Estates: an Intimate History

There used to be a sign on an estate I’d walk through in Hackney on my way home that read ‘No mind games’. I don’t know how long it had been there, so subtle and unassuming, but soon enough it was back to ‘No ball games’. Some pre-Banksy surrealist prankster had managed in their own small way to undermine however temporarily the dulling effect of the council housing experience that Hanley largely successfully critiques in this book.

Unfortunately, Hanley’s mixing of occasionally angsty personal narrative with policy critique is in turns confusing with regards the nature of the problems she is trying to address, and revealing: the reason for this muddle is that she fails to draw a line between her own experience and aesthetic judgements, and questions of policy and politics.

‘Estates’ symbolise the need to escape from a ‘sentence that may never end’ – that is, the existential angst of the author – as well as a way out of the post-war slums (for her grandparents), and a short-hand for the decline of community. This conflating of her own experience with the history of social policy in this area leads Hanley down some dead ends. Is it the ‘loneliness and alienation that drove me towards another life, or … this cold grey out-post, full of houses but devoid of people’ that depresses her? ‘They [estates] sap the spirit, suck out hope and ambition, and draw in apathy and nihilism’, she concludes. For this reason I will start with the biographical part of Estates.

The inspiration for the book is Hanley’s own experience growing up on ‘the Woods’, a deprived estate in the otherwise affluent borough of Solihull just outside Birmingham. It is built by ‘someone who has yet to see what bad housing can do to people. It has insanity designed into it’, she complains. This deterministic view of the impact the built environment has on people is a recurring theme throughout. As is the legacy, a kind of ghetto mentality, that it has on one’s psyche: ‘It poured you into its mould, so that you would always carry its shape’, she says.

As a Brummy of a similar age, who also moved to East London in his 20s, and also remember telling my doctor I was depressed (strange that), I should perhaps be sympathetic with the familiar middling existence that Hanley sometimes eloquently – other times melodramatically – describes. I too didn’t sit the 11+ test and didn’t go to the same grammar school, no doubt, that she didn’t go to. I also moved to that more reputable borough with my upwardly mobile parents, and found the whole experience, while latterly in more salubrious surroundings than Hanley’s, similarly nondescript, uninspiring and ‘squashing’. But it was the times, and our time of life surely, rather than the estate, that done it?

Hanley almost says as much: ‘at the time I didn’t think it was the physical size of the houses that crushed me. It was the anonymity and conformity of the estate as a whole that threatened to consume me’. But ‘I never felt free to be the person I knew I was inside.’ And I suppose you were all confused and misunderstood too? Get over it, I feel like saying. You were an adolescent full of dreams and ambitions. I too had a bit of a fixation on Bowie, the Velvets and Eno. They perhaps helped me overcome that ‘wall in the head’ too, while erecting a few more! They were otherworldly. They recreated themselves. But the point is you got out. That’s it. If you want to address the dire state of housing as a consequence then all to the good. If instead you are consumed by guilt and prone to dwelling on … well, past dwellings, then perhaps you should have gone down the Prozac route after all.

This brings me to the ‘history’ bit of this ‘intimate history’. Hanley thinks the rise of public housing both ‘built’ the revolution, and prevented a Bolshevik-style revolution. Alternatively, one might argue that what was in fact welfare reform only feels like revolution when viewed from a less ambitious period like our own. The threat to the establishment from the radicalised working class at home and the influence of the Soviet Union internationally certainly meant things had to change. Concerned (for themselves) Victorian philanthropists, alongside the church and charitable institutions, could no longer be relied upon to meet desperate housing need, or avoid the consequences for the elite of failing to respond to such demands.

Such was the inspiration for Lloyd George’s ‘homes fit for [the] heroes’ of the First World War, alongside the decline in the national ‘stock’ – human as well as housing – implied by the finding that one in ten conscripts was unfit for service, and the anxieties generated by imperial rivalries and colonial stirrings. By 1919, explains Hanley, legislation had allowed for a major public house building programme. By the mid-1920s 200,000 council houses had been built, and it wasn’t nearly enough. Still, hundreds of thousands of houses were built during the Depression. As she explains, at just 1% in 1914, by 1938 the proportion of council houses had increased 10-fold, the vast majority of them on the new estates springing up in the suburbs. Four million homes were destroyed and more eventually rebuilt in the decades following the Second World War – a million in the first five years of that first Labour administration. In this more optimistic ‘there was a sense that society could be transformed for the better’.

But it was with the shift from ‘Bevanite idealism’ to the ‘Conservative Pragmatism’ of Harold Macmillan, that Hanley says the reputation of public housing began to wane. As quantity won over quality, haste over speed and cost over durability, it would gradually lose its sheen. There is some truth in this. But it is striking that the old Tory outdid his untouchable predecessor with a building programme of 300,000 new homes every year in the 1950s. That the parties competed with each other to build more houses is particularly significant given today’s paralysis. By 1968, the peak of house building, 450,000 went up. Macmillan’s preference for 2-bed terraces over ‘mixed tenure’ and for owner-occupation (in keeping with the aspirations of the wealthier sections of the working class) seems less significant to this reviewer, in retrospect, than the common aspiration to build more houses. (Though it is quite a revelation to this reviewer at least that the rhetoric of the ‘property-owning democracy’, wrongly attributed to Margaret Thatcher, was actually first used by Macmillan.)

Hanley’s grudging acknowledgement that the figures are quite flattering for the Tories is in keeping with her dewy-eyed fondness for all things Old Labour. She also forgets the contemporary realities in her tendency to eulogise Labour figures past. She describes how Minister for Housing in Wilson’s 1964 government, Richard Crossman, ‘set about the task of rehousing the slum dwellers of the major cities with a pragmatic zeal that would have made him a star of future Labour administrations’ (p27). Well not this one. Between 1985 and 2005 less than 50,000 units of social housing were erected, she says elsewhere, and most of these managed by Housing Associations. His achievements would have been regarded as irresponsibly ‘unsustainable’, given the current change of climate, so to speak. Hanley herself is far from enamoured with the more ambitious ‘official architecture of the welfare state’ which she regards as not only unsustainable today, but fundamentally misconceived even then.

Hanley is critical of Le Corbusier’s notion of houses as machines for living in and his belief in their ‘revolutionary potential’, despite her own claims for the transformative potential of the ‘twee’ more ‘homely’ structures she favours herself. And she is similarly scathing of Le Corbusier’s contemporary Karel Teige who proposed communal blocks of flats, ‘to liberate women from kitchen work and to relieve them from the supervision of children by establishing common dining facilities and children’s homes’. We might baulk at these ideas today as offending contemporary attitudes to personal privacy and childrearing. But it is an undeniably bold vision, surely more in keeping with the idealism that she associates with the beginnings of the British welfare state. But instead she, rightly or wrongly, shares Bevan’s apparent distaste for the pre-fabs that emerged to meet the demand for new housing on an industrial scale in the post-war era, and the tower blocks that were to apparently so blight the urban landscape for the coming decades.

‘Tower blocks, in the public mind, represent all that is worst about the welfare state … And concrete. Ugly concrete,’ she says. The 4,500 of them that littered Britain’s urban landscape by the late 1970s were no longer ‘visible signs of progress’ or ‘prestige’. Admittedly, it is hard to believe today that they ever were. Hanley explains how between 1955 and 1965, they went from ‘crowning glory’ of the welfare state to ‘mass-produced barracks’. But she allows her own prejudices to cloud her judgement here. The accusations of insularity aimed squarely at estate dwellers and the working class seem a little closer to home (if you’ll pardon the pun) than she would care to admit.

Hanley’s assertion that a preference for gardens over parks is indicative of the ‘fortress-like mind of the average Englisman’ is just one example of this. ‘Home life requires a sense of warmth that we, in Britain at least, associate with brick’, is another. The evidence for innate or national traits that make people averse to particular building materials or living above ground level is never presented. She only repeats what are in truth a conservative prejudice, and an apology for the disaster of mass housing projects and high-rise living in practice.

If is these (and other) past failures that loom large for Hanley. ‘The problem with buildings is that, like anything manmade, they are subject to our desire to experiment,’ she tells us. Indeed, it often seems that it is the mass character of these buildings, the monumental visions of which they are a part, and the industrial techniques used to construct them, that offend her most. The sheer scales involved in these modernist visions for living she says are intolerable for the ‘human animal’.

So what of today? By 1979, half the population lived in council provided homes. Today, nearly three quarters of Britons own their own homes (or at least the bank does!) with barely one in ten housed by the local authority. Since the mid-1970s social housing builds have peaked at just 50,000 units a year. As Hanley rightly says the working class has benefited over the last quarter century from these trends, but the poorest have been further marginalised. The residual character of public housing has given the government a free hand for experiments in ‘antisocial behaviour’ initiatives and other interventions in tenants’ lives. But the author seems as keen, for all her left-liberal leanings, to condemn her co-tenants for their depravity as find real solutions.

Hanley’s grotesque portrayals of ‘Hogarthian’ scenes on her own estate are quite breathtaking for a woman who apparently abhors chav-bashing. She refers to a ‘diurnal chorus of drunkards, men and women, who have long since lost the ability to prevent cackles and profanities (more so than vomit) escaping their mouths’. And there is the teenage mother ‘holding a tiny pink smudge in her arms: a baby, whose whitish blanket absorbs the smoke blown out by a circle of mouths’. It should be little surprise to Hanley, given her own accounts, that estates should be seen as ‘holding cages for the feral and lazy’ or ‘ciphers for a malingering society’ by the newspapers, by the government, by the respectable working class, etc.

Certainly, transient populations, the flight of those more ‘respectable’ or ‘responsible’ tenants, and an absence of families with children (presumably of the right kind) all breed mistrust, as Hanley says. But not only are the causes to be found elsewhere, not least in our class-based society, but there are more important – external – factors that undermine community life. The trouble is she tends to ignore these as she too wants to ‘design out’ antisocial behaviour, just from a more sympathetic viewpoint, you understand, or via the ALMO (Arms Length Management Organisation) she sits on. Her fondness for extended schools, children’s centres and healthy living centres also suggest that Hanley still has more faith in state interventions than in the capacities of those subject to them.

Despite this moralistic take on social problems, Hanley has curiously little to say about the government’s sustainable housing (and sustainable everything else) policy. The orthodoxy of building only on brownfield, and protecting the green belt against sprawl hardly feature, except to be discounted as contributors to the housing crisis we are now facing. It may be that the suburbs (understandably, in my view) raise too many personal horrors for her to contemplate that having more of them might be a solution. But for all the planning failures of the past, they surely are. ‘Thoughtful housing design and landscaping techniques,’ can only go so far to making the most of the little space available under current planning rules.

Hanley is ultimately pragmatic, though, realising that a PFI might be a diversion for a state no longer willing to carry the housing burden; but it is nevertheless an alternative – perhaps the only alternative – for hard-up tenants desperate to see their estates revived. And she is encouraged by visible improvements on some estates as a result of EU, SRB, New Deal for Communities funding, etc. And yet she has also lowered her horizons, embraced the local and allowed her own disappointment in public housing as an egalitarian ideal to shape her expectations of what it might look like in the future.

There are 1.5 million people on a waiting list for social housing, about the same as the number of homes bought under the Right to Buy since 1980. By 1995 the vast majority of council tenants were living on means-tested benefits. Local authorities have effectively been forced since the late 1980s to transfer their stocks to housing associations (without the ‘leftist political baggage’ of the old housing departments, notes Hanley). As they too are squeezed by the government it is likely that those that remain will increasingly go into the business of estate (and behaviour) management. But she misses this, or rather is in sympathy with such initiatives.

That is, policing troublesome tenants on the state’s behalf. Sentimentality for the welfare state, a naïve belief that building houses can make people more equal, and a thinly-disguised contempt for her fellow estate-occupants, makes Hanley’s arguments, like those creaking tower block structures, fundamentally unsound. But for all her faults, and her inability to point the way or even accurately diagnose the nature of the problem, Hanley does at times ‘hit the nail on the head’ almost despite herself. Today, she says, we have the ‘worst of both worlds: bad housing, and not enough of it.’ Quite.

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