A brief history of home ownership in Britain

As the proportion of owner-occupied homes in the UK continues to fall, Julian Humphrys looks at the history of home ownership in Britain

(Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Is this current fall in house ownership the end of an era?

If it is, it’s not as long an era as you might think. Mass home ownership is a relatively recent trend. In 1918 less than a quarter of Britain’s homes were owner-occupied. Mortgages were rare, most people rented their homes privately and new property was mainly built for sale to private landlords. It was only in the 1970s that home owners came to outnumber those who rented.

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Were early 20th‑century homeowners all middle and upper class?

No. Before the First World War, for example, just under a third of Oldham’s 33,000 houses were actually owned by ‘artisans’ and a similar proportion owned homes in the Welsh slate-mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. They saved up for their homes by paying into building societies which thrived in areas of full employment and a static population.

What led to the rise in home ownership?

During the interwar years, falling house prices, rising incomes and the increased availability of building society mortgages enabled more  workers to buy their own homes. By the outbreak of the Second World War a third of Britons were home owners. The rise in home ownership stagnated during the war and the austerity period but picked up again in the late 1950s and 1960s.

What did governments think about home ownership?

From the 1930s all governments, Labour and Conservative, have seen home ownership as a way of fostering greater equality or social cohesion. Both parties have brought in a range of measures to foster home ownership. The most marked example of this came in the 1980s when the Thatcher government gave council tenants the right to buy their homes, at a discount, and nearly 2m households took up the offer.

When did home ownership peak?

In 2001 when just under 70 per cent of the homes in England and Wales were privately owned. It has since fallen to 64 per cent, and social and financial factors suggest it will continue to do so, with a rise in private renting.

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This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine