Octavia Hill - a housing legacy
Published by Colin Wiles on Tuesday, August 14th, 2012 at 12:31 pm
This week sees the centenary of the death of Octavia Hill (1838 – 1912), often regarded as the patron saint of housing management. Reading Gillian Darley’s biography you are struck by her sheer busy-ness. She set up several housing schemes for the poor and personally collected the rent, she co-founded the National Trust and the army cadets, she founded the Charity Organisations Society, sat on the Poor Law Commission and numerous other bodies and was a tireless campaigner for social reform. This blog by Jules Birch nicely summarises her achievements and her mixed reputation.
But Octavia Hill’s approach was very much at odds with today’s state-sponsored notions of social policy. She opposed council housing, state pensions, votes for women and free school meals. Her first housing schemes, funded by John Ruskin, were commercial concerns that paid a return of five percent to investors. She collected the rents, and helped tenants to find work, but was quick to evict any family who failed to meet her high standards. At the centre of her approach was the personal touch. Her all-embracing notions of “housing plus” – she set up singing classes, clubs and tenants’ associations - were decades ahead of her time. By regular visits to her tenants she got to know their needs and concerns and could help them to help themselves. She viewed the tenant and the property as an entity and stressed the importance of a single manager who would deal with the entire package. In this respect, modern day job titles like housing manager and housing officer are very much her legacy - the principle of a single point of contact for the tenant, dealing with everything from drains to drama classes. This idea did not catch on everywhere, even in living memory there were (are?) local authorities that did not have housing departments, so tenants would pay their rent at the Treasurer’s office, and report repairs at the Works department (a fragmentation of service that is sadly returning as landlords become larger). Her disciples went on to form the Association of Women Housing Workers in 1916, which became the Society of Housing Managers in 1948, the body that merged with the Institute of Housing Managers in 1965 to become the CIH. It is no accident that the Chartered Institute of Housing’s head office is still called Octavia House.
It would be easy to dismiss Octavia Hill as a paternalistic do-gooder, but that misses the point. Judging someone like her in today’s terms is always tricky. She reflected the passions and debates of her time. Many Victorians believed that you had to be cruel to be kind and that handouts to the poor created dependency and fecklessness. This is still a view that prevails today in many quarters, most notably in Iain Duncan Smith's DWP. Samuel Smiles’ “Self Help” was a bible for many Victorian reformers. It was only at the end of the noineteenth century that economists showed that povery and unemployment were the product of trade and economic cycles rather than the inherent laziness and fecklessness of the poor.
Her legacy in other areas has endured. She saved Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields and was passionate about the need for a hierarchy of open space for urban people. “I think we want four things,” she said, “Places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in.” It's a principle that present-day planners should pay attention to.
On the down side sheco-founded the National Trust, now one of the biggest organisational obstacles to sensible planning and housing policies. My hunch is that she would probably have supported their campaign against the National Planning Framework, because her concern was with the personal and the small scale rather than the bigger picture. In 1875 she also advocated a green belt around London, a policy that would have brought disaster to Londoners and the future prosperity of the capital.
So her reputation is uneven, but she remains an interesting historical figure, and her life and work should be on the curriculum for every student of housing. If you get the chance, visit the Octavia Hill birthplace in Wisbech. It tells the story of her life and has some fascinating photographic and documentary records of the early years of housing management.
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