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Estates: an intimate history, by Lynsey Hanley

Homes for heroes, or designs for despair?

Lynsey Hanley's vivid, powerful book is about a dream gone sour. The dream was that every slum would vanish and be replaced by attractive, well-built, publicly owned houses. We only came near this with the so-called "Homes for Heroes" - the phrase was Lloyd George's - built for a few years after the First World War. I look out at a row of them, as I write this. They're indistinguishable from the surrounding townscape: good red brick; tall chimneys; large gardens; the Arts & Crafts style.

But such high-quality cost too much - or so short-termist governments and councils came to think. Small estates (and I grew up in one) were abandoned in favour of enormous tracts of unambiguously working-class housing, like Becontree estate in Dagenham, or Manchester's Wythenshawe, or the interminable estate where Lynsey Hanley's own family lived, on the M6 outskirts of Birmingham, and always known as "The Wood".

Hanley is a journalist and first-time author. She has written a kind of autobiography, as embodied in social housing; not (thank goodness) a think-tank print-out. Hers is a very personal gospel. She writes almost entirely about the white working class; race and immigration hardly feature, despite the rivalries over homes these can bring. Sometimes she protests too much. But Estates should go on bookshelves next to Michael Collins's Orwell Prize-winning The Likes of Us (2005), about the South London white working class.

The creation of estates like The Wood was a form of ghettoisation, she argues. Class rigidity was "built into the physical landscape". The Wood is now half owner-occupied, thanks to the right-to-buy policy. But the stigma remains: "Estates is a bruise in the form of a word: it hits the nerves that register shame, disgust, fear and, very occasionally, fierce pride."

I was very taken by her pungent observations of life in The Wood and in East London, where she now lives in an ex-council flat. Her descriptions of hopelessness, drunkenness and yobbery in Tower Hamlets cry out to be engraved by a new Hogarth. Revisiting The Wood, where her parents still live, she derides it as "a clean, wide-open prison".

One of her perceptive pleas is that any houses or flats, from now on, should be designed, like those long-ago Homes for Heroes, "so that you cannot tell from outside whether a home is socially rented". Anyone who chunters on about "affordable housing" should read this. We are, as she says, at grave risk of repeating, like clockwork mice, all the errors of the past in a "flimsy rash" of cheap, ill-located new housing. From her own observation of the much-touted Thames Gateway, she notes sharply that "affordable housing" usually means "a plasterboard box next to an electricity generator two miles from the nearest bus stop".

In the Sixties, with tower blocks and other inhumane disasters, "it was as though the proponents of Modernism had taken every city architect in Britain and hypnotised him". But latter-day philosophies about "new communities" are put about by a fresh set of high-minded people, convinced that they, too, know best how others ought to live. This will be just as damaging. Hanley doesn't despise the everyday ambitions people have; she shares them. She won't be on her estate much longer: "One day soon, I will move away from here. I've done my time. I want some peace and quiet and a pretty home." Good luck to her.

'Arts in Society', edited by Paul Barker, has been reissued by Five Leaves