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Page last updated at 07:38 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008
The Estate

Local authority tower block

Lynsey Hanley
Everyone has an opinion about housing estates - but for those who have never lived on one, perceptions are almost always negative, says Lynsey Hanley.

If you ever want to wind me up, then show me a newspaper article that uses the phrase "tough council estate". It'll take you about two minutes to find one; only the other day I saw two references to this scary-sounding beast.

Anyone would think there were no normal, no boring, no average council estates in existence. Whoever coined this phrase tapped into a deep sense - easy to hold if you've never lived on one - that estates are strange, to-be-avoided places full of people who are not quite like the rest of us.

Having grown up on a large, but fairly run-of-the-mill council estate myself, I can see that there's a grain of truth in the cliche. It was a self-contained world, in senses both good and bad.

On one hand, its spacious homes gave people like my grandparents a chance to live in a house with a garden, which was all they'd ever wanted. On the other, it was isolated, plain and cold in appearance, and stigmatised from the outset by people from the richer part of the borough, who would tell you that the place you lived in was "a den of iniquity".

Sports teams from the posher schools would be frightened of playing netball with you because they assumed you'd want to beat them up. Its "tough" reputation preceded it and made you painfully aware of its almost segregated nature.

Tough and tougher

To an extent living on an estate is tough, or at least more difficult than it is to live in more affluent places. You're likely to have been sent there to live, rather than being able to take your pick where to live. You're more likely to have difficulty picking up well-paid work due to a combination of prejudice towards your postcode and your estate's poor connections to other parts of town. You're more likely to go to a school that is underfunded relative to the needs of its pupils.

But just because living on an estate can be tough doesn't make it a "tough council estate". That's a different kettle of fish.

Estates, and by extension the people who live on them, are feared and picked on because they are set apart by the way in which they were built. From its inception at the end of the 19th Century, council housing had a specific purpose - to house working-class people in conditions that gave them light and space.

Estates were built far from town centres, creating a new, far-off terminus for the bus or tram and making it expensive and tiring to get to work.

You were suddenly right on the edge of town, far from the action and, as often as not, far from friends and family. If you stuck it out and earned well, you eventually got the chance to buy your council house.

But as the economy changed, the connection between housing for working-class people and the lack of good jobs for working-class people became more solid.

These days, estates are places where you are much more likely than the rest of the population to be living in poverty.

Now that, if nothing else, is tough.

Lynsey Hanley is author of Estates: An Intimate History, published by Granta Books

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