What is home? Part 3: The welfare of the communities of England

How has the vision of a journey towards a promised land unfolded in the history of our own countries? A comprehensive assessment of the long history of land law and planning in England is beyond our scope; but even the sketch below points to its vital significance to inform what action Catholics might take for the next generation. This analysis owes much to the work of Lewis Mumford, without endorsing his conclusions.


Scholars contest how (far), in English medieval land law, land was held in common. There were many types of land ownership, and while medieval planning encompassed more or less organised patterns, in larger medieval towns typically:

  • The principal public space would form the focus.
  • Areas within towns clustered around related functions and groups, rather than separating out housing; wheeled traffic did not demand regular streets.
  • City boundaries were organic: a physical town border/wall could be extended, and if it was, the people did it. They used local materials, most of which could be re-used. Walls were not just lifeless boundaries but could have other habitable structures attached.
  • Home boundaries were soft: in most dwellings there was little or no hard-bounded private space. Bathing, waste, intercourse and bodily functions were often in the open. [‘Decency’ in this sense was largely a Victorian invention.]
  • The welfare of the city and its surrounding region were closely related in subsistence; from time to time, whole settlements re-located.

Early Modern to Industrial

  • Rapid economic growth from the 15th Century was accompanied by a different treatment of land as a traded commodity; within London, historic spaces – particularly after the closure of religious houses – were subdivided and built over, enhancing the conditions for ill-health and fire.
  • Much land was privately enclosed.
  • Reflecting economic prosperity, houses in richer households evolved by division into more rooms and ‘private’ space.
  • These developments increased wider aspirations – the housing ladder – replacing the medieval focus on the public space for expressing a whole community’s welfare.
  • Post-Reformation, the Catholic Church was largely debarred from the development of English and Welsh society and law. Christianity was privatised (some churches had box pews and rented seating). 
  • Rulers’ distance from residents and consequent fears were expressed in the imposition of planned streets for displays of power and wealth.
  • Living, producing and selling – where previously combined in houses – tended to be split up into different buildings and eventually different parts of settlements. Domestic life turned in on itself. Transport became an increasing burden on everyone.
  • The achievements of civilisation were divorced from public life into a private market economy, often behind doors open only to the richest members of society.
  • The conditions of industrial towns spurred the exit of the rich to out-of-town villas; the later rise of better-paid clerical work spurred their migration into suburbs – a miniature way of copying the rich, and the form of housing in which most people in England and Wales still live.


  • An era of battles between wholesale redevelopment and preservation.
  • Policy dominated by technical choices between market or state provision, and the state itself increasingly identifying with the market.
  • Increasing reliance on larger roads. Communities made safer and more isolated with bypasses – or sliced apart by inner city ‘relief roads’.
  • Growing distance between where people live, food production and utilities, work, retail and the safety net of benefit payments.
  • Central heating per room, vs a shared fireplace (note 1).
  • The rise of tower blocks, some linked to isolation and mental ill health(2).
  • Centralisation of decision-making affecting family life and home formation, in increasing detail and prescription.
  • Green belts formed a kind of modern wall.


  • Widespread frustration with state, market and (ironically given the history) a perceived absence of the institutional Catholic Church in the public square.
  • Binary debates: north-south divides; Brexit; free market or state (cf. land-banking, politics of estate regeneration)
  • Walls became fortress-like again, supported by new, dehumanising and remotely operated technologies.
  • Increased focus on a person’s characteristics: in equality law and targeting services by assessed ‘need’.
  • ‘Citizen’ sector under creation, particularly in areas linked to ‘old Labour’.
  • Civil society organisations looking to provide tools to open up privatised systems of place making.
  • Many small projects that have yet to find a way to address the economics of scale that would successfully replace the state and market models they disfavour.

In summary, the people of England abide in their own long struggle to make their own communities. Where political and economic change over a very prolonged period has divided land and added distance in many forms, the social return has been an increase in isolation. 

Continue to Part 4: A Christian vision for housing in England

Picture: Market Square, Saffron Walden


  1. cf. Kuiger and Watson, ‘That’s when we started using the living room’: Lessons from a local history of domestic heating in the United Kingdom’, in Energy and Social Science, Vol 28, June 2017. 
  2. cf. Gifford, ‘The consequences of living in high-rise buildings’, in Architectural Science Review, March 2007. Building towers to the sky is associated with human pride, cf. Gen. 11:1-9. Without naming tower blocks, Pope Paul VI’s comment is propetic, ‘To those who are heaped up in an urban promiscuity which becomes intolerable it is necessary to bring a message of hope.’ Octogesima adveniens, 12. 

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