Monday, 26 September 2016

Waiting for the Property Bubble to Burst. And Waiting. And Waiting. And Waiting....

Estate, by Robert Clayton tells the story of the Lion Farm Estate in the Black Country, a heavily populated, industrialised/de-industrialised region in the Midlands of England. It shows life in and around the nine residential tower blocks that made up the estate (six of them were demolished in 1992).

The book begins with texts by both Jonathan Meades and Laura Noble which set the scene of the Lion Farm Estate, how Clayton began photographing in 1991, shortly after the 'right-to-buy' had both extended the possibility of home ownership to millions at the cost of creating a two-tier housing system, and effectively putting an end to social housing in Britain. We can still feel the effects of these policies in Britain's overheated housing market, a mass psychosis in which the possibility of affordable, decent housing is ruled out for the majority of the British population.

Where once, affordable housing was more or less affordable to all, now the only way to get it is if you buy it. And if you don't live in an area where housing is affordable, then the only way to buy it is if you are wealthy already. And if you are wealthy already then you have property. So the only people who can buy houses are people who own houses. That is exactly how it works in large parts of the UK and the best thing is it's cheaper to buy a house than to rent a house. It's unfathomable and unsustainable but somehow we can't seem to accept that things can be any other way - even though they were a relatively short time ago.

The book starts with a wide shot of the estate, the towers rising above green fields and the rooves of terraced housing. It goes closer into the estate, the empty car parks, the boarded up windows, the general neglect of a recession hit England.

Then there are interiors which fall somewhere between Nick Waplington and David Moore, but with a more natural feel to them. They show people living normal lives in normal rooms in normal flats. Everything is a little bit crowded; the piles of clothes, the slide in the living room, but it is recognisable. I've lived with piles of clothers with slides in the living room and so have most people I've known. It's the way most people live.

There are high views of empty car parks; car parks with no cars in. Which is telling. And then we're into the exteriors. The bad sculpture, the kids playing, the people moving furniture, the advice being given in the estate office (there's a nod to Paul Graham here maybe), the shops, the graffiti and the food.

It's a very strong overview in other words, one that fits in with books like Peter Mitchell's Memento Mori, a strong documentary aesthetic that combines British colour with a strong social voice. The book itself is a basic hardcover picture-on-a-page-kind of affair. The printing isn't great, but never mind that. The book is a really strong study of British housing. It's not spectacular, it doesn't have the explosive effect of Richard Billingham, it isn't gritty or overly grim, and that's what makes it interesting. It's a snapshot in time, an overview of housing as it used to be and is no more, a book that finds a middle ground between affection, sentiment and the crushing reality of the property market in Britain today.

Buy Estate here.

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