thoughts on our urban future

TV Review – The Great Estate: The Rise & Fall of the Council House

I accidentally came across this documentary on BBC Four, where “journalist and author Michael Collins presents a hard-hitting and heart warming history of one of Britain’s greatest social revolutions – council housing” (as described in the BBC4 website). It provides an overview of the history of Council Housing from the first initiatives at the turn of the 20th Century in Victorian London through to the ‘Homes for Heroes’ of after the First World War to the high rise estates of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

I have spent part of my professional life working on issues related to council estates in England, so I found the documentary fascinating. It managed to show the connectedness of historical events, political tendencies, policy decisions, cultural changes and changes in perception, design ideas and most importantly, what all those meant to the people that lived and experienced all of that, with the benefit of hindsight.

The documentary starts at the Heygate Estate in South London, with Collins telling us a bit about his personal memories of it, how he thought it was a vision of the future. Nowadays a deprived, decaying and frankly depressing place, he describes the estate as it was once, clean, light and spacious; a vast improvement on what it replaced, street after street of back to back housing where London’s working classes had lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Today, the Heygate Estate is part of a comprehensive redevelopment and regeneration programme and is, according to Wikipedia, 99% vacant, awaiting demolition.

This is clearly an important part of British History, one that remains very visible today in the country’s towns and cities. Collins describes how this built legacy is proof of one of the greatest revolutions in social history, and attempts to understand why and how it evolved, where it went wrong – and why. He starts with the first ever council estate, opened in 1900: the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, East London, which still stands there today, still providing council housing, although ever more gentrified as is the area around it.

The idea of Council Housing began in London as the government’s response to a metropolis where deprivation was rife, homelessness just one of its manifestations. Through the political eras began to develop policies which sought to address the problems of working class accommodation. Once this radical idea of the government taking care of housing the working classes emerged, soon local authorities were authorised to and put in charge of building homes to replace slums (process later known as ‘slum clearance’), giving birth to the Council Housing Estate.

I was interested to learn how right from the beginning it was recorded that many of the original slum dwellers did not benefit from the new homes, the communities getting displaced by the improvements to their neighbourhood. It was, however, a revolution which gave many people access to things like running water, indoor toilets, and the possibility of some privacy and also the sense of pride, the sense of ownership of a home. Collins takes us to the Becontree Estate, ‘the largest housing estate in the world’; one of the residents interviewed says: “we never thought about the house belonging to the council, it was our house“.

At the same time, Collins sustains, there was a ‘paternalistic’ nature to the whole principle of council housing living – there was a manual which stipulated how often you had to clean your windows, when and where you should do your shopping and washing. The layout of the houses also reflected the architect’s idea of how people should live. All this was brought together in the Tudor Walters Report, which sought not only to define minimum standards, but also to shape how the working classes should live. The houses were spacious and light, a vast improvement to the quality accommodation most people were used to, but it also turns out there weren’t any shops, pubs or community facilities there.

It wasn’t always possible to build houses with gardens though, especially in inner city locations, so soon appeared the council flat concept. Collins visits Liverpool and places like Gerard Gardens to see the first examples of English council flats, which were later replicated all over as the classic 4-5 story block of flats with open access decks. Again the idea of sense of ownership and community came up from one of the residents interviewed, and with it a harsh critique of the current governments’ idea of ‘temporary’ council housing, where you get asked to move on as your circumstances change. I have to agree – if you know you are in a place only temporarily, you are definitely less likely to care about it.

In 1945 came the creation of a welfare state after the Second World War. Council housing became much more than a solution to homelessness and overcrowding, but a means of making a more egalitarian society. Countless ‘new towns’ where created across the country, where council housing was for all, not just for the working classes. Moreover, there was such a shortage of housing as a result of the bombing in the Second World War, that there was an urge to build as many homes as possible.

The story continues with the appearance of high rise council housing, inspired by modernist architecture, which promised the solution to high density inner city living. When new, these estates were the incarnation of modern life; they had shops, pubs and play areas. They were neighbourhoods in their own right, they even had some sophisticated communal heating and disposal systems as credible sustainability credentials.

As we all know, soon it all started to go wrong. Today, most high rise council estates face problems of deprivation, antisocial behaviour and crime; often badly designed and poorly maintained, many of them are being redeveloped as it is deemed best to start over rather than refurbish or repair. Similar problems are faced by many council estates in the country, even those that are low rise, design often taking the blame. Collins, however, focuses on how social perception of council housing began to turn negative as early as the late 1960s, questioning and accusing it of fostering deprivation and antisocial behaviour as council estates slowly became slums.

Collins’ last example is the Thamesmead Estate in Greater London. Once heralded to be ‘living for the 21st Century’, it had different house and flat types and lots of facilities; it was thought to have addressed the errors of the recent past. However, soon it decayed too. He suggests changes in policies such as the fact descendants of existing residents ceased to have priority on the council waiting list, and the removal of specific requirements which needed to be met by potential residents to be considered for a home had something to do with the way things changed.

A particular change in policy is pointed out as a single event which changed many things for Council Housing, and it was the introduction of the idea of prioritising housing need. Whilst before, local people had priority in the housing list, now the premise is to provide homes to the homeless first. According to the first resident ever in Thamesmead, this changed everything, as people’s attitude to council housing changed.

Collins describes Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme as the final nail in the coffin for council housing – not long before that her government had stopped the building of council housing in the first place. But he suggests it was really change, and especially a series of small changes to housing policy which really brought about the demise of council housing.

For me, something that came across very clearly is how this story was also the story of the 20th Century. With so many changes in society as there were in this period of history, it’s hardly surprising that places designed to fit a particular lifestyle would struggle to adapt as soon as things changed. And it was those designs which tried to be more specific which suffered the most – ironically. For me, this documentary really brought together how design and what lies behind it, policy and politics, and people’s way of using space are so interconnected that they cannot really be understood separately if we want to be able to create successful places.

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  1. The aims and objectives of social housing has changed greatly over time in the UK. For me, it is clear that during certain periods there were defined ideas of what it was meant to address. Today I am not so sure. A clearer idea of why we are providing social housing, and for who, would help to address some long standing problems in existing estates. It would also help define the vision for current socially rented housing – and perhaps challenge what is proposed and built, for the better.

  2. I agree – it all seems to be muddled up. Some stepping back and rethinking required, without any politcal hat on! Is that possible at all?

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