Lynsey Hanley (2007)

A social history of segregated housing in Britain, how thw dream of a more equal approach died, and the consequences for those who lived through it.

Mass social (or council) housing was intended, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, to act as a social glue by mixing all sorts of people together so as to break down the walls of class that blighted British society. It failed: Aneurin Bevin’s vision was diluted, as were the building standards, resulting in housing that was both inferior to private stock and immediately identifiable as such, making it stigmatic to live there. The result has been to enhance the blight, erecting what Hanley refers to as “a wall in the head” of people whose self-image is poisoned by poor housing, poor neighbours, and poor (or indeed non-existent) services.

The wall in the head exists in many forms, and one doesn’t have to have grown up on a council estate to have one. But however tall it is, the wall is easy to build when young and hard to climb when older, and it’ll affect you all your life in some way or other. Housing and class have a lot to do with forming the wall.

It’s impossible to miss the connection with Between the World and Me, not least because of the catchy and often-repeated phrasing. Ta-Nehisi Coates was more concerned with physical violence rather than social class, but the parallels are there: different people from different circumstances have completely different perceptions of the country in which they live and what it’s supposed to do for them. I see this all the time with different student cohorts. It’s to some extent a matter of expectations of others, but also of the ability to see opportunities beyond the present. An inward-looking social environment absolutely stunts people’s vision of what’s possible for them.

The book ends on quite q positive note: the willingness of housing providers to renovate (rather than simply dispose of) social housing stock, and the availability of cash to do so. Whether this is sufficient is an open question, and certainly we still see developers skirting-round the requirement to provide “affordable” housing, in some cases literally walling-off the social from the private units, just as happened with the first estates built in the 1940s.

4/5. Finished Tuesday 19 December, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)