Books Celebrating: Council Housing

14th Oct 2013

As the brutal combo of cuts to welfare and services and the demonisation of its recipients continues to have a damaging impact on lives across the UK, we feel a literary antidote is in order.

We’re starting with our favourite books featuring the vital institution of social housing. Despite governments’ best efforts, it still accounts for over 17% of all households in the UK, and in many areas is vastly oversubscribed.

Many of these books are written by authors who have at some point lived on council estates, so they often portray the bleak reality of living in poverty in Britain. But they’re bloody important, so here’s a selection of our favourite books which feature characters living in affordable housing.

The Bed and Breakfast Star by Jacqueline Wilson

One of several of Wilson’s books to feature characters in receipt of welfare. Elsa’s stepfather loses his job and her family has to move in to one room in a rundown bed and breakfast hotel, due to a shortage of social housing.

Her mother and stepfather are miserable and lose patience with Elsa’s constant joke-telling, but she manages to befriend plenty of other children in the building with her sense of humour.

NW by Zadie Smith

A novel tightly focused on a small area of North West London, following the lives of four thirty somethings – Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan after they have left behind the fictional Caldwell estate where they all grew up.

The majority of the story centres on the relationship between Leah and Natalie (formally Keisha), with Smith taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s problem plays, because, in her words, they are excellent at portraying “the mixed reality of our lives.”

The Queen and I by Sue Townsend

Townsend first got the idea for The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole when she was living in a council house with her three children. In 1992, she published The Queen and I, a controversial novel in which Britain becomes a Republic and the Royal family is moved out of Buckingham Palace and in Hellebore Close estate.

Tony Hogan Brought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson

Informed by Hudson’s own experience growing up in a succession of council estates, bed-and-breakfasts and caravan parks, Tony Hogan follows Janie Ryan from the very first expletive-filled moments that she is born in to a long line of Aberdeen fishwives.

Portraying a world of heroine addiction, domestic violence and women’s shelters through a child’s eyes, this book does not shy away from grim reality, but an endearing protagonist manages to make it an enjoyable read.

My Mad Fat Diary by Rae Earl

In 1989 Rae Earl was seventeen years old and living in a council house in Lincolnshire with her mum. She was overweight and had just been released from a psychiatric ward following a nervous breakdown.

My Mad Fat Diary is a collection of the diaries she wrote from January 1989 onwards, full of boy drama, body hang-ups, exam stress and everything else you’d expect from teenage diaries, wrapped up in a glorious, hideous eighties bow.

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Rowling has spoken openly about how she avoids tax havens because she feels indebted to the welfare state, after finding herself a single parent living in poverty in the mid-nineties.

She said in an interview with the Times, “When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall.”

Although The Casual Vacancy moves between the wealthier residents of fictional Pagford and the impoverished residents of the The Fields estate, the social issues that stem from poverty are very much the focus of the book.

Hello Mum by Bernadine Evaristo

A novella released in 2010 as part of the Quick Reads scheme. In the form of a letter from fourteen year old Jerome to his mother, Hello Mum tells the story of a young man sucked in to a world of gang warfare and crime. A rare opportunity to view these stories from the perspective of the kids involved, and not through a lens of media sensationalism.

Are there any other books about council estates or affordable housing that you’d add to our list?

(Image via CrossvillE)


  • Ayana says:

    A great list! Not read the Kerry Hudson but will definitely put that on my to-read list

    I’d recommend any of the plays by Andrea Dunbar, inspired by life on the Butterworth estate in the Thatcher years. The film based on her and her daughters’ lives, The Arbor, is heartbreaking

  • Jane Bradley says:

    Love this feature! I read The Queen and I when I was much too young to grasp how controversial it was, but I absolutely loved it all the same – brilliantly funny, biting, and very recognisable. Can’t wait to see what other suggestions readers come up with.