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The Expansion Of The British Social Class Divide
How one South East London estate came to embody the true nature of the U.K’s social housing crisis
I have great privilege. At the age of 40, I own the detached home in which I live, located on a quiet street, in a relatively affluent North Yorkshire town. Our home is well-placed for access to all amenities including health care, and I am currently employed. We are, at this time, able to keep our cupboards stocked, and ensure our children have the clothes and supplies that they need. Our situation is good.
Indeed, when we arrived in this North Yorkshire town almost 13 years ago, that is all our new neighbours knew of us — that we had bought this notable house, and moved our family of four into it. Over time, of course, we have made many deep connections with fellow residents — but there are far more who know nothing of where I come from, and draw their conclusions only from our current address.
Therein lies the spectre of the British social class system. This is the system with which the country has always been synonymous — and for good reason. It is, quite simply, ingrained and imprinted upon every citizen. It has shaped our nation throughout its history — from the pre-industrialisation era, when occupation and economic status were usually hereditary — to today, when a range of different factors influence our social mobility. That spectre continues to loom over us all — influencing our attitudes toward our fellow citizens — and that spectre continues to grow in size, thanks (in part) to the housing policies of several British Governments.
It recently became apparent in my own community that some homeowners, in responding to planning applications, acknowledge the need for affordable housing – as long as ‘council housing’ isn’t nearby. Apart from highlighting the general ignorance around terminology employed by our Conservative Government today, I felt the sting of this attitude particularly sharply because — while I did purchase this detached home on a quiet street, 13 years ago — I also spent my first 19 years in council housing. I started out on the notorious Ferrier Estate.
This early context, followed by an increase in privilege — a demonstration of social mobility, if you will — gives me a particular perspective. I know, for example, that when people say they support the building of social housing, as long as it is elsewhere, it is not the building they are repulsed by — it’s the people that live in them, because people in social housing are stigmatised by an image fraught with crime and social issues. Quite simply, it is expected that they would ‘lower the tone’ of an area, and de-value the property owned by others. Oftentimes, those wielding such bigoted attitudes fail to realise that the person living in the big house down the street is actually one of ‘those people.’
Just as the landed gentry Ruling Class regarded Commoners with suspicion and an expectation of failure, such attitudes persist today — and public housing policy has a lot to do with it, both historically and in contemporary society. With the exception of the construction of the Farringdon Road tenements in 1865, the government did not really involve itself in housing until 1890. Involvement began, and increased greatly, with the Housing, Town Planning &c Act of 1909, and a push to build homes for soldiers returning from the First World War in 1919. In these early days, housing legislation was heavily influenced by public health policy — as seen in the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890, which provided powers to purchase land and fund new housing in slum clearance areas under a Conservative minority government.
Housing in the United Kingdom suffered further setbacks during World War II, when an estimated four millions British homes were destroyed. As a consequence of such devastation — and the arrival home of members of the armed forces — the country then saw a boom in council house construction. It was during this period that the fundamental differences between Conservative and Labour Party attitudes to housing became starkly apparent.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Clement Atlee, the Labour Government of 1945–1951 altered terminology around public housing — removing the label ‘Working Class’ in favour of ‘general need’ construction of public housing, with the goal being to serve the needs of a broad cross-section of a war-ravaged society. The Labour Minister for Health and Housing in that government — Aneurin Bevan — envisaged a country knitted together with cohesive communities of council housing, where people of all walks of life could live together in close proximity. His hope was to essentially level the property playing field, so that families and individuals with low incomes could live alongside lawyers, doctors, clergy, teachers, and everyone else — playing an equal part in their neighbourhoods.
While this vision did inform the council house construction boom of that period, the Conservative Government that followed reverted public housing policy and terminology back to its pre-Labour direction — changing ‘general needs’ housing to ‘welfare accommodation for low income earners’. While Aneurin Bevan had hoped for communities that were home to people from all economic backgrounds, the Conservative Government’s Harold Macmillan preferred to institute a more aspirational model — framing social housing as a stepping stone to home ownership.
This Conservative Party attitude toward social housing has remained largely unchanged, and indeed gave rise to the Housing Act of 1980 which contained the Right To Buy policy. This was intended to allow secure council tenants to buy their dwelling at a notable discount on the market value. In theory, this sounds like a helpful idea for those that were in council housing, but wished to get on the property ladder. However, since the Conservative Party did not seek to replace housing stock that was being sold to private ownership, the country saw a significant decline in social housing availability. This was then compounded by the Housing Act of 1985, which further facilitated the handing over of huge swathes of social housing to private corporations, in the form of Housing Associations.
Fast forward to the present day, and the United Kingdom is deep in the throes of a severe social housing crisis. Construction is happening across the country, undertaken by private property developers who are required to include a percentage of ‘affordable housing’ in their plans — however, such requirements are often re-negotiated and reduced by those property developers, in favour of maintaining profit margins. So, the question remains, where are low income families supposed to live?
The core issues of the U.K housing crisis, and the resulting expansion of the British class divide, are both embodied by the tale of my first council home — The Ferrier Estate, in Kidbrooke, South East London. The Ferrier Estate opened in 1972 — courtesy of London County Council — and was hailed as a shining example of modern social housing. It consisted of eleven tower blocks, as well as individual houses with front and back gardens — all connected by walkways and pedestrianised areas. There were a number of green spaces incorporated into the design, along with local shops, and a centrally located primary school. The estate was also developed right beside Kidbrooke Station, which allowed people to get into the heart of Central London in just 20 minutes. For some time, it thrived — as did its residents.
But, neglect and mismanagement by the local authority took its toll. As the 1980s wore on, and the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher performed routine smash-and-grabs on public services, The Ferrier Estate deteriorated beyond repair. With the deterioration of the fabric of the Estate came social deterioration. Crime increased, as did the apathy of local people.
There is a case to be made that this social deterioration was amplified by the introduction of the Conservative Party’s Right To Buy policy. By insisting that everyone aspire to home ownership, and by offering council residents the chance to buy their home at a discounted price, the Thatcher Government increased social inequality. Those that were financially able to take advantage of this 1980 policy were able to invest in their homes at a time when general property values were increasing — many around the country then going on to profit greatly from that investment at a later date. Good for them, but those who were not financially able to take advantage of that policy were left in increasingly precarious positions, with little support.
These more vulnerable members of society, dependent upon social housing, were moved on to estates such as The Ferrier — with support still lacking — changing the demographics from a vibrant, multi-cultural community of working class families, to one of marginalisation and deepening poverty. Rather than Aneurin Bevan’s vision of a level property playing field, The Ferrier Estate became a place to which those with no other option could be herded.
By the 1990s, residents found themselves trapped in something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those striking, iconic towers of The Ferrier Estate that could be seen for miles around became synonymous with perceived deprivation. In reality, a number of households on the estate had also participated in the Right To Buy scheme, but the public perception of the estate was of extreme gang violence and material neglect. This perception was enhanced by the media of the day, with television dramas such as The Bill often focusing on crime waves within estates of a similar design to The Ferrier, and Gary Oldman’s award-winning 1997 film Nil By Mouth (filmed on The Ferrier Estate) depicting an artificially heightened atmosphere of violence and vandalism. Gangs were inevitably attracted by such notoriety, while employment rates among residents fell dramatically, as the stigma of The Ferrier Estate address impacted on job applications.
By 2001, the local authority — Greenwich Council — had earmarked The Ferrier Estate for demolition and re-development, with Berkeley Homes winning selection as the preferred site developer in 2007. The process of relocating council tenants was excruciatingly long, with some left in increasingly dilapidated properties on the deserted estate for several years. With only eventual demolition on the horizon, council maintenance of the estate was virtually non-existent, with many of the remaining residents forced to live with infestations of rats and ants. In addition, the well-publicised but gradual emptying of this iconic estate led to an increase in ‘squatting,’ which in turn led to an increase in drug activity, and a further decrease in general cleanliness.
And, let’s not forget the homeowners — the residents who had purchased their Ferrier Estate council homes through the Conservative Right To Buy policy at a discounted price; the residents who subscribed to the Conservative philosophy that we should all aspire to home ownership, and that home ownership is the preferred route to personal prosperity. Those residents found themselves owning property on a condemned estate in South East London, in receipt of laughable purchase offers from Greenwich Council. Regardless of the status of the general property market at the time, these residents were, in 2006, being offered around £65,000 for a three bedroom flat located just a 20 minute train ride from the heart of London.
To put that low-ball offer into perspective, the Labour Government of 1997–2010 — under the leadership of Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown — oversaw a massive boom in the property market, which included a vast increase in ‘Buy-To-Let’ strategies. With that ‘New Labour’ government being enthusiastic supporters of the aspirational Conservative social model, the consequences of ‘Right-To-Buy’ came hard and fast — with social housing stock depleted and not replaced, and speculators buying up former council homes for the purpose of private rent, aided by the cheap credit. That cheap credit helped cause the economic crash of 2008, which left vulnerable members of society — including former and current Ferrier Estate residents — even further behind.
Demolition of the 1,906 homes on The Ferrier Estate took place between 2009 and 2012, though some tenants were still in residence until 2011. The replacement £1 billion Kidbrooke Village development was granted permission for 4,700 homes, with a commitment made of making only 1,645 of those homes (that’s 35%) ‘affordable’.
What does it mean, in 2019, when we say ‘affordable housing’? Since the Thatcher Government’s Housing Act of 1985 farmed out most social housing to private corporations, this is now a catch-all term for means of accessing tenancies for those on lower incomes. As of 2012, the Conservative U.K Government says that eligibility for ‘affordable housing’ applies to those whose “needs are not met by the market.” Categories included in ‘affordable housing’ are ‘social rented’, ‘affordable rented’, and ‘intermediate housing.’
‘Social rented’ housing consists of homes owned by local authorities, housing associations, or private landlords that are subject to what is essentially rent control, set out by the national rent regime. ‘Affordable rented’ housing consists of homes owned by local authorities, housing associations, or private landlords that are rented to eligible people at a rate that is no more than 80% of the local market rate. Intermediate housing consists of homes for sale or rent at costs above that of social housing, but below market rates. Intermediate housing can also include shared equity arrangements for purchase purposes.
So, in the space of 42 years, this 109 hectare South East London estate has undergone remarkable and repeated transformation. It has been a beacon of social housing success, and also the very definition of a “sink estate.” It has been a microcosm of the negative impact of Conservative Government housing policy, and also the perfect example of the continued expansion of the British social class divide. Today — amid a social housing crisis set in motion by the Conservative Party 39 years ago, and having shipped Ferrier Estate residents off to unfamiliar places and away from their social support networks — it is a place where an apartment can be purchased for over £1 million, while Ferrier Estate residents have been given no automatic right of return.
Indeed, the idea of placing an ‘affordable housing’ requirement on property developments around the country may sound like something akin to Aneurin Bevan’s level playing field — providing an opportunity for people of all backgrounds to share the same residential area — but, in practice, it fails under the weight of the capitalist drive for profit, and the stigma caused by our expanding social class divide. It fails due to the ingrained attitude of those that have privilege — that those who do not should live somewhere else, lest they stain the address.
It’s had many names over the course of history — slum clearance, gentrification… call it what you will. But all of those terms and phrases perpetuate the problem in the same way as some homeowners today, saying they would rather not have ‘council housing’ in their community, or on their street. It removes the human element…
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