Tuesday, May 15, 2007


This is an amazing book by Lynsey Hanley - it's a history of social or 'council' housing in the UK since the beginning of the last century. You'll say - how can a book about such a boring subject be amazing? Isn't it terribly dry, and do we really need to know about council housing?

I would suggest that everyone involved in local or national government should read this book, since it is not only a dry history with dates, people and places, but also a very personal book. Hanley, who's only just in her 30s, grew up on a council estate in Birmingham - not one of the worst, it seems, or at least her family did not live in the worst part of it.

She brilliantly describes the sheer isolation of living in a council estate, where most people around you are poor or very close to poor, since those with some ambition do their best to leave the area. Often council estates are cut off from the main life of towns, being tucked in over the back of a hill or behind railway lines. She describes this as the 'wall in your head' (a phrase from Berlin). In schools mainly populated by council estate children, who practically never leave the estate and never mix with children from other backgrounds, neither teachers, parents nor children have high expectations of what could be achieved, and therefore few achieve anything. In fact Hanley is offered a scholarship to a grammar school at age 11, but turns it down because she thinks she is better off staying where she has been all the time. She describes a classmate who at 15 is discussing having a baby with her boyfriend - the girl's mum says it's alright if she thinks she can look after it; 10 years later the same girl dies in a car crash, leaving 5 children motherless. When Hanley is 17 she sees a broadsheet paper (the Guardian) for the first time and thinks it's a rare publication for professors.

Hanley goes back through the history of social housing, to the interwar period, where houses fit for heroes were to be built; she describes some of the disasters of that period, but also the Tudor Walters standards which set high space standards for workers' housing and which mean that social housing built during that period is often of at least as high a quality as owner-occupied housing. After WW2 Bevan also took some care in ensuring that council estates provided quality accommodation, but this was lost when Macmillan started a 'pile them high' policy of housebuilding trying to get slums cleared and people housed as quickly as possible. This coincided with the new technology of pre-cast concrete houses where panels were poured in factories and put together on building sites, forming streets in the sky - quickly turning to slums in the sky, at least partly because the skilled labour required for putting together these homes had by this time moved into factory work, and the houses were just somehow cobbled together. Remember Ronan Point? That collapse happened partly because not all braces of all panels were connected properly when the building went up. (In passing, it's a little-known fact that most British housing is designed for a lifespan of 60 years; some of the buildings of the 60s were lucky if they lasted 10 years, the post war prefabs - designed for 10 years - still exist in some places, but generally 'building to last' is not part of the building repertoire in the UK).

A lot of estates became ghettos of awfulness, where, the more awful it became, the more awful families the council placed there. Quite a number of estates have been pulled down, demolished, redesigned, and often not rebuilt fast enough. Ironically Hanley herself again lives on a council estate in London where she has bought property, since she cannot afford to live anywhere else in London. Her estate is currently intending to be rebuilt in a more people-friendly fashion.

Hanley is a journalist, rather than an academic, and thankfully, this makes her book immensely readable, and in fact unputdownable. Her pithy sense of sarcasm punctures the pomposity of government officials and architects, but also expresses her very deeply felt anger at what governments, both local and national, are doing to poor people. She quotes Warburton, the biographer of the architect Ernest Goldfinger, who describes some of Goldfinger's towerblocks as making 'no concessions to an architecture of domesticity', and goes on to comment 'After all, domesticity is the last thing you want when you have a family to raise.'

It might be worth Mr Sarkozy over in France picking up this book, when wondering what to do with his banlieues.....but he probably has all the answers already. Social inclusion? We have a very long way to go!