I finished reading Estates by Lynsey Hanley last night. I’ll admit that it isn’t the most alluring title, but it’s been hugely interesting. I first came across the book when responding to an exchange in Society Guardian between Lynsey Hanley and Andrew Mawson (who wrote the Social Entrepreneur). In a nutshell, she felt that Mawson was claiming that his people-led approach was the key to regenerating areas, whilst she felt that, ultimately, this had to be placed in the context of government intervention and place-based changes to the physical space. My letter, in response to her response, was that grassroots social entrepreneurship was not a panacea, but also that it should not be thrown out with the bathwater…and that it was the combination between government intervention, place-based stuff AND people-powered action that would work best.
I did have some empathy with her words, though. And, having been raised as a good middle-class boy in various semi-detached places in suburbia, thought that it would also give me a level of insight that I wouldn’t (couldn’t) otherwise have. Although, as Hanley points out towards the end of the book, ultimately you can never understand unless you’ve lived / been raised on an estate.
It’s a great book: a mix of memoir, sociology, history, politics and solution-seeking, and I warmed to her authorial voice as it went along. She’s exceptionally good at drawing a vivid picture both of what it was/is like to live on an estate geographically, but also psychologically. Indeed, the central section of the book is the one where she talks of how the physical barriers (poor location, poor quality building, poor transport links, poor schooling on site, poor design) create psychological barriers in the person’s mind. Or, as she puts it (borrowing from East / West Germany), it creates a "wall in the head". It was here that I found myself moved and provoked:
"To be working-class in Britain is also to have a wall in the head, and, since council housing has come to mean housing for the working class…that wall exists unbroken throughout every estate in the land"
Breaking through (or climbing) over that wall is about combating isolation, about gaining aspiration, about learning about what’s possible (or even exists) from the people you know….which chimes hugely with our recent report, Sustainable Paths to Community Development which talks of the crucial need for social ‘linking’ capital, for the connections to different networks to be made. Contacts that are outside of the family or the estate, and that provide knowledge, information, opportunities, resources and role models. Hanley says that "Social capital is more important for people who live on class-segregated estates than for anyone else", and our experience would back that up. Otherwise, the kind of entrenchment and isolation that Hanley details in the book becomes dominant.
What the book has helped me understand, though, aside from how council housing and council estates have ended up being where they are and looking like they do (it’s fascinating to trace the history through various governments right up to the recent housing associations), is the sheer difficulty of scaling the wall. Much of this, it must be said, is to do with the architecture, design, quality, siting, spacing and heights of the buildings involved; there is some evidence here of lessons learned (tenants involvement, high quality, mixed design and so on), but there is vastly more to be done. As Hanley details with passion and frustration, estates are paved with good intentions as well as concrete, but many of the slum replacements have effectively become new slums.
But a central part of scaling the wall, at least for individuals, is about personal support, development and opportunity. People who ask why we need to support people for a year, or why they need high levels of personal support, or why we mix cohorts of different backgrounds and educational qualifications should read this book. Without support, confidence, inspiration (for aspiration) and connections, it remains incredibly hard to make the change….hard, to a degree, frankly, I don’t think I understand or can communicate. So here are the final words of the book from someone who does, and can:
"Breaking out of [the estate] was like breaking out of prison. For all its careful planning and proximity to the city and the country, the estate was ringed by that invisible, impenetrable force field: the wall in the head. That may say as much about the closed ranks of the working class as it does for the failures of town planning. But I know that I will never scale another wall quite so high"