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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Octavia's great legacy


CIH chief executive, Grainia Long, talks about Octavia Hill as a pragmatist and how housing still remains the wicked issue in her remembrance blog for the social housing pioneer who died a 100 years ago.

Judging historical figures by today’s standards rarely does them justice- and this is indeed the case for Octavia Hill. As we mark the centenary of her death, many housing professionals are rightly examining her legacy and its impact on housing and communities in 2012.  To ask whether Octavia would approve of, or even recognise, today’s housing system makes for an interesting discussion, but it misses the point.  

Her life’s work was of its time- she recognised the appalling living conditions suffered by the poorest, challenged inequality where she saw it, and fashioned an approach to housing management that resonates still today.  But speculation about whether she would support or oppose today’s planning reforms, or reforms to welfare do not serve us well.  First and foremost, Octavia Hill was a pragmatist- she knew and understood context, she was adept at making best use of the resources and connections in her possession, and she was dogged in her determination to reform.  

I’m much more interested in how we can build on her legacy- we must figure out how to debate the future of house building without an unproductive and polarising debate on land use.  We need a public debate on the standards we require for homes of the future, on the role of state subsidy and private investment to fund housing and infrastructure - a debate fuelled by a purpose to house everyone rather than fuelled by ideology.  

We need a mature discussion about how we create a tax system that is fair, that supports growth and that enables all generations to access the homes they need, and where they have it, to put their housing wealth to best use.  We need to make brave decisions about housing, health and care- in the interests of today’s older people, and tomorrow’s.  

Housing remains a wicked issue, as it was during Octavia Hill’s time.  Its problems are large and complicated and solutions difficult to locate.  Answering the big questions facing housing in 2012 will require the same spirit and intent that Octavia brought to bear one hundred years ago.  We need a generation of pragmatists, who are prepared to learn from the past, but are focused ruthlessly on the future.

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Your comments

  • Can you please clarify what you mean by describing housing as a 'wicked issue'? I know it's a modern sort of phrase but, from what i know of its uses, it has many possible meanings.

    Colls, Graham
  • ?Graham, when Grainia uses the term wicked to describe housing she is emphasising that the sector is in a severe and distressing state. We still have a housing crisis and as Grainia mentions in the last line above, "its problems are large and complicated and solutions difficult to locate." I hope this answers your question. Jemma Redden, marketing officer at CIH

    jemma redden

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