Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (Routledge, 2016)
I’ve used Martin Crookston’s book in the library so I’m delighted there’s now a cheaper paperback edition to make it available to a wider readership. I’m even more pleased, truth be told, to have a free review copy but I can say honestly that hasn’t affected my judgment of what I think is a very good, useful and important book on the future of council housing.
Crookston’s endeavour is to make sure it has a future and he focuses especially on the cottage estates or ‘Corporation suburbia’. These are a neglected, frequently disdained, component of a proud council housing record – lacking the glamour and ‘iconicity’ of some architect-designed estates and blocks perhaps but representing in his opening words ‘a mammoth achievement’.
‘Mammoth’ is uncontroversial. By Crookston’s reckoning they account for around one sixth of England’s homes and around 40 per cent of the country’s socially-owned housing stock. The pre-1945 estates – when Garden City ideals were in vogue – are generally the more celebrated and form over a quarter of such estates but half were built in the post-war period to 1964 and one fifth later. Taking Leicester (we’ve looked at the Saffron Lane Estate as an example), the Corporation’s twenty-three cottage estates formed about a third of the city’s suburban land and, at peak, some 43 per cent of its suburban housing.
‘Achievement’ is contested and the book casts an unsparing but always sympathetic and humane eye on why that has come to be. In this, Crookston avoids caricature and appreciates nuance (unlike much of what passes as commentary on council housing).
He begins with a useful typology of estates. His Type One estates are set in more prosperous regions – his two case-studies are both predominantly interwar estates covered by this blog: Tower Gardens in Haringey and the Becontree Estate in Dagenham.
Type Two are estates located in less prosperous areas – Deckham and Carr Hill in Gateshead (interwar) and Hylton Castle in Sunderland (post-war) are discussed in detail in the book.
Type Three, he designates ‘Radburnland’ – built in the post-war era when (drawing from the example of Radburn, New Jersey, founded in 1929 as ‘a town for the motor age’) planners were determined to create neighbourly enclaves and to separate cars and pedestrians by a system of cul de sacs, feeder roads and walkways. Bromford in Birmingham and Orchard Park in Hull form the case-studies.
It’s fair to say – though many variables intervene and their relative poverty certainly doesn’t help – that Crookston thinks these latter are generally the least successful and shares the consensus view that Radburn principles failed. Orchard Park is described with uncharacteristic sharpness as ‘unattractive housing in an unattractive environment’. The North Hull Estate, adjacent to it, is a reminder of the finer design sensibilities of the interwar period.
But the cottage suburbs as a whole have problems and it is Crookston’s mission to understand and remedy these. They are, perhaps, neatly if unwittingly captured by the pronoun confusion of Sir Peter Hall’s foreword. Hall points out, ‘some three million, one in six of us’ live on these estates and yet, he continues, these are ‘”council houses” on “council estates” – the places where none of us would ever dream of living’.
That unintended condescension speaks to a wider, largely reputational, issue that the cottage suburbs are unfashionable. Some – though media misrepresentation is to blame for the sweeping stereotype many accept – have broader problems.
This is not a static picture, of course. The estates themselves have changed significantly in recent decades, most obviously through Right to Buy. Now around half their homes are owner-occupied but, if this (as Thatcher’s vision of a property-owning democracy presumably imagined) was intended to stabilise the estates it has, as Crookston makes clear, had the opposite effect.
Becontree offers a strong illustration: social renting declined from 38 per cent to 35 per cent between 2001 and 2011 while owner occupation declined from 56 per cent to 50. Meanwhile, private rental rose from 6 to 16 per cent. The growth of the private rental sector on council estates is problematic in many ways; the loss of genuinely affordable housing it represents is only the most obvious. Often privately rented homes are more poorly maintained and less well equipped; almost invariably their tenants are transient.
Yet Right to Buy (predating Thatcher as Crookston reminds us – over 250,000 council homes were sold before 1979) and the growth of working-class owner occupation from the 1950s have been crucial in shaping the declining image of council housing. Once, without doubt, an aspirational step-up, it has increasingly become seen – I know that many proud council tenants and huge numbers on council housing waiting lists will rightly baulk at the generalisation – as housing for those who can’t afford to buy ‘something better’.
The stigma – obviously far stronger in relation to some so-called ‘problem estates’ than to the many far more ‘ordinary’ council estates up and down the country – attached to council housing is something that we who defend it must address and Crookston tackles the issue head-on.
To begin with some historical perspective is vital, not as an exercise in nostalgia but as a corrective to those who would condemn the whole project and deny it any future. Crookston’s memory of growing up in 1950s Lancashire is telling here:
What stigma there was probably attached itself to the visibly poorer and scruffier little terraced streets and – especially – back courts as yet untouched by ‘slum clearance’. And mums on the estate were just as insistent on hankies and proper shoes (not tatty plimsolls) as any in the private semis.
There were separations, typically defined from around 16 when choices regarding employment and education and staying put or moving away were made:
However, the label of council tenant was not the key to that, or to our attitudes and experience in general. The estate was different, but it wasn’t that different, and it wasn’t stigmatized.
As Ruth Lupton, quoted in the book, argues, ‘Four generations ago, families in social housing included almost the full social range’. (1)
Crookston captures a later shift in a powerful chapter on ‘Attitudes’. Take Beddau in South Wales. As one interviewee recounts:
There is more stigma than before…The growth of cheap home ownership around Beddau drained the council housing of its mixed community. And increasing worklessness amongst an unskilled population, when the mining went, has brought a divide within the working class…Now the area is split between a public-sector-employed ‘middle class, a few industrial workers, and a swathe of workless benefit recipients without skills or cars to access the jobs which exist.
Another interviewee, raised on a Manchester estate but now an academic in the US, recalls gradations within and between estates but says of his own more ‘respectable’ estate, ‘after the Right-to-Buy period, the estate came to be occupied by what seemed to me to be more marginal families’. Crookston notes this too of Norris Green in Liverpool, a case discussed in this blog.
These are subjective views and from, specifically, those who ‘moved on’ and moved away, but they speak to the undeniable fact of residualisation, that council housing became increasingly confined to a poorer working class. Crookston reports that between 1981 and 2006, the nationwide proportion of owner-occupying households in employment fell by two per cent whilst in social housing the proportion fell by 15 per cent (and 21 per cent for full-time employment).
Council housing tenants have been hit massively by the deindustrialisation of Britain overseen or engineered (take your pick) by the Conservative governments of the 1980s.
There was another factor too of which Crookston is well aware but seems to me to underplay: that the concomitant decline in council housing stock and shift to needs-based allocations – instigated by Labour’s 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act but made wholesale by that decline in stock – did progressively reduce council housing to a safety net role. Its new tenants, particularly on the less desirable estates, were typically ‘more marginal’ – those whose needs gave them priority to this increasingly scarce resource.
In this context, Crookston is right to treat the prevalent reports of anti-social behaviour on estates – always dominant in outsiders’ criticisms and, to be fair, prominent in the disillusion of many residents too – with some caution as often isolated and always minority. Now’s not the time to take on that issue – though I would add that I have yet to see a comprehensive explanation of why anti-social behaviour became such a problem from the 1970s and I’d be grateful if any readers could point me to one. What is the case is that anti-social behaviour has dropped very markedly in recent years as each of Crookston’s case studies makes clear.
Why this is so is less clear. Perhaps the various design measures and estate management initiatives – some sensible and necessary – have had their effect. Either way, the CCTV cameras on the Deckham Hall Estate have been switched off and the problem has declined overall. That the perception remains owes far more, as Annette Hastings (also cited in the book) argues to the ‘pathologising’ of estates, most often by those who know them least well. (2)
So the task, as Crookston sees it, is to overcome this stigma and stop the cottage suburbs being a ‘lazy asset’, one which is underperforming and failing to realise its full potential. He examines a range of options to do just this, discarding some and endorsing others.
I’m pleased that he broadly rejects the idea that estates are failing as communities. This has been a long-running charge, principally from middle-class planners and sociologists who have felt, paradoxically, that estates have either failed to replicate the supposed neighbourly intimacies of the old slum terraces or to fulfil their own middle-class notions of improving self-organisation. Generally, estate communities work in their own terms – they are not, in Crookston’s words, ‘notably socially isolated or short of the “asset” of community resources and effort’.
He does recommend – though many councils, ALMOs and housing associations already have a good record on this – a series of case-by-case measures to raise the ‘feel’ of some of these estates, many falling within the broad category of urban management. Many local shopping centres need ‘lifting’ and the estates’ public realm can be better cared for. ‘Problem’ tenants – they certainly exist – need to be better supervised. ‘Soft’ measures such as re-branding (too often crudely applied) can be appropriate. You can read the book for a better and fuller understanding of his balanced appraisal of such ideas.
Who gets to do this?:
The estate communities could very likely be much more involved, and on many of them that potential may be there. But they need the ‘Corpo’ to be there alongside them, and to be resourced accordingly.
The role of the local authority, he argues and, of course, I agree:
needs stressing in Britain in particular: a country where the democratically-elected and properly-funded municipality has been regarded, it seems, as a luxury a poor struggling nation cannot afford.
The reality is – or should be – that this is investment we cannot afford to neglect.
Finally, he takes on more controversial issues of densification and social mix. I think he makes a plausible case that a lot of the open space in many cottage suburbs – created well-meaningly in the low density idealism of Tudor Walters (the 1918 report which established the interwar conception of the cottage estates) and beyond – is poorly managed and under-used. There is a case for building good quality housing on some of this open space and using more intelligently that which remains.
In terms of social mix, he favours the current mantra, tenure diversity. That, in itself, should hardly be controversial as it reflects, as we’ve seen, a fact on the ground. It’s also worth pointing out that quite a few estates were built with homes for sale or, in some cases, larger homes for middle-class rental. If Nye Bevan himself wanted ‘the living tapestry of a mixed community’, it shouldn’t frighten us.
What this doesn’t or shouldn’t mean, as Crookston argues, is ‘gentrification’. It is really, I would suggest, about returning estates to an earlier condition in which a broad mix of the population were proud to call them home.
That, of course, would be best achieved by a fairer and more equal society and one in which, in particular, working-class people enjoyed better-paid and more secure employment – ironically the world we thought we were winning after 1945 and have so cruelly betrayed since 1979.
Pending that meta-economic shift, Crookston’s ameliorative measures are to be welcomed and embraced and the book itself deserves to be widely read by anyone with an interest in council housing and the future it deserves.
Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? can be purchased in good bookshops and online or directly at reduced price from Routledge. Enter the code FLR40 at checkout to secure your discount.
(1) Quoted from Ruth Lupton et al, Growing Up in Social Housing in Britain: A Profile of Four Generations from 1946 to the Present Day (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2009)
(2) Annette Hastings, ‘Stigma and social housing estates: Beyond pathological explanations’, Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2003
Clink on the link to see the many cottage suburbs featured in this blog over the years.