In 1890, the Housing of the Working Classes Act was passed by Parliament. This paved the way for a government programme of inner city slum clearance and replacement house building. Following the First World War, with soldiers returning home in need of houses and jobs, and a precarious post war economy, the government made a promise of ‘Homes for Heroes’. This resulted in pressure to accelerate and expand the house-building programme. In 1919, a new Housing and Town Planning Bill was presented to Parliament. This established the provision of working class housing as a statutory duty of local authorities. The house-building programme would be substantially funded by the State and was seen as a way of stimulating the post war economy. When the bill was passed, it was accompanied by a design manual, which emphasised the need for ‘good houses, adequate in size, equipment and amenity to afford satisfactory dwellings for the working man’s family’. The designs put forward, both for estate layouts and individual buildings, were strongly influenced by the Arts and Craft Movement and early Garden City planning as seen in Letchworth (opened in 1903), the first Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb. As part of this programme of house building, the London County Council (LCC) built several large housing estates. The design of these estates relied heavily on ideas included in the earlier design manual and were much influenced and controlled by individuals such as Barry Parker, who worked as a design consultant for local authorities; Raymond Unwin, who was involved in the thinking behind the design manual and was the government official responsible for vetting schemes; and George Forrest, the London County Council’s architect. Parker and Unwin had great experience of garden city planning and were famed for the development of Hampstead Garden Suburb, one of the best examples of garden city influenced design. The first LCC estates were within the then existing London metropolis. However land prices and space restrictions soon meant that these areas could not accommodate the low density, relatively self contained estates encouraged by the planning and design ethos of the time. The LCC therefore looked to out of town sites along the new underground lines that had made such areas accessible. Watling Estate was one of the largest of these estates, along with Beacontree, Bellingham and St Helier estates. The decision to build at Watling Estate, to the designs of the architect George Forrest, was taken in 1924. By April 1927 the first residents moved in. Within 12 months 2,100 families lived on the estate and by 1930 all 4000 dwellings were finished. Although a lot of thought went into the design of the houses and street layouts the estate was not built or designed as a self-contained community. Tenants moved in before schools, roads, churches, shops or any community facilities were provided. To start with, children travelled by train to Golders Green and Hendon to go to school. It seems that most people commuted to their former jobs on the underground. Although a lot of local facilities were eventually provided, the estate was designed as a garden suburb and was never meant to be isolated from the rest of London.
The estate was built for families leaving the overcrowded slums of central London, and Watling Estate was a very alien environment for many of the first residents. One reminiscence of the early years explains how in 1928 “… there was nothing but bricks and mortar and acres of mud. The main thoroughfares . . . were narrow lanes – little more than footpaths and cart tracks in part. The first doctor had to live in a caravan until his house was ready.” (The Watling Estate Resident 1932). The houses were larger and better equipped than the tenements left behind, there was space for gardens, parks and playing fields, but in comparison people felt isolated and lonely. Early residents complained of the quiet, the lack of facilities and the cost. Although the houses were subsidised by the LCC, rents were often higher than people were used to whilst the cost of travelling to jobs further into London and of acquiring furniture often resulted in real hardship. The London County Council’s allocation policy provided homes only for people living within the existing conurbation of Greater London. This meant that local people, and those growing up on the estate, could not get houses of their own. By 1936 each home housed an average of 4.7 people, but as the first estate children grew up and married, and had to share houses with their parents, overcrowding became a real problem. Over time with older family members passing away, and new housing being built in the area, this problem diminished. In 1980, with the demise of the Greater London Council (GLC) the entire estate became the responsibility of the London Borough of Barnet. The “Right to Buy” policies of the 1980s meant that tenants could buy their council houses. The 1991 census showed that approximately half the houses (update census) had been or were in the process of being bought by residents.