Octavia Hill, the social landlady
Octavia Hill connected housing with several other concerns that reoccur throughout her career: childhood and learning, the importance of work and the values of the home. In doing so she would both improve the environment and raise aspirations through insisting on the cleanliness of the corridors and common parts at the same time as she would evict the drunk, deal with the rowdy, take care in selecting new residents and, as opportunities presented themselves, reduce the extent of overcrowding.
A sound financial base was a necessary part of her scheme, but it was not sufficient for the achievement of her broader ambitions. To make ‘lives noble, homes happy and family life good’ required more than careful property management. This was to be achieved through a mixture of individual interest and what would now be termed community development work built around the tenancy relationship. A playground for the children of tenants was fundamental to the first experiment and over the years the schemes of support grew to include libraries, community halls, crafts, concerts, country visits with residents, a passionate care for aesthetics and the appearance and context of her housing schemes, and an engagement with young people. All were legitimised from the base of a tenancy relationship, which Octavia Hill considered so important that she once described its impact as being ultimately more important to the lives of those housed than that of teachers.
Looking back on Octavia Hill’s methods today, the all-embracing holistic approach of the early days, with a single manager dealing with both the property and the people, was always going to have limitations. The simplicity of the early scheme stands in stark contrast to the complexity of current provision, which is both more comprehensive in scope and has more sophisticated standards, but in turn has become atomised and distributed among agencies. No longer can a single individual have the influence that the Octavia Hill method was built on. Now a host of different organisations and services exist in a complex web of provision, regulation and funding combining effectively — at least on a good day — to provide a mix of support and provision that includes social workers, occupational therapists, surveyors, employment advisers and others. Our additions to the system have achieved much progress, but they cast a shadow of complexity that precludes the all-encompassing ambition of the original personal touch.
However, hidden behind the complexity of this more interdependent world there remains, in the work of many housing associations, a strong commitment to the founding principles of the Octavia Hill method. The importance of sound finances in pursuit not of profit but social improvement is what associations still aspire to achieve. The work of associations is necessarily founded on the same commercial reality of collecting rents, managing costs and persuading banks and bond-holders to invest. But the wider role, the social purpose, remains as strong, if not stronger than ever as almost without exception associations embrace the idea of a wider community function.
Octavia Housing owns and continues to manage many of Octavia Hill’s original properties, and it is an example of how the spirit of Octavia Hill’s approach and many of her practices remain relevant today. We are actively engaged in the community, providing day-centres, holidays for the elderly, gardening and cookery lessons, youth activities, back-to-work advice, financial advice and more. This range of community work, diverse, independently funded and usually at a local scale is often unseen by the wider public gaze, but it is the true legacy of Octavia Hill’s housing work and the manner by which associations continue to honour her spirit.
This extract is taken from 'Octavia Hill's influence on social housing today', the fifth chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.