Don’t be put off by the seedy reputation of London’s council estates – most are home to vibrant communities, offering diverse experiences and cheap rent WORDS: Daniel Landon

While new arrivals to London realise a fancy home in Mayfair is unrealistic, most would reckon they’d be able to afford a room in a standard terrace house in an OK neighbourhood.

But for 6 million Brits, and a fair percentage of newly arrived and cash-strapped Aussies, Kiwis and Saffas, a council estate is home.

Whether it’s justified or not these estates – the large tower blocks or sprawling, box-like buildings run by local councils originally for people who couldn’t manage or afford to rent privately – have a shocking reputation.

Think broken windows, smashed-up cars with missing tyres, urine-soaked stairwells, gangs of hoodies, and single teenage mums pushing prams and you’ll get the idea.

But how close is this to reality? Are council estates in fact a fun and cheap place to live, where neighbours know each other well enough to stop for a friendly chat?

Bulldoze ’em

Hammersmith and Fulham is one of the most affluent parts of London, but that doesn’t stop the borough having estates that the local council leader Stephen Greenhalgh admits need redeveloping.

In a recent blueprint Greenhalgh uses terms such as “ghettos of multiple social deprivation”, “warehousing poverty” and a “dependency culture” to describe council estates.

“Most of all some housing estates are failing the people they were designed to help – council tenants themselves,” he says.

His solution is to tear estates down and start again.

This radical approach would open up many of the borough’s estates for redevelopment, including private homes and shops.

“Is it really right that in the 21st century thousands of people are living in estates separated from the rest of the community? Shouldn’t we be looking at tearing down the physical and social barriers that separate so many?” he asks.

A great place to live

But the bleak picture of council estates isn’t the reality for most residents.

The bulk of estates are lively places with community centres, residents’ action groups, neighbourhood wardens (council staff who keep an eye on things) and a wide mix of people, from professionals to blue-collar workers, from students to retirees.

Shirley Cupitt, who lives on the Queen Caroline Estate in Hammersmith, says estates are “incredibly diverse, mixed and vibrant communities.” Describing them as culturally deprived is “deeply insulting” and a gross generalisation, she says.

“Some people have been here more than 50 years, some have recently arrived – all of whom get along fine. Many people are working, often in public services, some are retired, some are students, some aren’t working,” Cupitt says.

“We think we contribute a great deal to the life of the borough.”

To call council estates ghettos “is the language used by people unable to understand the lives of ordinary people,” she says.

She says plans to tear down the borough’s estates were less about helping residents and more about getting hold of prime real estate, and would destroy the vibrant communities. 

Take a look

While there are conflicting views on council estates, it’s worth remembering only a tiny minority fit the smashed-up stereotype.

After arriving from Oz, yours truly lived and worked on East London estates that at first seemed a bit seedy.

But instead of copping a black eye or being mugged, by the time I moved west I’d made several close friends, saved loads of cash by renting cheaply, and had loads of interesting cultural experiences – such as scoring first-hand tips for cooking choice curries from a Bengali matriarch – the like of which I haven’t had since.


Council Gaff to Hollywood 

Sir Michael Caine’s estate journey

When Michael Caine played a vigilante battling violent gangs on a council estate for upcoming flick Harry Brown he drew on first-hand experiences.

“That terrible place for me was a step up,” Caine, 75, told the Evening Standard recently, about moving into a pre-fab home on a council estate in Elephant & Castle when
he was 12.

“But when I see how these children live now – compared with the flats there now, [our home] was like a middle-class dwelling,” he said.

“[Harry Brown] is about sink estates and violence on them.

“This is a dark portrait, but unfortunately it’s very true and we’re all responsible for it. We left the children to rot. We left these children and they grew into animals.”

A local councillor later accused Caine of “getting fact and fiction mixed up”.