There were lots of bright kids on our council estate - what happened?
In 1958, after being on the council housing list since the end of the war, my parents were offered a two bedroom flat in a new tower block on a huge council estate at Warstock, an outer Birmingham suburb of many square miles consisting entirely of council housing. This council-enabled progression to modern housing was not automatic but required an inspection of my grandmother’s Kings Heath house, where we lived, by a council officer to ensure that my mother’s domestic standards were sufficiently high to qualify for such a move. Only the ‘respectable’ working class got the best new council housing.
My parents were as delighted with our modern centrally heated luxury flat, with its view to the Lickey Hills, as thousands of others were with their surrounding council houses with neat front and rear gardens. Our estate was uniformly and entirely ‘respectable’, with virtually all families having a father in work and crime appearing to be non-existent. Like most of my many new friends, I gained access to our flat by means of a key tied to a piece of string hanging inside the door and accessible through the letter box. There was absolutely no suggestion or awareness that we lived in ‘social housing’. The flats and surrounding council houses provided large numbers of other children to play with and those passing the 11 plus selection exam were well represented. The numbers of such children were not far off the high overall Birmingham pass rate of about 25 per cent.
A similarly heterogeneous social distribution applied to the adults. Birmingham still being ‘the workshop of the world’ at that time, the majority of fathers had skilled working class jobs. My father, a toolmaker, was typical. There were, however, also a significant number of fathers with white-collar jobs and a number of tenants had their own businesses. Most mothers did not work in 1958 but this changed quite rapidly. My mother progressed from a local factory job to working in an office at Birmingham City Council. She was quite typical.
However, by the late 1980s, after a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy, the estate was fast transforming into the social housing, high unemployment, drug abusing, high crime and deprivation ghetto now associated with large council estates of that era. This change brought about a decline in the average cognitive ability of the tenant population as the ‘respectable’ working class was gradually displaced by those in need of ‘social housing’ as a result of unemployment and growing drug abuse. This decline was accelerated by the policy of selling the best council houses to their tenants. This resulted in the savviest and most aspirational tenants buying their council houses at knock-down prices only to sell for a huge profit a few years later to fund escape to higher status private estates. By this means the most cognitively able parents steadily departed the council estates leaving them to the less cognitively adequate and their children. This process does not require intelligence to be inherited through genes. The result would be the same if cognitive ability depended entirely on environmental factors such as quality of parenting and the physical environment.
Far from being housing of last resort, having a secure life-long tenancy of a well-built council house in a pleasant suburb was a perfectly reasonable lifestyle choice before the massive house price inflation caused by Margaret Thatcher’s housing policies, later enthusiastically taken up by New Labour, made it an economic necessity for aspiring families to ‘get onto the housing ladder’.
This estate no longer exists. All five tower blocks have been demolished and replaced with a private housing development. Where once the towers dominated the local urban landscape, the new small and cheaply built private houses appear dwarfed by the large modern cars parked outside them.