The rise of hope, and fall of utopia

Council Housing and Culture
September 6, 2002

Anyone who has ever been involved in public-sector housing will find familiar themes and a number of surprises in this book. Its most stimulating aspect is the comprehensive approach to the subject and the avoidance of the simplistic explanations so frequently used when dealing with it. Alison Ravetz has not only researched widely, she has also tried to connect the various strands of this complicated and often depressing story.

The book starts in the 19th century and tells of the diverse and sometimes conflicting movements that influenced the creation of council housing: social, religious, philanthropic, cooperative, aesthetic, garden city and utopian. High expectations - mostly unfulfilled - seem to be one of the leitmotifs of this history, but the expectations differed according to ideology and varied from one period to the other. Utopian ideas were a major influence up to the 1960s. By the end of this period, they were expressed mainly through unsuitable architectural forms, even if these were supposed to be "the product of close study of traditional working-class life". In covering design problems, Ravetz avoids the cliches of blaming the architects. She shows how high-rise blocks were the result of a great range of vested interests: central and local government, political parties, architects and the building industry. She also acknowledges that tenants were originally seduced by the modern comforts they offered.

Housing management is another scapegoat for the failures of council housing. Ravetz shows how a poor division of responsibilities, lack of coordination, the low status of managers and their lack of financial control, excessive bureaucracy, few resources and high expectations made success virtually impossible. Again, some of the problems can be traced back to the origins of the social housing movement, which gave it conflicting objectives and no firm theoretical basis. "The issue that was never resolvedI was how far council housing was or should be an economically efficient enterprise, and how far a social service."

In the last quarter of the 20th century, rented council housing declined and changed. On the one hand it became increasingly a last-resort form of tenure; on the other its inhabitants were expected to change from passive recipients of a service to active participants in the management of their homes. Ravetz traces this evolution from the provision of community halls in some inter-war estates, through tenants' associations and their problems, to more recent partnerships - which seem to be the new mantra at the core of the numerous regeneration programmes that have sprung up recently.

If ever a road to hell was paved with good intentions, it was the one leading to council housing. But was it a failure or a success? Was it even really an experiment or something more profound and more durable, in spite of its pitfalls? Ravetz does not give definitive answers but this densely written, fascinating study helps to reflect on the difficulties of dealing with such complex issues. Perhaps she could have given a few more examples of success and more space to non-urban council housing. But these are minor quibbles with a book that should be compulsory reading for anyone concerned with reducing social inequalities.

Sebastian Loew is lecturer in town planning and urban design, universities of Reading and Westminster.

Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment

Author - Alison Ravetz
ISBN - 0 415 23945 1 and 23946 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £65.00 and £22.50
Pages - 262

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