When a council house was a dream home

A riveting look at the rise and fall of the council estate casts today’s housing policy – or lack of it – in a dim light.

David Bowden

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Of all the weapons in the obnoxious and bored dinner party guest’s arsenal, few surely have as much devastating power as the humble phrase ‘council estate’. Admittedly I don’t go to all that many dinner parties, but I have stood pressed up against the windows of several. Still, even as someone with only a passing acquaintance with the chatterati hubbub, I know the fearsome, emetic strength of the phrase, how it can topple the canapés and gag the rose with a suddenness the other edgy conversation pieces simply do not: ‘coalition’, ‘education today’ and even ‘Israel’ pale beside the choked terror evoked by ‘council estate’.

Arts critic Jonathan Jones wrote a brilliantly short but illuminating piece on his Guardian blog a few months ago, noting the return of Victorian images of ‘the sentimental poor’ in Coalition Britain, and contrasting it to the twentieth-century image of a very different beast: the organised working class. In the modern mind, council estates are where the poor live out their nasty, brutish and short lives, amid antisocial behaviour, gang-crime, casual paedophilia, threats of dangerous dog attacks and – certainly a view shared by media commentators across the spectrum – Sky TV. For my parents’ generation, growing up on a council estate was broadly speaking a fact of life, and in some cases an exciting newfangled status symbol; today, growing up on a council estate is a badge of honour, used to self-righteously justify any number of reprehensible ideas, as anyone who’s ever sat through a turgid NUS debate on ‘No Platform’ and banning free speech could testify.

How we got here was the question under examination by social historian Michael Collins in BBC4 documentary The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House. The history of social housing in the UK was a big and bold and entirely unsexy topic for an hour on Monday evening, but those mourning the decline of the great homegrown documentary would have found plenty to cheer the heart in its scope and ambition. Like recently lauded Sylvia Pankhurst documentary Everything Is Possible, Collins looked at one commonly received narrative – here, the role of civilising the working-class slums – in terms of the complex powder-keg of British politics in the first half of the twentieth century, all the while showing himself to be unafraid of offering an unashamedly personal view along the way.

Collins’ argument – that the development of mass social housing was one of the great achievements of modern society, offering dignity and good standards of living for the millions who worked for, and fought for, the wealth of the nation – was difficult to disagree with. Yet he was careful to avoid, for the large part, much of the misty-eyed romanticism for the respectable working classes which afflicts many an Old Tory and Old Lefty alike. From the creation of the first inner-city housing estate (the Boundary in Shoreditch in 1900), Collins was sharp-eyed enough to observe that such ambitious projects were as much desperate attempts by a panicked elite to pacify a militant working class as they were a benevolent offshoot of bourgeois paternalism – a combination which drove much housing policy through the twentieth century. Unlike much of the liberal-left, both then and now, he was not only willing to point the finger of blame for the disintegration of modern housing stock on Thatcherite ‘right to buy’ policies, but was also keen to stress that tremendous damage had been done in the previous decade by a Labour Party already shifting its allegiance from an uncomfortably militant working class to a sentimental and cynical embrace of the wretched of the earth.

As insightful as Collins was, however, at points he seemed much more comfortable when dealing with the politics of yesteryear than the politics of today. He seemed overly excited by the notion of the feckless poor being civilised by having some bricks and mortar to look after. And he seemed to believe that the paternalist instincts which drove the regulation of private lifestyles in the early days of estates – insisting on moralistic strictures on everything from alcohol consumption to when you hung your laundry out – was a naive historical oddity, rather than a trend which runs through to the present day. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the famed features of community – such as adults willing to help keep other people’s kids in line – was an offshoot of working-class solidarity transferred to estates, rather than a victory of town planning which could be rehabilitated through stronger and more intrusive housing associations. Screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, who featured in the documentary, was at least right to note, however, that such bureaucratic interferences in tenants’ lives, commonplace today, would have been more readily met with a baseball bat in years gone by.

Minor gripes aside, this was a riveting programme which exposed today’s miserable attitude towards providing good-quality housing to the masses and the absence of any meaningful public debate on the topic. And Collins had the right idea when he contrasted the wide-eyed optimism of the new estates’ tenants and planners with the deprivation of many sink estates today. However, even those on the bleakest estates today broadly have access to more luxuries and security than the average estate-dweller in postwar Britain. But what they had in the past which seems to be missing today was – in the words of The Kinks – a belief that a Shangri-la was waiting for them sometime soon in the future.

Today’s housing problems are now merely the latest symptom of a general lack of belief in future prosperity or meaningful direction for society: building more houses would not necessarily act as a quick-fix, as Collins seems to hope, but you at least walked away thinking it would be a bloody good start.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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