The Mass Housing Drive

Miles Glendinning

In this essay:

The General Context

Housing Production: Cultural and Political Constraints

During the mid twentieth century, the demand for the state to intervene as principal provider in low-rental housing spread from socialist Labour city authorities to encompass the entire country, including the rural areas, and all shades of political opinion. In cultural and political terms, the East Lothian housing situation was a microcosm of rural and small-town Scotland, in its polarised character. On the one hand, there was a mosaic of decaying mining communities wedded to the Labour party and the demand for council housing; on the other, a stagnating rural hinterland and country towns ruled by ‘Independent’ non-socialist councillors, mainly small businessmen and landowners. But here, in contrast to some more conflict-ridden counties, such as Fife, the two sides worked together in relative harmony, chiefly owing to the smallness of the towns and the dominance of the County Council, which itself had a healthy balance between Labour and Independent councillors. By the 1940s, almost all local politicians in East Lothian were committed to the spread of public housing in one form or another.

The Interwar Background

During the interwar years, especially under the reformist Tory administration of Walter Elliot (Secretary of State 1936-1938), the County Councils had been encouraged to take general control of rural social provision, including housing – a process referred to by Elliot as ‘countification’. Improvement of agricultural workers’ tied cottages with basic facilities (running water and WCs) had been pursued first, under 1926 and 1938 legislation, and by 1946 over 90% in East Lothian had been upgraded, taking up 15% of all government grants (although the county only accounted for 2% of the national population). The next, more ambitious step had been the large-scale building of rural council houses, including hot water, bathroom and separate bedrooms. Many of the 1,480 interwar houses built by the County Council had been for farm workers. The government had also grant-aided private houses and built 99 new houses in the county as part of its smallholding scheme. In the industrial burghs, the problem of undermining was the most severe in any county, and gravely inhibited any urban ‘housing drive’. The only burgh with a social tradition of substantial autonomy and innovation was Tranent, with its strong co-operative society: it had built 520 interwar houses. Prestonpans Burgh Council, with an area of only 125 acres, was far smaller and weaker, but even so, it controlled 68% of the town’s housing stock by 1946.

Housing Production in the 1940s and 1950s

After World War II, in the wake of the government’s all-out drive to boost ‘general needs’ low-rental council housing, and the effective suppression of the private house building industry, the position in East Lothian at first remained the same, although with the additional, new constraint of severe economic crises, building materials shortages and industry ‘overheating’. These led the government to impose strict rationing and quota management of each individual authority, and to encourage the use of ‘non traditional’ prefabrication systems. By comparison with the overcrowded cities, East Lothian had a relatively modest ‘housing problem’: for example, in 1935, only 13% of houses were overcrowded, compared with 23% nationally. Thus per capita public housing output, from the beginning, was somewhat lower than that of the big urban centres, such as Dundee or Glasgow.

At first, in 1944-7, the central government stepped in directly to alleviate the worst wartime shortages with temporary ‘prefab’ bungalows (see below). By the late ’40s, however, the emphasis had returned to council-controlled programmes of permanent houses, many using elements of prefabrication to circumvent the shortages. With the exception of the imported ‘Swedish Timber’ houses supplied by Svenska Trähus AB from 1945, these ‘non-traditional systems’ were mostly proprietary methods devised by Scottish building firms. At first, most used steel and concrete construction, but later moved to more conventional brick building. The most influential of these firms in East Lothian was the Musselburgh-based Cruden consortium, a franchising organisation that built the ‘Cruden’ (late 1940s) and dry-lined ‘Dunedin’ (’50s) house types. The County Council could also call on the help of the Scottish Special Housing Association, a government organisation which built non-traditional dwellings entirely at Exchequer expense, but was distrusted as an interloper by the big Labour cities: the SSHA built large numbers of houses for miners in the Prestonpans area. By the early 1950s, building rationing was phased out, leaving interest rates and subsidies as the main constraint on local authority building. The County Council was able to respond by putting up its local taxation (rates) and its council-housing rents in 1957, but the smaller burghs, with their tiny populations, lacked this elasticity. In the late 1950s, for example, East Linton Town Council abandoned new building for reconditioning old houses, and Dunbar Town Council diverted its efforts from building to slum clearance.

Against the background of all these constraints, the County Council, encouraged by influential Independent members such as the Marquis of Tweeddale or Lady Broun-Lindsay, continued its position of dominance, gradually building up an annual building programme of around 80-100 dwellings, mostly at first of non-traditional construction. Roughly half were for farm workers, and the other half in the hinterland zones around the small burghs. The latter each only had the land to build a few dozen houses annually, and were in general happy to rely on the County and the SSHA to build in their landward areas. For them, socialism and reliance on council housing did not mean piling up a vast production machine themselves. Prestonpans Council, for example, kept down its waiting list using casual vacancies, and devoted its energy to piecemeal redevelopment of the decayed High Street; its leading housing figures from the 1950s were Bailie Jimmy Nisbet and Burgh Surveyor J A Watt. In Tranent, whose ‘housing leader’ was Provost George F McNeill, the council secured a boundary extension in 1955, which allowed it to start a phased development of several hundred houses off Ormiston Road. Owing to the undermining constraint, both burgh and rural dwellings were mostly of standard low-rise one or two storey types, including two-storey ‘four in a block’ flats – there was no question of tower blocks in East Lothian! – with 700-1,000 sq ft area, fitted kitchen, and, increasingly, some form of central heating rather than open fires.

Planned Housing: The ‘Overspill’ Programme

East Lothian’s ethos of collaboration between different public authorities, and its relative lack of pressure for Glasgow-style mass municipal ’empire building’, was exemplified above all in the power wielded by the innovative County Planning Officer, Frank P Tindall. Appointed in 1950, immediately following the failure of ambitious proposals for the sinking of a new super-pit and construction of a ‘new town’ at Seton, Tindall set about preparing a development plan (approved 1952/3) which would provide a more balanced framework for modernisation and demographic change. Assuming a 15% population increase by 1971 (double the actual rise), Tindall used the council’s planning powers to limit new building in the mining areas and redirect growth to Haddington, the historic but stagnant county town. In 1957/8, he negotiated a pioneering ‘overspill’ agreement with Glasgow Corporation under the 1957 Housing and Town Development Act, providing for the transfer of overcrowded Glasgow population and industry to other towns – entirely at Exchequer expense. An American domestic motor manufacturing firm, Ranco, was attracted to the town, and 248 overspill houses were built (half each by the SSHA and the town council) by 1965, in the Artillery Park scheme and elsewhere. The actual mechanisms of overspill proved to be more complex, but by 1962, 577 people had been transferred from Glasgow; between 1951 and 1971, the population rose from 4500 to 6500. A similar overspill scheme agreed for Dunbar in 1958 proved less successful. By 1966, just over 100 houses had been completed, some in medium-rise blocks of flats.

During the course of these policy changes in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the total level of public authority (council and SSHA) house building in East Lothian had dipped markedly – from 1,941 in 1950-4 to 723 in 1960-4. In the late 1960s, however, as these large programmes came to fruition, output recovered to 1,845 – a level comparable in per capita terms with more urbanised county councils, such as Lanarkshire and Fife. Labour’s energetic Scottish Office housing minister from 1964, J Dickson Mabon, made a special point of encouraging a drive against ‘rural slums’ by the county councils, as part of a strategy of diverting emphasis away from what he saw as the excessive multi-storey building of Glasgow Corporation. The total output of East Lothian County Council between 1945 and 1975 – over 3,000 new dwellings, or 119 per 1,000 population – was only 10% less than the per capita building rate of Lanark County Council.

What was most striking in East Lothian by now, however, was the rapid rise in the contribution of private building, especially in Haddington and the richer seaside towns. From a level of 13% of total East Lothian output in 1960-4, it reached 18% in 1965-9 and went on climbing beyond 38% in 1970-4 – whereas the nationwide average stalled at around 20% for several years after 1968. The replanned and enhanced East Lothian was naturally attractive to the private sector, whether in the form of large speculative developments, or individual feuars developing their own plots in places such as Longniddry and Muirfield. Tindall’s planners made strenuous efforts to achieve some aesthetic coordination, through initiatives such as Haddington Town Council’s 1960s competition for the harmonised development of the Clerkington Avenue site (ultimately won by Newcastle developer Bell). The 1970s saw the rapid growth of the new housing-association sector, previously pioneered in James Gray’s design for the Adam Housing Association development at Gourlaybank, with its collective central open space (1961-2). Although council house building held up in the western section of the county (with over 70% of 1971-6 completions), the stage was now set for the collapse of public house building across East Lothian, as elsewhere in Scotland, from the late 1970s and ’80s. For example, in 1980, there were 18 public and 266 private housing completions in the county.

At the 1975 local government reorganisation, the county was enlarged by the transfer from Midlothian of Musselburgh, a town with its own vigorous tradition of council building and slum clearance. Musselburgh is excluded from the main chronological scope of this article (1945-75), but summary housing statistics are included in the table at the end of the text. From these it can be seen that the town’s overall population was far larger than any of the East Lothian burghs, and more comparable with that of the county landward area. The post-war building programme of the burgh council was of corresponding scale, amounting to nearly 2,500 units at the time of abolition and combining suburban cottage schemes and inner-area tenement redevelopments; the contribution of the private sector and the SSHA were also, proportionately, somewhat stronger in Musselburgh than in the coastal mining towns.


In general, although denigrated by subsequent opinion, the achievements of the thirty years’ public housing drive between 1945 and 1975 were considerable, including the abolition of the ‘rural slums’ and the enabling of demographic and industrial reconstruction. And all this was done without the destructive confrontations between different authorities, or between ‘housers’ and ‘planners’, that characterised the Glasgow and Clydeside experience.