Recently, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that his government plans to demolish problem council estates due to their concentration of social problems and related crime. The scheme will include rebuilding projects, and current tenants will hold on to their homes (albeit in a redevelopment). Cameron’s current Tory government do not have a good track record on the provision of public housing, and it is difficult not to be cynical about this announcement. But there are other reasons to be concerned, including the language Cameron has used to describe estates: – ‘sink’ estates, full of ‘anti-social behaviour’, and havens for gangs and other criminal behaviour. I see a different side to council estate life – one that includes rich diversity, community, and strong local connections.
Council estates are social housing projects and part of the fabric of life in Britain. Council estates, whether low-density houses built on urban fringes or high-density inner-city apartment towers, have provided secure homes for millions of low-income working-class people for decades. Many working-class people have been raised on council estates, where they have grown up with a sense of community not often found in other neighbourhoods. Despite the negative stereotypes of council estate residents as welfare-dependent, criminal, and dysfunctional (stereotypes reinforced by television characters such as Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard), council estates have traditionally been close-knit communities whose residents are ready to help each other when times are tough. Because of secure council tenancies, low-income people have been able to enjoy the stability of a home during times of hardship.
This was my experience. In the late 1960s my parents were moved from a two-room privately rented dwelling with no inside toilet or hot water to a new council apartment. They had a baby (me) and a toddler, and the three-bedroom apartment with inside bathroom and central heating was luxury. Our block consisted of young families, with some retired people in the single bedroom apartments. A small supermarket, a newsagent, a laundromat and a pub soon became a hub for the estate. There was also a school, a community centre, and an adventure playground (the estate was built of concrete, including a number of playgrounds, but the adventure playground had real dirt to play in). Life on the estate for children was pretty good – we had plenty of space to roam around, and the elevated concrete walkways and playgrounds kept us away from cars. We had no shortage of playmates, and no one was lonely.
Things changed in the 1980s. Many of us were directly affected by the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. By this time, we were a single parent family reliant on social security. It was harder to make ends meet as cuts were made and services squeezed. The estate began to fall into disrepair, and there was a general sense of pessimism as unemployment rose and young people left school without much hope of finding decent jobs. Things became gloomy as hardships increased. Poverty led to dysfunction. But despite the decline in services and the increasing dilapidation of the physical surroundings, the community spirit survived and neighbours could be called on to help when needed. Eventually, in the mid-1990s, the crumbling tower blocks were demolished and new dwellings built. The tenants were able to stay due to a staged ten-year redevelopment process and the community remained intact.
This kind of life is currently under attack from Cameron’s Tory government (despite the rhetoric about improving life on some estates). Thatcher had eroded some aspects of council estate life when she introduced the ‘Right to Buy’ legislation in the early 1980s, which expanded the already existing option for tenants to buy their council properties. While the move was popular with tenants who could afford to buy their homes (at a large discount), it led to a significant reduction in council housing stock and despite some restrictions, investors were able to buy council houses and sell them later at high prices or charge high rents in the private market. The reduction of council housing stock has been blamed for increased homelessness.
Along with expanding the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, the current Tory government has recently presented a Housing and Planning Bill to the British Parliament that will see the eventual demise of council housing if passed. Among other things, the bill includes an end to secure tenancies, with councils being forced to review tenancies after two to five years. This will lead to insecurity, anxiety, and homelessness. Tenants could be moved to properties many miles from their existing communities, support networks, schools, and workplaces.
The bill has drawn opposition and commentary on the potential devastating effects. Many working-class people are likely to feel terrified at the prospect of these changes. I don’t live in a council home now, but my mother still does (not on our original estate, but in council accommodation designed for elderly people). Although the bill won’t affect current secure tenants, I can’t help but think about elderly working-class people, like my mother, who have relied on council housing for a decent home and the dignity that comes with it. Will they live in fear of their tenancy being taken from them? Where will they go? What kind of impact will this have on physical and mental wellbeing? Will families with children be forced to leave the local school area, unable to set down roots and support networks? How will this affect young people using their parents’ council home as a secure base while they look for work or continue their education? The bill will affect the most vulnerable and fracture working-class communities.
The loss of council estates will likely increase homelessness and return working-class families to the pre-council estate era of cramped and squalid privately rented accommodation. My family was able to escape that world and found security, community, and friendship on the council estate. That this won’t be afforded to future generations is heartbreaking. The end of council estates and their diverse communities will be a huge loss for the country. I hope many people will speak up in opposition and defeat this bill.