Whilst in London, I stayed in James Hammet House, designed by Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin in the early Fifties as one of the wave of post-war, social housing projects. It was actually quite pleasant, but looked exactly like you’d expect a terrifying British Estate to look on The Bill: Brutalist architecture, lots of concrete and grim lines and unmistakably part of a public housing project. Tellingly, it’d been brought as an investment property and was being used exclusively for Airbnb, which is how we ended up in it. Here’s a picture of the view from our window:
I find British estates fascinating, partly because of things like Hulme Crescents, but moreover because they’re the pointy end of a history of affordable housing that’s directly impacted on my own family’s gradual transition out of poverty over the past three generations. My grandparents purchased cheaply re-zoned greenfield development in the early fifties and built a house, my mother made use of that classic New Deal invention, the mortgage, to buy the house I grew up in which was, oddly enough, a choice she made in part to keep us out of social housing and will probably fund her aged care bills. My grandparents were nineteen year olds with two kids. My mother was a single parent, working as a teacher. It’s hard to believe the same path would be open to either of them today, which says as much about the changed attitude to housing in Australia as renting a former council house out on Airbnb. Yet without that access to stable, quality housing, and the equity home ownership allows, it’s difficult to see how we would have transitioned out of semi-skilled labour.
By coincidence, in London I also picked up Lynsey Hanley’s book Estates: An Intimate History, which is an attempt to document both the history of social housing in the UK, but also the cultural and personal impact. Hanley grew up in council housing in Birmingham and does a pretty good job of contextualizing how the personal was shaped by the political.
There were a couple of things I found particularity fascinating in her book. The first is the early history of social housing, which was (Hanley notes) influenced more by William Morris than the Le Corbusier. In the 1880s and 1890s architects like Owen Fleming, Rowland Plumb and T Blashill, were commissioned by the London City Council to build new, quality housing to replace slums. The resulting development, the Boundary Street Estate, is still there. I walked through it and it looks nothing like modern council or social housing.
Hanley makes the point that much early social housing was influenced by people like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. The idea wasn’t emergency housing or shitty houses to keep poor people in; there was a real ideological belief that working people deserved good places to live. This came to a head with Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities designs, first published in his book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898 (and re-titled Garden Cities of Tomorrow in 1902). Hanley describes his work as “a radical plan to dismantle capitalism through the creation of self governing, self sustaining cities in the country”, making him “more like a cross between Karl Marx and William Morris”. When a social stigma emerged around ‘council housing’, design principles were introduced to make the houses more unique and less recognizably ‘council’.
But then we get to the post-war era, which is when things get both interesting and depressing. At the end of the Second World War, Britain experienced a housing shortage so severe ex-servicemen began squatting abandoned army barracks to house their families. Clement Atlee’s Labour government began an ambitious project to increase the volume of social housing as a response to this. The attitude wasn’t one of welfare but more akin to public health care, education or civil services. She writes, “the 1945-51 government seriously considered nationalizing the entire stock of rented housing.” The idea was that affordable housing would be as standard as publicly subsidized health care, and just as vital to maintaining a healthy, equitable and functional society.
Hanley argues that this never happened because Labour’s housing minister Aneurin Bevan insisted on making the new housing of high standard, which took longer to build. When he was criticized for delays in providing houses, he told his colleagues “We shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build. We shall be judged in ten years’ time by the type of houses we build.”
Unfortunately, the judgement after two years won out. At the 1951 election, the Conservatives attacked the slow place of housing, promised they could build faster, and won office. In difference to their descendents, they continued building social housing with great zeal. Unfortunately, the design standards shifted radically. Gone were the Arts and Crafts units and in came places like James Hammet House; huge estates and the ‘slums in the sky’ we now equate with public housing. The grim style of such housing emerged partly because it was cheaper and much faster to build with concrete and steel than bricks and mortar, partly because towers housed fewer people in less space, and partly because Modernism was going through architecture, planning and urban design like a virus.
One of the things I found most interesting about Hanley’s book was the stories of architects and planners in the UK who became utterly enamored by Le Corbusier’s theory that a house was a ‘machine for living in’. She writes:
A retired architect for Liverpool Council, who trained at the city’s school of architecture in the years immediately following the Second World War… recalls the impact of a visit by Le Corbusier on students who… believed that the devastation of the power-war cities offered a unique chance to build a New Jerusalem: ‘All of the students looked up to him as a kind of idol. We saw what he was doing as a way of changing society.’
It reminds me a lot of the fetish for people like Richard Florida today; a collective urban planning desire to believe in a simple answer to a complex problem, despite overwhelming evidence it won’t work.
And it didn’t work. The iconic, landmark Hulme Crescents estate was declared unsafe for families within two years, after serious design flaws led to the death of a toddler, and the buildings themselves were knocked down in 1991, less than twenty years after their construction. Even worse, Ronan Point, a twenty-two story tower in East London, lasted only a couple of months. A resident boiling her kettle caused faulty gas piping to explode, blasting out a load bearing wall and causing one side of the building to collapse, killing four people and injuring a further seventeen. These are extremities, but Hanely’s book is full of stories of buildings that swayed in the wind, reeked of mold, lacked noise and weather proofing and had design features that seemed to encourage decay.
Worse is the culture that arose with it; Hanley uses the example of Broadwater Farm, where poor designed combined with racial tensions, endemic poverty and drug use to create one of the highest crime rates in the UK. It was one of the estates focused on in Alice Coleman’s report Utopia on Trial, which blamed Le Corbusier style design for social malaise in the UK in the Eighties. That led directly to Margaret Thatcher instituting the sale of council housing. The principle makes sense within a particular logic; the idea was to allow tenants of council housing to buy their homes at a heavily discounted rate through the Right to Buy scheme, with the idea that this would create a ‘property owning democracy. As her housing minister put it, “Home ownership stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.”
That sounds lovely, but in practice many residents sold their houses off again, or rented them out and moved to nicer areas. Investors moved in. As long term residents left, so too did the social cohesion they’d created. One of the features of the Right to Buy scheme was that councils, having sold their housing stock, couldn’t use the profits to build or buy more housing. The end result was a lack of housing for those in need. Councils eventually had to rent back their former housing at commercial rates to provide homes for those at risk. Hanley argues that this turned social housing into emergency housing; instead of long term tenants creating a sense of community, estates became places for those too mentally ill, drug addicted or poor to find any alternative.
Beyond just a history, Hanley delves into the personal effects of growing up on an estate. It’s a story that’s probably familiar to most of us who grew up with a mixture of poor urban planning and socioeconomic adversity; she talks of the disapproval towards academic achievement, the latent homophobia and racism, and the weird policing of uniformity. Visiting an estate she finds a group of teenage boys all wearing matching Lacoste in the same way everyone at my old school used to wear Adidas; like a compulsory uniform. I particularly liked her descriptions of going into the university system, struggling with the lack of social capital, the sense of needing permission and approval to be there, and the phobia of appearing too smart for your own good. Whilst we avoided the ‘slums in the sky’ in Australia, the degree to which poor urban planning and poor housing policy has drained social capital out of particular areas seems just as relevant here. It’s a good book, and makes a nice change from reading more academic studies of the topic.