‘This shameful Bill aims to demolish working-class life’

Cross-posted from: Morning Star
Originally published: 04.01.16

GROWING up on a council estate in the early 1970s meant a level of safety that working-class families now can only dream of.

The house I grew up in had been the home of my grandparents and when they died — my coalminer grandad of emphysema and my grandma of heart disease — the tenancy was passed on to my mother.

This provided a safe and secure home that is still in my family’s possession in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, today.

We didn’t “own” this property in the way homes are owned today, but it was our home. We decorated it the way we liked it, we lived in it, we were safe in it. I lived in that council house until I was 19 years old and had my own council tenancy in Nottingham’s inner city with my baby son in 1989 — where I lived until I moved to London in 2013.


Council housing is as important a public good as the National Health Service. Council housing provides safety, security and a sense of community that working-class people need, and working-class people have fought for.

If we imagine free-at-the-point-of-need NHS as the bedrock of a decent society, council housing has to sit alongside it. Poor housing and poor health go hand in hand. A society should provide for its people but history shows it will only do so if people are organised enough to fight for it.

I fear we are now entering a time in our history that we will be deeply ashamed of for many reasons, and the decimation of all social housing will be at the top of the list.

The Conservative government’s Housing and Planning Bill currently making its way through Parliament will end social housing forever. It will unapologetically transfer social housing and publicly owned land and buildings into private hands.

We don’t have to go back that many years to see the irrational and blind hatred that our political elite has for working-class people in Britain. In 1970 Ken Coates and Bill Silburn wrote about the importance and need for council housing in Nottingham in their landmark work, Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen.

They researched a community in Nottingham and found that despite the “we’ve never had it so good” rhetoric of the time there were working-class places and people all over Britain that were suffering because of extremely low wages and even poor-quality housing.

Despite the introduction of a decent welfare state in 1945 and the NHS, people in this neighbourhood in Nottingham were suffering from dysentery and severe bronchitis. Young children had extremely poor health.

I lived on this same council estate for over 20 years, and it is where I wrote my book, Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (Policy Press, 2015), about the estate and the people who lived on it.

At the time Coates and Silburn wrote their book the St Anns area was a slum — 300 acres of “two-up, two-down” terraced housing mostly owned by individual private landlords. They noted that the rent money which had been “sucked out” of Nottingham’s working-class people for properties that had not been touched in the 80 years since they were built had served Nottingham’s suburbs very well.

While working-class people in St Anns had no access to indoor lavatories, hot running water or a damp-free home, the private landlords had addresses in the affluent areas of Nottingham and beyond. Coates and Silburn traced several landlords to addresses in Belgravia in London and to the South of France.

During the late 1960s and early ’70s compulsory purchase orders were made on the St Anns slums, they were demolished and the council housing estate that is there today was built. This one council estate in Nottingham provides 15,000 people with a home.

I am not saying that council estates are without problems — we know many social problems have come out of poor planning and sloppy architecture on council estates. But the ideology that people should have a safe and secure place they can call home should not be in question in Britain in 2016 or beyond.


Dr Lisa McKenzie is a sociologist, author, social housing activist and research fellow at the London School of Economics.