What is a Sink Estate?

The two housing estates, which form the main settings for my Riverhill Trilogy, are what are often described as sink estates. These are the Riverhill Estate and the Buckthorn Estate. In the lead up to the release of the third book in the trilogy, ‘Danger by Association’, I thought I would give some background relating to sink estates and describe how they earned the label.


The name sink estate is usually given to British council housing estates in deprived, urban areas. This type of estate often has high levels of crime although this isn’t necessarily a characteristic of such estates.

There are various theories as to how the name sink estates originated, and it is believed that it was probably a label given by the media. It came into use in the 1980s although this type of estate existed before then. Tony Blair famously used the term sink estates in a 1998 speech when he referred to ‘so-called sink estates’.

One of the theories is that the tag relates to the term, ‘behavioural sink’, which was used by ethologist John B Calhoun to describe the breakdown in behaviour resulting from overcrowding. He used rats and mice to conduct experiments on overcrowding and published a report in the Scientific American weekly newspaper in 1962 based on his findings.


There is a belief that sink estates were created by the right to buy scheme that existed under Margaret’s Thatcher’s conservative government of the 1980s and 1990s. Residents on the more popular council estates were most likely to take advantage of the scheme, and also most likely to qualify for mortgages.

On the other hand, in areas with high levels of unemployment and high crime rates, residents were unlikely or unable to purchase their council properties. At that time, there were cutbacks on council spending for housing improvements. Therefore, the less popular areas became increasingly run-down, and their residents became more isolated from the rest of society.

On the worst estates, crime is a way of life. It happens openly and residents are often frightened of reporting it to the police because of reprisals. Many also turn to crime to boost their income as a result of a lack of employment opportunities.

The word ‘sink’ itself also has various other negative connotations:Down

  • Sink or swim
  • To descend or plunge as in sinking to lower depths
  • To decline in value
  • To submerge or go under
  • To deteriorate in health

It is often difficult for residents of these estates to break away as behaviour patterns pass from generation to generation. Moreover, residents may have difficulty finding work because of employer pre-conceptions relating to certain areas.

I am making good progress with ‘Danger by Association’ and should be on schedule for a June launch. More news will follow.