The Great Estate

The origin of council estates goes back to 1883 when Lord Salsbury motioned the Housing of the Working Classes Act in response to the poor conditions of working class housing. In response, the Boundary Estate (1900) was one of the earliest forms of social housing schemes aimed at clearing the slums of London’s East – replacing Friar Monk Slum. The rubble from the demolition was used to construct a mound in the middle, Arnold Circus, located at the heart of the estate which is still showcased with the bandstand centre piece. The Boundary Estate marked the beginning of state-owned housing which would later evolve into the council estates we recognize now. The Tudors Walters Committee Report (1917), commissioned by Parliament, underpinned the Housing Act of 1919 – the Act was passed to allow the building of new houses after the First World War – and provided subsidies for 170,000 houses built by local authorities and established the principle of housing as a social service. The Act was in part a view for post-war reconstruction but also a response to the shocking health conditions of war recruits attributed to poor living conditions.

To build his ‘Homes for Heroes’, the Conservative Prime Minister Lloyd George (1918–1922) used the garden cottages designed by the architect Raymond Unwin as his prototypes – bestowing Unwin as the founding father of the British Council House. Unwin, inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement had manifest his vision at the start of the 1900’s with Letchworth Garden City, which he designed alongside his contemporaries such as Ebenezer Howard.

The Letchworth cottage was used as a model for what remains the largest housing estate in the world: Beacontree in Essex, home to 270,000 houses built between 1921 and 1932 to entice the working class away from London’s overcrowded east end. The houses separated the scullery (modern day Kitchen) from the living room revealing the paternalist attitude of Unwin and his contemporaries. Each new Beacontree tenant was issued with a handbook by the London County Council:  With guidelines for living like such as ‘clean windows at least once a week … chimneys swept once a year … shall use back garden of premises as during ground but shall not otherwise expose to public view any washing or unsightly objects.’  The London County Council built the estate to re-house people due to slum clearance. However, the residents were almost all relatively prosperous working class, such as factory workers and busmen and did little to relieve the inner city congestion.

Lancelot Keays (Chief Architect for Liverpool) – see film ‘Homes for Workers’ from 30s – introduced the ‘modern flat’ into the lexicon of council housing schemes in Myrtle Gardens and Gerard Gardens whose foundation stones was laid in 1934. These flats were part of a foreign tradition which for the British conjured up images of old squalid tenements – an image that Keays would help consign to the past. Myrtle and Gerard in architectural terms as well as in the way they addressed a particular social agenda were similar to housing programmes in continental Europe such as that of the Karl-Marx-Hof (1927-30) in Vienna built by Karl Ehn. Unlike Beacontree located on the edge of the city, the residents of Gerard Gardens relied on a dock side economy composed of casual/ iterant labour which required a close proximity to the docks in order to get work. In the documentary Collins interviews a Gerard Gardens resident, Paul Sadbury who lived there between 1963 and 1985, “it was a powerful commodity, when you are a kid that everybody knows who you are, belonging doesn’t exist anymore. Kids on street corners and now totally anonymous)” on the sense of community that existed in places like Gerard.

Jimmy McGovern (a writer and Liverpool council resident) ads, “It was not that we thought it was owned by the council, that was our house – me mam and dad spent a fortune making investments into the home: railings, gardening, decorating … That was their house and they looked after it. … [On short term tenure of council housing for the future] That pernicious, just imagine someone coming along and saying to us ‘I’m sorry your economic circumstances have changed you, Mom, and Dad have got to get out now. We would be there with baseball bats waiting for somebody to knock on the door – try it now, this is our house! … It’s ludicrous, just because it’s a council house it doesn’t mean it’s not ours.”

The impact of bomb damage during World War II made the housing problem even more acute and council housing became an essential social service providing permanent homes which were perceived as more of a ‘right’ than a ‘privilege’. In 1945 Labour won a landslide victory and the Minister of Health, Aneurin “Nye” Bevan oversaw the creation of a welfare state in which public housing would be as universal as health and education. This was a utopian vision of council housing for all let to the foundation of entirely new towns.  Designated the first New Town on 1 August 1946, Stevenage, Hertforshire was built to relieve the inner city population providing by providing homes and jobs for a skilled working class. Stevenage was the first of over 20 designated new towns built throughout Britain upon till the 1970s providing council homes for a population for over 2 million; however these towns made little impact on the slums that still blighted British cities.

By 1954, following another slum clearance programme by the newly elected conservative government, council housing began to head skyward as a new wave of Architects pounced on the opportunity. It was decided that a radical scheme needed to be introduced. One such estate is Park Hill, Sheffield (1957) designed by Jack Lynn and Ovor Smith. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation and the Smithsons’ un-built schemes, most notably for Golden Lane in London, the deck access scheme, was viewed as revolutionary at the time. The Smithsons had proposed the concept of putting ‘streets in the sky’ – integrating the characteristics of a town into a high rise solution for housing. To maintain a strong sense of community, neighbours from the demolished town were re-homed next door to each other and old street names from the area were re-used (e.g. Gilbert Row, Long Henry Row). Cobbles from the terraced streets surrounded the flats and paved the pathways down the hill to Sheffield station and tramlines. Housing 900 families, the original residents were thrilled with the futuristic (now synonymous with the European brustalist modernism) homes. Park Hill completed in 1961 marked the start of the high rise boom that became the defining feature of the council house from late 1950s until late 1960s enabled by new factory style methods (including the lift) which produced flats quickly and inexpensively. Government subsidies were offered for high density developments where the higher the tower the higher the handout.

In 1972 at the heart of a London’s changing east end the theories of the Smithson’s completed a sterling monument to the future: Robin Hood Gardens. The estate was completed 11 years after Park Hill when the high rise experiment had collapsed. The decline began when many of the rapidly built towers that had shot up in the mid 50s were exposed as cheap and shoddy. In 1967 the government withdrew the subsidy for tower blocks and a year late the Ronan Point, a typical 50s tower, gas explosion killed 4 people. Subsequently the expansive deck accessed estates, like Park Hill, were blamed for fostering crime and breeding anti social behaviour. By the time Robin Hood Gardens appeared it already seemed like a fossilized idea from an optimist past and became a figure of the perceived failure of social housing.

By the mid 1970s that houses that had been built to replace the slums were becoming slums themselves; But this was part of a bigger picture – the downgrading of all council housing, no longer perceived as to be a step up but a step down. A rise and fall epitomised by an estate hailed as the town of the 21st century: Thamesmead, London. A mix of houses maisonettes and high-rises it promised to learn from the mistakes of the past, one minister declared it would be the decades greatest achievement.

George Plemper, a teacher at Riverside School from 1976-1978, describes Thamesmead as “made up of people from the east end, south London, Nigeria, Biafra and I do think that there was a sense of hope and expectation about what the future was going to hold.” This sense of hope changed in a considerably short space of time for council housing in general. By the end of the 70s Thamesmead had become a dirty word, a distant gulag of the outer limits of London; shorthand for council housing and council housing became a symbol of anti social behaviours and dysfunctional families. The demise of the estate is described by a resident, “If you wander around Thamesmead it is an absolute hold … we were told quite categorically that everybody on Thamesmead would have to pay, fortunately or unfortunately they [the state] decided that their policy was no longer viable so they had to change the rules and had people that were on subsistence. Not that there is anything wrong with people on subsistence but that changed everything.”

By the mid-1970s more than a third of the British Population living in council housing but at the moment it reached its peak its image was at its worse – it needed reviving or a rethink – instead it go the death sentence. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher swept to power which marked an abrupt halt to the construction of council estates. In 1980 Thatcher introduced the ‘Right to Buy Scheme’ that offered generous discounts to long established tenants. 1 million families in that first decade alone purchased their properties. But before Thatcher dealt the fatal blow the council housing system had started to implode. The allocation of houses was failing to serve the local people on the housing list and it wasn’t the Tories who were to blame for that. In 1977 it was a Labour government that made a symbolic and ideological change to the Housing Act thirty years earlier which Collins presents as the fatal blow: Labour removed the working class cause making council housing available to all to a provision for the homeless a priority. This idea of housing based on need opened up all sorts of interpretation and abuse – this was part of a series of changes that jettisoned those policies which had previously favoured those long standing locals waiting to be housed.  Strict vetting procedures once a defining feature of estates like Beacontree and Park Hill lapsed. Initiatives such as the ‘Thamesmead sons and daughters’ schemes were abandoned deemed to be discriminatory. Estates such as the Haygate became dogged by subletting and iterant tenants.

By the 80s it seemed the noble notion behind council housing and the achievements of its formative years were all but forgotten.  But even now state housing remains on the political agenda. A new coalition government has introduced plans for a further overhaul of the council housing that still exists, its new residents will be expected to reapply for their tenancy every two years and move on if their circumstances improve. This could destroy the one thing that consistently made state housing a success.

These are my notes (some comments but mostly transcript) on the documentary on council estates in the UK presented by Michael Collins for BBC4 – one of Britain’s greatest social revolutions – council housing, which once provided homes for over a third of the British population became a symbol of social deprivation.
The Rise and Fall of the Council House, BBC4 Documentary
Thursday 5th May 2011

About juliakingat

British / Venezuelan, Architect & Urban Researcher; PhD Candidate

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