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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, January 26, 2007
    Walls in the Head and bringing them down
    Lynsey Hanley's Estates; An Intimate History is disquieting reading. The first part of the book describes her experience of living on the Chelmsley Wood estate as a child. I nearly gave up on it, because it's unremittingly sobering; I wanted to abandon it to something cheerier because:

    (a) her descriptions of the 1960s concrete blocks she lived in seem to come direct from the journalistic school of shoddy negative housing estate cliches and I'm tired of reading them;
    (b) Chelmsley Wood is outer Birmingham, a city which, despite having (had) some good friends in over the years, I've somehow never understood, never warmed to, never managed to empathise with;
    (c) Hanley is a leaver - one who got out of the estate as soon as she realised she could - which again reinforces privileged assumptions I'd prefer to challenge;
    (d) and she's not an urban walker - as my previous post on this attests, Hanley makes the mistake of assuming that drifting has to be pleasurable. It doesn't. It just has to be truthful.

    But I'm glad I persevered with the book, because Hanley is a good writer and, despite my last comment, she is throroughly truthful about the state of estates throughout their chequered history. Her interpretation of that history is haunted by her own grim experiences - latterly in Tower Hamlets - which legitimise her sobering descriptions of estate life (though I, and many other estate dwellers, would counter that it's not all like that). Her intimacy with her subject assures us that the book's politics and social science are grounded in lived reality.

    I mentioned the other day that Cutteslowe and other estates are surrounded by walls which separate estate residents from their better-off neighbours, and for me the book's most powerful chapter is the one in which Lynsey Hanley utilises the idea of The Wall in the Head, which describes the mechanisms of shame and loathing which imprison the socially stigmatised estate dweller. Those who live outside are fiercely implicated in this critique, which demonstrates that far from being merely economic, poverty is socially imposed.

    The book's conclusion is more hopeful than the introduction. Hanley's involvement in Tower Hamlets' Housing Choice initiative demonstrated to her that with proper tenant involvement, good decisions can be made about social housing, even though they may involve difficult choices. In Hanley's case she and her neighbours were voting to be made homeless so that the council could demolish their homes and start again, a painful but ultimately positive situation in which the tenants were fully involved in designing their own future.

    I'm left energised by Hanley's insistence that if housing had been given equal precedence to health in the great post-war welfare reforms, then the peculiarly British antipathy to social housing may never have developed. Just as the majority of us deeply value our health service and free schooling, so we may also have grown to love our council housing, and that rather than isolating them and running them down to be the places where currently only the poorest and choiceless have to live, our estates might have been celebrated as vital signs of an equitable society. So I applaud her parting words:

    My vision - my hope - for the future of social housing is simple. I want it to come to be regarded as an integral part of the national housing stock, and not something that is seen as shameful. I want the desirability of home ownership not to come at the cost of denigrating council housing at every turn. I want the people who manage social housing to be given all the resources they need to maintain the estates for future generations, so that we don't have to go through an endless cycle of building and knocking down. We may have to accept that the era of mass council housing is over, but that doesn't mean that the housing that replaces it - whether owned by councils, by housing associations or by management organizations - cannot be better and more satisfying than what went before.