2007 1st edition; revised edition 2017, 247 p.
It seems that somehow every British police drama you watch ends up in a council estate. To antipodean eyes, they look terrible places: bleak, cold-looking and bare against a leaden sky. Growing up in a country that provides little state-owned housing – and then, generally only for the poorest – it seems strange that local governments in Britain would have (or more correctly, used to have) such large holdings of housing, and that it had such popular, cross-class support. Interwar housing did not have the stigma that we attach to it here in Australia, and the Blitz gave state-owned housing added emphasis. But by the second half of the twentieth century, all that had changed in Britain too, and this is the story that Lynsey Hanley tells from her own personal experience.
She grew up in Chelmsley Wood, an overflow scheme built in the mid-1960s in what had been woodland and farmland in Birmingham’s greenbelt, when post-war demand for housing soared. It combined low-rise housing with tower blocks, in an estate largely isolated from the city centre. You can see a gallery of pictures of Chelmsley Wood in the 60s, 70s and 80s here. By this time, living in a council housing estate meant that children grew up with a “wall in the head” that separated them out from the aspirations and experiences of children living in the central city, and as a bright girl from the estate, she had to consciously work at scaling that mental wall to fit in with her university friends.
But it hadn’t always been that way. Between the two World Wars, there was a concerted effort to clear the privately-owned slums from British cities, and “…to be given a council house in the 1930s, was in many ways, comparable to winning the lottery.” (p.65) Influenced by the Garden City movement, council housing was protected by what was known as the Tudor Walters standards, which mandated minimum room sizes, the number of windows and density.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Tudor Walters standards: backed by the state, they expressed a commitment to building mass council housing of the highest quality. They did not extend to the two million private homes built by speculative builders between the wars, meaning that council houses built around this time were likely to be larger and of a higher quality than many of the suburban homes you could buy (p. 66)
Aneurin (‘Nye’) Bevan, of the British Labour Party, was most famous as Minister for Health, who introduced the NHS. But he was also responsible for housing policy, and he insisted on good quality public housing. Even the Conservatives, when they defeated Labour in 1951 continued, and indeed increased, the construction progress that Bevan had instituted. But the emphasis on quality was sidelined, and private building was encouraged.
And even though council housing tenants were insistent that they did not want to live in high-rise flats, that’s exactly what they received, with the building industry pressuring the government to adopt pre-fab high-rise designs citing a shortage of tradespeople (who, ironically were the very workers sidelined by the emphasis on factory-created prefabs). Corners were cut, leading to the actual collapse of a high-rise at Ronan Point in 1968, just two months after it was opened, due to construction faults. (The television series ‘Endeavour’ worked this into one of their plot lines recently).
Council housing was further decimated by Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, where tenants were encouraged to buy their house, but councils were not allowed to replace the now-purchased housing with new rental stock. As a result, the existing estates became increasingly run-down, and like Australian public housing, became stigmatized as ‘social’ housing for people unable to be housed elsewhere.
Like much non-fiction at the moment, this book combines the political and the personal. The notes in the back, more in the form of further reading than footnotes, show that the author has read widely, rather than academically. It is also interwoven with the author’s own story, but not just as memoir but also from a present perspective. At the time of writing the book, she was living again in what had been an estate, in a house she had purchased as part of the ownership push. But under the Housing Choice program, being rolled out across the country, there were plans (with which she concurred) to demolish her house and redevelop the estate. Her afterword, written in 2017 and ten years after the book’s first publication saw a decline in the number of home owners, an increase in homelessness and a sustained attack on the housing security of non-owners. Her afterword was written too soon for the Grenfell Tower fire.
I enjoyed this book, particularly the first 3/4 which took a more historical approach. I liked the way that she drew on her own experience, and interwove the personal and political. I admit that the present-day politics of the last chapters of the book largely went over my head, but I could find parallels with our own government’s drive for public/private development of former housing estates which somehow always seems to be short-changing the public system. I wish that there was some way of recapturing the idea that public housing was not a stigma, but a right, and part of being in a good society.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: purchased