homes into new smaller housing associations.


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