Tuesday 24 June 2014 by

Estates: An Intimate History, Lynsey Hanley, Granta Books, BookA Month of Non-Fiction

Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley

I don’t know what I expected of this book. I didn’t grow up on an estate and though I currently live on one it isn’t what it once was in terms of social housing, my property is a private rental for example and I believe my neighbours own their home. Many of the properties in the area are owned by housing associations but it isn’t the same as council housing once was. Anyway, I found myself drawn to Hanley’s book and I wanted to find out more about the history of the estate. I remember the prophetic words of David Lloyd George in 1919, proclaiming the building of ‘homes fit for heroes’ and this seems to be a key moment in history of the estate. Anyway, less of what I think and more of what Hanley shows.

The book’s synopsis:

Lynsey Hanley was born and raised just outside of Birmingham on what was then the largest council estate in Europe, and she has lived for years on an estate in London’s East End. Writing with passion, humour and a sense of history, she recounts the rise of social housing a century ago, its adoption as a fundamental right by leaders of the social welfare state in the mid-century and its decline – as both idea and reality – in the 1960s and ’70s. Throughout, Hanley focuses on how shifting trends in urban planning and changing government policies – from Homes Fit for Heroes to Le Corbusier’s concrete tower blocks, to the Right to Buy – affected those so often left out of the argument over council estates: the millions of people who live on them. What emerges is a vivid mix of memoir and social history, an engaging and illuminating book about a corner of society that the rest of Britain has left in the dark.

Hanley’s work seems more than an intimate history, at points it seems like a love story. Despite the current connotations of the council estate Hanley plots their distinct history and their key role and importance in the lives of so many. Not always a much maligned stigmatised area, council estates were the bread and butter of modern housing, the cutting edge ever. Renowned architects played roles in the developments and the disarray and disrepute they have fallen into in many areas would probably cause a great sadness to many long-passed architects, town planners and visionaries.

Hanley’s book is part a historical text but it is also mixed in with her own personal history and autobiographical elements. Much like Harry Leslie Smith’s work that I read earlier this month and it works because it adds conviction and strength to her arguments. She knows what she’s talking about and yes, she is biased and at some points almost aggressive in her stance and dedication to the council estate and history but then why shouldn’t she be? It’s part of her history too.

Hanley is angry and she has every right to be, she even uses the phrase ‘ single class concentration camps’ to sum up how council estates in their current guise are being used. It’s cleverly written, intelligently argued and I would never be able to say I agree with every one of her points but I was nodding along more than I was confused or in stark disagreement.

You can follow Beth on Twitter: @plasticrosaries

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