There are few things that irritate me more (although Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith irritate me the most) than lazy stereotypes about council housing estates and council tenants. Sadly, an article this morning in the Guardian by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has got me going.
If I was to write a spoof article about what was wrong with council housing, it would have two elements: the scrounging anti-social occupants and the ‘brutalist’ architecture of post-war estates.
In the section on brutalist architecture I would bring the following sterotypes into play: some of the settings in the film Clockwork Orange, the iconic Trellick Tower in west London (unfortunately the Red Road flats in Glasgow are no more), and I would quote the awful writings of Dominic Sandbrook. More recently the film High Rise could get a mention. I would pull in key phrases, things to do with broken lifts, the smell of urine, and fear of dark corners. The word dystopian would have to appear.
Cosslett ticks all of these boxes in one short piece.
Like the demonization associated with scroungers, the image most people carry of council estates is strong. You just have to look at the estates that appear occasionally on EastEnders to see what I mean about stereotyping (despite the fact that all the real thugs and crooks are owner occupiers in the Square, step forward Phil Mitchell). The conventional wisdom about council housing is extremely damaging to the case for a progressive housing policy. This helps achieve the political objective of making council housing sound and appear unappealing. Council housing has failed, hasn’t it? Time for a free market solution.
The real story is different and I would recommend anyone seeking the truth and a genuinely balanced assessment to follow the extraordinary website of @municipaldreams here. Properly researched histories of estates around the country, warts and all – but a positive picture overall.
I have worked on many council estates over the years. Some have had real problems, usually due to appallingly bad building standards (by construction companies that were never held to account), child occupation densities that were too high, poor amenities in and around them, and atrociously bad housing management done on a shoestring. And some of the estates with the worst problems I encountered comprised houses not ‘high rise blocks’.
But overall my experience of being brought up on a council estate (in Newcastle) and of working on many since has been extremely positive. The homes are generally of a very high standard with generous space and amenities. There are often strong communities – with a lot of mutual support groups – which often only become apparent when demolition plans come along. Best of all, these homes have helped transform the lives of millions of people. The reform of housing management that took place in the 1990s and 2000s, and the rise of tenant involvement, had a very positive impact. And – until 2010 – gradual improvements in pay and in both in-work and out-of-work benefits, especially for the elderly and disabled, reduced poverty. Many of the worst problems have been tackled through better management and social investment, the removal of some of the most badly constructed blocks, and the physical modernisation brought about under Labour’s decent homes programme.
Look around the housing market and see how much people are willing to pay to buy ex-council homes, including high rise. Prices between half a million and a million pounds are not uncommon in London now.
If the Guardian wants to provide decent coverage of the history and quality of social housing, I would propose giving Municipal Dreams a regular column.