My apologies again for lack of recent posts – I’m writing a book – but normal service will be resumed when possible. In the meantime, I’m very grateful to guest contributors and others working in the field on whom much of my work depends. Today’s post has been written by Julia Neville who is the (volunteer) project manager for a local history research collaboration on Devon in the 1920s.
Our project covers a wide range of different histories – from the Legacy of the First World War to Growing Up in the 1920s and on to Progress and Technology. And of course you can’t study 1920s local history seriously without coming across the problems of housing: the overall housing shortage and the inadequacy of the housing in which many people had to live. We need to take a close look at how agencies in the 1920s attempted to solve these almost intractable problems. As the Municipal Dreams blog makes clear, local authorities, urban and rural, were key players in this. Our research group was therefore delighted when John Boughton agreed earlier this month to come and launch our review of housing needs and development in Devon and set the scene for us of national initiatives (and backtracking) and how local authorities responded.
As readers may imagine, recreating what happened across the county of Devon is a challenge. Local authorities with housing interests comprised two county boroughs (Exeter and Plymouth); ten municipal boroughs; twenty-two urban districts; eighteen rural districts ranging in size from the giant St Thomas (26,500 population) to the tiny Culmstock (3200 population) which proudly related in 1931 that ‘’The council has taken up housing and 40 houses have been erected’. (1) There was also Devon County Council itself, whose interest in housing, especially the reconditioning of tumbledown housing. was shown in its response to the Housing (Rural Workers) Act 1926. (2) The county considered itself a driving force for rural housing improvement, as the pictures below illustrate. We hope to be able to update readers on our progress over the next year or so.
Amongst our group of volunteers, I am probably the lucky one, because my home patch is Exeter, and a post on this blog gives an overview of Exeter City Council’s forays into municipal housing during the interwar years, so some of the spade work on the 1920s has already been done for me. I hope to add value to it over the next year or so by investigating more closely the actors involved – both the ‘doers’ and the ‘done to’s’.
Exeter City Council in the 1920s was a complex mix of traditionalists and modernisers. The mayoralty was held alternately by a businessman (and it was always a man) and then a professional man and most councillors came from one or other of those backgrounds. Many councillors strenuously denied party politics had any influence, but this was a polite fiction as it was normally quite clear at national elections who was supporting which party. The arrival of first the Labour Party (the first councillor ‘crossed the floor’ to represent Labour rather than the Liberals in 1918) and then the Ratepayers’ Association (very active between 1924 and 1925) also disturbed this polite fiction as those groups did arrange to cast their votes as a bloc. I hope to find out more about the dynamics of getting things done and who the procrastinators were. As part of that process I intend to consider the contributions of some of the forgotten councillors such as Edith Splatt, Exeter’s first woman councillor, who was elected on a Ratepayers’ Association ticket but who was all her life a campaigner for better housing.
Secondly, I hope to find out more about the families who moved to the new estates. Initially these were working families with a reasonable level of wages, and thus able to pay the rents required, but as legislation changed more families came from poor housing areas such as the slums of the West Quarter. A wide range of oral histories were collected in Exeter thirty or forty years ago which give us some clues to what the residents thought about their ‘old’ and their ‘new’ houses in the interwar years. Lil Shapcott, for example, remembers how when she was a child in Preston Street ‘you had to go to the toilet out in the yard, and there were rats … Once my sister said “Stay indoors and I’ll go out.” She had a pair of my brother’s hob-nailed boots … she kicked this rat and kicked it until it went away or died or something.’ Lil’s father, a fish hawker, always said of the new estates: ‘You won’t get me out there so long as I live’. And in fact he did die before they had to move, but her mother and the children moved out, and her mother relished the garden that came with the new house on the Burnthouse Lane estate. ‘She had four squares with big rocks around, and she had all these flowers, and once a year the Council men used to come round and judge the gardens, and my mother had First Prize …’ (3)
Recently in a compilation called Childhood in Exeter in the 1920s, I came across an account by Charles Tucker, who was born in 1920 into a single room tenement in a tumbledown house. He reflected on the gradual move of his friends during the 1920s and 1930s out to the different Exeter estates: ‘The Council decided on slum clearance, and sent them to all parts of the city. To Buddle Lane, which was nicknamed ‘Shanghai’, why I don’t know. To Whipton [the Polsloe Estate] which was known as ‘Chinatown’, I still don’t know why, and to Burnthouse Lane. I don’t know why they didn’t give that a name.’ (4) Eventually ‘they’ did: it was known as ‘Siberia’.
On the map above, courtesy Google Earth, I have marked the locations of the estates and also of the High Street which for many had originally been little more than a three or four minute walk away from home, and was now thirty or forty minutes. I imagine, and it’s the common assumption, that the estates got those nicknames because of their distance from the High Street and the markets. But I’d be really interested to find out whether other readers of this blog are aware of nicknames attached to the interwar council estates in their area and what those nicknames represented. If you have any examples to share, please send them to me, Julia Neville, via the Devon History Society website, Contact – Devon History Society
Please contact Julia directly (or leave a comment as appropriate) but I’ll also be very pleased to hear of, and happy to feature on the blog, other local research into the history of council housing.
(1) Municipal Year Book, 1931, Municipal Journal Ltd (1931)
(2) The work of the county council is described in R.T. Shears, Conservation of Devonshire Cottages, Bideford Gazette Printing (1968)
(3) Lil Shapcott, Memories, courtesy of Olwen Foggin
(4) Charles Tucker (Mr W), in Childhood in Exeter, 1920-1950, Exeter City Council (1987)
I’m pleased to feature today a new guest post by Dr Alistair Fair. Alistair is a Reader in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh and a specialist in post-1919 architecture in Britain. He first discovered the work of the architectural practice Peter Moro and Partners when writing a history of British theatre architecture between the 1940s and 1980s (published in 2018 as Modern Playhouses, and recently re-issued in paperback). He has since written a book specifically about Peter Moro and Partners, which was published in September 2021. His current work includes a collaborative study of Scotland’s new towns, and an investigation of ideas of ‘community’ in twentieth-century Britain. You can follow him on Twitter @AlistairFair
Peter Moro and Partners was a small but well-regarded London-based architectural practice which was active between the 1950s and the 1980s. Its work, which was almost entirely for public-sector clients, included several notable estates in London. Their design demonstrates well the growing search, during the 1960s and 1970s, for innovative ‘high density, low rise’ estate layouts.
Peter Moro was a German refugee who came to Britain in the mid 1930s. He initially worked with Berthold Lubetkin’s pioneering Modernist practice, Tecton, on projects including the Highpoint 2 flats in north London. A move into independent practice led to the co-design of a very well-received large house on the Sussex coast, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Then, at the end of the 1940s, Moro was head-hunted to join the design team working on the Royal Festival Hall in London; his work involved overseeing the detailed design of the interiors. Moro was thus well-placed to become a specialist in theatre design, just as Britain experienced a building boom in subsidised regional theatre-building. (1)
Moro’s involvement in the Festival Hall did not simply establish him as a theatre specialist, however. It also led to further work for the London County Council (LCC) and the subsequent Greater London Council (GLC). These jobs included several housing estates. The largest was at Thirza Street, Shadwell, to the north of Cable Street. Now known as the Barnardo Gardens estate, it was completed between 1967 and 1972 and replaced a patchwork of housing condemned as unfit. The site was bisected by a railway line, with the architects proposing 130 flats in two U-shaped groups of buildings. Low-rise blocks were set around the perimeter, with a single fourteen-storey tower adding a vertical accent. The southern (Cable Street) frontage included a public house and clubroom as well as flats for the elderly. At the centre of the estate was a play area, set on a podium above garages and parking. The buildings were originally largely faced in red brick, though the concrete floor slabs were left on show, with the deliberate choice of an aggregate-rich concrete mix adding texture. Bridges between the low-rise buildings were also made of concrete, their large eight-sided openings adopting a shape which appeared in many designs by Moro and his colleagues from the mid-1960s onwards. The raised podium was removed early in the 2000s, while the central and southern parts of the estate have been remodelled.
In 1967, a perspective drawing of the Thirza Street development was shown at the Royal Academy, where it caught the eye of Hans Peter ‘Felix’ Trenton, architect for the newly created London Borough of Southwark. Over the course of the next fifteen years, Peter Moro and Partners designed several estates for the borough. Much of this work was overseen by Moro’s partner in practice, Michael Mellish, with important contributions from numerous other colleagues.
The London Borough of Southwark was created as part of the reorganisation of the capital’s local government in 1964, bringing together three former Metropolitan Boroughs: Bermondsey, Camberwell, and Southwark. In 1966, the new authority reported that housing conditions were such that 2000 new homes were needed in the borough each year until 1981. When it came to the design of these homes, the former borough of Camberwell had already rejected the typical 1950s inner London strategy of housing design, namely picturesque ‘mixed developments’ of towers, maisonettes, and houses. Instead, the Aylesbury estate (1963-67) was more uniformly medium-rise, and this approach was rolled out across Southwark in the late 1960s.
This move reflects a contemporary shift away from high-rise housing. It partly was the result of increasing unease with ‘mixed development’; also important was growing criticism of isolated tall blocks. These debates led during the late 1950s and 1960s to a number of key projects elsewhere, such as Lillington Gardens in Pimlico (Darbourne and Darke, 1961-71), and the Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury (Patrick Hodgkinson from a scheme with Leslie Martin, 1961-72). In addition, the subsidy regime introduced by the 1956 Housing Act, which had favoured tall buildings, was abandoned at the end of the 1960s in favour of new cost ‘yardsticks’, and this, too, prompted particular interest in so-called ‘high density, low rise’ layouts. The examples designed by Neave Brown and colleagues for the London Borough of Camden are particularly well known, not least thanks to the research of the historian Mark Swenarton, but there are notable examples elsewhere in London – particularly in Lewisham and Southwark.
An early example in Southwark was Neylan and Ungless’ Limes Walk development in Peckham (1964-66), with two long terraces facing a pedestrian walkway. Reflecting growing interest in ‘vernacular’ detailing, Southwark’s developments increasingly featured brick elevations and tiled roofs, among them the Setchell Road development by Neylan and Ungless (1971-78), where a dense mixture of flats and houses is arranged around courtyards and pathways. Within this context, the estates designed by Peter Moro and Partners tended in terms of their design towards the rational rather than the picturesque or neo-historical. The need for high densities with a wide dwelling mix – from small flats to family dwellings – led to intricate, innovative and well-considered cross-sections. A key aim was the maximum possible amount of private open space, in the form of gardens or terraces.
An early scheme was at 76-78 Montpelier Road, Peckham (1969-74), a small brick-clad block sympathetic to the scale of the adjacent terraces. A 1976 guide to recent London buildings by Charles McKean and Tom Jestico thought it contextual without being imitative, ‘skilfully designed and well built’, noting how ‘well-chosen materials’ plus careful detailing had made ‘a very small stairway into a pleasant space’. (2)
It was followed by two larger estates. At Coxson Place, Bermondsey (1969-75), flats and maisonettes were built alongside new premises for the Downside Settlement (a boys’ club). The housing was arranged in two parallel blocks, separated by walkways on two levels, with a complex mixture of house types melded together into a building of deceptively simple appearance. A similar arrangement was used at Hamilton Square, close to Guy’s Hospital (1969-73). Flats and maisonettes are arranged in two bands of buildings, between which is a landscaped podium above garages and parking. The impression externally is of a cascade of brick-faced terraces and balconies, stepping up through the site. As at Coxson Place, the arrangement of the dwellings is complex, and the product of much thought. The larger flats and maisonettes have several levels and half-levels, with some stepping across the open walkways to reach their own terraces. The Architects’ Journal praised the design: ‘the architects have performed a small miracle in achieving an exceptionally high density within a maximum four storeys, each dwelling planned to Parker Morris standards and each with the bonus of a respectable private outside space. (3)
Less complex in layout but demonstrating many of the same ideas is a development at Pomeroy Street, Peckham (1974-78), which combined a linear block of flats and maisonettes on the street-facing front with terraced housing in the gardens to the rear. The design was contextual in its brick, and its scale, with the length of the block intended ‘to re-establish the linear form of Pomeroy Street’ whilst being broken up by gables and balconies intended to identify each dwelling and to ‘give a variety of views […] which conventional terrace housing often lacks’. (4) Writing in Building Design, John McKean praised the scheme’s combination of humane atmosphere and urban scale.
There were other projects in the borough. Earl Road/Rowcross Street (Wessex House, 1971-74) echoes James Stirling’s 1960s designs in its bright red brickwork and angled geometries. Brimmington Central (Blanch Close), meanwhile, was completed in 1981, with flats and houses plus a small parade of shops which Moro’s team developed from Southwark’s own in-house designs. A final larger development, the Pasley Estate, Kennington, was begun in 1975 and completed in 1982. Deliberately picturesque, its brick-clad, low-rise blocks of housing snake around and through the site, being crowned with pitched roofs.
Things seemed to be on a roll, but, by the late 1970s, inflation and recession were challenging the economic (and political) assumptions of the previous thirty years. The introduction of the nationwide ‘Right to Buy’ policy in 1980 further affected the landscape of council housing. The result was a sudden reduction in the numbers of new council houses being constructed. That year, the Illustrated London News commented that it was ‘sad and strange that, having taken two decades to discover the kind of municipal housing its citizens like and want, Southwark now finds itself without the cash to build them’. (5)
Within this body of work, the contribution of Peter Moro and Partners is notable. The Buildings of England volume for south London not only highlights the quality of Southwark’s 1970s housing in general, but the contributions of Moro’s office in particular. (6) These projects demonstrate well not only the ways in which local authorities and their designers in 1970s London sought to provide excellent new housing of often innovative form, but also the evolving nature of the ‘welfare state’ project and its architecture during a decade that is all too easily written off as a period of crisis and decline.
I’m very pleased to feature the second post by Matthew Evans which brings the story of Llandudno’s council housing up to date. Matthew, the principal author, works in communications within local government and has been assisted in research and writing by his father, Philip Evans, who has been a councillor on Aberconwy Borough and subsequently Conwy County Borough councils since 1976 and was twice Mayor of Llandudno, in 1983/4 and 2006/7. Many of the details of council minutes, personal details and recollections in this piece come from him. Most photographs (unless otherwise credited) have been kindly taken by the author’s sister, Kimberley Evans.
We left the story of Llandudno’s council housing in the last post on the eve of the Second World War, when the town had built substantial numbers of properties in several different parts of the town. But despite this activity, the pressures of the war and its aftermath would spur the building of large numbers of new houses as the town entered the post-war era.
The post-war era
The immediate years following World War Two, like elsewhere in the country, saw a housing shortage in Llandudno. Unlike many other areas this was not linked to bombing, as only a single recorded bomb fell on Llandudno during the war, on the side of one of the hills overlooking the town. But it was the safety of its location on the west coast of Britain that caused the town to become overcrowded. Unlike many similar seaside resorts on the south coast, whose populations declined to escape the bombing, numbers of people living in Llandudno increased significantly.
The town was chosen as the site of the Coast Artillery School, which was evacuated from Shoeburyness to Llandudno during the war. It was also the home of the Inland Revenue throughout the war (Colwyn Bay next door was home to the Ministry of Food), which meant an influx of 4000 civil servants into the town, alongside refugees from the war in Europe. James Callaghan, future prime minister, was the entertainments officer for this new contingent.
The diversity of people working or finding refuge in Llandudno is shown by the fact that Jewish services at the synagogue in the town attracted, on occasion, 400 attendees during the war. (1) At the end of the conflict, this increased population did not reduce immediately. The Inland Revenue only moved slowly back to London and a number of the demobbed soldiers had married into local families.
In today’s world, where the Government is keen to be seen to ‘level-up’ and move civil service posts out of London, such as to Treasury North in Darlington, it is interesting to consider how having well paid professional jobs remain in resort towns like Colwyn Bay and Llandudno might have helped diversify the local economies in a more sustainable way in the decades when many declined after the war.
An example of the housing situation in the immediate post-war was related by an old friend of the family called Betty Mylett, who grew up in Llandudno and had obtained work with the Inland Revenue during the war. Her job was relocated to London after the war and she lodged for a time in Harrow, but couldn’t settle and returned home in the late 1940s. She married and she and her husband firstly lived in what had been a large private family home in Upper Craig y Don – in what is still today a very comfortable and quiet area of Llandudno. However, in an illustration of living conditions at the time, their accommodation consisted of one room in a house occupied by over 20 other adults – a situation that could be multiplied throughout the town. Furthermore, at least ten families squatted in various abandoned buildings on the western slopes of the Great Orme’s Head at the site of the Coast Artillery School, which had relocated back to Essex. A further five families occupied Nissen huts used formerly by the RAF Police on the summit of the Great Orme.
The ‘squatters’ were mainly ex-servicemen who had been unable to find accommodation for their families on returning from active duty. Two of the men who lived at the Coast Artillery School site, George Williams and Eric Quiney, subsequently served as members of Llandudno Urban District Council (UDC) and were prominent on the Housing Committee.
Conditions were very spartan, with no real utilities or services and the buildings were in wind-swept locations. The families were eventually re-housed or temporarily placed in Arcon MkV pre-fabs erected at Maesdu in 1945, which lasted until around 1964. But the UDC, in much the same way as had been seen in 1919, got to work straightaway on building new housing. As a stopgap, aside from the prefabs, the authorities also adapted ex-army buildings. In 1949, there was an attempt to bring some regularity to the squatting at the Coast Artillery School site – known even today locally as The Gunsites. Four dwellings there were adapted on a temporary basis for £227.10.
In April 1949, the Welsh Board of Health were asked for approval for the UDC to adapt ‘hutments’ at Waterloo Camp, Conway Road to house families occupying hutments at the rear of the Nevill Hydro Hotel so that the hotel could be de-requisitioned from use by the Inland Revenue.
But more permanent housing was badly needed. In 1946, four houses were built on Cwm Road and in 1947 in the West Shore area of Llandudno, the UDC constructed the Dolydd and Denness Place developments. In 1949, outside the main urban area of the town, in its large rural hinterland, Cae Rhos, Llanrhos (then part of Llandudno, now part of Conwy), four agricultural workers’ dwellings were built by Peter T Griffiths, a local contractor for £6271.7.7. Also in 1949, eight houses were erected for agricultural workers in Waun Road, Glanwydden.
These were small estates of less than 50 houses each and a larger number of families in need of new housing eventually found accommodation on the Tre Creuddyn Estate. This was the first large scale post-war housing estate, built between 1948 and 1952 – with further flats and bungalows built at Canol Creuddyn in 1955. The houses are a mix of two storey terraced family homes, with four-storey single houses and flats facing Conway Road on the main approach into the town. They were far higher density than the pre-war houses and very well situated for tenants working in the town’s main industries, being only a five minutes’ walk to the seafront, shops and railway station and areas of light industry.
The names of the roads were all in Welsh, marking a move towards recognising the local culture and national language more overtly in the area, in roads like Ffordd Las, Ffordd Gwynedd and Ffordd Dwyfor (where ‘Ffordd’ means Road). Incidentally, the use of these names and the subsequent connotation with council estates caused local controversies, and when names beginning ‘Ffordd’ were proposed for private developments nearby there were objections from purchasers and the suffix ‘Road’ was used instead. For example, it later took several months to name the nearby – and private – Powys Road, Elan Road and Harlech Road because the matter was batted around the Council and a petition was received not to use the fully Welsh form.
The homes on the Tre Creuddyn estate were built by a number of local builders, to a common design. For example, records show one block of four houses was built by a consortium of Wm Jones & Son, Griffith Roberts, David Davies & Son, and John Owen for £5,117.3.5. The same group built one block of four flats for £3,371.12.11. Likely each builder specialised in one aspect of the building. One block of six houses was built for £7,227.8.10 by Thomas Idwal Jones of Llandudno and one further block of four flats for £3,371.12.11 by McNeill & Co of Llandudno.
Some of the builders were prominent locally – Griffith Roberts was a former chairman of UDC; David Davies was the longest serving member of the UDC; and Thomas Jones’ firm is still going and the oldest building firm in Llandudno.
The groundworks for the development – roads, pavements and sewers – were done by local builder Frank Tyldesley. The UDC itself put in street lighting and water mains. During the post-war years, because of the housing developments, the UDC employed an in-house architect – a Mr C N Bancroft ARIBA. He was born 1912 at Stockport and died in 1990 in Penmaenmawr.
A personal example of the impact of these new estates after the war is my own mother’s family. My mother was born in 1947 in an old miner’s cottage near the summit of the Great Orme; part of a row called Pant-y-Ffridd. The houses were extremely isolated and situated high above the town. I doubt if anyone who lived there owned a car, so all people either walked up or hitched a ride on the Great Orme Tram which still takes tourists to the top of the Orme. The provision of utilities would have been as sparse as the options for transport. My grandmother, Nanna Breeze mentioned in the previous post, had moved to Llandudno, alone, at 14 in 1928 from Horsehay, Dawley in Shropshire where her father was an Iron Founder at the Horsehay Ironworks (now part of the new town of Telford) to work as a Chambermaid.
But by the time my mother was born she was working in Llandudno General Hospital, down the mountain and on the other side of the town, as a cook. She had to make the journey to the hospital twice a day for her shifts and then back to look after the children, of whom there were five by that point (her husband was still serving in Germany after the war). The family was moved firstly down to King’s Road – the estate first developed after the First World War mentioned above – and then to Cwm Place, and then in 1957 onto the Tre Creuddyn Estate, living there in two different houses until around 1970. I know my grandmother was very grateful for a modern house, nearer work and on far more forgiving terrain. It made a huge difference to her and her family’s standard of living.
As an aside – at the same time my mum’s family were living on the Tre Creuddyn estate, the Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall and his family were living in Cwm Place and the Liverpool and Chelsea footballer Joey Jones was growing up in Ffordd Las, just around the corner.
As Llandudno moved into the 1960s, flats became more popular as opposed to the single-family homes that had been built up until that point. In 1964, the UDC built Ffordd yr Orsedd (named after the Gorsedd Bardic Circle of the National Eisteddfod of Wales which took place the previous year in Llandudno) and Ffordd Elisabeth – named after the Queen, but with spelling changed to conform to Welsh. This was a development of terraces of family homes and four of blocks with three radiating wings of flats on each floor.
Much of the council’s housing activity during this time was overseen by Glyn Roberts (known locally, as is common in Wales, by his job – thus he was always known to all as ‘Glyn Sanitary’). Glyn was a long-serving council employee and a locally born man, who joined the UDC just before WW2. He trained as a Health Inspector with the UDC by day release attendance course at Warrington. He also took a keen interest in meteorology and looked after Llandudno’s weather station, reporting readings daily to the Met Office. For his endeavours, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.
By reorganisation in 1974 he was Deputy Chief Public Health Inspector and Housing Manager. He transferred to Aberconwy Borough Council in 1974 as Principal Housing Officer, in which role he reported to the Director of Environmental Health & Housing, Idris Griffiths, who had also been his Chief at Llandudno UDC. The author’s father remembers Glyn as a well-known local character who brought to his work a common-sense approach and practical attitude. He also recalls Glyn had an excellent working relationship with the Councillors and was highly regarded for his legendry, encyclopaedic knowledge of the Llandudno tenants, their history and family connections. He worked as Principal Housing Officer until he was 65 in 1986 – although he could have retired at 60. To celebrate his long service to Llandudno’s housing management, the Mayor presented him with a plaque of the town’s armorial bearings on his retirement.
In 1965/67 further building took place. Lon Cymru, Lon Gwalia, and Llys Gwylan were constructed alongside the main road into town and showed a move in architectural style influenced by the Radburn movement, with orange brick and slate-hung houses and maisonettes overlooking pathways and off-road green spaces. These homes were designed by S Powell Bowen ARIBA of Colwyn Bay, who in 1970 established the Bowen Dann Davies Partnership (BDD) with Frank Dann and Bill Davies and the practice designed many developments for local authorities across North Wales. The practice established a strong reputation for its housing work, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, and many of its developments were award winners. (2)
This is the estate I knew best as a child. In 1986, we moved from Jubilee Street, a classic street of terraced two-up-two-downs next to the railway station in Llandudno, to a larger three-bedroom house that had previously been part of a small row of police houses. These were built in 1950 in a similar style to the local council housing by the Police Authority to house police constables and their families. Many of these were being sold off countrywide at the same period in time as the Right to Buy took hold in council housing. Our new house backed directly onto one of the Lon Cymru estate playgrounds, which led in turn directly onto another green patch and then yet another, all overlooked by houses. This meant that we could play safely with all the children on the estate without crossing any roads, which exemplifies one of the original perceived benefits of the Radburn style. These attractive houses are still highly sought-after by people today, one former resident being the photographer of all images on this post – my sister, whose first house after leaving the family home was five minutes’ walk away on the estate.
Moving into 1970, 38 flats in five blocks were built for aged persons at St Andrew’s Avenue in the centre of the town. The architect of these was H. Vincent Morris, C.Eng, ARICS, ARIBA, MIMunE, Surveyor and Architect to Llandudno UDC. A few years later came Parc Bodnant, Llandudno’s 1970s social housing showcase. This large estate of several hundred flats and houses was designed in-house under Leslie Miller, who had joined the successor to Llandudno UDC, Aberconwy Borough Council, from Cheshire County Council at reorganisation in 1974. Parc Bodnant continued the Radburn influence of housing from the late 60s, but in a different style. The housing was brown brick with white and black render and comprised both four storey blocks and terraces facing each other on narrow paths and walkways. It was higher density than the Lon Cymru estate of a few years previously and where the earlier one was sited on mainly flat and gently sloping land, Parc Bodnant was built on a steep slope emphasising the height of the block and terracing of the houses. It was an innovative design and was initially popular with residents and experts, even winning a Welsh regional housing award.
But despite having been highly regarded when first built, the Parc Bodnant estate had become unpopular by the late 1980s and 1990s, acquiring a reputation for anti-social behaviour among some residents though – as is often the case – this was only a minority of tenants. The initial residents of the estate when built were carefully selected families or mature couples, who had been living in flats and who had been on the transfer list for some years because of the slow turn-over in houses.
Over a period of about 15 years, the demographic make-up of the estate gradually changed and several of the original features, such as soft landscaping, became subject to vandalism. This, in turn, led to many of the original tenants wanting transfers out of the estate. The design and layout, with many secluded paths, much concrete surfacing and the stark black and while painted detailing, also eventually proved unpopular. This was compounded by the location of the estate, far from the town centre and on an exposed site backing onto open land leading up to Cwm Mountain. It also directly overlooked the town gasworks and gasometer, an abandoned brickworks, the site of the old town dump, and a scrapyard. The steeply sloping site meaning many residents had a clear view of all of this industry. All but the scrapyard are now completely redeveloped, with a post office sorting office, light industrial units and the town’s redeveloped secondary school now covering the other sites.
In recent years, the estate itself has seen much investment, with soft landscaping and re-rendering and repainting giving the estate a more welcoming, positive and popular image than previously. (3)
The Present Day
As with council properties across the UK, many homes in Llandudno were sold under the Right to Buy, which was eventually abolished in Wales in January 2019. The sales of large numbers of homes, especially on what had been the more popular estates, has severely depleted the stock of socially rented properties. The housing in the Tudno ward of Llandudno – the electoral division containing the bulk of the former council estates in the town south of the railway line – is now only 35 percent socially rented as opposed to 51 percent owner occupied. Until the Right to Buy and increasing private development from the early 80s, the housing in this area was overwhelmingly socially rented, bar one relatively small section. The employment base in the area has remained fundamentally the same as ever, with 21 percent working in wholesale and retail, 17 percent in health and social work, and 16 percent in accommodation and food services according to the last census. (4)
The building of social housing did not totally stop, however. North Wales Housing Association built Cwrt W M Hughes on the main approach into town in 1989, named after one time Llandudno resident William Morris Hughes, Labor Prime Minister of Australia 1916-23. In 1993, McInroy Close was built at Parc Bodnant as an infill development.
The first large scale social housing development after the 1970s was the building in 1996/7 of Lloyd George Close, Attlee Close, and Churchill Close. These were Housing Association developments built largely on the site of 1960s blocks of three-storey flats, which had declined in the intervening years and whose residents preferred to be housed in single-family houses, rather than flats.
The current local authority, Conwy County Borough, transferred its remaining 3,800 homes to an independent not-for-profit Registered Social Landlord in 2008. This new body is called Cartrefi Conwy (Welsh for ‘Conwy Homes’) and it has plans to develop 1,000 homes in the coming years. (5)
Recent developments on brownfield sites include Llwyn Rhianedd, completed in 2015 on the Tre Cwm estate, consisting of four two-bedroom properties and five three-bedroom properties; 16 two-bed flats in the centre of the town in Gloddaeth Street completed last year; and the building of new sheltered housing for the elderly in Abbey Road and redevelopment of outdated elderly people’s flats in Trinity Avenue.
These developments, aimed at a range of single people, families and retired persons continue a proud tradition of building quality homes for people in Llandudno that dates back more than a hundred years, to the very earliest decades of modern social housing provision in the UK. This history of progressive action demonstrates that the delivery of good standards of housing for working people was as much of a consideration in what many might consider a conservative seaside resort as it was in the larger cities, and Llandudno can be rightly proud of its record.
My apologies for the lack of recent posts – I’m busy writing a second book. The blog will continue to be updated and, in the meantime, I’m very grateful for (and continue to welcome) guest contributions such as this. Matthew Evans, the principal author, works in communications within local government and has been assisted in research and writing by his father, Philip Evans, who has been a councillor on Aberconwy Borough and subsequently Conwy County Borough councils since 1976 and was twice Mayor of Llandudno, in 1983/4 and 2006/7. Many of the details of council minutes, personal details and recollections in this piece come from him. Most photographs (unless otherwise credited) have been kindly taken by the author’s sister, Kimberley Evans.
The context of Llandudno
Llandudno is today a popular resort town of 20,000 or so residents, known for its unique setting between the headlands of the Great and Little Ormes and its wealth of Victorian architecture. It is situated halfway along the coast of North Wales and lies around 45 minutes from Chester and under an hour and a half from the major cities of the North West of England; cities on which its economy has largely depended for 150 years.
It was the growth spurred by the Industrial Revolution and the income that generated – enabling people to enjoy leisure time and vacations – that led to the founding of the modern town in what had up until then been a small copper mining and farming village on the lower slopes of the Great Orme. This small village overlooked marginal grazing land on the isthmus separating the mountain from the mainland and which included the legendary marsh of Morfa Rhianedd. This marsh famously features in the ancient Welsh poem, The Tale of Taliesin, as the place from where the poet prophesied that a ‘monster’ would rise and ‘bring destruction on Maelgwyn Gwynedd’, the ancient King of Gwynedd. This marsh, now drained, is where much of modern-day Llandudno – and its council housing – is located.
The land around Llandudno had been owned by the Mostyn family of Mostyn Hall in Flintshire since around 1460, when Hywel ab Ieuan Fychan had married Margaret ferch Gruffydd, the heiress of the Gloddaeth estate, which lies about a mile outside the present town. Following this, the land around Llandudno lay largely undisturbed as an obscure and remote part of the Mostyn lands for hundreds of years. Only a few writers remarked on the place, most notably the travel writer Thomas Pennant, who in his ‘Tour in Wales’ of 1778 commented on the ‘beautiful half-moon bay of Llandudno’.
All this changed in 1848 when a Liverpool Surveyor, Owen Williams, stranded in Llandudno during a storm, saw the potential of the landscape and setting for a new resort for the newly wealthy middle classes. He shared his ideas with Lord Mostyn, who leapt at the idea, and the two set about building a planned model resort, and obtained the necessary Act of Parliament to start. Within 50 years, and greatly accelerated by the arrival of the railway in 1858, central Llandudno had become essentially the town we see today, with wide, well-planned streets incorporating all the architectural styles of the latter half of the 19th century. The original plan called for a formal grid of streets, where the height of any building was not allowed to exceed the width of the street. Perhaps mindful of the poor living conditions of the big cities, no court or basement dwellings were permitted and the plan stipulated that ‘the town that is to be shall resemble, as far as practicable, the country’.
All of these measures created an attractive, fashionable town that had many of the grandest hotels, shops and entertainment venues that the Victorian and Edwardian holidaymaker could find anywhere in the UK. But all of these pleasures depended on having a large working population close at hand to work in the hotel and hospitality industries. It was this need, both to ensure a large pool of labour, but also to house them in a way that befitted the town – and was in accordance with the rules of development – that led the local authorities in Llandudno to create the earliest social housing in Wales. A provision of housing for local need that has endured to the present day.
The first council houses
Llandudno can lay claim to having built the first council homes anywhere in Wales. The first 19 ‘workmen’s dwellings’ were built in Council Street, Llandudno in 1897 at a cost of £210 each.
The Minutes of Llandudno Urban District Council (UDC) give the background to the development and how events progressed, and they give an idea of the process involved in building council housing at this time. At a meeting of the Council held on June 17, 1896, the Minutes notes that members ‘Resolved that Part III of the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890 be, and is hereby, adopted within the Urban District of Llandudno.’
The Local Government Board then held an enquiry in June 1896 to consider the Council’s request for approval to borrow money for the building of the homes. Construction was started in September 1896 and the Local Government Board queried why work had commenced prior to the loan sanction having been applied for. They required a fresh resolution to apply for the loan sanction.
This further resolution read: ‘That application be made to the Local Government Board for sanction to borrow £4357 for the purpose of carrying into effect Part 3 of the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1893 (sic) by the erection of 19 cottages in accordance with the plan and estimates prepared by the Surveyor and approved by the Council.’
In November 1896 the sanction was approved and the contractor was a Mr Hassell.
The scheme was not without its controversies however. The Minutes of the Workmen’s Dwelling Committee of February 22, 1897 record the Surveyor, E. Paley Stephenson, reporting on a series of accusations in the chamber from a Councillor John Owen, relating to the houses. The report states that Councillor Owen had clearly gone public on his criticisms and these comments were also printed in the Llandudno Directory and caused some outrage. The report and minutes note his concerns (all wording and punctuation as original):
They were as follows:-
That the fire-places were of common bricks.
That the floors were not concreted.
That the beam filling in party walls and eaves was not done.
That the roof is not water-tight, and that snow and rain would get through.
That the doors were ‘made in Canada.’
That the windows were bad and appeared as if ‘coming from the Transvaal.‘
The surveyor rejected or explained all these issues and noted there was ‘no liability on the contractor to get them [the doors] made in Llandudno, and they are good’. He seemed confused by the reference to windows from the Transvaal, observing: ‘though I do not know where they were made [they] are of fair workmanship’.
The Committee then paid a visit to see the claims for themselves and the next Committee Meeting of February 27 notes:
After a minute examination of the houses the Committee came to the conclusion they could not endorse the statements made by Mr. Councillor Owen, at the last meeting of the Council. On the contrary, they are of the opinion that the erections and workmanship contrasted very favourably with other property in Llandudno. Although inspected on a stormy day, after 12 hours almost incessant rain, the houses shewed no sign of rain having penetrated.
After this firm rejection of Councillor Owen’s criticisms, the Committee’s only other resolution that day was: ‘That the Council, as an experiment, be recommended to fit up ten of the dwellings with penny in the slot gas meters.’
These first council properties were refurbished and converted into warden-controlled flats in the late 1970s. This involved re-rendering and each dwelling was converted into two flats, one accessed from the original front door of each property and the upper flat being accessed from the back, up a stairway. At that time the street was re-named Norman Road. The former name had become unpopular as the houses had declined over time and the houses on one side of the road had never, in fact, been council properties. However, the former name lives on in the western extension of the road, which is a light industrial area called Council Street West.
Despite the criticisms of the likes of Councillor Owen and the press reports of debates on the council, the Council Street scheme was just the start of social housing building as Llandudno looked towards the Edwardian era. On October 28, 1896, the Workmen’s Dwellings Committee dealt with negotiations to buy land for further housing from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Terms were subsequently offered by the Commission and accepted by the UDC to buy land for 69 cottages at a total cost of £13,661. This was a scheme in Alexandra Road, West Shore, but this part of the street was subsequently renamed as part of King’s Road.
On January 28, 1897, the Workmen’s Dwellings Committee notes a Surveyor was authorised to arrange for a memorial stone with the following wording to be fixed in a convenient part of the building: ‘Workmen’s Dwellings erected by the Urban District Council of Llandudno 1897’
In May 1900, the Surveyor put forward a further scheme for erection of 28 houses and in April 1902 tenders were presented for a further 28 houses in Alexandra Road.
Homes Fit for Heroes
The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, commonly known as the Addison Act after the Minister of Housing Christopher Addison, laid the foundation for the large rise in council housing the country saw after the First World War. This was part of the call for ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ made by Prime Minister David Lloyd George towards the end of the war. Llandudno Urban District Council moved quickly into action and decided to build further houses in West Shore. Llandudno was perhaps further spurred into action by the fact that David Lloyd George was the local MP for Caernarfon Boroughs (of which Llandudno was part). The first section of King’s Road was completed in 1920, with a commemorative stone laid on 8th October 1920 by Dame Margaret Lloyd George, wife of the Prime Minister; and Mrs E. R. Woodhouse, wife of the Chairman of Llandudno UDC.
The building of new council housing continued throughout the 1920s and 30s mainly in the West Shore area, in Maesdu (where the majority of council housing would take place after the war) and up the Great Orme itself. Rather than large estates, council developments at this time were mainly one or two roads in size, such as the adjoining Lees Road and Knowles Road. These streets were named after the Conservative politician, philanthropist and supporter of social housing and the Guinness Trust, Sir Lees Knowles, who died in 1928. In 1926 and 1934 Marian Road and Marian Place were built alongside the railway line around the same time that the UDC constructed its new bridge over the tracks linking Deganwy and Llandudno and replacing the level crossing that had hampered communications in the peak holiday season when Llandudno could see over 100 hundred trains a day passing in and out. The bridge also gave its name to the Bridge Road estate built around the same time. In 1934 Cwm Place was built, a development that would later be surrounded by the Tre Creuddyn estate, but which when built was somewhat isolated from the urban area of the town. The full list of developments at this time – always referred to as ‘workmen’s dwellings’ in the council minutes – shows the almost continuous building activity that took place:
1920 King’s Road
1922/23 Dyffryn Road
1923 Mowbray Road
1924 Knowles Road & Trinity Avenue
1925 Knowles Road
1925 Marian Road
1926 Maesdu Road & Maesdu Place
1927 Lees Road, King’s Avenue, King’s Place
1929 Bridge Road
1930 Ty’n y Coed
1933 Llwynon Road
1934 Cwm Place 33 houses and 3 flats
1935 Cwm Place 16 houses and 16 flats
1934 Marian Place
1935 Maesdu Road
The architecture of this housing evolved over the interwar years. Given the difficult economic context of the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the housing of 1920 in King’s Road housing is plain and simple, semi-detached houses with flat fronted and pebbledash render. By the middle of the 1920s, as can be seen in the following images, the houses became larger. The author’s grandmother, known to all her 13 grandchildren by her surname as ‘Nanna Breeze’, lived in a typical 1923 house of this type in Mowbray Road, indicated in the picture, from around 1970, until her death in 2006.
This house had a bay window with a recessed entrance porch, substantial lawned gardens front and back, three bedrooms, inside toilet and separate bathroom, kitchen, large hall with a staircase with 90-degree return, and a front parlour and separate back living room. I recall, even in the late 1980s when I was a child, the front room overlooking the road was reserved for special visitors and completely out of bounds for us children, even though visitors of sufficient quality for entry were few and far between. The back room, where all family life was conducted, faced south and used to become unbearably hot during the summer when, with our parents at work, my sister and I had to go and spend most days in the school holidays with our grandmother.
She was a cleaner in a seafront hotel by that point (well over 70 years of age), but the management allowed my sister and I to sit and play in the guest lounge while she completed her morning cleaning shift. In the afternoons, back at her house, she would naturally have a nap and I would then often sneak quietly into the cool, north-facing front room – unknown to her and in total contravention of the visitors-only rule – to escape the stifling heat in the back room. Sorry Nanna!
Such was the quality of this housing that my Nanna recalled having been told by several residents that the houses had been built by a private developer that had gone bankrupt and had to sell his privately built houses to the council for social housing. This was a myth, however, as the Council minutes are clear that this high-quality housing was all planned and built by the UDC itself for working people.
All of this shows that by the eve of the Second World War, Llandudno had made great strides in rehousing substantial numbers of people within good quality housing, with genuine commitment and a pioneering attitude from local councillors and officers. After the Second World War, the inevitable pressures of housing need and changing styles would mean that housing was less substantial and generous in style than before the war. The continuing story will be told in next weeks post.
Tjerk Ruimschotel, Architectural Guide London (DOM Publishers, 2021)
Firstly, an apology: new posts have been pretty sparse recently. Firstly, for obvious reasons, it’s been hard to get out and about over the last year and libraries and archives have been closed. Secondly, I’m writing a new book and that has to take priority in my current writing and research. I’ll try to keep things ticking over and, of course, I’ll be as grateful as ever for new guest posts on estates that you have researched and know well.
But one of the good things that has happened recently is receiving a copy of the new book by Tjerk Ruimschotel. I met Tjerk after a talk I gave a couple of years ago when he told me about his current project. I’m delighted to see it finished and to such a high standard. Tjerk is a Dutchman, a lecturer and urban designer, formerly chief urban designer for the city of Groningen. His knowledge of and familiarity with London deserve to make him an honorary citizen of the capital.
The book’s subtitle is ‘Twentieth-Century Housing Projects’ and that gives you a pretty good idea of its focus. As he points out in his introduction, London ‘has always been a residential metropolis’ but by projects he means not the ordinary and ubiquitous, primarily suburban, housing that characterises the city but estates and buildings that are in some respects extraordinary in terms of their design or architectural and historical significance – in Tjerk’s words, ‘a representative cross-section of projects that not only provided a good home for their inhabitants but also made a significant contribution to the spatial quality of the surrounding environment’. Of these just over half are, broadly defined, social housing.
Many of the latter will be familiar to aficionados and are rightly given due recognition here. The work of the London County Council features prominently, both in its early tenement buildings, its interwar cottage estates and its later showpiece, predominantly high-rise, schemes. Camden, of course, is featured and many more borough developments too numerous to list but including some personal favourites of mine such as Churchill Gardens and Central Hill – the latter (as he notes) tragically under threat of demolition.
I know a bit about council housing and I found his concise summaries accurate and informative. A strength of the book is that it extends beyond the narrowly architectural and provides some description of the social and political context of the estates both in their inception and their later evolution. I could stress that context more heavily in terms of how estates – and their communities – have evolved but he demonstrates a sympathetic awareness of the myriad factors that have shaped both the realities and, perhaps more importantly, the perceptions of social housing over time.
Conversely, a real quality of the guide is its coverage of a wide array of private schemes. Some of these – such as the Isokon Building, Pullman Court and Highpoint I and II – will be well-known to architectural enthusiasts but others perhaps less so. The quality of the pre- and post-First World War Webb Estate in Croydon and the 1930s Modernism of Gidea Park stood out for me as well as the proper notice given to some of the better interwar mansion blocks such as Cholmeley Lodge in Haringey and Du Cane Court in Wandsworth. But you will have your own favourites and discover some others.
In overall terms, the book is impressive for its balanced coverage and geographic and chronological range with seven sections reaching from Parnell House in Bloomsbury, the first of the ‘model dwellings’ built for the working class back in 1848, to Dujardin Mews in Enfield, designed by Karakusevic Carson Architects for the Borough of Enfield in 2017. An epilogue on the ‘past, present and future’ of social housing in London provides a useful overview.
Tjerk’s analysis is fluent, knowledgeable and precise throughout but – and in no way detracting from that – for me the stand-out quality of the book (and what distinguishes it from potential competitors) is its high production values. It features high-quality colour photography throughout, excellent and genuinely useful mapping (even QR codes that help you navigate to the buildings discussed) as well as two indexes, one to the schemes themselves and one to their architects. The illustrations provided should give some impression of that quality. This is a good book, one to keep on your coffee table or to carry around as you explore the wonderful variety and frequent quality of London’s more recent housing.
We left Bristol last week in 1958 as slum clearance was in full swing and just as the Council announced plans to demolish a further 24,500 homes by the end of the century. By this point, however, such wholesale clearances – extended to areas of less severe housing deprivation – were arousing fierce opposition and that would have unintended consequences.
As local opposition mobilised, particularly among owner occupiers, the Labour MP for Bristol South, William Wilkins, raised concerns in a 1959 House of Commons adjournment debate, focusing on the issue of Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs). In Bristol, he cited 11 orders awaiting ministerial approval comprising 839 ‘pink’ properties (officially classified as unfit) and 453 ‘grey’ properties (capable of rehabilitation), of which 527 were owner-occupied. He cited local discontent and asked whether the Conservative Government felt that ‘they should abandon their slum clearance programme not only in Bristol but throughout the country’. (1) In this, Wilkins was some way ahead of of his time.
In 1959, a candidate of the Easton Homes Defence Association, formed to opposed demolitions, was victorious in local elections. In 1960, the Citizen Party (the local Conservatives in all but name) – which had been fanning the flames of local protest – secured an overall majority on the City Council.
The new administration set about reversing Labour policies by promoting private development on suburban estates and withdrawing the CPOs. But they encountered unexpected opposition when they met Henry Brooke, the Conservative Minister of Housing and Local Government. Brooke emphasised that he was: (2)
extremely anxious that slum clearance should go on and go on fast. I should be anxious that large numbers of houses which are represented by the Medical Officer of Health were being turned down by the City Council. I should be beginning to wonder whether, in fact, slum clearance was going on as fast as it should be.
The political arms race at Westminster between Labour and Conservative Parties to build housing at pace and scale clearly took precedence over such local difficulties and the Bristol delegation returned home chastened. Central slum clearance proceeded and, ironically, in an attempt to make up the shortfall created by the axing of the Council’s suburban housebuilding programme, the construction of high flats in central areas was accelerated. In 1962, the proportion of high-rise approvals reached 99 percent. In the short term, the Council demolished 1300 more homes than it built between 1961-62, a fact contributing to Labour’s victory in the 1963 local elections.
This new phase of high-rise construction saw a shift in its locally predominant form – from slab block to point block. The former were criticised for their narrow access balconies which were not at all the ‘streets in the sky’ being pioneered in some deck-access developments of the day. Bristol was also becoming more typical in its reliance on a number of major contractors; Laing, Wimpey and Tersons won the bulk of local contracts.
What Bristol escaped, though seemingly more by happenstance, was the move to system-building. Bristol had been urged down this route in 1962 by Evelyn Sharp, the powerful Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG), and local councillors visited Denmark and France to see such methods in operation. But the Council was unwilling to offer the size of contract that the big builders wanted and the City Architect (now Albert Clarke) proved an awkward negotiating partner so interest waned.
The 13-storey Kingsmarsh House and 11-storey Moorfields House and Baynton House in Lawrence Hill were completed in the mid-1960s. Other point blocks were built just to the north in Easton in the later 1960s, including Croydon House, Twinnell House and Lansdowne Court at 17 storeys.
Into the mid-1960s, the Council also built high-rise in some of its suburban estates – three 14-storey blocks on Culverwell Road, Withywood (since demolished) and three eleven storey blocks on Hareclive Road, Hartcliffe, which remain. The usual case for suburban high-rise was mixed development – a variety of housing forms intended to serve a range of housing needs and to provide point and contrast in otherwise rather monotonous low-rise estates. In Bristol, it may also have reflected the Council’s need to build at scale when other options had closed or been closed.
The most interesting and controversial multi-storey schemes, however, occurred in Kingsdown. The Kingsdown I (Lower Kingsdown) redevelopment was underway by 1965, comprising six six- and fourteen-storey slab blocks. Carolina House was officially opened in October 1967. This large-scale incursion into an area of previously dense and intimate housing – some would say picturesque – was contentious but criticisms ramped up when it came to the Council’s plans for the upper slopes, Kingsdown II.
Here the original proposal for three linked 17-storey blocks was fiercely opposed by an increasingly active Bristol Civic Society backed by the Royal Fine Art Commission. (The Commission was authorised to draw government attention to any development which ‘in its opinion affected amenities of a national or public character’.) The MHLG rejected the scheme and also sharply criticised the Council’s somewhat half-hearted revised scheme for four eight-storey blocks. When the Citizen Party won a majority on the Council in 1967, the scheme was scrapped and the land sold to private developers. The High Kingsdown scheme which emerged – a courtyard development designed by Anthony Mackay of Whicheloe, Macfarlane and Towning Hill – is widely praised. (3)
Geoffrey Palmer, the leader of the new Citizen administration, declared in December 1967 that ‘apart from a few projects in hand, Bristol will build no more multi-storey flats’. Northfield House, in Bedminster, begun in 1969 was the Council’s last major high-rise scheme and – at 18 storeys – its tallest.
Whatever the local dynamics, in this Bristol was also reflecting national trends. Patrick Dunleavy emphasises the extent to which Bristol – like other local authorities – was heavily influenced by central government pressure, notably in the drive to clear the slums and build high in the early 1960s and in the reversal of that policy in 1967.
They heyday of high-rise – notwithstanding those projects in the pipeline – was over. The collapse of the system-built Ronan Point block in Newham in May 1968 is always taken as the major cause. In fact, alarm at the disproportionate expense of high-rise construction and a growing realisation that it didn’t rehouse at density (or that high density could be achieved better) were already making rehabilitation of older properties a preferred option of central government.
By 1971, there were 66 council estates in Bristol containing some 43,000 homes which housed just under a third of its 427,000 population. Within the total, there were 55 high blocks (of ten storeys or more) in the city forming around 14 percent of its total housing stock – a proportion higher than that in Manchester and Sheffield, for example, and the highest among what Dunleavy calls the free-standing county boroughs (a status it would lose in 1974 before becoming a unitary authority again in 1996).
This had been a frantic period of housing construction. Bristol had both followed and bucked the trends – pursuing the same path to higher-rise building as most of the larger cities but doing so in a local form, certainly in earlier years, and avoiding the pressures towards system building. Its slabs and blocks have generally survived – with the exception of some on the suburban estates – and seem to have stood the test of time better than many.
The website of the Tower Block UK Project provides detail on high-rise public housing in Bristol and nationally.
(2) Quoted in Patrick Dunleavy, ‘The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain: Local Communities Tackle Mass Housing’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 1978. Dunleavey’s research provides much of the detail that follows.
(3) A full account of the episode and description of the High Kingsdown scheme is provided by Elain Harwood in this online document.
Bristol had been transformed by council housing between the wars, as discussed in this earlier post. The City Council built over 15,000 new council homes, principally on nine new suburban estates. Together, they formed around 40 percent of the city’s new housing. It would be transformed again in the post-war period – new peripheral estates appeared but, most strikingly and obviously in the central areas, there were also the high-rise blocks which will form the central focus of this post.
There had been modest forays into multi-storey housing before the Second World War. Three-storey flats had been built to rehouse those displaced by a slum clearance scheme in Eugene Street in 1923 at Lawford’s Gate in Old Market and Eugene Street itself. A speech by Sir Hilton Young, Minister of Health and Housing, in Bristol in 1934 probably boosted local efforts. He urged that those displaced by slum clearance – in full swing as a result of legislative and policy changes in the decade – be rehoused centrally (near their places of work) and in flats; he counselled a somewhat sceptical audience to ‘go and look at what can be done in the way of tenement dwellings for wage-earners according to modern standards’. (1) Four-storey flats were built in Hotwell Road, Kingsland Road and Champion Square (St Pauls) in the mid- to late-1930s.
Around 3200 homes were destroyed in Bristol by aerial bombing during the Second World War but raised post-war expectations and a baby boom added their own urgency to renewed slum clearance and rehousing efforts after it. The first, unauthorised, response was a squatting movement which spread like wildfire across the UK; by October 1946, an estimated 1038 camps had been commandeered as emergency housing by almost 40,000 activists. In Bristol, squatters occupied a military base named White City near the Bristol City football ground. Local supporters were keen to stress their respectability: (2)
Their action was unusual, unconstitutional, but let no one think they are ruffians. They are ordinary people, they shave every day, eat at tables, go off to earn their own living.
The Labour-controlled Council itself was initially hostile – elsewhere some were positively helpful – but a prominent Labour member of the Housing Committee, Harry Hennessy, supported the action and urged those taking part to: ‘Sit tight. Carry on. Take no notice of rumours. The police cannot touch you’. Some of the army huts were acquired temporarily as council housing and most of the squatters had been permanently rehoused by 1950.
The temporary prefab programme, inaugurated in 1944, was an official state response and around 2700 of these temporary bungalows were erected in the city – the largest numbers (around 150) at a site in Ashton Dell and 127 in the suburb of Horfield.
The city also went big on permanent prefabrication – the various systems that it was hoped might provide a speedy and cost-effective method of solving the post-war housing crisis. By March 1955, Bristol had built 16,704 permanent houses since war’s end; of these 10,892 were non-traditional – including 5415 Easiform homes made of in situ poured concrete and 1712 Cornish units of concrete post and panel construction. Less common systems nationally such as Unity (precast concrete and steel frame) and Woolaway (another form of concrete post and panel construction) were also built at scale. (3)
It was these suburbs that provided the bulk of the city’s early post-war housebuilding. The Lawrence Weston, Henbury and Lockleaze Estates to the north were approved soon after the war; Withywood and Hartcliffe to the south started construction in the early 1950s.
The Council’s 1951 Development Plan reflected the thinking of the day in its emphasis on the neighbourhood units held to promote community on new council estates. But it marked also a renewed intention to redevelop central areas; it was estimated that there were 10,000 houses in Bristol unfit for human habitation and a further 25,000 that were substandard. The Plan envisaged 19,000 new homes by 1957 of which 10,000 would be flats.
It had been argued since the 1930s, as we saw, that inner-city slum clearance required multi-storey replacement – displaced residents needed to be near their place of work and flats were held to achieve a necessary higher population density. In the 1950s, the case was strengthened by what many councils perceived as a shortage of suitable land for housing (a ‘land trap’, as it was described contemporarily), created by new zoning regulations and green belts pushing peripheral suburbs inconveniently distant. Some councils were also loath to move their ratepayers and voters into neighbouring districts.
In this respect, Bristol, aided by a boundary extension into Somerset in 1951, was relatively well off but the perception of land shortage was a powerful one that influenced decision-making at the time. Patrick Dunleavy, the chief chronicler of Bristol’s multi-storey development, considers the 1956 high flats subsidy (which paid a higher amount the higher the scheme) another significant influence on Bristol councillors’ choice to build tall.
Heavily-bombed Redcliffe, immediately to the east of the city centre, was one of the earliest areas selected for redevelopment when in July 1945 the City Council agreed proposals to redevelop the district as ‘a housing area for key workers’. Detailed plans for what Alderman Charles Gill, the powerful chair of the Housing Committee, called a ‘tremendous and interesting project’, were approved in December 1949. (4)
Although reaching only a modest six storeys, this was an early showpiece scheme for the Council, planned to accommodate some 2500 residents in a mix of 775 one- to three-bed homes. ‘An outstanding contribution [was] the bold decision to provide a central-heating and hot-water system for all dwellings’, according to AW Cleave Barr – a district heating system, located in Canynge House, which ‘influenced the form of the scheme in the direction of a few very large blocks of flats and maisonettes, as opposed to a mixed development of flats and houses’. (5) A communal laundry, nursery and doctors’ surgery were also included.
Higher blocks, including the 13-storey Waring House, were completed in the area in 1960. A three-bed flat in the scheme could be rented for about £3.20 which included hot water, laundry and heating. (If you watched the 2020 BBC2 series A House Through Time on no. 10 Guinea Street, you will have seen the development at the end of the road.)
Barton Hill, to the east of the city centre, was another area targeted for redevelopment and controversy over the plans anticipated later difficulties. It was undeniably an area of old and inadequate housing but many of the residents – who felt themselves part of a respectable working-class community – resented the slum label and disliked the multi-storey alternative.
According to Hilda Jennings’ account of a public meeting called to discuss the plans in 1953 (Jennings was the warden of a university settlement in the district): (6)
Opposition to building in multi-storey flats was general; when one official, after expounding their convenience and the necessity for them, agreed that he himself lived, in a ‘nice little house’, the whole audience chanted ‘That’s what we want. A nice little house in a nice little garden, with a nice little fence around it’.
But, apparently, council officials were heard more sympathetically ‘when they claimed that the only alternative to building upwards was moving out to the overspill area’. In any case, the plans went ahead
Actual clearance and reconstruction took far longer. Barton House was completed in 1958; at 15 storeys, then the tallest block outside London. Two eleven-storey blocks (Phoenix and Eccleston Houses) were completed in 1961; four more fifteen-storey blocks (Longlands, Harwood, Corbett and Beaufort Houses) the following year. (Most of the present colour schemes date to a general refurbishment programme carried out in the 1990s.)
These were the balcony-access slab blocks, designed by City Architect, J Nelson Meredith, that Bristol favoured at the time. The blocks here, as elsewhere in the city, were, for all their prominence, placed individually so there were few dense concentrations of high-rise housing and no attempt to emulate the Zeilenbau schemes (arranged on a north-south axis to maximise sunlight) found elsewhere. (7)
Lower-rise blocks of six-storeys apiece in idiosyncratic Bristol-style – Tyndall House and John Cozens House – in the St Jude’s Redevelopment Area were begun in 1957. Two ten-storey blocks (since demolished) were built on the peripheral Lawrence Weston estate.
Overall, the share of high-rise in housing schemes approved by the City Council increased from eight percent to nearly 30 between 1954 and 1957. In 1958, the Housing Committee sanctioned a 12-year clearance programme that included plans to demolish half the houses in Easton ward and some 24,500 houses in total by 2001. (8)
These plans would prove more controversial and the political shift they helped bring about locally would have major consequences for how high-rise developed in Bristol in the 1960s. Those topics will feature in next week’s post.
The website of the Tower Block UK Project provides detail on high-rise public housing in Bristol and nationally.
(1) ‘Minister’s Speech on Housing’, Western Daily Press, 14 July 1934
(4) ‘Redcliff Hill Flats Plan to House Port Key Workers Goes Forward’, Western Daily Press, 20 December 1949
(5) AW Cleave Barr, Public Authority Housing (BT Batsford, 1958)
(6) Hilda Jennings wrote an account of the episode in her 1962 book, Societies in the Making. The quotation from it is drawn from Patrick Dunleavy, ‘The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain: Local Communities Tackle Mass Housing’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 1978.
(7) Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers for the Welfare State (The Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, 2017).
(8) Dunleavy, ‘The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain’.
I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post and some fine photography by Thaddeus Zupančič. Thaddeus is a Slovenian-born writer and translator. He has lived in London since 1991. For the first 14 years he worked as a radio producer with the BBC World Service. On his Instagram account @notreallyobsessive he is now about one third through his project, London Modernism 1946-1981, which documents modernist council estates in the capital. He is also a volunteer with The Twentieth Century Society and manages its Instagram account @c20society.
On Sunday, 23 January 1955, Margaret Willis, a sociologist in the Planning Division of the Architect’s Department of the London County Council, gave a broadcast on the BBC Home Service programme Home for the Day.
Her bosses thought the broadcast, in which she ‘would informally talk about her work at County Hall’, was ‘in the interest of the Council’ and therefore recommended that ‘under Staff Regulation 112’ she should be allowed to retain the fee (‘probably 8 guineas’).
The eight-minute talk was titled My Job. Willis explained that a sociologist is a ‘sort of liaison officer between people like you, the housewives, and the Council’s technical men and women who make the plans in the drawing office’. She was, though, mostly talking about the scarcity of land in ‘the centre of our cities’ and how planners and architects ‘realise how important gardens are to many people and they are doing their best to provide them’. One of their ideas, she explained, was to build ‘a compromise between a house and a flat, it’s a four-storey building like a house on top of a house’. The main benefit of these buildings was the attached gardens, but there was also something else: ‘People prefer this type of building to a flat because they like going upstairs to bed.’ (1)
Such ‘houses on top of houses’ – known as maisonettes because of their split-level plan – were not a complete novelty. On the Devons Estate in Bromley-by-Bow, for instance, there are four low-rises which look like terrace houses with separate flats on the top of them, basically ‘flats on the top of houses’. It is an unexciting, but useful Neo-Georgian pastiche. Pevsner is more damning: the estate, opened in 1949, is ‘entirely in the LCC’s pre-war manner, but with all the drabness of post-war austerity’. (2)
The first modernist maisonette block in London was Brett Manor in Brett Road, Hackney, built in 1947-8. It was designed by Edward Mills for the Manor Charitable Trustees (Mills used the same Arup box frame as Tecton did at Spa Green Estate, which was completed in 1950).
Brett Manor was swiftly followed by Powell & Moya’s Bauhausian low-rise blocks at Churchill Gardens in Pimlico (designed from 1946, built in 1947-51), which were the first modernist maisonettes built by any London council, in this case Westminster.
Margaret Willis’s employer was not far behind. Already in the early 1950s, as Elain Harwood points out, a group at the LCC Architect’s Department, worked on ‘an efficient maisonette plan, which they then cast into ten-storey slabs, built at Bentham Road, Hackney, at Loughborough Junction, Lambeth, and, most impressively, the Alton West Estate, Roehampton.’ (3) (The Gascoyne Estate in Hackney was built in 1952-4; the Loughborough Estate in 1956-8; and the Alton West Estate in 1955-8.)
The LCC dotted various iterations of these Corbusian slabs on stilts all around the central London metropolitan boroughs, including Southwark (Symington House in 1957, and Prospect House in 1962); Bermondsey (Chilton Grove in 1959); Lambeth (Wimborne House in 1959, Waylett House and Duffell House in 1963); Bethnal Green (Westhope House and Kinsham House in 1956, Yates House and Johnson House in 1957, Orion House in 1962); Stepney (Raynham House and Gouldman House in 1958, Withy House in 1959, Troon House in 1961 and Butler House in 1962); Poplar (Storey House in 1958 and Thornfield House in 1960); Westminster (the towers of the Maida Vale Estate in 1961 and Torridon House, albeit designed in 1959 only completed in 1969); and Islington (Muriel Street in 1964).
Private practices working for the LCC were also designing maisonette slabs and blocks for them, the most impressive being the Ricardo Street Scheme at the Lansbury Estate in Poplar by Geoffrey Jellicoe (for the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Architecture, 1951); the Cordelia Street Scheme on the same estate by Norman & Dawbarn (1963); and the Fulbourne Estate slab and block by Stillman & Eastwick-Field (1958-9) in Whitechapel.
Maisonettes, regardless of the type of building in which they were incorporated, were an integral part of mixed developments, ‘the dominant ideology for housing i n the 1950s’ (4).
There was, though – as it is explained in the oddly self-flagellating GLC book Home Sweet Home – a problem with maisonette slabs: their ‘mass was too dominating, and problems of overshadowing and inflexibility of orientation led to planning difficulties which limited its use in high-density areas’. (5) A far greater potential, continues the book, was offered by the point block with its ‘non-directional shape and quick-moving shadow’.
After the success of Draper House on the Draper Estate in Elephant and Castle (completed 1962), the ‘tall blocks of maisonettes’ (6) became almost as ubiquitous as the slabs, most successfully in the case of the six 21-storey blocks on the Warwick Estate in Westminster (completed in 1966), though the medium-rise maisonettes on this estate are just as compelling.
Even taller, at 24 storeys, were the blocks of maisonettes of the cross-over ‘scissors’ type on the Pepys Estate (designed from 1963, completed in 1973) in Deptford and the 26-storey Maydew House on the Abbeyfield Estate (1965-8) in Southwark. The ‘scissors’ type was first tested for the LCC’s Lincoln Estate blocks in Poplar (1959-62), but ‘later discontinued owing to the high cost of its complex construction’. (7) The construction was indeed complex, with central corridors placed at a half level, ‘providing entrances to flats that ran the width of the block above or below, ‘crossing’ to give each other a dual aspect’. (8) They also provided a maximum of through light and ventilation. Even better than the 24-storey blocks on the Pepys Estate are the eight-storey ‘scissors’ maisonettes, a ‘strong, unifying element of the scheme’. (9)
‘Houses, flats and maisonettes’ was a mantra not only for the LCC, but also for London’s metropolitan boroughs and the City.
The best examples of the latter are the Golden Lane Estate by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon for the City (which consists of various blocks of flats and six blocks of maisonettes plus a community centre, swimming pool and a tennis court, 1954-6); and Denys Lasdun’s part of the Greenways Estate for Bethnal Green Borough Council (the two inventive eight-storey cluster towers with 24 maisonettes each and the three low-rise blocks with another 50 maisonettes, 1955-8) as well as his Keeling House (for the same council, completed in 1959, originally comprising 56 maisonettes and eight studio flats).
Equally busy were Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin (the post-Tecton maisonettes on the Dorset Estate, 1951-7, and the Cranbrook Estate, 1955-65, both for Bethnal Green, and the Tabard Garden Estate Extension in Southwark, 1964-5, for the LCC); Frederic Gibberd (Kingsgate Estate, 1958-61, for Hackney); George, Trew & Dunn (Winstanley Estate, 1964-6, for Battersea); Clifford Culpin & Partners (Edgecombe Hall Estate, 1957-63, for Wandsworth); and Co-operative Planning (St John’s Estate, 1963, for Poplar).
So too were the borough architects of those metropolitan and municipal councils that already had them – most notably Camberwell’s F.O. Hayes (Sceaux Gardens, 1957-60; and the Astley Estate, 1957-9); Fulham’s Borough Architect and Director of Housing J. Pritchard Lovell (Clem Attlee Court, 1957); Willesden’s T.N. l’Anson (the 1963 blocks in the South Kilburn Redevelopment Area with maisonettes on the top of flats); and T.A. Wilkinson at Edmonton (Cumberland House and Graham House on Goodwin Road, 1962). Only five out of the twenty-eight metropolitan boroughs had their own borough architects (of whom four were also directors of housing). Just as busy were the borough engineers and surveyors, for instance W.J. Rankin at Poplar (the first phase of the St John’s Estate, 1956; the Alfred Estate, 1959-60; and the Aberfeldy Estate, 1962-3).
The reorganisation of London’s local government in 1965 saw the creation of the new Greater London Council and 32 new London borough councils (plus the City) which then became responsible for a substantially larger part of housing projects and planning than before.
More importantly, the London Government Act of 1963 introduced – in s.74(1) – the statutory post of ‘an architect for the borough’ (10) in each one of them and, ‘as the case may be’, the City.
The most celebrated of them was Sydney Cook, who established Camden’s architect’s department. Cook recruited some of the best young talent – including Peter Tábori, Bill Forrest, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth – but the ‘first and foremost among those who joined Camden from the cutting edge of London’s architectural culture was Neave Brown’. (11)
Brown designed two of the most remarkable post-1965 council estates in London: the Dunboyne Road Estate (a mixture of three- and two-bed maisonettes and one-bed flats; designed from 1966 and built in 1971-7); and the Rowley Way part of the Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate (block B, for instance, comprises four storeys of two- and three-bed maisonettes), built in 1972-8.
Cook’s competitor for Camden’s job was the housing architect of Hampstead, C.E. Jacob. He was later appointed borough architect of Haringey and as soon as his new Department of Architecture was set up, he designed, with his deputy Alan Weitzel, the Broadwater Farm Estate (1967-72) and its centrepiece, Tangmere, a maisonette ziggurat.
Westminster balanced work of its own new Department of Architecture and Planning under F.G. West – such as the Brunel Estate in Westbourne Park, 1970-4 – with schemes by private practices, for instance Darbourne & Darke’s epochal Lillington Gardens Estate (designed in 1961, built in 1964-72, with some of the best maisonettes in town); the scheme won numerous awards, starting with an Award for Good Design in Housing in 1969.
In the period of 1968-1980, the most Awards for Good Design in Housing – sponsored by the Secretary of State for the Environment in collaboration with the Royal Institute of British Architects – was received by Islington, ‘more than any other local authority in the country’. (12) Islington’s Architecture Department was run by Alf Head, who complemented its own projects – for example the Spring Gardens (1968-70) maisonettes and flats in Highbury – with commissions from private practices, very often Darbourne & Darke.
Borough architects in south London were just as active, particularly F.O. Hayes at Southwark, who continued his old Camberwell job, and Ted Hollamby at Lambeth.
Southwark’s largest projects were the stupendous Heygate Estate (now demolished) and the Aylesbury Estate (demolition underway), but the Department of Architecture and Planning designed other estates too, such as the Four Squares Estate in Bermondsey (most of its 691 homes are maisonettes). The most triumphant, though, was Kate Macintosh’s all-maisonette estate Dawson Heights (1966-72) in Dulwich. She described it as a ‘Chinese puzzle of differing types to be assembled in various combinations’ (13) and it still works perfectly well.
The building programme in the neighbouring Lambeth was very extensive too – and Hollamby was as good at recruiting talented architects as Cook given that one of his first appointments was George Finch, who already made his name at the LCC with the Chicksand Estate in Whitechapel.
Finch’s eight almost identical 22-storey maisonette towers, system-built by Wates – the first completed was Holland Rise House in Stockwell in 1967 – are as intelligent as they are generous; and his stunning Lambeth Towers in Kennington Lane (designed in 1964-5, completed in 1971) are maisonettes, incorporated in a freestyle, sinuous brutalist block.
The last great hurrah of mixed development was Thamesmead, ‘basically a working-class Barbican’ (14), the heroic estate by the GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design, the successor to the LCC Architect’s Department. The two architecturally most intriguing structures – Coralline Walk and Binsey Walk, both now demolished – were linear maisonette blocks built in 1967-8; and more maisonettes were included in the later stages of the development, Parkview (1969-79) and The Moorings (1971-7).
The most seductive of all other GLC maisonette blocks remains Perronet House (1967-70) in Elephant and Castle, which won a commendation in the 1971 Awards for Good Design in Housing.
And it was not only the GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design: pretty much all private practices commissioned by the GLC also designed maisonettes, including the Smithsons (their Robin Hood Gardens, 1968-72, mostly consisted of large maisonettes); Ernő Goldfinger (Trellick Tower, 1972, as well as Balfron Tower, 1967, Carradale House, 1967-8, and a 1972 Burcham Street block on the Brownfield Estate); Trevor Dannatt (Norwood House on the Galloway Estate, 1969); and Architects Co-Partnership (Ethelred Estate, Lambeth, 1964-75).
The last two estates featuring predominantly maisonettes were Benhill Grounds by the Sutton Architect’s Department under Peter Hirst (1978-9), and the GLC’s Odhams Walk (1979-81) in Covent Garden. That these two schemes should have been the last – mostly because of the 1980 Housing Act and its consequences – is a shame, because maisonettes are arguably the greatest housing gift that modernist architects bequeathed to London. They were – and rightfully remain – popular ‘because they gave greater privacy and the sensation of being in a house’. (15) Not to mention the fact that Londoners like going upstairs to bed …
A version of this article was previously published in Issue 5 of Journal of Civic Architecture (2020).
(1) Margaret Willis, ‘My Job’ transcript for a BBC broadcast, 23 January 1955; Report by the Clerk of the Council, 12 January 1955, London Metropolitan Archives
(2) Bridget Cherry, Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England – London 5: East, (Yale University Press, 2005)
It might seem a masochistic exercise to read what is, in effect, a real-time account of the sustained assault on council housing and its residents that occurred since 2010 but, on this occasion, it’s one I recommend. The Red Brick Blog is a product of the Labour Housing Group, affiliated to the Labour Party but describing itself – correctly, I believe – as ‘the place for progressive housing debate … open to anyone interested in the progressive debate about housing, communities, and wider politics’. As this anthology of over 100 of its past posts suggests, it’s been one of the most authoritative and best-informed forums for the analysis of contemporary housing policy of the last decade.
As you would expect, many of the posts deal with that assault in properly passionate but forensic detail. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government set out their stall early on – a 50 percent cut in cash terms in social housing investment in 2011. By 2016, as past editor and contributor Monimbo records, the Government was spending £43 billion on Help to Buy and ‘Starter Homes’ for first-time buyers and just £18 billion on affordable housing.
Subsequent posts unpick the multi-pronged nature of this attack on social housing – housing associations (too often not the good guys) converting homes to ‘affordable rent’ and voluntarily selling off their housing; Right to Buy where the promise of one-to-one replacement was rapidly forgotten (the actual figure was about one-in-seven); the inadequate powers open to local authorities to leverage planning gain to community benefit further weighted towards developers; regeneration schemes which generally reduced social housing stock; and so on. Many of you will be familiar with this broad picture but it’s salutary to see it delineated with such force and clarity.
The consequences, of course, were obvious – new social housing reduced to historically low levels, the rise of homelessness and of homeless households placed in temporary accommodation, increased overcrowding and rising house prices. A housing crisis in short. All this did indeed, as the title of the anthology – reprised from a powerful post by Steve Hilditch on ‘Beveridge: 70 Years On’ claims – mark a ‘return to squalor’.
Whilst such criticisms might be seen by some as politically partisan, Red Brick is scathing on the economic illiteracy of this approach. Harrow Council, for example, spent £500,000 buying back 35 former council homes sold at discount to house the homeless. Spending on Housing Benefit was massively increased as the Government forced significant increases in social rents and many more people into the expensive private rented sector.
Social security – increasingly translated into social insecurity – was the other great target of austerity, of course. The bedroom tax stands out for its basic inhumanity but the ‘reform’ with the greatest impact were the cuts to Local Housing Allowance in 2010 reckoned to affect 900,000 households, an average loss of £12 a week from a £126 benefit.
Fixed-term tenancies, ‘Pay to Stay’ (aimed at higher-earning tenants), the forced sale of high-value council homes all receive due attention as further attempts to undermine council housing. That not all these changes were fully implemented is a tribute to housing campaigners and the common sense of at least some legislators.
All this is duly depressing but a quality of the anthology is the positive case consistently made for a significant and viable public housing sector. That’s seen, firstly, in the necessary dismantling of some of the negative myths surrounding the sector. Those privileged ‘lifetime tenancies’ enjoyed by council tenants since 1981? Nothing more than the fact that a tenancy is not time limited and that public sector landlords are required like others to provide grounds for possession and get a court order.
Most powerful is the challenge to the argument that council housing is, in any meaningful sense, subsidised housing. Broadly speaking, social housing runs a surplus with initial loans paid off and maintenance cost covered. Sometimes an element of cross-subsidy from pooled rents helps finance newbuild. The further belief that sub-market social rents should emulate the far higher levels of the private rented sector is, firstly, to give quite unwarranted respect to a dysfunctional and failing housing free market and, secondly, to ignore the huge additional cost to the Treasury in benefits that increased social rents would bring.
Conversely, it’s the case that owner occupiers and private landlords enjoy a range of ‘subsidies’, ranging from renovation grants and mortgage interest support if unemployed to Right to Buy discounts and shared ownership deals. The most even-handed response here is to recognise that public spending on housing in various forms is not a cost but an investment.
Nowhere was the argument better made for investment in social housing than by SHOUT – the Campaign for Social Housing – formed back in 2014 when that case was far more marginalised than it has now, thankfully, become. SHOUT and its landmark 2015 report are properly lauded in these pages. The bottom line? – that a programme of 100,000 new social rent homes a year would cost ‘well under 1 per cent of planned 2013-14 spending; the equivalent of less than 1p on income tax, or just 13 days of welfare spending; and less than 15% of the planned cost of HS2’. The value – though reasonable projections could be made in terms of job creation and savings on Housing Benefit and less readily quantifiably in terms of personal and social benefit and health and educational outcomes – was and is inestimable.
Red Brick records subsequent expansions on this theme from the Chartered Institute of Housing in 2018 and Shelter in 2019. The Overton Window – the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time – had, as it noted, shifted. Even Theresa May, then Prime Minister, appeared a convert though the blog was correct to view this with a degree of scepticism. The role of housing and tenant activists and campaigners, a Labour Party belatedly converted to a significant programme of social housing newbuild, Tory overreach and the tragedy of Grenfell are credited with this hard-fought success which – despite the current uptick in new council homes – remains to be fulfilled at scale.
Grenfell which, of course, features significantly, reminds us of another theme broached frequently in the anthology – the need for a meaningful tenants’ voice. In 2012, the book laments how progress made in this regard by the New Labour government in its latter years was lost in the Coalition’s ‘bonfire of red tape’, one consequence of which was the very real fire at Grenfell.
There’s much else to absorb from this over-200 page collection – the need for planning and land reform, changes to the leasehold system, the impact of Covid 19, and some useful broader housing history touching on John Wheatley, Harold Wilson and including a thoughtful review of my own book on council housing.
It’s a book of bite-sized chunks to dip into (the lack of an index is one regrettable omission) but the whole – edited and significantly contributed to by Steve Hilditch, the pseudonymous Monimbo, Karen Buck (an MP who brings a rare and valuable personal and professional experience of social housing to her work), Alison Inman and many others – is an important record of a tumultuous, too often dispiriting, phase of housing history. I recommend it and hope that it offers not only a perspective on the recent past but a guide to what can be a more positive future.
The anthology is available as a paperback for £9.99 and as a Kindle book at £6.99. It can be purchased here. All royalties (around £2.50 per copy) will go to the Labour Housing Group.
I posted a piece on the Gleadless Valley Estate in Sheffield in May last year. Keith Marriott contacted me via email with a long and very interesting account of his own experience of growing up on the estate and his subsequent career. With his agreement and support in supplying many of the images included, I’m pleased to feature that response in this week’s post. Keith will introduce himself in the article that follows.
I grew up on Gleadless Valley in the 1960s. My Mum and Dad, my elder sister and I moved to Raeburn Road on Gleadless Valley in 1961, when I was aged two. I know that work began on the estate in 1955, and this was one of the earliest parts of the estate to be constructed so I don’t know whether the house was new when they moved in or not.
In the 60s, there was a wide socio-economic mix on the estate – unskilled and skilled manual workers, clerical and junior management. Many of the early residents of the estate had either grown up in the terraced back-to-back housing which was demolished to make way for the Park Hill flat or had quickly moved from Park Hill, which soon became prone to vandalism and became socially stigmatised.
My mum worked as a clerk at Sheffield Town Hall in the 70s ‘Egg Box’ extension. At the time they moved to Gleadless Valley my Dad was a commercial manager for British Tar Products in the city centre. Although he had left school in 1934 aged 14, this was only his second job including his six years in the army during WWII. He had the opportunity to go to grammar school but that was an unaffordable option for my grandparents. His company moved its offices to Manchester in 1966 so he took a job, instead, at the Orgreave coking plant and chemical works. We didn’t own a car until then but it was a necessity as the bus journey was not feasible.
My parents lived in the same house at Gleadless until they died; my Dad in 2001 and my Mum in 2015. They remained as tenants throughout. When Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy in the early 80s, they didn’t buy theirs, as many of their long-time neighbours did. They had a very risk-averse attitude to debt and were unpersuaded about the benefit of embarking on a mortgage late in their working life.
I recall there was a very narrow racial mix on the estate; I don’t recall a single black or Asian pupil at primary or secondary school, but I don’t know how far this reflected the mix across Sheffield in the 60s and 70s.
It’s about five years since I’ve visited the estate but I feel, despite a loss of architectural coherence due to the impact of the Right to Buy, it has remained fairly intact except for the loss of its schools, library and the missing third tower at Herdings. The much later Supertram terminus below the towers is a positive addition, I’d say.
Womersley’s team had designed a community centre, between the shops and the towers at Herdings with a timber gridshell hyperbolic paraboloid roof but it was sadly never built. It would have been a fabulous addition, architecturally and socially.
The private housing built in the 1990s at the base of the towers helps to give a bit of shelter to what was a pretty exposed hilltop. It’s 700 feet above sea level and was a bleak spot where you wouldn’t linger in winter. I remember visiting elderly residents in one tower in the 60s who felt rather isolated there when they were trapped in by bad weather. On the positive side, the panoramic views were stupendous, towards the hills of the Peak District or with the whole of the city lit up below. I’ve always felt that the Herdings towers were designed to be seen as landmarks in the landscape though rather than places to view from.
I think it is the estate’s low-rise, low-density housing that is its strongest point rather. The architectural team for Gleadless Valley comprised eight architects (credited in the Housing Department’s 1962 book ‘Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield 1953-1963’) who showed enormous creativity in developing housing types with their own private outdoor spaces to suit the steeply sloping terrain.
They display a wide variety of different relationships to both private and public outside space, putting a great emphasis on privacy, which is, I think, one key to its lasting appeal. The 1962 book (it’s very telling that it is printed in the same format as Le Corbusier’s L’Oeuvre Complet with text in French and Russian) states the percentage of the housing stock built on steep slopes as well as the density. The density is in sharp contrast to the way Park Hill and Hyde Park handle a similarly steeply sloped site. Here the aspiration was to allow easy access to use the open public space, whereas at Park Hill the public space is really only a visual asset.
The existing woodland has flourished especially where it was extended, particularly at its south-east boundary. Comparing the 1892-1914 OS map with the current aerial photo on Bing maps on the National Library of Scotland’s geo-referenced side by side OS maps, shows this really well.
All the infrastructure of social facilities – shops, schools, libraries, pubs – were planned and built very early as the design recognised this as fundamental to a thriving community.
Education and transport vision supports housing and health. Sheffield’s subsidised bus service was legendary throughout the 60s and 70s and well into David Blunkett’s tenure as leader of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. Cheap, frequent reliable buses made it possible to get anywhere in the city (except Orgreave!) out as far as Castleton in the Peak District punctually and affordably. Access to the countryside, particularly to the west of the city, was promoted as a key benefit and by the Council to be enjoyed by all. See Sheffield: Emerging City (C.R. Warman 1969).
The original Herdings, Hemsworth, Rollestone and Gleadless Valley schools are all gone now, sadly. Womersley’s department designed all these civic buildings. All very good examples of mid-century modern public buildings, carefully and thoughtfully designed; functional, practical but above all a joy to inhabit. Herdings primary school and Gleadless Valley secondary school were opened in 1961 or 62, I think.
Herdings was two-storey with the full width of the south side glazed onto a very spacious playing field. Despite their aspect, the rooms didn’t overheat, due to plentiful fully opening windows. All the ground floor classrooms had direct access to the playing field and all the upper rooms for the eldest pupils had dual aspect, so were even brighter and airier.
I don’t think it’s just ‘rose tinted glasses’ but I’d go so far as to say the education was inspirational and visionary – particularly at primary school. There was a culture designed to broaden children’s horizons. We were exposed to gramophone records of Rubinstein playing Chopin, Albert Schweitzer playing Bach during daily morning assembly and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett during indoor lunchtimes in the hall. French was taught from seven years, the head teacher published books on French and on sex education for primary school children.
I went to secondary school in 1969, the first year Sheffield introduced comprehensive education across the city. Prior to that Gleadless Valley school had been a secondary modern school and the large majority of its intake was from the Gleadless Valley estate. It was actually located about half a mile south-west of the estate on Norton Avenue.
It comprised a three-storey main block orientated north-south again with full-width windows overlooking spacious playing fields and clerestory glazing on the top floor. General purpose classrooms facing east and labs and arts rooms facing west. A block containing assembly hall, gym, dining room and kitchen and a separate technical block were connected to the main block by fully glazed single-storey link corridors.
Other public buildings now lost include the original Hemsworth public library on Blackstock and one of Womersley’s gems. It closed to much protest in 1995 and was converted into a Lloyds chemist shop. It was a long, low block with an over-sailing flat roof forming a wide entrance porch; two long sides of the rectangular box were full-height glazed with end walls in brick inside and out. Internally the fittings were purpose-made joinery and matched slatted timber ceiling; it was a sort of display cabinet for books and culture!
I went to Liverpool University to study Architecture in 1976, the first in my family to go to university and of course in those days fees and a full grant were paid by my Local Education Authority. Early in my working career as an architect I worked for Denys Lasdun, architect of the National Theatre. The theme of the visibility and accessibility of culture was a dominant one in his practice. I worked with him on a competition entry for the new Paris Opera House in 1983 and its key design principle was egalitarianism: everyone should have as good a seat in the house as everyone else and the glazed facade displayed what was going on inside to the world outside. He believed passionately, as did his patron at the National Theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier, that Culture (with a capital C) was not just for the privileged few; he would brook no dumbing down – he thought Shakespeare and Aristophanes could and should be enjoyed by all. This was a milieu that my teachers at Herdings primary school understood and promoted.
The churches have survived well. St Anthony’s Catholic Church at the Norton Avenue end of Raeburn Road and the now well-known Gleadless Valley Church on Spotswood Mount both remain. The former is not one of Womersley’s but with a distinctive copper roof is rather good example of a 60s Catholic parish church. The original entrance facing Sandby Drive was a glazed end wall but has been obscured by some untidy single-storey porches and ancillary spaces. St Anthony’s retained a patch of land alongside Norton Avenue on which it intended to build a Catholic school but this was sold to a housing developer in order to pay for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982.
One aspect of the estate which has not proved so successful into the 21st century is the huge increase in private car ownership. The roads, including the primary bus routes, are narrow, twisty and hilly. I think perhaps the increase in private car ownership was apparent to Womersley as early as 1962, by which time his department was already designing house types at a planned estate at Middlewood on the north side of Sheffield, which had integral garages. Perhaps it had become apparent that the limited number of rentable garages in small separate courtyards on Gleadless Valley was in high demand.
For me there are three outstanding achievements. Firstly, I love the ingenuity of the range of houses, maisonettes and flats to suit the hilly terrain. Secondly, Womersley’s positioning of the three tower blocks on the highest point of the estate where they can be seen from 15 miles was probably his bravest architectural move as Sheffield’s Chief Architect. Thirdly, the decision to retain and enhance the existing woodland allowed the relationship between public and private space to be both rich and usable. Gleadless Valley was a fine and humane place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. I found the relationship between its architecture and Sheffield’s topography and landscape to be an inspiring one.