Life on a Council Estate: Review

I have been reading Lynsey Hanley’s book on council estates in the UK[1]. I could easily recognize many of the feelings she describes regarding the Midlands council estate in which she spent her childhood.

Until I was six years old, our family of parents, two girls and two boys lived in a cramped two-bedroom terrace house in Darlington, built in the 1890s or thereabouts, within earshot of the railway. I was born there and enjoyed my earliest memories of childhood freedom in the surrounding streets (and beyond, to parental concern). There was a small park at the top of the street and the primary school was just around a couple of corners. There were neighbourhood shops for most things and the Co-operative Stores not far away on the main road. There were loads of children and good neighbours to keep an eye out and step in when needed. The house was privately rented (from my mother’s uncle, who also owned the corner shop, where we exchanged our ration coupons, and a cobbler’s shop at the top of the street). It was too crowded as the girls reached their teens.

In 1952, we moved to a council estate on the eastern edge of the town, mostly brand new semi-detached and low level flats. There were no amenities on the estate, apart from several grassy areas where children could play and roam. The countryside was a short distance for adventurous little legs and we took advantage. Shopping meant a long walk to Haughton-le-Skerne village, to which the estate was attached and which bore the village name. There was everything you needed for day to day life there and you could catch a 10-minute bus-ride into the town centre from the village green. There was a working-men’s club and two pubs, as well as a fish and chip shop. A mobile library visited every Friday. The school was a bit further – so I soon learned how to run fast to get home for lunch and back again, the best part of a mile each way. Socially it was mixed, as school photographs show, my own clothes being among the scraggy end.

We were lucky. These houses were built on the principles set out by Bevan in the 1940s. By and large, the families in them were not ‘slum clearance’ but the result of ordinary overcrowded working-class respectability. There was even a bit of snobbery towards the less favoured neighbouring Springfield estate, probably undeserved – some of our own relatives lived there! It is worth commenting that the neighbourly camaraderie that grew up around us (a direct copy of the terrace house experience) also included some negative gossip regarding families further down the street and somehow down the pecking order. Community has both an inclusive and an exclusive element, often in a very localised form.

Growing up there, it was normality and I thought nothing of it. The change only came for me when, like Lynsey Hanley, I was aged 11 and sent to the Grammar School on the other side of town, literally the other side of the tracks of the East Coast Main Line a long bus ride away. Once there and enjoying a different set of interests and opportunities, the estate became alien. It had not changed, but my horizons had. Friends and girl-friends mostly came from the western side of town. Getting a ‘good job’ was never going to be enough and I soon ditched that for University.

One thing for sure – you can pluck the lad from the working-class estate, but you can never erase that early identification, however uncomfortable it might be in practice. That is what I mostly share with Lynsey Hanley, a loyalty to a milieu into which I can never return, but which I will defend from its enemies. It also means that, for me, left wing theories are not enough. There must be meaningful changes right now and one of those top of my list is the provision of adequate housing to a good standard. We need Bevan’s vision again, maybe in a less bureaucratic form, but soon.

[1] Lynsey Hanley: Estates – an intimate history (Granta, 2012). See also her companion book ‘Respectable’.