Monday, 02 March 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.

Readers' comments (4)

  • You're not kidding when you point out that Mr Collins took a kicking from lefties for his espousal of merit rather than needs-based allocation.

    That was part of a wider thesis that the white working class has been marginalised and excluded - a position which takes him closer to that of the BNP.

    Or perhaps not.

    IH carried a report last week about needs-based letting being the engine for the creation of ethnic ghettoes.

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  • Rick Campbell

    I watched it last night -- homes were built to last and to last a longer time than the tenants' own lives -- it was seen as council housing forever.

    The impression I got was that people had moved on (and "improved their lot" generally) but hankered for the good old days when their communities were strong and there was respect.

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  • Chris Webb

    What needs to be considered is what made those communities strong. Simply put it was stability.

    Employment, even though it could be low paid, was stable. You either followed your career or vocation, or laboured, and labour was in demand. A family could be supported by a single wage, rather than needing multiple wages just to subsist.

    Housing, you invested in your home according to what you could afford. Affording the security of a social rent was a matter for pride, and also the fundemental building block for a stable family that could contribute to society, rather than not being able to afford even the worst housing without massive benefit support, or indeed only being allowed to stay for six-months.

    Community - because people could afford to live locally and work locally families could be strong units around which communities could grow, unlike now where you do not even know who your neighbours are, indeed may not know who lives in your house.

    Care - with your family around you and neighbours who shared your values those around you would look after you, and there was the health service when doing so was beyond their ability.

    Society - the home extended to the community as you were a long term part of that neighbourhood you invested in it and so did your descendents.

    Removing employment stability, removing housing options and hence stability, destroying services, communities, and indeed society through destablising the key factors of life is the real social ill unmentioned.

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  • Ivana Hart

    The programme was superb; along with much of BBC4 output this was the old Reithian BBC at it's best.

    Anonymous | 13/04/2011 1:09 pm is absolutely spot on as the program laid bare. The end for council housing came in '77 with the introduction of "needs" based letting. Out went the letter of reference from the employer and any suggestion that the prize of a council property should somehow be earned by working or being responsible. The welfare ghettoisation of council housing can be traced directly back to the Homeless Persons Act 77 and the abolition of Sons and Daughters letting policies at the behest of the race relations brigade and the well heeled liberal Guardianistas who live no where near council estates yet feel empowered to dictate to those who do. The rest, as they say, is history...

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