The socialist dream of decent housing for all has been in retreat ever since Margaret Thatcher introduced the “right to buy” for council tenants in the 1980s. Once bold visions of the future have been systematically replaced by a revival of Victorian architecture and economics.
At first, Lynsey Hanley’s new book, Estates: An Intimate History looks like a spin on the Victorian vogue for guides round “darkest England”. Thankfully it’s rather more worthwhile, not least because, unlike her forbears, Hanley knows what she’s talking about from the inside.
This is both a memoir of an upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood estate in Birmingham and a potted history of social housing – from Lloyd George’s attempts to avert communism via “cottage estates” to the municipal socialism of Vienna’s Karl-Marx-Hof, from the hope of the reforming post-war Labour government to the shoddy system building of the 1960s.
Refreshingly, there’s no nostalgia for the pre-war slums. Hanley points out that life expectancy in Bethnal Green, east London, before the likes of the Boundary Estate were built in the 1890s was 16.
But the history she traces shows good intentions working alongside a distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. The current fashionable snobbery against “chavs” epitomises the return of this distinction.
Back in the 1940s Labour left winger Nye Bevan considered nationalising the entire housing stock in a National Housing Service akin to the National Health Service or free education. However, the mass housing programmes of both Tory and Labour governments envisaged council flats as a stopgap before home ownership.
Hanley doesn’t make the connection that property is intrinsic to capitalism. This is why social housing had a stigma lacking in other social provisions, and why Thatcher was so astute in offering the right to buy.
Hanley’s remarks on architecture tend to the parochial. “Houses should be made of brick,” seems to be the last word on aesthetics here, and she is sniffy about architects like Erno Goldfinger who attempted to make social housing an art.
Bevan’s famous 1946 speech on the quality of council housing is quoted: “We must not only build quickly, we must build well. In the next year or so we will be judged by the number of houses we have put up. But in ten years we will be judged by the quality of those homes.”
But Hanley does not mention that it was made when he was laying the first stone at the ultra-modernist Spa Green estate in north London, designed by the Anglo-Soviet architect Berthold Lubetkin.
Conversely, she advocates demolishing 1960s estates and replacing them with low rise brick, as was done recently at the Holly Street estate in Hackney, east London. This didn’t make the problems in the area any less acute, as shown by the recent murder of Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba for asking his neighbours to be quiet.
Political confusion mars some of this book, as Hanley seems equally swayed by the arguments of Defend Council Housing campaigners and New Labour’s attempts to sell off council housing. She offers little in the way of new answers.
Nonetheless, the book’s combination of droll memoir and historical sweep gives it an irascible force lacking in any number of sober sociological studies.
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