It’s a bit of a shocker to hear the words ‘council estate’ used in the same sentence as ‘luxury’ and ‘revolutionary’. Nowadays the words ‘bleak’, ‘miserable’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’ spring to mind. But, for their first inhabitants, those looming, broken-down tower blocks were an incredibly modern vision, heralding a new age for Britain’s working classes. So what went wrong? This potted history serves as a long-lensed look at the ideology, progression and eventual crises surrounding social welfare in the 20th century, but fails to answer that crucial question. In the end, Great Estate amounts to not much more than nostalgia for an ASBO-less age.
Presenter Micheal Collins (a name well-suited to revolution..) takes the reigns, introducing the idealistic, grandiose beginnings of social housing, rooted in Victorian philanthropy. Believe it or not, council houses once provided homes for a third of Britain’s population. Towns like Letchworth Garden City and the eponymous Thamesmead were constructed for Britain’s poor, those who had been in tenements and inner city slums, and they put an end to the polluted, overcrowded Dickensian ghettos.
Interviews with some of the first council house residents paint a picture of a brave new world, a government re-building the population devastated by war on principles of equality and social support. Socialism, dare we say it. But the masses gifted these innovatively constructed and state-of-the-art homes were soon left to languish, and by the 70s many were tired, decrepit and only fit for the wrecking ball. Thatcher’s prioritising of the “self-made”, stemming what she saw as ‘hand-outs’ from the state, soon put paid to the comfortable, respectable face of council housing, and some quietly damaging housing bills did the rest.
Nowadays, not many of us would be too excited at the prospect of moving into the middle of a council-run tower block? Most of us would be investing in a safe and an almighty padlock for the front door if we moved into some of the places in this film. But with thousands of families still languishing on council house waiting-lists, an economic crisis again widening the gap between rich and poor and Britain’s coiffers running low, surely affordable, quality council housing is more important than ever. What the programme shys away from is the problems faced by council housing today, and the effect a different, less people-led approach to public spending could have into the next decade.