Tuesday, 01 September 2015

The Great Estate

From: Inside edge

If you missed last night’s thought-provoking documentary about the history of council housing it’s well worth making time to catch the repeat.

In The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House on BBC Four, author Michael Collins offers an interesting but at times controversial view of what we got right and where we went wrong.

He talks to residents and some of the original tenants of some of the country’s most iconic council housing: the Boundary Estate, Becontree, Thamesmead and Robin Hood Gardens in London; St Andrews Gardens in Liverpool; Stevenage new town; and Park Hill in Sheffield.

It’s a reminder of just how much those original tenants loved their new homes, of how ambitious and visionary planners and architects such as the maginificently named Sir Lancelot Keay really were, and of how quickly things started to go wrong. 

And it’s also a reminder of all the issues that still dominate the management of social housing today. Through homes fit for heroes, bakers living next door to bankers and the rest, tenure, allocations, rents, tenant behaviour and the rest were all as much on the agenda as they are now. 

On what’s claimed to be the world’s first council estate - the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch - only 11 out of the 5,000 inhabitants of the slums it replaced could afford the rents.

On what’s seen as the largest in the world, Becontree, every aspect of how the residents lived, from how often they cleaned and gardened to how many inches from the wall lino could be laid, were dictated by the tenants’ handbook.

But the documentary is more than just a nostalgia trip. Collins argues that all the paternalism and rules and regulations, and allocation first to the prosperous working classes and then up the income scale were what made council housing a success - a step up rather than a step back.

By the 1970s a third of us lived in council housing but the rot was setting in even as it was reaching its peak. Collins blames the subsidy policies of the 1950s and 1960s that encouraged shoddy high-rise construction and two products of the late 1970s. 

Controversially, he argues that the homelessness legislation introduced by Labour in 1977 was at least as much to blame as the right to buy that followed the Conservative victory in 1979. That’s because priority for the homeless helped make people see council housing as a step back at the same time as home ownership became the step up. 

Collins sees things very much from the point of view of the white working class - his most famous book is a biography of it called The Likes of Us that enraged many liberals - and he courts controversy too when he makes a staunch defence of sons and daughters allocations policies and rather airily dismisses the complaints of discrimination they produced. 

But he has a message for the coalition too. Two-year fixed term tenancies seem to have been pretty much what the London County Council had in mind when it built the Boundary Estate but Collins argues that council housing succeeded because it became what people wanted - a home for life - and that throwing away that sense of permanency will only condemn it to more failure.

Whether you agree with him or not, Michael Collins has produced a rare piece of television that looks beyond the normal caricatures of council housing and council tenants. It’s repeated on BBC Four several times this week or catch it on iPlayer here.

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