Dave Hill: stop sentimentalising London’s council estates

Dave Hill: stop sentimentalising London’s council estates

Owen Hopkins at Architectural Review:

I was interested to read Owen Hatherley extolling the virtues of the Brandon Estate, not least because it’s where I’ve lived and been a participant-observer for the last six years…Hatherley describes strolling through the estate on a Sunday afternoon, when he encountered “people hanging around in the wide green between the blocks…the football games in the park, the families wandering about, the man selling a tupperware box of cakes to the football players”.

His observations, I’m afraid, betray the same superficiality and blinkered vision for which he criticises Alice Coleman and Oscar Newman’s influential take-downs of social housing in the 1970s and 1980s.

Moreover, his description contains basic inaccuracies: he miscounts the number of towers – there are six rather than the eight he claimed – fails to realise that the Brandon Estate extends much further and is far more varied than the area around the towers, that the football he saw was actually being played on the Kennington Park extension, which is not strictly part of the Brandon Estate, and that some of those on the touchline include the ever-present drug dealers congregating around an old sofa, rather like in the first season of The Wire.

It’s almost as if Hatherley, well known hard left ideologue, had made up his mind about the Brandon Estate before he arrived.

I gave a cheer when I read this. A depressing sign of our political times and the sterile polarisation of debates about the redevelopment or otherwise of London’s largely social housing estates is that the Hard Left’s contribution to it is so often as rigid and myopic as that of those whose stance on the issue it opposes – not to mention as blithely incurious about the lives, needs and desires of people who actually live on those estates.

Hopkins is a learned and genuinely progressive writer on buildings, their histories and their functions. The failings he has found in Hatherley’s account are particularly striking because he is a Brandon Estate resident, but his more general critique of an attitude Hatherley typifies is just as acute.

He damns the approaches of Hatherley – who would, it often appears, claim to have found Heaven in the worst slum in Hell as long as the slum had plenty of grass round it and was wholly owned by the state – and of Coleman and Newman alike as “determinist” and therefore predisposed to “ignore the complexities of individual estates and of the lives of the people who live on them.” Quite right: sentimental selectiveness is as misleading as any other kind of reductionism. And Hopkins adds: “The simplistic equation of council estate automatically equalling good and regeneration bad, which Hatherley has been peddling for over a decade now, helps no one.”

How very true that is – a truth, in my view, arising from values that should have been firmly applied across the London regeneration spectrum in recent times, from the scorched earth Tory bulldozer strategy that still threatens the largely successful West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates and has wrecked half of Earls Court, to the theocratic Corbynism that stopped the Haringey Development Vehicle, a joint venture approach that could, if handled well, have produced new and better homes for some of that borough’s worst housed people and many more, enjoying resident support along the way.

London’s current housing problems – many of them, though serious, not particularly new – are never going to be effectively addressed by top down theorising that presumes to speak for housing estate and other communities without wasting too much time on finding out what the desires and experiences of people in those communities might actually be. That is a big part of why London needs a truly progressive politics of estates.

Read the whole of Owen Hopkins’s Architectural Review article here. Read more about the Brandon Estate at Municipal Dreams here and here. Photo by Stephen Richards.

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Categories: Comment

1 Comment

  1. Catherine says:

    I have lived on the Brandon Estate for years now. I am a mother of 2. I long for a house with a garden I could grow fruits and veg in, have BBQs and my children could play in. I despise living in this tower block and it has caused me nothing but deep depression and misery. I have had a fight with an anti-social stereotype of a neighbour, fallen out with nosey neighbours who spy on me, I get flooded from above on a regular basis by my neighbour who refuses to open her door and address me when she floods me almost monthly, hence why I gave up redecorating and replacing chandeliers. I have Pharoah ants that crawl that infest my kitchen and bathroom and crawl on me as I sit and watch tv and as i sleep. Pest control have not been able to get rid of them and I’ve had them since moving in. I have to chase pigeons off my balcony. There is urine in the lift every other morning, sometimes 2 mornings and evenings in a row. Certain members of the community have BBQs, football matches and loude music everyday during the warmer months till midnight sometimes going on till the early hours of the morning, it’s like a carnival downstairs and the yardy and ‘road man’ drug dealers line the pathway on the park area downstairs harassing young women who walk past. They also congregate inside the block sometimes. The author is not exaggerating, they really did have a sofa on the park area downstairs along the path where they sit and talk about their hate for Babylon. Recently there have been gunshots fired at night time on a regular basis and what amazes me is that it goes completely unmentioned in the news. I feel like I live in a slum and I feel too embarassed to have guests round, I don’t have enough room to swing a cat in much less envite guests and feel like the walls are closing in on me. The council have refused to move me and suggest I swap my property, something I have been trying to do for years, no one wants to live in a dirty, noisy tower block where there has been recent gang related killings. If there is a fire I’m doomed. There is only one fire exit, and no sprinkler system. I watched a women in the opposite block scream on her balcony that she couldn’t leave her flat as the fire below her in another flat burned out of control and what terrified me is that the fire brigade refused to enter for at least 20-30 minutes as they waited to hear if the gas was turned off. Recently the door to the block wouldn’t open as the magnets malfunctioned and the door would not open. My anxiety and depression has worsened due to living here and I’ve had to take 3 months off work. As a result I have decided to save up and go private. I have nothing to lose. I am having suicidal thoughts and need to leave for the sake of my sanity and my children. What also strikes me as being unfair is the allication system for properties, some undeserving families get beautiful houses and apartments whilst other who work and pay taxes and who want to utilise a garden not use it for storing junk get run down hise rise flats.

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