The Wall in the Head: Long Read

The Wall in the Head: Long Read


Chelmsley Wood maisonette block

Chelmsley Wood maisonette block

‘the walls in the head are often the hardest to break down’ (Lynsey Hanley)

‘for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us’, (J.D.Vance)

‘You can take a boy out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of a boy’ 
(Appalachian Odyssey, Russ Walkup)


The above truisms come from books that I have read recently and they illustrate that although Britain and America is divided by the Atlantic Ocean there are nevertheless certain life-experiences that are similar if not common to both countries:

Lynsey Hanley’s book ‘Estates An Intimate History’, in which she tells of her experiences brought up on a council estate (The Wood as she refers to Chelmsley Wood, east of Birmingham) is part biography and part political polemic. While ‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ by J.D. Vance is a very personal account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town and looks at the struggles of America’s white working class and the gulf that exists between the hillbilly and the attainment of the American dream.

In Lynsey Hanley’s book (originally published in 2007, 2nd Edition 2012), the shock of the financial crisis of 2007/8 and its impact on ordinary people now means that its subject is overdue for re-consideration given the present urgent requirement for a response to our present housing crisis. Vance’s biography is less concerned with the physical environment and is more concerned with the poverty experienced in the rust-belt communities following familiar industrial decline and the subsequent break-up and impoverishment of both families and communities, and has particular relevance to the emergence of the ‘Donald Trump’ phenomenon. Many will argue that as a country we went through the same trauma in the Thatcher years, with the class warfare waged by the governing class against industries seen to be in decline: particularly the coalmines with their crucial importance to Welsh valley communities among others, and the arguments about Orgreave continue unresolved to this day. Now we can only watch as the steel industry becomes hollowed out as a result of the free market and globalisation while once more an ideological government for the most part stands aside and resists any attempt protect our industrial base.

Lynsey Hanley recounts her experience as a child being brought up on the Chelmsley Wood Estate and faithfully tells the story behind Aneurin Bevan’s vision of a solid attractive spacious home for the working man (why should the farm worker live in worse conditions than for example a doctor?). Bevan was a former miner whose miner father died prematurely from pneumoconiosis. Then the Macmillan boom housing years where quality began to be replaced by quantity was followed by the emergence of high-rise system building with all of its inherent failings, leading to the subsequent demolition of the public realm in the Thatcher years.

Both experiences, the American and the British, appear to me to have much in common, the hopelessness engendered by poverty, the lack of meaningful employment and the consequent breakdown of families, followed by the emergence of the one parent family and the demonisation of struggling communities in whole or part dependent upon assistance from the state. Here, as in America, very often and surprisingly, the greatest critics of those on welfare assistance often comes from those on welfare of one form or another.

Hanley tells of the environmental failures of many of our then council house estates: the inadequate knowledge of the layout of tower blocks and the influence that they have on the immediate micro-climate, and she is harsh on both architects and municipal leaders. Yet as someone then working for Birmingham City, the architects and planners of Chelmsley Wood, I was aware of the real dedication and concern shared by all of the staff to do the very best for the emerging community of ‘The Wood’. Indeed if anyone is looking to find any villains of the piece they need look no further than central government dictat preferring quantity over quality in the form of the tower block and the inevitable requirement for system building. Despite Hanley’s often stated views about architects, quoting the influence of Le Corbusier and his design of the Unite D’Habitation at Marseilles, the in-house architect rarely had any say in the matter. The requirement for tower blocks, more often designed by engineers not architects, came down as an edict from above fuelled by central government and the close links that existed between government and developers. It is hard not to conclude that the view was that such estates were good enough for ‘those people and they were lucky to have them’.

Earlier in my professional career I was employed by the then Worcester City Architect and Planning Department and to this day I recall the sheer horror felt by the in-house staff on hearing of the decision to build three tower blocks on the south side of the river opposite the cathedral and technical college. This was aesthetic vandalism of the first order, and if anyone ever thought that any architect within the department had any influence on the decision then please let me disabuse you. The decision, as is usually the case, came down from on high. No doubt much wining and dining had taken place somewhere along the line, perhaps the odd game of golf, but vandalism it was. Although it may have enjoyed a cosmetic facelift in the interim it is still a blot on the landscape to this day. We all felt that it was only poetic justice when the official party involved in the opening ceremony were stuck in the lift for a long period on the very first day that the building came into use.

The backlash against such development began in the late 1980s with the demolition of Ronan Point, finally demolished after the house of cards structure came down following a gas explosion affecting one wall of the building. Subsequently such methods of building came into disrepute and signalled the end of modernism to the public. ‘Ronan Point, a flimsy tower block (which would have horrified and appalled Le Corbusier), had started a backlash against Modernist architecture which would tarnish the Movement in Britain for the best part of the next thirty years’.

The Ronan Point Apartment Tower was constructed using the Larsen-Neilsen system. Developed in Denmark in 1948, the Larsen-Neilsen system was “composed of factory-built, precast concrete components designed to minimize on-site construction work. Walls, floors and stairways are all precast. All units, installed one-storey high, are load bearing” (ENR 1968), p. 54). The ‘know how’ of the Larsen-Neilsen system is a combination of production techniques, erections methods, and jointing details (Griffiths et al. 1968). The system was not intended for buildings over six storeys.

Ronan Point

Such building methods, in reality an early form of out-sourcing, point to the difficulties involved in such a dispersed arrangement. The local authority firstly having to make the land available and then having to arbitrate in the event of failure. I once paid a visit with the then city architect to a Chelmsley Wood Tower block to inspect the outcome of a building failure when a massive concrete cladding panel crashed to the ground from on high. A miracle that this happened at night and no one was hurt. Bits drop off, he glumly explained, or as I would now put it, the developer pockets the profit and takes the credit, and the local authority picks up the pieces.

In his ‘The Hillbilly Elegy’, JD Vance suggests the solution lies in personal and community response: “I don’t know what the answer is precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better”. Vance became a U.S marine and credits that as a crucial turning point in his life: “it made a man of him”. He speaks from the heart as he does throughout his book, but the military exists for warfare and apart from the fact that this route is hardly open to a single mother, may not be appropriate for everyone. Perhaps a form of community service would have the same effect for men and women, and not exclude single mothers, after all there is much to do in regenerating our run-down areas as well as filling gaps in our welfare and community services. This would be something that would apply in the case of both the UK and the States, and would, of course, need to provide a realistic income for those who elect to go down that route.

It’s hard to disagree with Vance here but it’s only part of the story I suggest, because even that way only so many can make it via the American Dream. For that to become a reality there has to be a semblance of a level playing field, and central government is the only agency able to provide this for the community, otherwise for every winner there will be many hundreds of losers. After all, universal suffrage suggests that everyone is equal in terms of voting rights and it is only reasonable to conclude that central government’s primary duty is to embrace the consequences and provide for a society that works equally for all. Some balancing of outcomes is essential, the money is there, even if off-shore. Trickle-down economics was a busted flush prior to the financial crash of 2007, indeed caused it as a result of greed by the one percent, while the 99 percent were left to pick up the pieces! Where have I heard that before?
America with a constitution that works against a reforming president may find this difficult to implement, but it can be done. Britain did it once with the universal settlement after the war and to those who say that you can’t turn back the clock, I say, why not: there is no reason why it can’t be done again. At the end of the second world war there was sufficient gratitude and social cohesion in Britain to recognise the needs of society and in particular our returning military services. Factories engaged in war time activities were immediately put into use providing ‘prefabricated dwellings’ (prefabs), and although they were meant to be a temporary solution only, many of these dwellings, modernised, are still in use and remain desirable houses because of their generous space standards. On a personal level, my uncle returning from war-time service with the R.A.F in the middle east was provided with such a ‘prefab’ in Gloucester for his growing family. I revisited it a year or so ago and it still looks great and the present residents are delighted with it.

Uncle Ernie's Prefabricated Bungalow, Gloucester

Uncle Ernie’s Prefabricated Bungalow, Gloucester

It isn’t rocket science! All that is required is the will. But our dogma driven central government requires that this is done through the private sector and always the primary concern is the profitability to the developers and protecting ‘the house’ as a capital asset, rather than providing affordable homes for all. Such an approach leads to house price inflation, as well as motivating landlords to increase the price of the rent, putting the purchase of a house even further beyond the means of the great majority of growing families. Homes are for living in and building a stable family. One of the main benefits of the strategy of council house building was the genuine option it provided for families of making a life together in a council house, providing a real and much sought after alternative to buying and thus acting as a brake on the price that over-weaning developers could charge for houses for sale, that were in themselves usually sub standard by comparison with council houses. In the mid fifties Gloucester City Council built a small council house development specifically set aside to allow the tenants to apply for purchase of their dwelling after five years of continuously meeting their rent. A pioneer solution that could have been employed that would not have led to the undermining of the public sector ethos, but would have offered a realistic access to ownership for those who had shown a desire to settle in the area. A far cry from the present government’s suggestion that those renting could in certain circumstances be given the opportunity to purchase after twenty five years: too little and too late!

Hanley, writing in 2007, tells of the real stigma of coming from a council estate and “literally having escaped from a kind of prison, and yet, in some ways you will never escape. That’s because to anyone who doesn’t live on one the term ‘council estate’ means hell on earth”. For her, escape meant buying a council apartment in London where she became active in the community and a frequent contributor to the Guardian. But it is important to remember that she tells of her own experience. Come 2007 it might well have seemed that home ownership was within the reach of many and those ‘sink’ estates were a thing of the past but not so, now we are very much back to square one.

My own experience of council house estates leaves me with a more balanced view. Employed by Worcester in the sixties, with a growing family I benefited from the use of a council house. In those days the estate would have probably been designed by the Borough Engineer and based upon a standard Ministry of Local Government plan. In every way it was a happy period and the estate was a vibrant and attractive place to live. It enjoyed its own shopping arcade, a well supported church with a charismatic vicar and neighbours who were the nicest people you could live among. House proud all of them, in particular, our immediate next door neighbour, who possessed what I always thought of as an award winning garden replete with a magical section devoted to prize winning dahlias. In the mid eighties my work took me to Merseyside where I spent a year living on on one of the lower floors of a multi storey tower block on what, notoriously, was the Woodchurch estate not far from the even more notorious Ford Estate. Leaving the flat by car early one morning on my way to work while driving from the parking area, I was approached by a lady of indeterminate age asking for a lift and expecting her to want a ride into town and not wishing to be unfriendly to a neighbour, as I thought, we duly started the journey. After a while I was alarmed by very erratic behavior from her and becoming uncomfortable with the situation I suggested that perhaps she might prefer to be dropped off at a local eating place just up the road, to which she agreed. By then it had become obvious that our respective intentions were very different. When I got to the office, later that day I mentioned it to a colleague and told him that my guess was that she had a serious drug problem. He countered by saying that she was a prostitute and I told him that that had not crossed my mind. It speaks volumes for my relative ignorance on these matters that thinking about that experience some twenty or so years later, I reflected that we were probably both right, and she was more than likely prepared to prostitute herself to fund her drug addiction.  But then, only weeks earlier during the evening as I was watching television I was horrified when a man scaled our window on the outside of what was a vertical tower block to make his way further up the building in search of drugs presumably. So, although the local authority struggled to regenerate those estates, they were in every sense, ‘sink estates’, along the lines of those described by Lynsey Hanley. I would suggest that experience depends very much upon time and place and as ever will reflect the economic and political climate of the day.

The ‘Right to Buy’ was never simply motivated by the wish to create a ‘house-owning democracy’, the motive was much murkier and reflected central government’s refusal to meet the burden of the maintenance of the public housing stock. Had a house owning democracy been the driving motivation, the government would have insisted on adequate replacement for any council houses sold by the local authority. As it was, the cost of maintenance fell on the shoulders of the hapless beneficiaries of Thatcher’s ‘largesse’ with the consequence that the majority are now in private landlord’s hands and are rented out. The housing market has now come full circle, except that rents are screamingly high. Maintenance is only done if you fight for it and you may be subject to eviction at whim.

In the UK we are clearly suffering from a rigged housing market, with the major house developers sitting on land banks with planning permission already granted, thus maintaining scarcity of supply in order to maximise their profit. Central government needs to act urgently to implement a council house building programme, as well as ensuring adequate release of land to small builders, in order to bring the housing market into balance in terms of supply and demand, and make the cost of housing realistic to young families. (‘Britain’s House-building Scandal Exposed’. Channel 4 Dispatches 7-11-16). As ever it will depend upon the actions of central government and whether they see their responsibilities as providing for all people or only those likely to vote for them. Are we really ‘all in this together’ or is it ‘devil take the hindmost’!

These thoughts have been triggered by my reading the two books mentioned and has been written in advance of knowing the result of the American Presidential Election. And how America choses here is likely to be crucial not just for America but for Britain, wherever Brexit takes us. J.D Vance’s book can be recommended in every way, and is a brutally honest appraisal of his own life’s experience. In every case real names are used and apply to real people, many his closest family. That takes courage and I am left wondering just how those mentioned will be able to come to terms with what he writes, particularly his mother. The book by Lynsey Hanley tells of her feelings about living on a council estate at a particular time. It is fascinating and a good read about a subject which is rarely described with such sympathy and understanding and I am looking forward to any update reflecting the difficulties being experienced by young families at this time, as a result of political change the price of houses and the decline in the social housing stock.

Tower block

Tower blocks, Birmingham

Estates An Intimate History

Hillbilly Elegy