The real history of council estates

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.


  • October 30, 2007 - 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Hello Natalie,

    Interesting post. I enjoyed Lynsay Hanley’s book too, very much.

    I would take issue with you about the council selling off big homes or those which are expensive to repair, though. We’re facing this dilemma as a stock retaining council (forgive me, can’t remember if Camden is), and it’s a horrid one. Do we fund the (basic minimum) Decent Homes Standard by raising money every which way we can, including through setting a limit on the amount of money it costs to repair a council home before it’s considered uneconomic to do so and then sell it, and through selling the really valuable properties (e.g. six bed terraced houses in Jericho, which go for 700k), putting the money back into the Decency pot? Or do we not have a process to fund Decent Homes, do not sell anything, repair every home, and then not meet Decent Homes, leaving the vast majority of council tenants much worse off? I know the answer is that the government needs to fund the fourth option, but they aren’t going to, so what in fact do we do? I’d be interested in your thoughts.


  • amphibious
    October 31, 2007 - 2:14 pm | Permalink

    As a young couple, low level civil servants, in 1972 we were overjoyed to be among the first tenants in the new North Peckham Estate. Beautifully designed with a square out of each window, small turrets of 3 flats with their own stair wells, we were very happy there for many years.
    now it’s the neareest thing to a no-go area since the Army stormed Derry.

  • October 31, 2007 - 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Hi Antonia,

    I think in a way the second post here has answered your question. If you sell off the homes, which will be the street properties and those on “good estates”, the only places you will have left to put those at the top of the council housing list are the “bad” estates, where it isn’t worth selling properties.

    Genuinely mixed housing – by income, age etc – is by far the best, and the sell-off will have long term hideous effects far worse than lousy kitchens or bathrooms – not that I’d wish to play that down either.

    So while the current reality is bad, you’re making a terrible long-term decision for the future by taking the selling option.

    A bit like climate-change issues really…


  • November 2, 2007 - 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Bit of a an odd one, but Im researching an article on the origins of names of housing estates and came across your blog, its great!
    Do you know who the names in which Estates/Houses within estates you have lived in are named after?
    EG Will Crooks Estate in Poplar was named after a trade unionist activist.
    Any help would be cool!

  • nandita lovage
    November 3, 2007 - 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi there i just chanced across this site and im very interested in the debate on public housing especially council blocks in oval/camberwell area. I am currently studying at camberwell college of arts and my project is centered around the effect of these buildings on their local enviroments. Im am also interested the change in social opinions, any info would be much appriciated x

  • November 4, 2007 - 11:04 am | Permalink

    Excellent post Natalie. You’ve put your finger on the central problem of current government policy. Social housing is increasingly become ghettoised housing of last resort for the most desperately disadvantaged and socially excluded. Housing Associations have effectively become part of the problem rather than part of the solution (the reason I resigned a Director of community and economic development for one of the most progressive of them a few years ago.

    We have to move to a situation where the community, probably mainly through the agency of the local authorities, is building a very large percentage of the homes that people so desperately need – and building them on the basis of mixed tenure for balanced communities.

    A few years ago I visited a very large housing co-op in Dresden. When the Chair of the co-op described how new tenants were selected and proudly stated that – literally – university lecturers lived next door to tram drivers, a housing officer from Peabody said “This isn’t social housing.”
    “No,” said our host, “this is social housing. What you have is Britain is welfare housing.”

  • John Lloyd
    November 7, 2007 - 9:43 am | Permalink

    We live in an area of Exeter called Newtown that was savaed from the ravages of post-war reconstruction by an imaginative architects department.
    Instead of pulling the whole bomb damaged placed down and building toqwer blocks, they filled in the gaps with some flats and some singled houses; they pedestrianised some streets; they buried electicity and other wires in service trenches and they kept a community alive. It is now, 40 years later, a vibrant mixed community of public/private homes; old and young.

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  • Babar Mumtaz
    October 10, 2008 - 8:27 am | Permalink

    State provided health and education continue to have their advocates (and detractors), but only state provided housing is universally derided as a “sign of dependence or weakness”….because only in the housing sector do we have agents interested in sales and increasing prices. Estate agents (the masters of hyperbole) have a lot to answer for…in seeking to increase their percentage, they are forever pushing prices up. Of course, even without them, prices would rise but at least the buyer and the seller would be on a more equal footing.

  • Mark
    December 29, 2008 - 5:05 pm | Permalink

    To my mind, the only thing I have against council housing is why are people not made to move on once they can afford to?

    I have no issue with providing housing for those who would otherwise be homeless but why should taxpayers subsidise people taking foreign holidays and buying new cars, whilst living in council accommodation?

    That may sound like a right-wing rant to some, but I saw it happening where I grew up and thought it very unfair.

    People like my parents who saved and bought their own home will be punished in their old age by being made to spend all their savings before being entitled to free care (if they happen to need it), whereas someone who spent their life in council accommodation and spent all their money on holidays and boozing it up at the weekends, gets free care straight away (I know not all tenants behave like this but some most certainly do).

    It is as if the government rewards you for throwing your money away.

  • May 2, 2009 - 3:39 pm | Permalink

    A mention is made of what was reffered to as the, “infamous Cutteslowe walls in Oxford.”
    Having seen the state of some of the Council Houses the other side of the wall from the private estate I can see why they wanted the wall.

  • rob trew
    June 6, 2010 - 6:53 pm | Permalink

    mark is very narrow minded.the people who rent social housing are paying out a sum of rent proportional to their wages,which often are very low .why should a person only be able to have a holiday if they are better off?many of us too would save for old age if only we were paid enough. some of us due to affordable housing can afford to save for old age too.

  • Steve
    June 8, 2011 - 8:59 am | Permalink

    I’ve just moved into a council estate in London (borough) and found this post as I am interested to know the roots of these buildings. My particular block was built in the 1930s over the old Marshalsea Debtors Prison where Charles Dickens father was imprisoned. It has to be the most solidly constructed place I have ever lived in.

    However it is not without social problems, there are families in the building who simply have nowhere to be each day and seem to be in a downward spiral. Quite a change from the original intentions.

    I sometimes feel angry that there are so many people travelling many miles to work in London. Even local shops are manned with hard working immigrants while these families live slap bang in the middle of everything.

  • Danny Holmes
    September 14, 2011 - 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I was brought up on a council estate first in a masonette the town house. my dad paid full rent. because his pay was considered too high. of course not as high as private. The truth is we looked after the property and done most of our own improvement. my dad didnt excerise his right to buy didn’t believe it was right taking the stock away from the council. by the 1970 to get a council house was hard. my dad wrote to the council and said he would would take his discount for me to use as a deposite on a house for me not a cash some but a voucher scheam. it fell on death ears. why was their less trouble simple.all came from same backgounds with same values they appreaciated their properties decent people still in these properies have to put up with problem families wwho believe the world owes them a living

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  • frank
    December 27, 2011 - 10:09 pm | Permalink

    i was brought up on an estate in the 60s and 70s and despite the fact that most were hard working decent people , there were then a lot of hardened criminals. we stayed away from these hard men but we did form our own sub-cultures. we travelled to private estates ,fascinated by any difference and viewing those residents as a different breed, often punch ups would start. i suppose we were envious and yet hurt and angered by the prejudiced comments and attitudes about us. i would love to know other peoples thoughts on what went wrong with council estates a once beautiful and democratic ideal .

  • Taxus Hibernicae
    March 16, 2012 - 12:10 am | Permalink

    I bought my once lovely house in Camden under RTB scheme in the 80’s. It wasn’t easy: the Labour-controlled council used every underhand trick in the book to frustrate me. It took 7 years to achieve and cost me many tens of thousands in rent payments and price/cost inflation. I realised that vindictive councillors determined to neglect the estate at around the time that tenants were eager to buy; to disenthuse them the council placed “problem” families within the midst of us and also grafitti, litter and associate neglect caused inevitable decline: both of the fabric and of the local neighbourhood’s collective morale. I believe that some labour dogmatists look on tenants on estates as mere pawns to be played as in a game of chess: lay a big guilt/shame trip on them and ocassionaly demonstrate Council largesse at local election time.There can be nothing more humiliating than being patronised by so-called socialist politicos who live in grand Edwardian houses in the best parts of the borough.

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  • michelle laing
    December 4, 2015 - 1:36 am | Permalink

    I was wondering if I could find a list of all previous tenants that have lived in my council house and any other info regarding my actuall street/area any help would be great thank you

  • Natalie Bennett
    December 7, 2015 - 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michelle, I’m not sure you’d get recent names from the council due to privacy concerns, but depending on the age Census data is available from up to 1911 is available online. Your local library should be able to point you to books with lots of general information about the area. Hope that helps! N

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