The Fall and Rise of Social Housing: 100 Years on 20 Estates

The Fall and Rise of Social Housing: 100 Years on 20 Estates


Reviewed by David Manley

First Published:

17 Mar 2021, 11:03 am


The Fall and Rise of Social Housing: 100 Years on 20 Estates

Bristol: Policy Press, 2020; 360 pp.: 978-1-44735-137-5, £28.99 (pbk)


You might wonder, as I did when embarking on reading this volume, what could be left to be said about some housing and housing estates. Impassioned books by Lyn Hattersley and Lisa Mackenzie have amply covered the social and political history of social housing history in the UK as well as giving voices to residents located in the various estates on which they focused. Yet, The Fall and Rise does manage to provide some key perspectives and stories which, perhaps not new, are fashioned from an extensive, long-term and in-depth academic research project which lends this work a substantial background on which it can rest. Most tellingly, the introduction and the conclusion centre around missed opportunities and failure(s) to learn: the lessons resulting from planning failures in the 1930s, identified in the 1940s, were not corrected in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s so that some of the lessons highlighted at the end of the volume remain the same as ever.

The book itself is organised into three sections: Part 1 covers the ground of other volumes providing the context into which the book falls – the development of social housing in the 20th century in the UK. It then charts how those initially positive perceptions and the celebration of new homes changed and turned into the declining popularity and status of the estate. It also serves to introduce the anonymous 20 estates with which the book is concerned. Part 2 explores the trajectories of the estates and the extent to which they followed (or not) the same trajectories of decline or rise. There are contrasting stories and a wide range of factors are taken into account: here the volume is the most successful and provides a detailed account of the residents and their lives as well as the locations in which they lived. It is clear here, however, that the story is about the estates and not about the people within them, contrasting with the work of Lisa Mackenzie. Part 3 then focuses on the possible explanations behind the changing fortunes of the places.

What are the major take-home messages? Complexity is certainly one of the main themes: whilst commonalities abound – high quality housing at the outset, problematic places during the 1980s – there are no single causes identifiable in the changing fortunes of the estates in the book. Some of the featured estates declined earlier and faster than others. It is not the case that those that declined earlier did so because of a specific housing type, location or population composition. Similarly, the interventions into the estates – regeneration in terms of property upgrades or new building – have not uniformly led to the same outcomes in each place. This points then to the problems not being of the physical estates themselves – sure, in each case there were elements which could have been designed or maintainedbetter – but the implicit theme which appears to run beneath the work here is that the transformations occurring in the wider social and cultural contexts of society were things with which the estates could not keep up. Once built, the infrastructure and environment of the estate is largely (figuratively and actually) set in stone. Against this backdrop, the foundation of the welfare state and the assumptions on which this was founded were fundamentally unpicked (sometimes attacked) by successive governments and media rhetoric which left the estates in an unenviable position which they, and their residents, could not ‘escape’ from. This is not then, that the estates or their residents were at fault, but that society shifted the goal posts and once that had happened there was no way back.

To me, one of the most startling aspects of the book is relayed via a simple statistic, which occurs relatively late on in the book. Here, the number of years of accommodation lost as a result of demolitions and stock is listed for all the estates featured. Across the estates in total this is a substantial amount and, whilst we may know the narratives which led to the loss of properties, to see it explicitly reported remains powerful. Elsewhere, the qualitative background to the work is vast and provides a very strong platform for the book to stand on. The additional data – often drawn from the Census – which supplement and provide some additional context is less well integrated: the graphs with 20 lines, one for each estate, do not work well and in some parts are not readable. This is a shame because the importance of this background information should not be underestimated especially for readers who do not know the field as well as the experts.

The anonymised coding for each estate is initially useful – it provides a good key for the type of estates (year built, type of housing, etc.) but leads to breaks in the flow of the narrative when more than one estate is being referred to in a sentence. Moreover, I am not convinced of the efficacy of the anonymisation of the places: the photographs (which are very useful and provide good illustrations of the topics being discussed) are also enough to enable estate identification. Moreover, given that it is possible to triangulate year built and house type with a relatively small number of estates – and we know all of the places are urban – the distinction does not really feel sufficient to merit the attempt at hiding the identities. That said, it is important to avoid wherever possible the possibilities of adding to the stigma, about which the book talks so often. Stories where the estates are regarded as the worst of the worst (often unfairly, never in relation to verifiable statistics or measures) when repeated can serve only to reinforce the narrative despite successive attempts to alter the course of the local (and wider, national, in some cases) reputations. And as an answer to that process this volume should be celebrated.


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