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Just another brick in the wall?

Lynsey Hanley’s book Estates: An Intimate History titillates the Guardian-reading class’s fascination with a poor and excluded ‘underclass’.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics UK

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Estates: An Intimate History, Lynsey Hanley, Granta, 2007.

Estates: An Intimate History is marked all over with the stamp of authenticity. The ‘intimate’ in the title means she grew up in a large council estate in Birmingham called ‘The Wood’, and that today she lives on an estate in East London. This fact has impressed her editor, Granta‘s Ian Jack, and her many reviewers rather too much, and maybe Hanley, too. Millions of people grew up in estates, and it is not a revelation that they can write. I did not grow up on a council estate, but in redbrick terraces in Halifax, and like Hanley I too co-bought a house on an ex-council estate (thank you, Mrs Thatcher), but it never occurred to me that this granted me any special insight.

Still, Estates is well written, full of anecdote to make the argument that growing up in council estates visits a terrible stigma on millions of people. But is it true? Hanley’s argument echoes the many debates on the supposed ‘underclass’, a stratum of society that was doomed to failure by birth – birth in council estates in this variation. Happily, there is no evidence to support the idea that there is a permanent underclass. In 1992, Nick Buck of the Economic and Social Science Council found that there simply was no evidence to support such a proposal (1). Statistics on long-term unemployment show that those out of work for more than a year are only 20 per cent of the total and falling. All the evidence is that there is a churn of people in and out of poverty, with the economic cycle rather than personal fecklessness being the main aggregate determinant.

But if people are not fated to repeat the errors of their parents, social science researchers are fated to repeat those of their predecessors. In 2004, the Social Exclusion Unit report Breaking the Cycle imagined it had discovered ‘an intergenerational cycle of deprivation’, ‘transmission’ and ‘inheritance’ of disadvantage (2). A little over a decade earlier, the American social commentator Charles Murray tickled middle-class anxieties with his The Emerging British Underclass (3). Murray overplayed his hand, though, with his follow-up book The Bell Curve, which asserted that intelligence (or IQ, intelligence quotient, to be precise) was genetically inherited, and that IQ determined social class. Here, Murray made the argument too explicit, and embarrassed his target audience of the ‘cognitive elite’ by insisting that black people were around 15 per cent less clever than white people (4).

Before Murray, British Conservative minister Keith Joseph gave a speech at Edgbaston in 1974 bemoaning the cycle of deprivation that led the malingering unemployable ‘problem families’ to pass on their habits to their children (5). But then, we had heard all of this before back in the 1880s in the debate about the ‘residuum’ – a graceless metaphor for the undeserving poor that pictured them as the shit that stuck to the bottom of the sceptic tank (6). The real meaning of the Social Exclusion/Underclass/Residuum debates was that it was the middle classes who felt disturbingly alienated from society, but projected that feeling on to an underclass that was largely of their own imagination.

Hanley, though, does not talk directly of the underclass, but of people who live on ‘estates’, a word that means for her ‘council estates’. Hanley is aware of the pitfalls: ‘depictions of working-class life are often either hopelessly sentimental or offensively vilifying’, she writes. Still, the mass housing becomes, in her shorthand, a dismissal of the masses within, ‘endless tragic boxes with people in them’. She checks herself – ‘I’m ashamed to reduce people like this, for I know that every one of them has a story far more fascinating than the flat face of their house would ever reveal’ – but still she presses on. Hanley’s descriptions tell us about her, about her alienation from her subjects, as much as they do about her subjects. ‘Having a child before you know what to do with it; sidling up to people like me and asking them if you’ll buy ten Lambert and Butler; passing round a two-litre bottle of sparkling perry’ (8) – well, surely most of us have done at least two out of three, one time or another.

Hanley cites John Carey’s insightful book The Intellectuals and the Masses. There, Carey shows how intellectuals masked their loathing of the common herd by attacking their mass consumer goods (tinned food was a particular horror, as was ribbon development) instead of attacking them directly. But Hanley does not hear the echo of that middle-class snobbery in her own descriptions of ‘pretend house boxes’, or in the disbelieving cry ‘could a residents’ association even exist here?’. It is a common mistake people make discussing houses to confuse social prejudice with aesthetic judgment. People are often repulsed by the idea that houses are boxes, failing to notice the obvious that boxes are a very good shape, and that beautiful Georgian terraces are boxes, just like LCC estates.

When Hanley writes ‘concrete is a harsh and unfriendly-looking material’ it seems obvious, like the David Mamet character who says ‘everyone likes money, that’s why it is called money’. Hanley has not noticed that the association of concrete and harshness has been inculcated in us by its uses, rather than arising out of its intrinsic character.

As a description of the development of social housing policy, Hanley’s blind spots are revealing. She takes on face value the good intent of the early reformers and their ‘nineteenth-century crusade to house the poor in clean and comfortable surroundings’. Yet the vicious prejudices against the residuum that underlay their desire to break up the slums have been well documented for more than a quarter of a century, thanks to historians Gareth Stedman Jones (Outcast London, 1971), HJ Dyos (Exploring the Urban Past, 1982) and most recently Jerry White (London in the Nineteenth Century). When the poor were decanted from their north St Pancras slum into the new Somerstown estate, their clothes and furniture were burnt in a public ceremony, with local dignitaries looking on as they were bundled into a fumigating wagon decorated with giant papier maché fleas, bedbugs and rats.

Hanley thinks that Ebenezer Howard, author of The Garden Cities of Tomorrow, something of a model for town planners, was a ‘cross between Karl Marx and William Morris’. In fact Howard got his ideas from Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward, and reformer Octavia Hill – people Morris angrily denounced as ‘workhouse socialists’ and ‘five per cent philanthropists’ whose concern for the poor still ‘takes it for granted that the workers must be in the main paupers’ (7).

Hanley’s soft spot for the Victorian reformers carries over into the town-planning pioneers at Port Sunlight, Letchworth, the London County Council’s pioneering interwar estates and even Nye Bevan’s stint as housing minister in the first Labour government. Hanley entertains the illusion that we failed to take the better road to a wholly nationalised rented sector – believing that if only the government had carried through a plan to do just that ‘the riots at Notting Hill in 1958 would never have happened’. But the state sector was just as capable of using race to divide tenants, as it did in Tower Hamlets, fostering a generation of hate.

But this elevation of the early origins of council housing only serves as a counterpoint to heap scorn on the later engines of council house growth – that is, Tory Harold Macmillan, housing minister in the 1950s, and Labour’s Richard Crossman, who took over in the 1960s. Hanley faults these two for mass-producing cheap estates, like the one she grew up on, while careful Nye took his time to get it right. But she is as unfair to Macmillan and Crossman as she is naive about Bevan and Letchworth.

We can agree with Hanley when she says ‘but of course it’s not socialism: it’s a kind of ghettoisation’. But then it was daft to think that access to a consumer good, even a big one like a house or flat, would alter the social relationship that distinguished the upper class from the working class. What Macmillan and Crossman did do, which their successors have signally failed to do, was to build enough houses, not just to replace the old housing stock, but also to increase the number of homes overall. Hanley has a point when she says that they made them cheap, and that created problems in construction, including in system-building that was sabotaged by corner-cutting contractors. Hanley retells the story of the four people killed when the East Ham tower block Ronan Point collapsed in 1968. But she only reproduces the prejudices of the time: ‘[T]he problem with buildings is that, like anything man-made, they are subject to our desire to experiment.’ This is the kind of reaction against modernism that has taken us 30 years to get over – or not, in Hanley’s case.

Hanley likes social housing in principle, just not the fact of it. So when it comes to Thatcher’s sell-off of council houses in the 1980s, Hanley, having rehearsed all the prejudices against council housing, suddenly leaps to their defence. Indeed, she blames the council tenants themselves for having a detrimental impact on social housing policy: ‘In taking so enthusiastically to the idea of buying their homes from the council, over a million British households participated in the dismantling of mass public housing in Britain.’ But for all the reasons that she herself outlined, their experiences told them that they could hardly make a worse job of managing their property than the council did. In fact, the transformation in housing tenure since the 1960s only goes to show that there is nothing permanent or even enduring about the division of society into estate-dwellers and respectable society. Today, thanks mainly to cheap mortgages, a massive 73 per cent of people live in homes they own (8).

Hanley’s exclusive fixation on social housing misses out the real housing problem – which is that too few, overall, are being built. Today’s fear of change has created a real social problem, which is that we are building so few houses each year that we are not even managing to replace the dilapidated stock, let alone meet the additional demand that comes from population growth and family change. Among the excuses that the authorities have made up for not building more is a fear of social division if new building does not meet precise goals of social mixing – a fear that Hanley adds to with this book.

One suspects that Hanley’s attitudes to council housing are more closely related to her recent experience of having bought a flat on an East London council estate than her upbringing. There she was involved in a referendum to have the management of the estate pass from the council to a Registered Social Landlord. Despite her social housing ideals, Hanley seems to have rejected the left’s Campaign to Defend Council Housing and instead quite enjoyed the resident activism of the government’s Housing Choice agenda.

Looking back, Hanley wants to have good social housing that does not become a signifier for class discrimination. But it is class division that makes housing into a symbol of social worth. She mocks the pretensions of those whose homes nearby council estates were masked by high hedges and trees. But Hanley had her own version of the snob’s Leylandii barrier: ‘I started getting the Guardian on weekdays and the Observer on Sundays…the newsagent had to get them in especially. It felt as if everything was opening up to me: the richness of culture, the power of language, the usefulness of politics and, most importantly, the possibility of deep and lasting friendships rather than bully-acquaintances.’

Clearly, there are more subtle ways of signifying social hierarchy than estates.

James Heartfield is author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years, available from Amazon UK here. He will be speaking at the conference All Planned Out: The Worldwide Impact of the Town and Country Planning Act in London in May 2007.

(1) ‘Labour market inactivity and polarisation’, in Understanding the Underclass, Policy Studies Institute, 1992

(2) Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Breaking the Cycle: Taking Stock of Progress and Priorities for the Future: A Report by the Social Exclusion Unit, London, ODPM, 2004, pp. 10, 28, 73, 93, 138. And see John Welshman, ‘The Cycle of Deprivation and the concept underclass’, Benefits, Volume 10, Number 3, 1 October 2002, pp. 199-205(7)

(3) Institute of Economic Affairs, 1990

(4) with Richard J Herrnstein, London, the Free Press, 1994

(5) Joseph’s speech as supported by Michael Rutter and Nicola Madge’s insufficiently reflective Cycles of Disadvantage, A review of the Research, London, Heinemann, 1976

(6) Good accounts of the ‘residuum’ debate can be found in Jane Cullen, ‘The return of the residuum’, Confrontation, Volume II, no 1, 1996, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Poverty and Compassion, Alfred Knopf, 1991 and Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race, London, Macmillan, 1996

(7) William Morris, Political Writings, Bristol, Thoemmes Press, 1994, p 486. Morris reviewed Bellamy’s book in the Commonweal, on 22 June 1889, see Political Writings, p 419

(8) Of course, that does not mean that social division has been abolished, only that its form is differently expressed

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Topics Politics UK

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