Public Housing and the Right to the City

Not simply a roof over one’s head, public housing nurtures its inhabitants’ demands for an even greater stake in the life of the metropolis.

By the end of the 1970s, 42 percent of British people lived in public housing, or in “council houses” as they are more commonly known in the UK. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher instituted a controversial “right to buy” program, allowing residents of state-owned homes to become owners of the house or flat they lived in. It is estimated that 1.8 million homes were passed from the public into the private sphere as a result of this policy.1 Public-housing stocks have been further diminished in the last couple of decades, and especially in London, by sales to private developers of the valuable land where council houses are situated, a practice that has led to people being dispossessed from their homes.2 Often this occurs under the auspices of “regeneration,” where a small proportion of the original public housing is renovated. Since the 1990s, only around 15,000 new public-housing units have been built to replace those that have been lost.3 Less than eight percent of British people live in public housing today.4

The diminishing amount of council homes may account for the resurgence of interest in public housing, some of which is policy-focused (see, for example, the Labour Party manifesto in the 2017 and 2019 General Elections) and some of which takes the form of cultural nostalgia, demonstrating the continued emotional pull of council housing in the UK. Books, documentary films, and even T-shirts and tote bags bearing the images of famous modernist housing blocks have become a ubiquitous presence in art-gallery gift shops and trendy boutiques. We are compelled, it seems, to remember and mythologize the public housing built during the 20th century, at the moment when people living in such homes are at their lowest level.

An unequivocal celebration of the confident, progressive “spirit of ’45”—which delivered vast amounts of publicly owned housing to be rented at an affordable price to working people—can be found in John Boughton’s recent book Municipal Dreams. Boughton admires the scale but also, paradoxically, the humility of the ambitions of the postwar period, when the state took seriously its responsibility to build the homes necessary to “house its people decently.”

Boughton explains how children brought up on a newly built housing estate in Watford were taller and heavier than their inner-London, slum-dwelling counterparts. But “there’s not much romance in that perhaps,” he states, almost apologetically.

The author appreciates such details: the “small” successes and improvements to people’s lives achieved because the grand urban visions of the postwar state were fulfilled. But the book also argues that municipalism—giving greater economic and political powers to the state at city level—is a policy well suited to solving the worsening housing crises of the present.

Municipal Dreams offers a robust and clearheaded rejoinder to academic and activist work that pivots around the slippery, less tangible notion of the right to the city. This concept and rallying cry for a variety of urban social movements was developed by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1967. It focuses less upon housing per se, and more upon the right to fully participate in and enjoy the life of the city. Housing is important, but only as part of a wider class struggle fought within and over urban space. Lefebvre’s fundamental point was to reassert the use value of urban space over the growing predominance of exchange value. The twin enemies of the right to the city, for Lefebvre, are capitalism and the modern state. Boughton sees quiet dignity in government housing, arguing that it satisfies working-class voters’ desire for fairness, while Lefebvre sees only people who are diminished by these surroundings, isolated from the opportunities and possibilities of urban life, and separated from the city as work of art—what he calls an “oeuvre.”

Public housing creates publics that are as confrontational as they are amenable.

And so there is a divide in leftist thought on the city between the pragmatists and municipal socialists like Boughton—the “doers” and “providers,” if you like—and the “dreamers”: critics, romantics, and wastrels who are in love with the city and the richness and depth of urban life, but don’t much like the state, and are probably not very effective at bargaining in the council chambers or boardrooms where decisions get made.

Boughton presents the need for the state to solve current housing crises as a fait accompli. But actually, there is little agreement on the left as to what role the liberal state should play in restoring access to the city, particularly for those who, in recent years, have found themselves dispossessed or displaced by rising costs or the managed decline of public housing. Some place faith in housing cooperatives5 or self-build housing,6 while others like Boughton argue that a rejuvenated muncipalism is the answer. One reason for this lack of consensus is because many on the left still identify the state’s uncritical enthusiasm for the private sector post-1979 as the root cause of the housing problems that beset our cities. They see the state no longer as a potential provider of dignity to working people but as a malign agent in hock to corporate interests. Boughton acknowledges these arguments, but prefers, in the last instance, to emphasize the positive legacy of council housing.

The compromise position, of course, is that while the state may be responsible in large part for the current housing crisis, it is also necessary for any future solution.7 Such a settlement makes good sense. What this essay adds is that housing is not simply a roof over someone’s head, no matter how important that may be. bell hooks made this point very eloquently in the past, pointing to how the home is a crucial site for fostering political solidarity and oppositional forms of expressive culture.8 As such, it is suggested here that beyond an end in itself, public housing nurtures its inhabitants’ demands for an even greater stake in the life of the metropolis.

Boughton’s book joins others, such as Lynsey Hanley’s personal account Estates (2007) and Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism (2009)—the latter not exclusively about housing—in reevaluating the legacy of council housing. Despite this crowded field, Boughton’s book has quickly established itself as a landmark text in this “genre,”9 a sober, thorough work that reminds us of some of the most significant achievements of Britain’s postwar “social democratic moment.”

We still need state housing, according to Boughton, because we need the investment, idealism, and regulatory frameworks that only the state can provide. Following decades of ideological attack—mainly from the neoliberal right, but also from a left disillusioned with state socialism—Boughton unabashedly asserts that “it is time to reclaim the positive role of the state” and to recover the “simple decency that formed the progressive backbone of council housing.”

Boughton is a proud modernist. He has little time for Britain’s cottage obsession and, one also senses, the middle classes’ seemingly insatiable appetite for dark, damp Victoriana. He can also be disdainful of sociological hand-wringing about loss of community, a reaction that accompanies any form of housing that challenges the place in the popular imagination of the terraced street as the natural home of the British working classes.10 The cultural immune response to a confident affirmation of British urban modernity is strong. And so, that Boughton does manage to locate and redeem an Anglo-urban tradition from the wreckage of the 20th century is a major achievement.

Among Boughton’s favorite London council-housing estates are the Scandi-modern Lansbury estate in Poplar, opened in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain; the stunning, brutalist (and now privately owned) Keeling House in Bethnal Green, opened in 1959; and 1960s developments such as the ziggurat-like Dawson’s Heights in Southwark and the Alexandra Road estate in Camden with its profusely green walkways. But, as much as Boughton admires talented architects such as Kate Macintosh and Neave Brown, what he really wants to emphasize is how, “above all, these were homes” and “overwhelmingly … decent places to live.” And, as he reminds us, these places were all built and administered by the state.


What Was Public Housing?

By Catherine Fennell

If it were up to Lefebvre, on the other hand, it is unlikely the state would be given responsibility for providing working-class homes; rather, he prefers to trust autonomist or organic solutions that contribute to the city as oeuvre. To be forced to live in a housing project or a new town is, for Lefebvre, to be denied the right to the city, to be forced to accept “the lowest possible threshold of sociability.”11

Lefebvre loathed the state, technocrats, and especially urbanists (those “specialists” in planning who believe you can make a “science” of the city); he even denigrated public housing in a well-known passage that chronicles the miserable “daily life of a tenant in a government-subsidised high-rise housing project.”12 Elsewhere, in his “Notes on the New Town,” he describes “everyday life like a massive weight, reduced to its essence, to its trivial functions, and at the same time almost disintegrated, nothing but fragmented gestures and repeated actions.”13 Lefebvre’s opposition here is based on his belief that housing should never reduce its inhabitants to what Marx called “abstract citizens of the state.”

The political aesthetic of Lefebvre’s right to the city is steeped somewhere quite different, in the spirit of Paris, May 1968. It suggests expansive, expensive, bourgeois-bohemian Parisian apartment buildings, stencilled slogans, and ludic performance art on cobbled streets. This aesthetic is captured by Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers (2003), which uses the uprising’s events as the backdrop for the sexual (and political) coming-of-age of three bourgeois teenage cinephiles, who loaf around, often half dressed, in a vast apartment overflowing with the debris of the 1960s: ashtrays, wine bottles, LPs, dusty floral drapes, modern art, and, of course, cine cameras with which to film each other.

As film scholar Mark Shiel suggests, Paris 1968 was pivotal in an emerging left-wing and postmodern critique of modernist architecture that focused on the inhumane and alienating qualities of the “machines for living”—to use Le Corbusier’s famous phrase—that were passed off to the working class as homes.14 Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), filmed in the Parisian banlieue of Le Quatre Mille in La Courneuve, is an early cinematic critique in this mold, emphasizing the estrangement of the new public housing from the fabric of the city. In these representations, the right to the city is pitched against modernist urbanism, and especially against modernist public housing.

Housing is important, but only as part of a wider class struggle fought within and over urban space.

But Lefebvre’s relationship to Paris ’68 and to modern urbanism is actually far more ambivalent.15 The fact that demonstrations started at Paris Nanterre University—the functionalist, segregated campus on the edge of the city where Lefebvre worked as a professor in urban sociology—before a march to the center, to the Sorbonne, is important. “In order to answer the question why it started here,” explains Lefebvre, “one should look outside the window.”16

The austere Nanterre campus that had brought students together to study had also inspired them to demand more. As the architectural scholar Lucasz Stanek points out, the disruptive culture born in this alienating milieu was evidence of practice as critique.17 More so than the traditional urban milieu of the Sorbonne, the Nanterre campus was instructive as to what was wrong with the city and with politics. The évènements of ’68 could only have started in a place like Nanterre. More broadly, this speaks to how people develop a critique of urban settings in their everyday life, a set of routines and practices that, although sometimes unconscious, are always a response to common, shared environmental constraints.

Residents of council housing may be very appreciative of their state-provided homes but also, in the same breath, critical of them. These residents are never simply dutiful or passive beneficiaries of the welfare state. Through music, art, literature, and more formal modes of political engagement, people who live in public housing have shown they fully understand their homes are a form of political ordering, sometimes even a form of institutional racism.18 They have refused the injunction to “know your place.” This has sometimes led to explorations of agency through nihilistic and violent behavior. But more often residents have transformed their alienation and dislocation into something more: expressive cultures that, like the protests of the Nanterre students, are “in excess of [their] conditions of possibility.”19

Christopher Ian Smith’s 2017 documentary film, New Town Utopia (about Basildon in Essex), explains how in the early 1980s Depeche Mode responded to the modern state-built environment that they grew up in by creating a synth-pop sound that mirrored the machinic architecture of the town while, at the same time, offering a hedonistic, transgressive escape from its boredom and violence.20 A more recent example is how UK hip-hop artist and activist Stormzy questions the assumption that he should feel grateful for the council house he grew up in, on a low-income estate in Croydon, South London.21 It is true that Stormzy’s modest upbringing shaped him as a creative force, providing gritty source material, as is a convention with hip-hop. But living there also sharpened his vision of a more just society: it led him to publicly support the left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, to stand in solidarity with victims and survivors of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire,22 and to pay for scholarships for talented Black children to attend Cambridge University.23 It is no coincidence that much US hip-hop, too, deploys the trope of “getting out” of the projects, but also “keeping it real” and “giving back.”

Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time (2016) also engages with this ambivalent response to public housing. The novel reveals how its two female protagonists experience their London council estate as confinement, leading to a narrowing of horizons and ambitions and, conversely, to intimate explorations of their differences. But the characters also experience their estate as freedom, with the mundane everydayness of estate life acting as the spur to explore worlds beyond London, but also to always have their London estate as home. The rumbustious cultural histories of public housing are more contradictory than Boughton imagines them; they mix gratitude with dissent, and attachment with a desire to escape.

It’s not a slight on public housing to acknowledge that its inhabitants have often appeared ungrateful, or behaved in antisocial or oppositional ways. These responses have often stemmed from a resistance to racism or poverty, in part as a resistance to the state itself. Indeed, sometimes, for many residents of public housing—such as those in Grenfell Tower who had organized themselves to complain about the shoddy and unsafe renovations in the year or so preceding the deadly fire of 2017 but were ignored—the state is not an ally at all. Boughton recognizes this as a shift away from the high point of the postwar decades, agreeing that neoliberalism has betrayed the shared vision and purpose of council housing.

But what I sense is missing from Boughton’s otherwise painstaking account is the acknowledgement that public housing creates publics that are as confrontational as they are amenable. And this is one of the virtues of public housing.

It is more than “simple decency” that is provided by public housing. Its residents don’t necessarily want quiet lives; they have also proved to be creative, belligerent, and demanding of more, or better. A council house may not be the right to the city quite as Lefebvre envisaged it, but state housing continues to yield a multitude of urban homes from which to glimpse what the right to the city might feel like.

As Albert Camus wrote in his essay “Create Dangerously”: “We shall choose in the reality of today or of yesterday what announces and serves the perfect city of the future.”24 Public housing is where many people experience and understand disadvantage, suffering, and discrimination. But it’s also a foothold in the city that permits them—individually and collectively—to imagine and pursue an equitable metropolis that exists outside of the market and beyond the state. It’s this prospect that makes public housing a “dangerous” creation. It’s why Thatcher wanted to get rid of it, and another reason, in addition to those detailed by Boughton, why the left must continue to fight for it.


This article was commissioned by Max Holleran. icon

  1. Dawn Foster, “Right to Buy: A History of Margaret Thatcher’s Controversial Policy,” Guardian, December 7, 2015.
  2. Paul Watt, “‘This Pain of Moving, Moving, Moving’: Evictions, Displacement, and Logics of Expulsion in London,” L’Annee sociologique, vol. 68, no. 1 (2018).
  3. Peter Apps, “Have the Conservatives Really Built Twice as Much Council Housing as Labour?Inside Housing, April 26, 2017.
  4. John Harris, “The End of Council Housing,” Guardian, January 4, 2016.
  5. Paul Chatterton, Low Impact Living: A Field Guide to Ecological, Affordable Community Building (Routledge, 2014).
  6. Emma Heffernan and Pieter de Wilde, “Group Self-Build Housing: A Bottom-Up Approach to Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Housing,” Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 243 (2020).
  7. David Madden and Peter Marcuse, In Defence of Housing (Verso, 2016).
  8. bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (South End Press, 1990). See also Paul Gilroy, Small Acts (Serpent’s Tail, 1993).
  9. The book builds upon the research regularly posted on Boughton’s long-running blog, Municipal Dreams, which is still updated regularly.
  10. See, for example, Michael Young and Peter Wilmott, Family and Kinship in East London (1957; Routledge, 2013).
  11. Henri Lefebvre, Production of Space (Blackwell, 1991), p. 316.
  12. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 38.
  13. Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity (Verso, 1995), pp. 123–24.
  14. Mark Shiel, Architectures of Revolt: The Cinematic City Circa 1968 (Temple University Press, 2018).
  15. Judit Bodnar, “What’s Left of the Right to the City?” in The Long 1968: Revisions and New Perspectives, edited by Daniel J. Sherman, Ruud van Dijk, Jasmine Alinder, and A. Aneesh (Indiana University Press, 2013).
  16. Cited in Lukasz Stanek, “Lessons from Nanterre,” Log, no. 13/14 (2008), p. 63.
  17. Lefebvre calls this the “critique of everyday life”; see Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: The Three-Volume Text (Verso Books, 2014).
  18. See inter alia Norman Ginsburg, “Institutional Racism and Local Authority Housing,” Critical Social Policy, vol. 8, no. 24 (1988).
  19. Stanek, “Lessons from Nanterre,” p. 67.
  20. See also Simon Spence, Just Can’t Get Enough: The Making of Depeche Mode (Jawbone, 2011).
  21. Edward Adoo, “Stormzy Doesn’t Need to Be ‘Grateful’ for His Upbringing as a Black Londoner on a Council Estate—and Neither Do I,” Independent, February 26, 2018.
  22. Grenfell Tower was a 24-story residential building comprised mainly of public-housing units. It is situated in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), one of the wealthiest but most socially unequal boroughs in London. The tower was designed in 1967, approved in 1970, and completed in 1974, as part of the Lancaster West Estate. On June 14, 2017, the worst fire in UK peacetime since the 19th century killed 72 residents of Grenfell Tower, most of whom were low- or modest-income Londoners and many of whom were recent or first-generation migrants to the city. Hundreds more were left injured, distressed, and/or homeless. Jeremy Corbyn has now been succeeded as the leader of the Labour Party by Keir Starmer.
  23. Stormzy Scholarship for Black UK Students,” University of Cambridge, accessed October 12, 2020.
  24. Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays (Vintage, 1960), p. 260.
Featured image: RIP Grenfell Tower (2017). Photograph by duncan c / Flickr