My personal account of the decline of a South Birmingham council estate and the implications for the average cognitive ability of its children

Roger Titcombe's picture
I was an only child born of working class parents in Birmingham in 1947. In the early 1950s we lived with my grandmother in her rented terrace house in Kings Heath. This was very poor accommodation with only a single cold-water tap and sink in one of the two small downstairs rooms, no bathroom and a shared outside toilet and washroom (for laundry). There were thousands of such properties in post-war Birmingham and the City Council was undertaking a huge program of council house building and demolition of such mainly Victorian housing. 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 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. Our estate was 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 number of such children was 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, 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 were displaced by those in need of ‘social housing’ as a result of unemployment and 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, living in 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'.

Poor mean cognitive ability postcodes are not however monopolised by council housing. In many northern towns the bottom of the housing ladder is increasingly not council houses but privately rented (and sometimes privately owned) Victorian terraces. Such privately rented housing was widely condemned in the 1960s as Rachmanism after the notoriously exploitive private landlord whose exposure led to rent controls that have since been abolished.

Comprehensive education had always assumed neighbourhood schools and enlightened LEAs like the former Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) well understood the link between cognitive ability, social class and areas of deprivation. School catchment areas were devised so as to make its schools as socially heterogeneous as possible. These powers were removed by the 1988 Education Act.
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