Forgotten Estates

This is an excerpt of my introduction from the Forgotten Estates event held as part of the Royal Academy of Arts Architecture Programme on 26 September 2016.

From the beginnings in the ruins of the Second World War, Britain’s post-war housing estates have long been focus of intense and passionate debate. As we will hear this evening, housing estates were the most visible manifestation and embodiment of the post-war belief in the common good and the in progress towards a country that was healthier, more affluent, and more comfortable for all, irrespective of wealth or class.

But to their critics, who began to gain prominence in the 1970s, and then with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 took control of housing policy, housing estates were the failed experiments of left-wing social engineering, and with their concrete and tower blocks were so alien to their inhabitants that they served to exacerbate the problems of social deprivation they were designed to alleviate.

The latter characterisation is remarkably persistent and still shapes how many people view council estates, especially if they’ve never actually lived on one themselves. Conversely, the views and experiences of the people who actually live on estates rarely appear in the media.

Success and failure when it comes to the debate about housing estates are, of course, relative terms. If we consider the success in terms in improving the living conditions of millions of people, then the post-war housing estate building programme was surely one of the greatest public policy successes in British history. And in the context of today’s housing crisis, then that success appears even greater. I have a few stats which bear this out.

In 2011, the number of households renting privately surpassed the number of social renters, which have declined slowly but steadily since the early 1980s. In the 13/14 English Housing survey. Needless to say they had the highest weekly housing costs of any category at £176/week – nearly double that of social renters. With 58% of the 4.4 million private renters aged between 25 and 44, it’s not hard to see why social housing is of such interest to the young. Also important to note is that social renters were far more likely to agree that their form of tenure was a good way of occupying their home than private renters: 80% to 53%.

So, renting a council house or flat is both cheaper and more liked than renting privately – and with 1.2 million people currently on the council housing waiting list, with 260,000 in London alone, the need for this type of housing tenure is clear. But despite all this, post-war housing estates have become a target for redevelopment, particularly in London.

The most notorious example is the Heygate Estate at Elephant and Castle. Here more than 1,200 primarily social-rented homes are being replaced with more than 2,300 flats. Of these Southwark Council says just 79 will be at "social rent", or 40% of market rates, with another 212 homes at 50% and 300 more under shared ownership.

Another important example, and the backdrop to this evening’s discussion is Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar. If you Google Robin Hood Gardens the second autocomplete suggestion after demolition is ‘crime’ – which tells a story about how it is portrayed in the media and often by politicians. At RHG, over 200 decently sized flats in a development that many regard as an architectural masterpiece will shortly be knocked down, despite the valiant efforts of a many of campaigners to preserve not only a place where people live, but what is for many a vital bulwark against the forces that are currently transforming London’s urban fabric. For those who, on the other hand, advocate its demolition, RHG is the archetypal failed estate, an emblem of the folly and hubris of its architects, a ‘concrete monstrosity’ whose continued existence is holding up the possibility of providing much more housing on its valuable site.

This evening we look to get behind the reasons why housing estates have become so totemic for both political right and left, while not forgetting that though they have become an ideological battleground, for many people in this country a housing estate is simply where they live and the place they call home. And this is what we mean with the title ‘Forgotten Estates’. The discussion will consider the ideas and ideals that created post-war housing estates, how and why their status has changed, the role of the media in how estates are portrayed and how characterisations disseminate, the question of social versus financial value, the public versus the individual good, the increasing interest in the post-war era and its architecture, and the nostalgia that many now feel for a moment that was concerned above all about the future.