In London I’ve lived on three council estates. The first, on Leather Lane just off Holborn, was a rare example of an early Eighties-built structure, over shops and offices. The second, was a classic Sixties Tower block on the Regent’s Park estate, and I’m now in a brick six-storey quadrangle built in 1929-30 and Grade II-listed as a “near-perfect” example of the type in Somers Town.
After reading Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: An Intimate History I’ve a much clearer understanding of the history and sociology of each of those three structures, and the many other council and community housing buildings that I visit doing leafletting and canvassing. This is an “intimate” history, for Hanley herself grew up on a huge estate just outside Birmingham, and feels that she escaped from its limited life by the skin of her teeth – yet as a Londoner and home-owner she continues to live on an estate in London, much cheaper to buy because of its origins.
What is amazing as Hanley traces the history is the way that views of housing have radically swayed back and forth over a century.
After the First World War came the first big surge of council housing, with the same kind of schizophrenia that continued to mark approaches to the issue. The Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George announced that the returning soldiers needed “homes for heroes”. But on the other side of the coin, the fear was that denied such oportunities, these trained soldiers would turn “Bolshevik”. (And there was the concern that the state of the slums had led to one in ten conscripts being rejected on health grounds… where were the soldiers going to come from for the next war?)
So it was that while under 1 per cent of Britain’s housing stock was council before World War I, by 1938 that figure was 10 per cent. The Minister for Health of 1919, Dr Christopher Addison, had concluded that houses with gardens were essential – beginning the suburbanisation of the working class. With this came the trend of he application of “respectable”, middle-class mores. Every council lease I’ve seen includes the requirement to place “net curtains” at the windows. (And no I don’t – typically for a middle-class person of my era I consider them hideous and unsanitary.) Hanley notes that in the 20s and 30s “first-time council tenants – under pressure from housing officers to strive for respectability, and from neighbours to keep up with the Jones’s – scrimped to buy net curtains and antimacassars.” (p. 61)
Almost by definition, the families placed in these new homes were not the poorest, but those striving towards middle-class respectability, to “better themselves”. It had been thus from the beginning. The first council estate in Britain was the Boundary Street Estate, on the border of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, begun in 1893, to replace the infamous slum of Old Nichol. (Portrayed in A Child of the Jago.) The 1,069 dwellings were beautifully designed in the arts and craft style, but the people who moved into them were not, by and large, the original inhabitants of the area, for “the rents were set at just high enough level- three shillings a week – that would put off all but the best-paid working people, attracting instead small businessmen, clerks and artisanswhose habits and behaviour were already considered a cut above the rest. Respectable Jewish families were encouraged to move into the new development in the hope that it would speed up the process of assimilation, and also because they were less likely to mind that the twelve pubs which once added to the chaos and violece of the Old Nichol slum had been demolished, never to be replaced.” (p. 56)
The standards of these early homes was often higher — room size, window expanse, solidity of construction — than that thrown up by the speculative builders in the turbulent economy between the wars. And indeed one of the things that attracted me to my current home is the solidity and space. But, Hanley points out, the suburban estates were often many miles from workplaces, with little public transport, trapping, particularly the women, far from networks of friends and family that they’d had in the “slums”.
Immediately after World War II, the Labour government continued to build council homes with aspirations:
The 1951 Festival of Britain showcased the new Lansbury Estate in the East End of London … the most comprehensive example yet of what Bevan called ‘the living tapestry of a mixed community’, where well-designed homes of differing sizes mixed with shops, vibrant markets and public-transport routes … maisoneetes and terrace houses mingled with low-rise blocks of flats intended for single and elderly occupants. Even the furniture was designed especially… ‘The three-piece is of an entirely new design, consisting of a settee, one armchair, intended for the man – comfort being the key note – and the other for the woman, which gives firm support to the back and ample elbow room for sewing, knitting and the other spare-time occupations which fall to the lot of the housewife.’” (p. 78-9)
The Labour government of 1945-51 considered nationalising the entire stock of rented housing – which might have had some interesting effects – Hanley suggests it might have stopped the 1958 Notting Hill riots that were caused “at least in part” by competition among the very poor of different races for limited, and exploitative, private rental places. Eventually, however, Bevan decided that the rule should be that four council houses be built for each private one.
But building solid, decent-quality houses took time, and this was a nation wouldn’t wait. The Conservatives winning power in 1951 on a pledge to build 300,000 new houses a year. (The most Labour had managed was 227,000 in 1948.) So it was that
“in the decade between 1955 and 1965, council housing went from being the crowning glory of the new welfare state to mass-produced barracks. They weren’t intended to be so: it was hoped that the high-rise blocks would confer pretige on a town as much as provide housing for its workers. It wasn’t only the thought of subsidies and concrete that excitedthose who were in charge of designing and implementing housing policy on the ground. Therewas a desire to create a more European, less Pooterish future for Britain.”
The annual rate of total house building nudged 450,000 at its peak. That reflects the construction of the Regent’s Park estate, and the buildings of different periods show that clearly. On the north side of Roberts Street is a row of early Fifties high flats – not yet pure tower blocks (being still of broadly traditional brick construction, and boasting some very fine (if now poorly maintained) art deco-ish features such as beautifully sculpted and tactile door handles that show real quality of design.
Yet the block I lived in south of Robert Street was clearly Sixties – no such design flourishes – handles opened the door and nothing more, and of the prefab concrete construction that might have been fine – indeed there was much to value in its large and airy rooms with wide expanses of glass. But demonstrated in the famous case of Ronan Point, this form of construction still required skills and adequate supervision. And it requires maintenance and continuing services.
By 1979 almost half of the British population lived in council housing. Yet now, only 12 per cent live in local authority homes, with a further 6 per cent in housing association units. A further 10 per cent live in private rental housing (p. 98).
“Right to buy” was of course a major force in the change. Yet behind that, and the surge in private ownership was the fact that word had got around that living on a council estate was to settle for a second-class warehousing – something that only the very poor, the weak, the helpless, would do. Hanley asks an interesting question: “Why does mass state provision in health and education continue to thrive and ttract ever greater public investment, whilst council housing becomes more fragmented and marginal every year? … We don’t consider using the NHS or state schools as a sign of dependence or weakness, but when it comes to state-provided housing, it seems that we simply can’t wait to see the back of such filthy parasitism.” (p212)
And so, on the great estates, where mere postcode identifies you as a resident, future generations are pigeonholed.
“If you attend a school on a council estate, having come from a council estate, you get a council-estate education. …Your best bet is to get a place on a vocational course at the local technical college, where you’ll get to hand out with lts of other kids whose educational attainment is scandalous in an affluent highly technocratic society. If you’re luck, there will be a special brancj of the college on your own estate, offering training in lots of different skills, from customer service to hospitality and catering, meaning you never even have to leave.”
London of course is not quite the same. There, beside the Regent’s Park estate, with the same postcode, are Georgian terraces valued in the tens of millions, down the Euston Road is the British Library, a little down the road is the British Museum. Yet it struck me that many of the women I knew – long-term residents – almost never corssed the Euston Road into central London, although it was a mere five minutes away. They went to the estate shops, for the big shops up to Camden.
And a lot of council housing in Camden is – for now – mixed with the private – in Victorian terraces, primarily, often purchased and restored during the Seventies, and in blocks like mine – now a third privately owned. But that may not continue for long – if the LibDemTory Camden council has its way, since it is selling off the most valuable properties and those “too expensive” to restore. (Which makes me worry for some mansion blocks in Bloomsbury, which have been allowed to degenerate to a shocking state.)
So the lesser amount of council housing left is likely to be concentrated on estates – and concentrated on the “worst” estates, where residents are less likely to exercise the right to buy, and if they have, to be able to sell on at a good price to outside buyers, who can turn a block like mine – about a third private – into a genuinely mixed, and reasonably balanced, community. (But if a council flat here were left in a poor state, would it somehow turn out to be “uneconomic” to repair?)
And there’s the new social housing being built – usually by developers in the “off corner” of a new private development. I’ve been into a few of these – and they are a worry. Small flats crammed into a walled-off area – generally with a different entrances to the private flats (on a different street often, if geography allows), and the people placed into these blocks will be the most needy – the only ones who can make the top of housing list. So contrary to the tradition of council housing up to the Fifties, it is not the aspiring who will be grouped together, but the struggling. And the results, I fear, are not going to be pretty. But there’ll be those walls keeping them separate (as with the infamous Cutteslowe walls in Oxford (of which Hanley provides an account).
The only “fair” housing, I think, is genuinely mixed housing – mixed by age, by social class, by income – that puts people together, makes them neighbours and often, in my experience, friends. And those with money and influence will fight for their neighbourhood with resources not available to the equally concerned but less equipped poor. And it is quite within the power of planners to make that happen – if only they could find the will.