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Review of ‘Estates: An intimate history’

The Coalition Government is proposing that council houses ‘for life’ are to be phased out, with new tenancies being of fixed term and tenants being encouraged to find accommodation in the private sector when they are financially able.  No better time to review Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley:

Council estates – very often large, indistinguishable blocks of housing found in inner cities and on the outskirts of towns – have become familiar features of the British landscape.  The social problems encountered on many of these estates have meant that, rather than realising the anticipated Bevanite socialist dream, ‘council estate’ has become shorthand for ‘proletarian hell’.

In this part history, part personal memoir journalist Lynsey Hanley looks at the UK’s social housing from both inside and out.  Hanley was born and raised on a Birmingham council estate and writes that this book is ‘an attempt to work out how much of the stubborn rigidity of the British class system is down to the fact that class is built into the physical landscape of the country’

Although ‘council housing’ is for many forever associated with unappealing tower blocks, subsidized rented homes were first built by philanthropists in the mid-nineteenth century.  The first ‘council estate’ was the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green which replaced the notorious Old Nichol slum.  It was World War I which provided the impetus for the first large scale housing funding when Prime Minister David Lloyd George announcing that returning soldiers deserved ‘homes for heroes’.  This initiate was also aimed to at sidestepping a feared Bolshevik revolution.

Further building took place after the Second World War as four million houses had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair whist the UK population had increased by one million.  The acute housing shortage which followed engendered government targets of 300,000 new homes to be built each year during parts of the 1950 and 1960s.

Despite reports that the flat accommodation predominately provided proved unsuitable for families and communities alike, these homes were often erected quickly with previous high standards being disregarded.  That the burden of the consequences of this myopia fell directly onto the disadvantaged is a theme to which Hanley returns again and again.  Communities found it hard to establish themselves in the new estates, which were often placed outside towns with poor access to transport or amenities.  Occupants felt unable to police the anonymous stairways and walkways on which they lived and these became havens for antisocial behaviour.  The prosperity of many estates suffered as tenants were predominately employed in poorly paid jobs of the sort that have, with deindustrialization, become progressively more precarious.

In the 1980s Thatcherite reforms meant that those living in council houses were able to purchase their previously rented properties.  Although popular, this has reduced the housing stock available for councils and by Hanley’s reckoning has further marginalizing those unable to step onto the housing ladder.  Such is the continuing unmet demand for social housing that some councils have actually begun to buy back council homes.

Hanley’s anger that we have created ‘single class concentration camps’ is thus set out; the difficulties in escaping such confines are illustrated by her own experience.  Poor schools situated on council estates have low expectations of their pupils and some of the worst exam results in the country.  In addition there are less tangible barriers to social inclusion or, as Hanley describes (and borrowing a phrase from reunified Germany) a ‘wall in the head’.

Most social housing is now not actually owned by councils and much of what is now built are mixed developments of social and private housing.  Hanley concludes by relating her own experience of purchasing a council home in East London and her subsequent attempt, as part of a committee of residents, to have the estate redeveloped into something more suitable.  Her vision is proper housing for all, with social housing ‘less distinguishable from private housing in order to give those who rent a more equal chance in life to those who buy’.

Hanley’s answer to her own question is ‘yes’; council housing has made class segregation worse and whilst many people have a surfeit of choice in their lives, a minority have none.  Although Estates often falls foul of making the similar point again and again, she has nevertheless succeeded in making the subject of social housing compelling.


Here’s an interesting paragraph from the book about mental health:

Although many people manage to hold themselves together and even thrive in the single class environment of a council estate, hidden damage is caused by many factors.  First, there is the simple knowledge that you are surrounded by poor people – poor who have drawn the short straw in life and can see no obvious way of lengthening it.  The fact that you are living in a place populated almost exclusively by the poor makes those who are less poor unlikely to enter the area unless they have to, further entrenching its isolation and the stigma of living there.  That isolation in turn limits the aspiration of those poor people by presenting few clear alternatives to the lives being lived around them.  If those lives seem mad and chaotic, that madness and chaos will spread to those who are the most susceptible.  So it spirals down.  The sense that you are fettered by circumstances beyond your control – lack of money, a house that you have not chosen to live in, noisy and antisocial neighbours – will, if left unchecked, inevitably lead to depression and general poor health.  …. In American housing projects, the ‘ghetto miasma’ that is said to cast a pall over the lives of the (overwhelmingly black) poor lifts miraculously from anyone who is moved out of them to single family homes on the edge of the countryside.


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