The Making and Unmaking of the Council Estate

The 1970s saw seismic changes in Britain's cities, as new ideas about class, crime and public space reshaped the built environment – and bred both resignation and resistance in its council estates.

In history, there are sudden moments when, in a very short space of time, an entire way of living is completely destroyed. In the built environment, this leaves people in a landscape which was designed for one society, trying to fit those buildings to the new way of being.

According to Sam Wetherell, in his brilliant new history Foundations, this has happened to Britain twice in the last hundred years – once, between the 1930s and the 1960s, and again, almost immediately afterwards, between the 1970s and the 1990s. The first shift involved a radical retooling of a free-trade industrial oligarchy into a strictly planned, developmentalist technocracy; the second, close on its footsteps, smashed up that society – which Wetherell very pointedly does not call ‘social democracy’ and turned it into a paranoid, privatised world of malls, gated communities, high fences and CCTV.

This is topical. Looking around our cities today, we know that a lot of what we see will not survive the pandemic. High streets, of course, but also New Labour/Cameron-era typologies like glass skyscraper central business districts, student housing towers and subdivided flatshares – all of these were appallingly ill-equipped to cope with the disaster, and all of them are unlikely to ever be the same afterwards. And yet, we will nonetheless be condemned to live in their emptied shells. So hopefully, in looking at those earlier turnarounds, we might learn something about how we can respond to such shifts, and perhaps, make them our own.

Precincts and Estates

Wetherell identifies three unique types from each of these two eras – in the first, the industrial estate, the council estate, and the shopping precinct, all of which were effectively invented in Britain, and in the second, the private housing estate, the shopping mall, and the business park, which were all, tellingly, US imports. Some time is wasted arguing with the sort of insufferable ‘polprof’ pedants who refuse to accept that a word that denotes a complex and multivalent phenomenon such as ‘neoliberalism’ could possibly mean anything, but in most other respects this is a hugely impressive achievement.

Best of all is the way Wetherell writes of the prestige projects that were meant to pump-prime the economy in moments of depression. Planned industrial estates such as Trafford Park in Manchester and Team Valley in Gateshead were the product of imperial planners who had equal enthusiasm for Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and intended to respond to national declines and local depressions by moving people around the country as if on a gigantic chessboard. Shopping precincts imagined that town centres and high streets could be planned in the same way, this time under the direction – and initially, ownership – of local authorities such as Coventry.

The most potentially controversial parts of the book are on housing. Wetherell focuses on how both precincts and estates had to be ‘retrofitted to make them compatible with new ideas about crime, public space, or landscapes of productive work’ after the 1970s – which was too difficult for some developments, which had to be demolished outright after only a two or three decades. He is devastating on the pseudoscience of ‘defensible space’, pioneered by one-time cult thinkers like Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman.

As a result of their theories, meshing with the new neoliberal idea of a totally selfish (yet ‘rational’) subject, free-flowing, if strictly planned public spaces built for an imagined homogeneous and predictable ‘community’ were sliced up, gated, blocked and locked, as the state recalibrated its actions from progressivism to a new doctrine of punishment. For places which relied wholly on new planned spaces as their social heart, the loss was incalculable, as places like Milton Keynes Shopping Centre or the Westgate Centre in Oxford went from municipally-owned, permanently open public assets into malls owned by completely unaccountable multinational corporations, as part of a portfolio of identical places that the executives need never even visit.

For the most part, this is a highly convincing book, with the sort of clarity and panoramic scope that is too often, in books on this subject, lost in architectural and decorative minutiae. But there are aspects of Wetherell’s argument that make me uncomfortable – some of which read as if they’re written to fit British history into American academic conventions.

It is important to stress, as Wetherell does, the informal racialising of council estates, with the new high-density modern estates of the 60s, for instance, usually given to white residents rather than recent migrants of colour, who were either ignored by councils or put in interwar tenements; and as Wetherell correctly notes, the Right to Buy when combined with much stricter anti-racist legislation on council housing allocation produced a sort of informal ‘redlining’, with the beneficiaries of Right to Buy being overwhelmingly white.

But he makes no attempt to work out what happened to the council estate from the late 1970s onwards not at the hands of neoliberal governments, Social Darwinist crime theorists and neglectful councils, but at the hands of the social movement of residents. So Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, for instance, had its original walkways removed, but at the same time its black residents had far more say and control over the estate than they ever did in its alleged heyday, and by the 21st century they had successfully created a valued, popular and successful working class community.

By reading these histories solely through the machinations and dreams of those that built and commissioned them, Wetherell necessarily misses this. It’s fair to say this isn’t his aim. But sometimes, in drawing too hard and fast a line between periods, he writes out the multicultural working class experience of modernist spaces altogether. In one passage, Wetherell writes:

Reading the publicity material for estates like Thamesmead, Park Hill or Churchill Gardens, it is easy to fancy that these spaces solved, once and for all, problems of deprivation in a blaze of modernity. It is impossible to imagine that they failed, just as it is impossible to imagine that they ever existed. Their success, however, depended on a delicate blend of aggressive municipal strength, economic growth, racial exclusivity, and an optimism that communities could be produced by politics, rather than the other way around. Without these four elements, as we will see… housing estates were like ancient and delicate works of art that appear impressive from a distance yet crumble immediately to the touch.

The Tabloid Estate

This is linked with Wetherell’s underlining of how white supremacy was crucial to what he doesn’t call social democracy. But the residents of British cities becoming less white is not necessarily problematic for planned, modernist spaces as such. If a precinct or a council estate is gated, sold off and dismantled, with its flowing public spaces destroyed, one can imagine its original architect being disappointed and upset at the repudiation of his or her original ideas.

But to use two examples round the corner from my ex-council flat in south-east London, could one say the same about the repurposing of a flat-roofed pub as a mosque, a precinct shop that sells spam becoming one that sells Turkish sausage, or indeed a community centre mainly used by white people with a community centre that is used by everyone?

I think it’s fairly obvious that such an apparent change of function is very much in line with the original ideas that stressed how design could encourage and assist civic life. More simply, council estates aren’t crumbling at anyone’s touch but that of the neoliberal bulldozers. Most provide, to this day, affordable places to live for millions of people, in otherwise deeply unaffordable cities. This also applies to shopping malls.

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, in southeast London which features here as the first, failed American-style mall in London, became a highly successful Latin American-Polish-Irish shopping mall before it was destroyed precisely on the basis of its failure to be what it originally purported to be. What Wetherell ignores is that it was exactly the odd nooks and high-ceilinged shop units that made it fail as a corporate mall that made it work as a community one.

That’s why it’s worth supplementing Wetherell’s book with Michael Romyn’s new oral history, London’s Aylesbury Estate, dealing with one of the Elephant and Castle’s neighbours. This charts the history of a vast estate whose construction was completed almost at the exact point of changeover between Wetherell’s Britain A and Britain B. Because of this, it had, unlike similar high-density estates built in the 1950s or ’60s, no honeymoon period in the press.

Literally at its opening, in September 1976, Southwark Council’s Alderman described it as a ‘mistake’ that the council was trying to ‘learn from.’ Oscar Newman had already trudged round it for a BBC documentary while it was still under construction, confidently asserting that its walkways, unadorned surfaces and lack of natural sight lines would create a generation of criminals. Even council housing historian Alison Ravetz considered the estate a failure the moment it was opened.

And yet, the evidence for this failure is very thin on the ground. Crime was only briefly higher than in the surrounding area. Community centres were used, Tenants Associations were formed, civic life took place. Interviewing dozens of residents – black, white, Turkish, Thai, Indian, Bangladeshi – he finds evidence that corroborates some of Wetherell’s warnings about historic ‘social democracy’.

Early on, the estate was reserved almost entirely for white residents of a very white area. As this changed, particularly when industrial collapse on the docks led to a widespread exodus of white workers from inner London, there was a rise in racism and even fascism. But after some ‘disorienting years’ in the 1980s, as the effects of mass unemployment and the Right to Buy shook the place down, the Aylesbury Estate appears gradually settled, on the evidence of the interviews and statistics in this book, into an ordinary and pretty decent multicultural place to live.

New Labour descended upon the estate in the aftermath of Blair’s post-victory speech in 1997, when he declared there would be no more ‘forgotten’ places in the ‘New Britain’ from an Aylesbury walkway, flanked by a policeman. It was immediately planned to demolish the entire thing and start again. In the process, one of the many surveys that were commissioned in the ensuing consultation found that the estate was actually an exemplar of ‘mutual aid,’ with many more people knowing their neighbours and helping them out than the massed wonks could have possibly imagined, their minds prepped by a generation of gritty crime dramas, adverts and music videos using the walkways as a lazy shorthand for dystopia.

The Aylesbury had problems, and those problems were certainly exacerbated by the changes at the end of the 1970s, which affected everything from the availability of flats to the heating system to the walkways, and crime certainly took place there, just as it did on the Victorian streets around and in the slums that were demolished to build it. But it did not ‘crumble to the touch’ of neoliberalism.

Most, if by no means all of the people living there liked it, and wanted to stay on it, as was shown on the rare occasions they were given a democratic chance to prove this – as in a thumping vote against stock transfer in 2001. Today, the Aylesbury is close to its final demolition, and Southwark Council claim that it will be replaced with more socially rented homes than were on the site before. If this actually takes place, we will have the first large new social housing estate in Britain since the 1970s. But reading this, the main feeling is not optimism for that future but a sense of loss for the scattering of a community which was deeply, to use the contemporary buzzword, ‘resilient’ – and merely for shallow fashions both economic and aesthetic.

‘Reducing the estate to a single, devastating image’ – Romyn writes, citing a tall story, from former Southwark Council leader Peter John, about MP Harriet Harman seeing someone inject drugs into their penis in an Aylesbury lift –  simply denies places like this ‘any sense of history or complexity, (creating) the necessary space for capital to unfurl.’ Romyn’s book is an excellent critique of how awful the real social consequences of this sort of snobbery and reductive tabloidism actually are for working class people.

Read together with Wetherell’s Foundations, though, it makes me imagine a different book. It would trace just how many spaces of the post-war planner state have actually been remade from the ground up, with their buildings and community infrastructure reclaimed and enjoyed by a new generation. It also makes me want someone else to write another book altogether, inspired by the fate of our new spaces after the pandemic.

How do you turn a student housing tower into a real social space? How do you remove the gates from a gated community? How do you make a public space in an area where the public has been ‘designed out’? What will happen to Liverpool One or Westfield Stratford under the Commune to come?