As the housing sector marks a century since the death of Octavia Hill, Grahame Hindes wonders whose achievements will be celebrated in 2112.
Who will be remembered?
Consider for a moment who, in the current world of affordable housing, will still be remembered in 100 years time and you begin to understand just what a lasting legacy means. So we should take time to celebrate today the life of Octavia Hill, which ended on the 13th August 1912 and which left a string of lasting achievements as the foundation for a towering legacy.
For those in housing she will be remembered for the fact that it was her ideas that underpin the profession of housing management. Her concentration on effective cost control and efficient rent collection allowed investors to be paid a 5 per cent return and ‘her tenants’ provided with basic but decent accommodation. With no personal money she was able to harness private investment to solve social problems in a way that we are still seeking to reproduce today. What is more she knew that the provision of a home, was not enough and an essential part of her approach and now her legacy is the community development activities of hundreds of housing associations up and down the country all of whom recognise it’s importance in the development of what we now call ‘well being’. These activities – social support, employment when tenants were not working, even basic banking services, were not extras to her Victorian understanding but a fundamental part of an approach to what good housing management was, and is, still about.
But her role in housing is only part of the story. For many without an interest in the history of housing her reputation stems from her role as one of the founders of the National Trust – with its 3 million members, tens of thousands of volunteers, hundreds of properties and thousands of miles of coast line, the Trust is now part of the national landscape. As is social work – based on Octavia’s casework approach to social problem solving; the profession of occupational therapy – established by Elizabeth Casson who had been trained by Octavia; and a host of open spaces across London, including Parliament Hill fields which was purchased following a fundraising campaign led by Octavia. Indeed the whole idea of a green belt of open spaces around London has been traced back to her work. The list goes on, she was one of the first advocates of clean air sponsoring a campaign against the smoke in London in the late 1880’s and it was her understanding of the value of youth activities that led to the success of the Army Cadet movement.
When she died Octavia’s family were offered the opportunity of a service in Westminster Abbey in recognition of the role as a national figure. The family declined in favour of what they thought she would have preferred a simple service in a churchyard in Kent where she is buried with her lifelong companion Harriott York. But later this year her reputation undimmed, she will get her service in the Abbey when a stone in recognition of her legacy and her place in the life of this nation, will be recognised.
So as you consider the question of who today we might toast in 2112, take time to remember Octavia Hill, one of the truly inspiring figures of social housing.
Grahame Hindes is chief executive of Octavia Housing