The 50th birthday of the nhs leads to reflections on the different fate of its contemporary sibling, the duty of the state to provide decent housing for all. There have been two apparently contradictory reactions to the Health Service anniversary. First, an awesome sense of how far life expectancy has improved and how the quality of our lives has changed beyond our imagination, and second, a profound disquiet at doctors playing God, at waiting lists, and at the disparity in treatment across the country.
At the death-bed of public housing, all that was heard was a version of reaction number two. The verdict was that architects behaved like deities, and that there were interminable and unfair waits for accommodation, and massive differences in the quality of design, construction and space standards across the country. But hand in hand with the health service, public housing improved both our life expectancy and our expectations of the quality of our lives. Quite why there was no equivalent to reaction number one has remained a puzzle.
A lost essay by George Orwell, recently published by the Observer, provides a possible answer. He notes how every attempt to visualise Utopia, from the Bible to William Morris, has been stolid and lacklustre. What has never been acknowledged by architect, Christian and socialist alike, is that making things better does not necessarily make you happier. Could it be that the promise of public housing was founded on such utopian expectations that the disappointment in its realisation swept aside all recognition of its real, if uninspiring, benefits?