Drawing on a unique archive spanning the lifetime of twenty council estate projects in the UK and using hundreds of resident voices, this book reveals the secrets of council housing’s failures and successes, and the reasons for them.
Bringing to light the complex variety of the lived experiences of residents, it shows how estate pathways were predetermined by factors such as location, design and date, as well as by their local and national social, economic and political contexts. The book highlights what can be learned from some of the successes of less successful housing projects and provides lessons for building sustainable communities in the twenty-first century.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically exposed weaknesses in UK housing’s relationship to the labour market and welfare system. Inequalities in household type, home occupancy, housing cost and security have contributed to the unequal impact of the disease.
Comprehensively charting fast-moving and inter-linked policy developments, Becky Tunstall assesses the position of housing and home in public policy, health and in peoples’ lives, and documents the most immediate responses to the pandemic in one convenient resource for students, scholars and practitioners.
At a time when new housing schemes are being planned on a nation-wide scale, it is a vital topical interest to trace in detail the story of one of the ‘problem estates’ created in the 1930s … [which] stands today as a monumental example of how new communities must not be planned. (White 1946:12)
This impassioned plea comes from a community worker named Les White, based at ‘E13’, one of the 20 estates this book is based on. Worried and angry, White was writing in 1946, only ten years after the first residents moved in. Nonetheless, this ‘problem estate’ of the 1940s survived. It continued to provide homes for hundreds of families for another 70 years after his urgent comments, albeit losing some homes to demolition, and in 2019 it was still home to about 1,000 households. Over its lifetime of over more than 80 years to date, it has generated costs and benefits, some quantifiable, others less so, for tenants, for the local authority which owns and runs it, for its neighbours, and for the nation overall. Is this estate still a ‘monumental example of how new communities should not be planned’? Was it ever? Were lessons from the impassioned analysis of the 1940s learnt or applied? What can we learn from any investigation we carry out today?
The perception and assessment of social housing is a product of history, politics, diverse viewpoints and diverse realities. Social housing was once seen as evidence of the England’s growing prosperity and progress, as slums were cleared and housing conditions were improved.
The terms ’rise’ and ‘fall’ have provided a useful, if reductive, approach to categorising and periodising change over time since the late 18th century (Gibbon 2000). Social housing rose in scale and importance for most of the 20th century, and, as part of wider housing policy, made an important contribution to social progress in the UK. However, this contribution has been taken for granted, debated, challenged, and sometimes overshadowed by perceived problems. Since the first years of council housing, some estates have been seen as ‘problems’ in some senses and by some people. From the 1970s, the idea that larger parts, or even all of social housing had fallen in quality and status become more widespread. From the 1980s, social housing began to fall as a proportion of all homes and households. However, the extent, nature and causes of problems have often been unclear, even to those trying to solve them, and they remain debatable.
Social housing is rented housing, owned and managed by local authorities (or ‘councils’) and by housing associations. Local authorities were the main builders of the UK’s social housing stock. They were also the main owners and managers of social housing in England until 2011, when they were overtaken by housing associations. Housing associations grew rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s, partly because of transfers of homes from councils. They have been described as private, public, voluntary and third sector organisations, and as ‘hybrids’ (Mullins et al 2014; ONS 2017).
Social housing organisations have generally received subsidy from government to build and, to some extent, to maintain homes, and many tenants receive help to pay the rent through housing benefit (or Universal Credit).
There is a substantial body of theory and evidence on the ‘rise’ and fall’, ‘trajectories’ or ‘dynamics’ of neighbourhoods, including areas dominated by private housing, areas with mixed tenure, and social housing estates. This chapter sketches out some of the main themes of the literature, focusing on characteristics and dimensions which can be used to define change over time, and the factors that may cause or prevent it.
Buildings are a key part of neighbourhood infrastructure, and building deterioration is often seen as indicator, effect and cause of neighbourhood decline. Buildings deteriorate continually through use and the passing of time, in a potentially predictable way. It has been suggested that building age is a reasonable proxy for the quality of homes and environment (Leather and Morrison 1997). Deterioration can be prevented or remedied, at a price, though repairs. However, when repairs costs mount, or outweigh likely repaired value, or if a new land use might provide more net value in the medium term, buildings may become ‘obsolescent’ and be abandoned or demolished. In theory, designers and initial builders can create buildings that can adapt to all the potential uses they will be put to, which deteriorate slowly and which can be repaired easily and cheaply. However, ‘all buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong’ (Brand 1994:178). Deterioration is likely to be faster where initial costs were emphasised over cost-in-use or life-cycle costing; where untested, unfamiliar designs, materials and components were used; design or construction were ‘poor’; use was ‘inappropriate’ or very heavy; or if there was insufficient maintenance.
This book is based on detailed information on 20 English social housing estates (Chapter 1), and this chapter introduces the estates. It describes how the sample was selected, and sets out some basic characteristics of the estates, including their location, age, size, main built form and size of homes. It discusses the extent to which the 20 are representative of less popular estates, and what evidence from the sample can and can’t tell us.
The sample of 20 estates on which this book is based is an accident of history, and in formal terms it represents a ‘convenience sample’. The research on which the book is based started with a small 1981–82 project on the decentralisation of council housing management services from central offices to estate offices, a new approach to difficult-to-let estates. This project was carried out by Anne Power and others on behalf of the Priority Estates Project (PEP), a unit set up by the Department of the Environment (DoE) in order to promote local housing management. The report of the first study was duly called Local housing management, and found local management to be effective and good value (Power 1984). The longitudinal element developed incrementally. The original study was repeated with fieldwork in 1988, to track developments in local management in the same 20 estates over the 1980s (Power 1991). It then continued with a wider brief to investigate the impact of other landlord policies, national policy, and social and economic change, with further fieldwork in 1994 and 2005 (Power and Tunstall 1995; Tunstall and Coulter 2006).
In 2008, a former resident of E11 (1938/400/h/Mid) posted on the internet: ‘just think of the people who lived in those houses, the good times, sad times, the laughter and the crying, weddings and the birthdays’. As Charles Dickens pointed out, not only can one place experience both the ‘best of times’ and the ‘worst of times’, but these times can exist simultaneously in the same place for different people, and even simultaneously in the same place for the same people (Dickens 2003:1). A series of vignettes show how each of the estates and their residents have experienced both periods of bare survival and periods when they genuinely thrived. Assessments depend on the point of view, which differed among residents, and between residents, staff, politicians and others. Assessments also depend on the aspects of estate life considered, and the time period or age of estates.
In 1933, an alderman was reported in the local paper arguing for building E1 (1929/300/h/NW) and other new council homes in the local authority, because: ‘Corporation houses would at the end of 40 years become a capital value and were contributing to the health and morality of the people’ (Anon. E1 1933). However, in the late 1970s, when E1 was in its 40s, the local authority’s director of housing said: “[it] was in a very poor order and grossly stigmatised … [it] served mainly as a receiving area for homeless families, – many of whom did not want to live there” (Director of Housing, E1’s local authority 1987).
This chapter explores housing quality, as a dimension of estate success and problems, and a potential cause of unpopularity. It covers building design and estate layout, which have been singled out in the literature (see Chapter 3), but also other elements such as amenities, internal space and condition, expert assessments of layout, and expert and resident assessments of aesthetics. It focuses on the period from the start of estate lifetimes to the 1970s, when housing quality, initially high, had fallen or was falling across the estates. The period from the 1970s to date is covered in the next chapter.
The physical quality of housing and the quality of experiences it gives its residents has been an important concern for researchers and policy makers since the 19th century or earlier, particularly due to the link with health (Burnett 1978; Marsh et al 2000; Thomson et al 2009). Statisticians wanted to measure overcrowding as early as 1891 (GRO 1904). From 1935, the ‘room standard’, and from 1960 the ‘bedroom standard’, attempted to take into account different space needs of adults and children (Holmans 2005). In 1949, a set of ‘standard’ housing ‘amenities’ was set down for England and Wales in legislation, due to concern about the effect of their absence on health (Leather and Morrison 1997). The list of ‘amenities’ has changed over time, itself a testimony to rising quality. In 1951, the census asked about a cooking stove with oven, kitchen sink, fixed bath or shower, toilet, hand basin and indoor piped water.
This chapter continues to describe housing quality in the 20 estates, focusing on the period from the 1970s to 2019. It covers maintenance, improvements, reorganisations and redevelopment. After the falls in relative housing quality from first letting up until the 1970s (Chapter 6), over this period relative housing quality in the estates rose again. However, quality rose belatedly, there were more downs as well as ups, and quality generally did not get back to the high relative level of many estates in their earlier years.
Throughout estate lifetimes, there were often day-to-day, legal and conceptual tensions between landlords and tenants over who or what caused wear and tear and breakages, and who should carry out repairs. At E14 (1926/900/h/NE) in 1982, the local repairs team leader said that the large number of repairs requests were at least partly due to the “particular lifestyle of a number of tenants”. However, he thought it was impractical to try to charge residents for this work, given low incomes and the fact that “extreme internal wear and tear, eventually leads to properties being impossible to let”. However, the big backlog of incomplete repairs was “possibly accentuated by the fact that residents considered that it was not worth reporting work” (in Andrews 1979:4). The number of requests jumped when estate-based management started (Director of Housing E14’s local authority 1980). A visiting researcher noted, ‘tenants do very few repairs themselves’. In 2005, a resident at E14 said, “there is a real problem with repairs … they are more concerned with the looks – gardens, dogs [than with the fabric]”, and another said, “they make you do your own repairs”.
Safety and order are basic needs, and their absence is a major threat to quality of life. The rates, causes and potential solutions to crime in housing estates form a substantial element of all studies of problems in social housing (Chapters 2 and 3).
The chapter also describes non-criminal but threatening or annoying behaviour, including children or dogs out of control, noise, harassment, not disposing of rubbish properly, leaving building doors open, or offending other norms of residence or behaviour in public spaces. It extends beyond the perceptions of staff and residents’ representatives, to draw on evidence from former child residents, some of whom could have been defined as ‘perpetrators’ of annoyance or crime.
‘Broken windows’ theory (Wilson and Kelling 1982) argues that poor maintenance and anti-social behaviour may be causal facts in individual and neighbourhood crime, and it has inspired ‘zero tolerance’ policing (Bratton et al 1998). However, non-criminal threatening or annoying behaviour is included here simply because of its effect on residents’ quality of life, and because, like crime, it has potential knock-on effects on estate population, resident mix, and other dimensions. The chapter draws on the theory of ‘social control’, that assumes that groups, whether nations or communities, set norms to define what is problematic, which may be legal or informal, clear or contested (Hirschi 1969). In order to control problematic behaviour, it must be observed, which may have a deterrent effect, or it must be acted on, whether by police, managers or others with formal responsibility, or by ordinary residents.