Monday, October 22, 2012

Lynsey Hanley - Estates: An Intimate History

Having seen Lynsey Hanley's book on council estates favourably mentioned in Owen Jones' book Chavs I was looking forward to reading it. Not least because I currently live on a former council estate, and grew up near to the estate on the outskirts of Birmingham that forms some of the centre piece to Hanley's book. I also spent many years living on a council estate in Tower Hamlets, not far from the estate where Hanley now lives and many of the buildings and sites she mentions in London.

Council housing, built by the state and administered by local government forms an important part of British social history. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 a third of the British population lived on council estates. Today only around 12 percent live in this type of housing. Along with Owen Jones, Hanley argues that Thatchers' changes to the law to allow council tenants to buy their homes, began the process of transforming both the housing stock of the country and the social attitudes of many of the population.

But the story of council housing begins much earlier. Take east London in the late 1800s, here:

"life expectancy of mechanics, servants and labourers in Bethnal Green was sixteen.... Tradesmen, on average reached the age of twenty-six before keeling over, while the outlying professional classes generally made it to forty-five."

The scandal of such poverty meant that Victorian governments recognised the need to clear slums and improve housing. Initially rents were set so that the poorest couldn't afford the new homes, but as World War One finished, there were other reasons to try and alleviate the worst conditions of the poorest in society:

"As Russia... fell to the Bolsheviks, the need to fulfill the basic needs of the working class and thereby dampen their desire for revolt became ever more urgent".

Hanley demonstrates that today, the very notion of council housing has become a by-word for the poorest, most disadvantaged and often the most scapegoated people in society. But it wasn't always so. In the 1930s, she shows how the keys to a council house transformed peoples lives, offering them decent accommodation for the first time in their families history. Standards were also very high. One architect, Raymond Unwin, the designer of Letchworth Garden City, recommended that houses "should not be built more than twelve an acre, with six good-sized rooms and large windows to maximize the penetration of daylight. Minimum floor space was set at 760 square feet, using three standardized types of house design which... should be used to break up the monotony."

After the Second World War and with the destruction of large areas of housing by enemy bombing, the pressure to build more homes was high. The incoming Labour government considered nationalising the entire stock of the countries rented accommodation. This didn't happen but the minister responsible for housing had very high ideals of the type of homes to be built.

Most importantly, he believed that the new housing and estates needed to be designed to offer comfort, decent housing but also specifically to avoid creating new slums. Unfortunately, these high ideals, combined with a lack of raw materials and economic problems meant that homes were not built as quickly as demanded by those in over-crowded, bombed out areas. Hanley argues that the two elections of 1950 & 1951 were fought and won on the question of housing. When Labour eventually lost to the Tories the new housing minister, Macmillian had a very different attitude to Bevan. Speed was now of the essence, reducing costs, standards and quality to throw up homes as rapidly as possible. As Hanley summarises, "Bevan feared building quickly least he built new slums. Macmillan seemed less bothered by this prospect and passed this crucial lack of foresight into the very fabric of the council-housing landscape."

This contributed to the "long decline of the council house". Policy now was "one that saw public housing as providing the nation with a collective legacy to one that saw it as a brief stop towards acquiring an individual legacy."

In this context the actions of Margaret Thatcher is less of a break with the past than might have been thought. The idea that council housing was a stepping stone to something better, rather than the provision of decent homes for large numbers of families has now degenerated into the idea that council homes are for those who can't have anything else. But here to, the roots of this attitude lie years back, when in the 1960s and 1970s, councils started gathering the poor, mentally unwell, unemployed and vulnerable into areas of estates. Rather than trying to create self supporting communities, they created ghettos of the most vulnerable.

Hanley is at her best when describing the degeneration of the council house ideal. She shows how the building of enormous estates was done without thought to peoples' needs (no pubs or buses!). Homes were built to cheaper and cheaper standards. The extraordinary number of tower blocks built (Birmingham had 492 alone) created "slums in the sky". Creating a situation that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Victorian past. As Hanley concludes:

"We've made the class divide worse by allowing the better-off to run off with the profits of their homes, and preventing the worse-off from having new council homes in their place. We've made sure that the poorest people in society are back in the same relative position they were before the first council estates were built."

Estates "are like ghettos, in the sense that the worst-planned and poorest served o f them are so cut off from their surroundings that they may as well have walls built around them..... estates are class ghettos, places were few middle class people aside from those who are paid to do so ever venture."

Hanley clearly believes that there is an alternative, and it requires the rebuilding of decent social housing. How this happens is the big question, and is one that Hanley has no answer to. She recognises that the barriers to such a program are huge. Not least the politics of mainstream British politics which still have all the prejudices and economic principles that lead to the destruction of the council house ideal in the first place.

In her desperation to improve the lot of her particular estate, Hanley was part of an local tenant organisation that oversaw the selling off of a council estate in Tower Hamlets to a new social landlord. She seems positive about the experience, though many of the criticisms of the process of privatising council homes have proved valid elsewhere.

Sadly such schemes are unlikely to be the solution to the problem of council housing in the future. Forcing through a massive program of council home building will not come from arguing that particular areas of existing homes need to be sold off to private landlords. Nonetheless, Hanley is right to argue that tenant participation in the development of new homes and estate is absolutely crucial for creating decent esates in the future.

Sadly I found Hanleys' book quite frustrating. On the one hand, it is a passionate defence of the importance of social housing. On the other it comes across as the last, exasperated gasp of someone who has given up on an ideal. Hanley's solution was individual. She was able to escape "the wall in her head" - the barriers imposed upon someone from her class. She was able to escape her council estate in Birmingham and build a new life, in a former council house elsewhere. That's not a solution for everyone, and as a result, while Estates: An Intimate History has many fine points, at times it feels like she is putting across the same prejudices that she herself escaped.

The fact that in the last decade voters on council estates in large areas of the country have rejected sell offs of council housing implies that thousands of people still recognise the importance of state provided homes. The future of housing policy will have to be written by these people, and others who face high rents, appalling housing conditions, and over-crowding. There needs to be a radical break with existing government policy, which is unlikely to come from the Tory cabinet or from New Labours policy makers. We can only hope that it will come from mass movements of people demanding better, just like their forebears did in the 1930s and 1940s.

Related Reviews

Jones - Chavs
Robbins - There's No Place

See also Owen Hatherley's review of this book in Socialist Review here.

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