Why Is Public Housing Dying Out in the UK?
Speaking to the residents of some of the UK's most famous housing estates about the systematic erasure of subsidized housing.
Editor's note: We're republishing this piece in light of the recent episode of Black Market: Dispatches about underground businesses in UK council estates. You can catch Black Market: Dispatches on VICELAND. Find out how to watch here.
In the archive center of the Becontree housing estate in Dagenham, east London, 92-year-old Bob sits in a greatcoat and smart brown shoes, sipping a coffee and leafing through a stack of multi-colored rent books that mark the 87 years he has spent on the estate.
"It was 15 shillings and four pennies a week," he says, picking out one of the oldest and gently chuckling. "Around 70 pence. You wouldn't get it now. It was a good thing them days."
When Bob moved to Becontree with his parents and two siblings back in 1929, he was just five years old. His father had been transferred from Battersea Power Station to Barking Power Station, so his family left south London for the suburbs of Dagenham. The area they moved to was one of the most impressive public housing estates ever built in Britain. From 1921 to 1934, 29,000 homes were constructed in Becontree as part of a housing program designed to reward soldiers returning from the First World War and stave off the threat of Bolshevism, which was a pressing concern for the inter-war British elite.
The repetitive rows of pebbledash terraced houses with front and back yards are hard to miss. In terms of population it was, and still is, the biggest public housing estate in the world.
"It was something totally different," says Bob, who has spent nearly his entire life on the estate and married his neighbor in 1947. "Something nice and fresh and new. It must have been a blessing for mum and dad because they weren't used to that sort of thing: a nice house to go to and live in, decent toilets, decent facilities, a roof over their heads. People had never been so well off... they lived in slums before."
On January 12, with the public's attention focused on the junior doctors' strike, an innocuously named piece of legislation called the Housing and Planning Bill was passed through parliament after a third reading. According to the government, the new bill will help tackle the housing crisis and transform "generation rent into generation buy." Hidden within a long document full of technical jargon are policies that could, some say, spell the end of public housing altogether.
A new system called pay-to-stay will force tenants earning above £30,000 [$40,000] (or £40,000 [$56,000] in London) to pay full market rent for their property, purchase it under right-to-buy or leave altogether. Lifetime tenancies, the right to live in the same place for life, will be scrapped. Homes considered to be high-value will be sold off once they become vacant and the proceeds given to housing association tenants, who will be offered their homes under right-to-buy.
Put together, the new policies have been described by Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, as a "grand theft of the public realm" and "another nail in the coffin of the post-war settlement." By the end of the 1970s, 42 percent of the population lived in social housing. It was, for many, an achievement comparable to the National Health Service. Today, just under 8 percent rent from the state. The era of government-provided, affordable housing that offered people like Bob the chance of building a better life has been gradually replaced by a new housing crisis with endless waiting lists, a dysfunctional private rented sector, and a society obsessed by a dream of homeownership that for most will never come true.
It's midday and the sun shines down on the pitched roofs and red bricks of the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, east London. Just 150 feet from the busy high street, things are remarkably quiet: a few locals mill around the community launderette and a few others sit in the estate's small, raised park.
If she cranes her neck from the window of her ground floor apartment, Jean Locker can just about make out where the residents of a slum called the Old Nichol would once have lived. For the 67-year-old nursery worker, it's a point of deep personal significance. She moved to the Boundary Estate as a tenant over 30 years ago, but it was only recently she discovered her great-great-grandmother, a Huguenot clothes dealer, had actually lived in the slum over 100 years earlier.
"They called it the 'blackest streets' because of the high crime and high poverty," she says referring to a map by Charles Booth that used black as an indication of poverty. "A lot of the problems here were caused by the deteriorating housing, the slum landlords, the Rachminites of the Victorian time, who let their houses go into a decrepit state."
Completed in 1900 by architects at London City Council (LCC) over a slum known as the Old Nichol, the Boundary Estate was the first public housing estate to be built in Britain. Prior to this, the only real attempt to rehouse the urban poor had been inadequate attempts by private philanthropists and social reformers such as American banker George Peabody.
We're sitting on a small bench next to a green and brown band stand built from the actual rubble of the Old Nichol slum. Looking at the arts-and-crafts-influenced blocs fanning out from around us, it's striking just how good the Boundary Estate looks after all this time. What is it like, living in a place of such social significance?
"I'm proud of the fact that I live somewhere a little bit unusual," she says. "I really want to know exactly where things were. I'd like to be standing on that same spot (she was)."
Locker came from an old house in Hackney with "no toilet inside, no hot water, a leaking roof, and no bath," so moving into the Boundary estate was a stark improvement. But back in 1900, when the trailblazers moved in, not everyone was so lucky. Despite an early commitment to the idea that society should house those in need, the universal aspect that came to be associated with mass public housing was yet to exist. The Boundary Estate—much like Becontree—was designed for the 'deserving poor,' those from certain trades and professions that could afford the rents being set. Only a tiny fraction of the Old Nichol's residents were actually allowed to live in the estate their slum had been cleared for. Mass public housing still wasn't on the cards. It would take another war to change that.
In his 2012 book Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, John Grindrod tells the story of British public housing during its most interesting, exciting, and intense phases. During the Blitz, two million homes were destroyed by German air raids, many in the same industrial cities where housing conditions for the working class were already bad. In response, the 1945 Labour government, led by Clement Attlee, showed a commitment to building public housing that surpassed anything before it. By 1951, over 900,000 homes had been completed.
Grindrodgrew up in New Addington, a large post-war housing estate in Croydon, but it never really occurred to him to find out what this period of history entailed until he left the area at age 30.
"It's kind of impossible to overstate how optimistic, excited, and proud people were to be doing that work at that time," he tells me from a pub in Forest Hill, not far from where he grew up. "When I interviewed architects and planners about it they would melt a bit. They would get so misty-eyed and immediately slightly heartbroken, having seen that attitude disappear. There was this sense that they'd been talking about building and planning this stuff for ages, but they'd only been able to tinker around the edges, and now they could actually do something proper about these problems. They really were trying to create a better world."
Over the next three decades, local authorities responded to the country's housing needs with a staggering array of different ideas and architectural styles. There were modest pre-fabricated huts built as part of a temporary, emergency building program. There was the New Towns Act in 1946 that aimed to tackle overcrowding in inner cities by building 29 entirely new areas. There were high-rise concrete apartments, streets in the sky, and competing styles like New Brutalism and New Empiricism.
"The idea that post-war council housing is all the same is just total nonsense," Grindrod says. "Where I grew up, there were semi-detached houses, low-rise flats, a couple of high-rise flats, early permanent two-story prefabs. Everything was going on in that place. I'm constantly surprised when I go and visit places at how different they are from one another."
Politics got in the way. "There was this race between the Tories and Labour to build more housing as quickly as possible," says Grindrod. "That meant everyone cut corners and nobody did proper checks. They just wanted to get the numbers up and reach the targets they had set. The only way they could do that though was to build things with prefabrication [assembled in a factory] and unskilled labor."
On the May 16, 1968, a gas explosion at Ronan Point in Newham killed four, injured 11, and exposed just how bad some of the shoddily constructed prefabricated towers erected in this period were. Though responsibility for what happened lay with dodgy building companies and corrupt local authorities, the implications were felt far and wide. According to architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, the investigation that followed Ronan Point's collapse caused "irreparable damage to the image of public housing, the construction industry, and to modernist architecture itself."
Fast-forward a few decades, and under New Labour, there was an image problem facing British public housing. Tower blocks became sink estates and tenants became lazy, rude mooches. It was no longer about the odd badly designed building—the whole idea behind public housing was being systematically discredited.
One man who remains particularly vocal in his criticism of what got built in the post-war period is Nicholas Boys Smith, founder of Create Streets—a controversial social enterprise that campaigns for low-rise, terraced housing and apartments. In 2013, Boys Smith—formerly a managing director at Lloyds Banking Group—co-authored a report with Alex Morton from the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange that blamed high-rise estates for a litany of social problems including juvenile delinquency, crime, poor relationships with neighbors, and even suicide.
"Though well intentioned, many post-war developments—council housing or otherwise—were very poorly set out," Boys Smith tells me over the phone. "Big buildings cost more to run, are less flexible, tend to be less environmentally friendly and have high charges involved in their management. They were also built in a way we now increasingly understand means less good wellbeing outcomes for residents. They created very physically disparate estates which, pretty quickly in most cases, started going wrong."
The solution, according to Boys Smith and Morton, is the "replacement of London's multi-story housing... with real houses in real streets."
"The research is pretty unambiguous," Boys Smith says. "On the whole, living in a house or a smaller building nearer the ground with a front door to the street, a bit of private space and access to green space in a way that you can control—these things tend to be correlated with being happier with where you live, lower crime, and better social links between neighbors. It's also quite popular and therefore achieves high values."
If there's one estate that would seem to exemplify this idea of "urban decline" it ought to be the Aylesbury Estate in south London—the largest system-built estate in the city, constructed with vast grey slabs of prefabricated concrete. By the time Aylesbury was completed in 1977, the damage to the reputation of post-war modernism had already been done. Two decades later, Tony Blair made his first speech as Prime Minister on the estate, in which he referred to its residents as "forgotten people." Filmmakers would regularly flock to the area for its "gritty" aesthetic and journalists would use it as shorthand for inner-city crime and poverty.
But talk to people who actually live there and the picture gets more complicated. In 2001, 73 percent of residents voted against plans to demolish the estate.
After a walk around the edges of the estate—cut off from the public by a spiked fence designed to keep out protesters—I'm sitting in the neat, two-bedroom, fifth-floor apartment of 57-year-old Aysen Dennis. Dennis is wearing a black T-shirt with the words "No Social Cleansing" written in red block capitals. She describes herself as "the official face" of an anti-gentrification occupation that took place here last year and rejects outright the stigma that has surrounded her community.
"These were all fabricated things to make the estate look bad," she says, matter-of-factly. "I witnessed the children grow up in front of my eyes and turn into decent young adults. I live here as a woman and I've never come across anything that wouldn't happen elsewhere. This is the place I've felt the safest anywhere in my life."
Dennis' level of anger and willingness to resist the current demolition effort through direct action is striking. Given her personal circumstances it's also unsurprising. In 1988, eight years after a military coup, Dennis left her home in Turkey to escape political repression. For the next five years she moved around London, living in friends' houses, squats, and a cooperative in Camberwell which she left because of racist abuse. When her application for an apartment back in 1993 was successful, years of exhausting instability appeared to have come to an end.
"I couldn't believe my luck," she says. "It was heaven for me. The beautiful view, the big space. It was the first time I had a place that was truly my own. Growing up, my father was in the army, so we used to move around a lot and I was never able to stay in the same place for a long time. I always envied people that could do that. When I moved here I felt this was it: this is my place and I'm going to live and die here."
In the end, for Dennis, the estate's fall from grace says far less about the failure of British modernism and far more about the desire to release the real-estate potential of inner-city London. She thinks the estate was deliberately run down by a government that wants to cash in, and looking out through the large windows of her warm, bright apartment, it's easy to see why. To the left is Burgess Park, one of the largest green spaces south of the river, and to the right, in the distance, you can make out the London Eye slowly turning for the city's tourists.
"They think we don't deserve it," she adds. "It makes me so angry that they measure our humanity according to how much money we have in a bank account."
Last week Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, said he had an "ethical obligation" to demolish London's public housing estates, citing research by Savills that was compiled with input from Create Streets. A few weeks earlier David Cameron announced a proposal to demolish or overhaul 100 so-called "sink estates" and replace them with low-rise housing. Sitting on a 17-strong panel that will work on that proposal and develop a "national estate regeneration strategy" is none other than Nicholas Boys Smith.
Meanwhile, helping Cameron devise his wider housing strategy after leaving Policy Exchange to work as a Downing Street special advisor is Alex Morton. Many of the policies outlined in the bill including the forced sale of housing voids appear to have been lifted directly from Morton's other work with Policy Exchange.
While the new legislation will have implications far beyond the capital, according to research by Shelter, it's in central London where the impact on housing stock could be felt the worst. In Camden, for example, 11,714 homes, nearly 50 percent of its total stock, fall above the bill's "high value threshold." And that's in a borough with a waiting list that was, until a recent change to its housing allocation policy, 30,000 people deep.
From 48-year-old Dorian Courtesi's lounge on the third floor of Barrington Court in Gospel Oak, you can hear the loud sound of construction work on a private new-build across the road. Just a stone's throw from Hampstead Heath, Barrington Court is right in the middle of some of Camden's most valuable land. Should any of the estate's more expensive two- and three-bedroom street-level apartments become vacant, Courtesi fears they will be sold off in an instant.
"I think it's atrocious," he says. "We've got families on waiting lists. On this estate, we have a woman and a partner with two young daughters under the age of five living in a one bedroom property."
Even more worrying are the new pay-to-stay rules, which Courtesi estimates could affect between 25 and 30 percent of the residents.
Back and neck problems mean he can only work part-time at the moment, but should his circumstances change, he too could be affected. "Say my pay rate went up from £38,000 [$53,000] to just over £40,000 [$56,000]," he says. "I would be in a situation where I was paying more out in rent as a social housing tenant if my pay grade goes up. How does that incentivize me to improve my circumstances as a person in the labor market?"
The housing bill passed through Parliament, but resistance is beginning to build. In March, peers in the House of Lords published over 100 amendments including plans to block pay-to-stay, the end of secure tenancy, and the sell-off of housing association property and high-value homes. A vote on that will take place in March. Meanwhile, a new campaign called Kill the Housing Bill—Secure Homes for All has been set up by a coalition of different groups, including Camden Assembly of Tenants, of which Courtesi is a member.
Whether it will be enough to affect the content of the bill remains to be seen. Just before Courtesi leaves his apartment to join a group of activists planning a large demonstration in central London, I ask him whether he believes the purpose of the bill really is to destroy public housing once and for all. "Yes I do," he says, without a second's hesitation. It's a question which could seal the fate of places like Becontree, Boundary Estate, and Aylesbury.
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