Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1994.
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Public Housing in Poplar
The dominance of public housing in Poplar's built environment is a relatively recent phenomenon. (fn. 1) Most of it was built between 1950 and 1980, and by 1981, 97.6 per cent of all dwellings in the Borough of Tower Hamlets (formed in 1965 and including Poplar) were owned by local authorities. (fn. 2)
Despite the many working-class families in the area and the poor condition of much of the housing, very little public housing was built in Poplar during the nineteenth century. The dock companies provided only a minimal accommodation for their enormous workforce, and none of the early philanthropic housing societies built anything in the area. Some tenement blocks and a few cottages were built in the 1890s and early 1900s by the London County Council (LCC) in connection with the building of the Blackwall Tunnel. After 1906, however, the LCC concentrated its efforts on developing cottage estates in outer London and built scarcely anything more in Poplar until the 1930s. With no state housing subsidy, Poplar Borough Council found it impossible to build any dwellings before the First World War.
The government subsidies offered by the 1919 and subsequent Housing Acts induced the Borough Council to embark upon a housing programme extending throughout the 1920s, and comprising a mixture of cottage estates and blocks of flats. In the 1930s the LCC changed its policy and, as a result, both councils erected well over twice as many dwellings as in the previous decade, almost exclusively blocks of flats for rehousing as part of the national drive against slums and overcrowded conditions.
The period immediately after the 1939–45 war was taken up with providing sufficient temporary housing for those made homeless during the war. Because of this and the post-war economic crisis, construction of permanent new housing did not really begin until the 1950s. Up to about 1980, most of the older, nineteenth-century private terraced housing was swept away and replaced by a series of large council estates – a legacy of war damage and the result of the local authorities' policy of comprehensive redevelopment. These estates consisted mainly of blocks of flats, although in contrast to some other parts of London, there were relatively few high-rise blocks. This great rebuilding reached a peak in the later 1960s and early 1970s.
From the later 1970s the number of new council dwellings declined drastically, and none has been built in Poplar since 1983. Indeed, the 1980s saw a slight depletion in the public housing stock, with some dwellings being sold to their tenants. In 1985 all local authority housing passed to the ownership of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which became the sole housing authority for the district. In the later 1980s attention shifted to improving the existing council housing, and an extensive programme of refurbishment and modernization – sometimes involving the almost total transformation of exterior appearances – is still under way in the 1990s.
Since the 1920s, various housing associations or similar agencies have also built public housing in Poplar, but in terms of quantity their contribution has been minor. The balance shifted in the early 1990s, when the only public housing being built in the area was under the aegis of such organizations. The Housing Acts of 1988 and 1989 had aimed to establish housing associations, rather than local authorities, as the prime instigators and managers of public housing, but it is too early to say whether this aim will be realized.