April 2, 2013

The Rise and Fall of Housing Estates

This is quite a lengthy book (245 pages) given that it only contains 6 chapters. Is written by a lady who was born in a large housing estate in Birmingham, UK and latterly lived in the East End of London. She writes with a tangible sense of injustice at the way those of us who come from estates/schemes (and still do) are often perceived as sponging, pikey, second-class citizens. This book is written by Lynsey Hanley and published by Granta books in 2007.

The great strength of this book is the depth of chapters 2 & 3, which trace the history of the rise of the council estate in the UK before summarising its all too rapid demise in recent years. Hanley reminds us that the concept of state sponsored council housing was borne from an idealism to end social segregation, particularly in the mind of Aneurin Bevan (Minister For health in the post-WWII years) who wanted to create a society where “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher, and the farm labourer lived side by side, in houses of equal quality.” Yet, as with communism, the socialist ideology that underpinned much of the rise of council estates in the UK was left floundering by the corruption of the human race (my words, not hers). She writes, somewhat acerbically:

What began as a nineteenth-century crusade to house the urban poor in clean and comfortable surroundings eventually turned into just another industry, co-opted by large building firms who received state subsidies to build quickly and carelessly, and encouraged by the short-term thinking of governments whose votes relied on quick solutions to visible problems.

Soon, the governments in the late 50′s & 60′s, encouraged by European modernist architects such Le Corbusier, began drastic cost cutting measures by introducing us to the‘block of flats’ (High Rise buildings). Concrete, it seems, was cheaper than brick and far more people could be squeezed into ‘dormitories in the sky’ than by building high quality homes for the masses. The concrete jungle was born. There is a sort of depressing edge to the book at this point as the author laments the death of the socialist, utopian dream that by building good, quality housing they would somehow usher in a sort of ‘New Jerusalem’ to British society.

Something went disastrously wrong and, for Hanley at least, the fault lay largely, though not exclusively, with the ‘right to buy’ policy of the Thatcher government. When Margaret Thatcher swept to power in the late 70’s, half the population was housed by the local authorities. Back then, she maintains, there was still a sense of pride in having your own council home, although I would dispute that. But now, with less than 12% of people in the UK living in council houses, there is more of a social stigma associated with those who live in such places. Hanley bitterly reflects that “this is no longer a society in which you can be proud, still less be seen to be proud, that your home has been provided by the state”. Her solution? She leaves chapter 6 to make some suggestions with the main one being to allow local residents a say in all architectural considerations along with a need for more, and better, social housing.

As a Christian reading this book it does leave you with an emptiness because it is, largely, unremittingly bleak. Worse still, that is not a criticism, merely a reflection of the reality of many of these places in 21st century Britain. Even more baffling, despite all the evidence to the contrary in this tome, the answer put forward as a balm for society’s ills, at least in this instance, is to build better housing! Indeed, as I write these words, Niddrie and many other schemes around Scotland are undergoing a massive transformation in terms of new housing developments. Certainly, the aesthetics are far more pleasing in our community than the old tenement blocks but, if anything, urban renewal has ripped the ‘heart & soul’ out of this community. It certainly killed a thriving Sunday School of 500, just 25 years ago, to less than 10 today.

The conclusions in the book do not go far enough from a Christian perspective. Bricks and mortar do not change the soul and the spirit of a person or, indeed, a community. Our society is not going to be renewed on the strength of better social housing and services. That grand experiment failed and yet here we are destined to repeat it again, only this time with more modern architecture! The dying council estates of our country need the gospel more than ever. We need a spiritual revitalisation of local churches. We need to plant more gospel churches.

This book was great for historical background and it left me more determined than ever to pray for, and find some solutions to, the problem of spiritual renewal in Scotland’s housing schemes. I am praying for workers. I am praying for supporters. I am praying for a movement in our nation that will see a migration of skilled, Christian workers, evangelists, and pastors moving back into our schemes to seek to redeem them for the kingdom and glory of God.

This is definitely a must read for any and all workers in council estates and housing schemes.

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