In the end, all we wanted was somewhere safe for the children to grow up. What we got was quite different: towerblocks, and tarmacced playgrounds studded with broken glass, and irregular bus services that took an hour to get anywhere worthwhile. Silence without warmth in the afternoon, and shouting at night.
It’s not controversial to suggest that Britain got social housing wrong. At least we’ve learned from the experience just how hard it is to get right. When I was a small child living in Black Tom, everyone’s goal was a flat in the new estate on the renamed Roff Avenue. Kitchens! Bathrooms! Inside toilets! More than one tap! Central heating! Forty years later, it’s back to the terraced houses the minute a deposit can be scraped together.
British nostalgia insists that the coming of the towerblocks destroyed communities, those tight-knit affairs that the middle classes move to the country to escape. I don’t remember that, but I have seen how the right kind of housing can instill a sense of togetherness. The right kind of housing in question was erected in Edinburgh in the second half of the nineteenth century: I refer, of course, to the Colonies in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge.
The Colonies combine what I consider to be the five magic factors that lead to success in social housing.
- They were built by the people who were going to live in them. In Stockbridge, this was originally a group of builders from various trades, whose skills are commemorated by carvings on the walls of the houses. But the Roundshaw Estate in Sutton, Surrey was rebuilt by its existing, unskilled residents, with great success, in the early 2000s. There’s something about having your sweat and toil in the brickwork of your home that endures.
- The streets are very narrow – not too narrow to allow car parking, but too narrow for said cars to pick up any speed. This makes the streets relatively safe for children to play in.
- Everyone has a garden. The properties have gardens front and back, one garden belonging to the ground floor flat in each cottage, the other belonging to the first floor flat.
- The development is small, and close to the town centre – New Town is ten minutes walk away. The Rosehill Estate in Oxford is vast, but confined at the end of a long, busy road and the bus can take 70 minutes to reach the centre.
- Although the Colonies are attractive, absolutely no architectural novelties were employed in their construction. These are conventional houses, built properly, using the typical local materials. There are times and places for experiment in architecture, but not in social housing. Roofs, not revolutions.
British nostalgia takes what we want to have now and projects it into some ideal kind of past. The Colonies, it can’t be denied, were built two lifetimes ago. But there is absolutely no reason why the Colonies model can’t be readopted in the 21st century, and the self-reliant, small-scale and local nature of the settlement make it an idea whose time has come again. May it be so.