Coming from a council estate isn’t shameful, attitudes towards it are
A few years ago, I was in a team-building event at work. Arranged in an awkward circle, we each had to share something about us nobody else knew. It went thusly:
“I… don’t actually like ice-cream.”
“One time, I used my neighbour’s WI-FI and didn’t tell them.”
“I’m a dog person and a cat person.”
I want you to imagine each person issuing their confession through the locked teeth of a grimace face emoji. Not liking ice-cream! Can you imagine?
“When I was a kid me and my friends regularly got caught by the cops for stealing tires and for sometimes setting those tires on fire.”
Now the room was awash with shocked face emojis, not least of all mine. Save the humming of the vending machine, there was silence. If it was a rom-com, this is the moment a lightbulb would fuse and blow in the background, raining down sparks on the circle of bemused faces.
After a time, I was rescued by the next confession:
“I once stood behind Gerard Butler in Starbucks.”
This was one of those moments; a flash of tremendous self-recognition when you realise that one of these things is not like the other. Your council estate upbringing, as natural to you as breathing, was an alien experience to your corporate cohort.
Once a dream
The council housing story begins after the First World War with the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act. Soldiers, returning from the front, needed homes appropriate for their sacrifice and existing slum housing wasn’t going to cut it. Then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, in 1918:
“What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in. I am not using the word ‘heroes’ in any spirit of boastfulness, but in the spirit of humble recognition of fact. I cannot think what these men have gone through. I have been there at the door of the furnace and witnessed it, but that is not being in it, and I saw them march into the furnace. There are millions of men who will come back. Let us make this a land fit for such men to live in.”
The promise was to build 500,000 homes over the next three years, but with a weakening economy throughout the 1920s, only 213,000 were completed.
Though falling significantly short of the initial target, it was a welcome first step: A 1930s Housing Act ordered local councils to wipe remaining slum housing from towns and cities, and subsequent inter-war Acts resulted in1.1 million new council homes. Designed with benefits such as available sunlight and outdoor space in mind, the golden era of social housing had arrived.
In the thirty years following the Second World War, a further 4.4 million council houses were built, though they weren’t always a welcome solution to the working-class housing shortage.
The new urban vision of high rise flats in the 60s and 70s were criticised for being poorly constructed and uncomfortably cramped. Whole communities were uprooted from city centres and moved into new developments on the edges of cities to make way for expanding business districts. Social cohesion became a casualty as neighbours were split up and piled up.
The housing dream of the 1930s–front and back garden, sufficient sunlight–was bleeding colour at the edges as the “streets in the sky” decayed, becoming so-called “slums in the sky.” Cheery dystopian eye-peeler, Clockwork Orange, makes use of the eery gloom of a London estate; a place that is as brutal as it is grey.
Matters were about to get worse, as things usually do, with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. Come the 1980s, as well as cosying up to AIDS-denying Ronald Reagan and swapping authoritarianism notes with murderous bestie General Pinochet, Thatcher was busy dismantling the social housing project across the UK with her Right to Buy scheme.
It wasn’t that the scheme was inherently bad, but rather that as more financially comfortable working-class tenants bought their houses (“Maggie got me my house”), the social housing pool was not sufficiently restocked, and those unable to buy were left behind. A new landlord class was created, and with it, new divides in an until then unified community of relative equals.
Many of those same homes were and are later sold back to councils for exorbitant prices. And with about 1.5 million fewer social homes today than there were in 1980, many of our most vulnerable members of society are subject to the demands and whims of private landlords, and therefore, an increasingly under strain housing market.
For those still in social housing, the picture is hardly any glossier: Residualisation, where poverty is impacted as more socially mobile residents move up and out, has led to concentrated hardship, a decline in conditions and the malignant stigmatisation of council housing and its residents. I mean, think about that term, residualisation: The process of leaving a residue.
My council estate of 111 pre-fab houses was built in the late 70s. To my Catholic mother and Scouse father, the dream of council housing was still very much alive. Their three bedroom house on the end of a row was everything they could have wanted, especially given the inequalities in housing that sparked the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland a decade prior.
My mum’s first memory of the house is the kitchen, how big it looked. And she remembers, too, how the men would play football in the fields after work. “It’s always been a good wee estate.”
On the frontier of a reasonably sized market town, I grew up surrounded by fields and an 18 hole golf course. Even as British soldiers hid in our gardens, patrolled our paths, and landed helicopters daily in the fields, we hid too, patrolled too, built up empires and gangs, created backyard sweetshops, terrifying hang-drops, whole mythologies in the space of an evening when the sun cut just so across the dog daisies and grass.
It never occurred to us that we were undesirable. Not until we left.
The stigma of social housing
I was walking with a Canadian friend one day and he brought up the subject of class and our apparent pre-occupation with it here. When the topic arises, discomfort and a sort of anticipatory fatigue uncurl in my belly: Will this friend now engage in a bit of casual chav-bashing? Keen to head any awkwardness off at the pass, I told him I was from a working class background.
“Oh darling, you’re not working class,” he said. “You have a university degree.”
When do you stop being working class? When you matriculate at university? A hardship loan, overdraft, and 30-hour work week in my final two years suggest otherwise. Not to mention the student loan, which, for the purpose of my mental integrity, I will not be thinking about beyond this sentence.
“Being born into a prosperous middle-class family typically endows you with a safety net for life. If you are not naturally very bright, you are still likely to go far and, at the very least, will never experience poverty as an adult. A good education compounded by your parents’ ‘cultural capital’, financial support and networks will always see you through. If you are a bright child born into a working-class family, you do not have any of these things. The odds are that you will not be better off than your parents.”
― Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
Not only was it frankly fucking weird that my friend would adopt such an immediate stance on a topic he was apparently bamboozled by but 30 seconds before, it also begged the question: Just why was he so quick to “defend” my class status?
When I told him I was from a working class background, I was proclaiming. He thought I was confessing. And that’s the problem. Myself and my friends from social housing have heard it all:
But you speak so well.
You don’t sound like you’re from a council estate.
And my personal favourite:
How can you be working class when you work here?
As if when I cross the threshold of my city centre office after a day’s work, I revert to the narrow middle class vision of Vicky Pollard. The clock strikes twelve and the class slipper is lost.
And in case it needs saying explicitly, there is nothing wrong with not “speaking well,” or with “sounding” like you’re from a council estate or “looking” like you’re from a council estate. There is nothing wrong with never moving into a bigger house or with working in an ostensibly “menial” job or any of the other possible permutations of what makes some council estate kids chavs and others transcendent beings who Great Expectations their way into acceptance.
The clock strikes twelve and the class slipper is lost.
If you’re wondering why I’m so hell-bent on the inverted commas above, it’s because of how reductive these kinds of appraisals are, especially given how frequently “urban” or “poor” looks are coopted to pass off perfectly middle class personalities as (vomit) edgy, (puke) DIY or (gag) authentic. The nefarious day-tripping that happens to Black and queer communities is similarly suspect. Don’t get me started on how we speak about second-hand clothing. It didn’t “use to be dirty.” It was always wonderful and vital to working class communities, thanks.
Zadie Smith expertly explores the tedium of the working-class-girl-done-good experience in her novel, White Teeth . Likewise, she speaks to the experience of drifting away from and above the immediate indicators or realities of a working class background:
“I’m obviously extremely middle-class now. I’m sitting in a hammock, which is extremely suspect.” She lives across the street from the housing project where she grew up and sometimes feels nostalgic for her humble roots…. “That didn’t use to happen when I was working-class. And there are vital parts of the culture I’ll forever be removed from.”
– Zadie Smith in The Village Voice
I am far from an internationally lauded writer and lecturer, but Smith’s writing resonates: “There are vital parts of the culture I’ll forever be removed from.” I have enjoyed some “upward mobility” and I am not as financially vulnerable now as I was, say, fifteen years ago. There are times I feel apart. Placeless. Bitter. Maybe that’s another reason why my friend’s comment stung. Where do the halfway housers like myself fit in?
What does my council house upbringing mean to me? It’s a point of pride and often bitterness, but quite genuinely, never shame. Were we guilty of the occasional miscreant act, the stealing tires as in the opening story? No doubt. Are there rough council estates? Terrified residents? Smashed in windows? Yes and yes and yes.
But if the last year has shown us anything, it’s that negligence and malice more frequently wear a suit than a hoodie(or occasionally crumpled shirts). Council estates, despite the ever-rolling waves of Act after poisonous Housing Act, are community tight and kindness abundant. They have Character and characters, and if they do fall short–look ugly, threaten danger–it means they need care and resources, not scorn. Maybe that’s why, in a circle of well-meaning colleagues and friends, I want to throw my head back and say, “I am chav, hear me roar.”