Class, housing and the economy

Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates: An Intimate History, was one of the speakers at the Festival of Economics in November. I just read her book, which is terrific. It restores to centre stage the key issue of class in understanding British society and the economy – and in thinking about the challenge of tackling embedded poverty, which is almost always located in these specific areas of housing we call estates. (Funny to think their name must have originally meant to evoke the arcadian idyll of country estates.)

I’ve long thought we talk too little about class in the policy debate. Take schooling, for example. Children at London’s schools on average now have higher attainment than the English average; but I’ve lost count of the number of middle-class London friends who claim to have opted for private schools for their children because they’re worried about their education. Nonsense (I think) – they’re actually more worried about the social contagion of mixing with working class children. Nobody is entitled to call themselves left-wing or progressive, in my view, if they opt out of their local state schools, that is opt out of their community. As Estates points out, they key failure of the education system has been the low expectations, on the part of teachers and politicians alike, of what children from low income families can achieve.

Lynsey is brilliant in writing about the effect of the physical environment of post-war council estates on their inhabitants. “It has insanity designed into it,” she writes of the example of the Wood estate in Birmingham, where she grew up. Estate inhabitants have worse health, including mental health, lower life-expectancy, higher risk of drug abuse and unemployment. The book describes the interaction of the dreadful design of the housing, using poor quality materials and not maintained, with the evolution of housing policy. In particular, the Thatcher era sale of council housing, with local authorities forbidden from using the proceeds to build new homes for rent, meant the rump of unattractive estates were quickly filled with the ‘problem’ families. They became isolated locations for one class only, the underclass. Their downward spiral was then inevitable – from the inner city slums of the Industrial Revolution to the ‘slums in the sky’ tower blocks, whose inhabitants above the 5th floor are likely to be on benefits and members of an ethnic minority.

As she notes, Thomas Sharp in his 1949 book Town Planning was clear about the danger of one-class communities – he described them as “social concentration camps: places in which one social class is concentrated to the exclusion of all others.” Add in the absence of amenities – shops, pubs, parks, buses – and they became the exact opposite of the Jane Jacobs ideal of a vibrant urban community (in The Death and Life of Great American Cities).

Of course, one challenge in post-war housing policy was the shortage of housing, given strong demand and planning restrictions. (I think that Lynsey en passant assumes too readily that all of the green belt has to stay sacrosanct – only 1.5% of the UK’s land area is built on, only 2.3% in England – see also Kate Barker’s excellent Review of Housing Supply and , and Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.) In the immediate post-war years the shortage was so acute that many returning servicemen had to live in prefabs – as my parents and aunties did for some years.

My auntie and uncle, cousin and big brother, outside the family prefab

The UK’s housing crisis is still acute, although now middle-class young people too cannot easily afford to buy a first home, and many middle-class as well as working-class families will struggle to pay their mortgage if interest rates ever go up. Despite the sluggish economy house prices in some areas have continued to rise, so pronounced is the shortage, while other areas have a surfeit of homes to buy and unmet demand to rent. This market does not work at all well. It also destabilizes the economy as a whole. One day, one of the political parties will see an opportunity in this. But it is a huge challenge too.

I highly recommend Estates. Good reading alongside Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain (I’ve not yet read his latest, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain), as well as the other books referred to above. And I just bought Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by Owen Jones, another book about the neglected and disparaged working class.

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