The White City Estate, Shepherd’s Bush: ‘the modern outlook in housing provision’

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In 1939, the Times described the London County Council’s new White City Estate as ‘the largest and finest estate of flats which the council has yet built’.  By 2004, one jaundiced journalist was describing it as ‘a blighted area where nobody wants to live’. (2)  Now, in 2017, it lies at the epicentre of a regeneration project which has seen the local area transformed.  The White City Estate might look unremarkable at first glance but it contains a rich and complex history.

The first clue to that lies in the Estate’s designation and the unreconstructedly imperialist names of its main thoroughfares. In 1908, it had been the site of the Franco-British Exhibition.  Its whitewashed, stuccoed steel and concrete pavilions gave the later White City Estate its otherwise inapt appellation; the Exhibition’s celebration of Europe’s twilight heyday of empire (continued in four subsequent exhibitions held prior to 1914 before the site fell into disuse) explain Bloemfontein Road, India Way, Canada Way and Australia Road which bisect the contemporary estate.

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The Franco-British Exhibition, 1908

Older readers will recall the White City Stadium, built for the 1908 London Olympics but chiefly remembered for its greyhound racing until eventual demolition in 1984.  (Today’s fun fact is that the official length of the modern marathon, adopted in 1921, derives from the distance between the starting point of the 1908 marathon at Windsor Castle and its finishing line in front of the royal box in the White City Stadium.)  Its site is now occupied by the buildings of BBC White City, now largely sold off as White City Place.  BBC Television Centre had been opened further south on Wood Lane in 1960.  The latter – Grade II listed in 2009 – survives but it’s been sold off too; a business and media centre now also containing some high-end accommodation.

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This image shows BBC Television Centre under construction c.1960 bottom left and the White City Stadium to the right. The Estate lies behind.

But this is to jump ahead.  Back in 1935, the LCC bought 52 acres of the redundant exhibition site and plans for an estate of 2286 flats in 49 five-storey tenement blocks housing some 11,000 were in place by 1937.  In the event, only 23 blocks had been completed by 1939 when the war temporarily halted construction but in 1953 the finished estate – with 35 blocks and 2011 homes housing a population of around 8885 – substantially fulfilled this earlier vision.

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An attack on tenement blocks from Bermondsey Labour Party in the mid-1920s

All this represented a significant shift for the London Labour Party which had wrested control of the LCC in 1934 having long been critical of tenement schemes, invariably described in the Party’s earlier propaganda at least as ‘barracks-like’.  Back in 1918, Herbert Morrison had declared the Party’s official position to ‘build no more tenements, or monotonous rows of houses, however much red and white and green there might be around them’; Labour backed ‘new towns where possible or Garden Suburbs where that was the best [it] could do’. (3)

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The interwar two-storey housing along Bloemfontein Road and Bryony Road across from the Estate represents earlier Labour ideals

Such idealism could hardly survive the pressing practical necessities of slum clearance and reconstruction in the 1920s and the need to build at density for a poorer inner-city working class. By 1934, a Party Housing Research Group convened by Morrison had concluded, far more pragmatically, that on ‘the question of how many storeys there should be in Central London dwellings (for in such areas block dwellings are inevitable), it is unwise to dogmatise’.

But if flats were now seen as inevitable – even Ada Salter whose Bermondsey Borough Council had most fiercely opposed tenement building in the 1920s had come to accept that – the new onus was to make them attractive to tenants.  Modernist architectural advocates and some socialists also argued well-designed flatted schemes could promote community and offer far better amenities than conventional cottage estates. (4)  Ironically, as the preceding Municipal Reform (Conservative) majority pursued a policy of building more cheaply to secure more affordable tents, the standards and facilities of the LCC’s tenement schemes had deteriorated.

The 1923 ‘Normal’ flat combined kitchen and bathroom. The ‘Simplified’ design authorised in 1925 provided a detached (though private) scullery and WC and a bathroom and washroom shared between two flats. Most controversially, the ‘Modified Type B units’ introduced in 1932 (seen on the Honor Oak Estate, for example) saw bathroom and washroom facilities shared between three flats.  Further economies were achieved by lower standards of finish and reduced space standards – the ‘Modified B’ flat was one third smaller than the ‘Normal’ flat of 1925.

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Lewis Silkin in 1947

In 1934, the incoming Labour administration quickly introduced a conversion programme to make the ‘Modified Type B’ homes self-contained. Larger ambitions were shown by the Continental Grand Tour of European urban housing schemes undertaken by Lewis Silkin (the chair of the LCC’s Housing and Public Health Committee) and two Council officers at the end of 1935 and its influence can be seen in the design of the White City Estate and some of its homes.

Silkin’s report concluded, for example, that there was: (5)

little doubt that staircase access secures greater privacy for the tenants and tends to make a flat more homely, better lighted and more attractive internally than one to which the only access is from a common balcony.

By 1937, the LCC was officially committed to bringing flat design ‘more to accord with the modern outlook in housing provision’. (6)  Here, the main thrust was to replace balcony-access – the basis of the existing five-storey walk-up blocks – with staircase access, each landing serving two to three homes.  Whilst most of the White City blocks were of traditional design, 312 tenements of the ‘New Flat’ design were prominently pioneered on the northern edge of the Estate.

With their higher standard of finishing and additional features, the Times concluded they:

sn-times-reportalmost qualify for the house-agents’ description ‘luxury flats’.  They are approached by internal staircases, each of which has a dust-chute for disposing of rubbish. The flats with three, four or five rooms each have their private balcony, with permanent concrete window boxes. The kitchen has direct access to the living room through doors which slide wide apart.

The downside was that their rents reached 24s 6d for a five-room flat compared to the 18s 3d charged for an equivalent flat of traditional design but the Council believed that ‘a proportion of the working-class population for whom it is the Council’s duty to provide accommodation…[were] able and willing to pay higher rents’. (7)

Meanwhile, all the flats had their own bathroom with tiled floor and wash-basin and the larger ones benefitted from ‘a lavatory in a separate compartment’.  Flats were not yet – if they ever were – the accommodation of choice for most but the economy drive which had prioritised affordability at the expense of working-class living conditions had been reversed.

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This artist’s impression shows blocks with moderne and International Style influence. The completed blocks with squarer brick-faced  balconies were less contemporary.

Elsewhere the LCC had also experimented with a revised aesthetic – the 1936 Oaklands Estate in Clapham was distinguished by the strong horizontal lines of its moderne styling marked by its banded brickwork and wide steel windows and, most notably, its sweeping, ocean liner-style balconies.  Paler versions of this can be seen in some of the Estate but the blocks of ‘New Flats’ stuck more to the LCC’s established neo-Georgian form with only the prominent, slightly curved, glassed stairwells breaking with its conventional, somewhat boxy look. (8)

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Canning House with moderne styling

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Carteret House rear with stairwells

The White City Estate was, however, innovative in at least one other respect – it represented the Council’s first attempt to apply the new ideas of slum clearance and comprehensive redevelopment contained in the 1935 Housing Act.  Again, it also reflected (or was intended to reflect) best European practice; Silkin himself acknowledged that ‘facilities for social welfare, rest and recreation’ had been better provided in the showpiece Continental schemes than in London.

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The reliefs on the exterior of Carteret House depicting idealised images of childhood and maternity capture some of the hopes of the new Estate. (Identical sculptures can be found at the Tulse Hill Estate built at the same time as White City along the same lines.)

The ‘desirability of a reasonable provision in respect of social services’ was recognised by the Council  by reserving sites ‘for 14 shops, an administrative building and possible schools, medical clinic, reading rooms, etc., and children’s playgrounds’.  Some heralded the Estate as a ‘new town’ and the British Commercial Gas Association entitled its promotional film (albeit promoting the use of gas as much as the estate itself), A Town in Born.

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The 1937 plan gives a good impression of the blocks’ north-south orientation and open southern aspects of some of the courtyards

One other influence of Silkin’s tour (and broader contemporary architectural thinking) can be seen in the attempt to implement the fashionable Zeilenbau principles of layout pioneered in Germany. This prescribed, in Silkin’s words, ‘the adoption of a generally north-south line whereby access of available sunshine is made possible on both main fronts of the buildings’.  The ideal was only partially fulfilled on the White City Estate as it conflicted with another goal of the planners – the provision of attractive enclosed courtyards – but closed quadrangles were mostly avoided by leaving the southern side of the elements undeveloped. (9)

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McKenzie Close showing courtyard and private balconies

On a bright winter’s day such as when I visited, the courtyards with their mature trees and greenery looked attractive but the overall Estate didn’t receive the critical acclaim this careful planning might seem to warrant.  The Architects’ Journal asked rhetorically: (10)

Why all the five-storey blocks? Why the soulless mechanism of the layout? Why not, with the golden opportunity of unhampered space, some really high blocks (with lifts instead of…dreary flights of stairs) making way for terraced houses for the larger families?

It wanted something more excitingly modernist and its call contains an anticipation of the mixed development ideas (demanding a range of housing forms to create greater visual interest) which took off in the 1950s.

Pevsner concurred, decrying what he termed ‘the deadening utilitarian ranks of the vast White City Estate’.  Writing later, he also noted how far the Estate – ‘built (like the out-county estates) with a singular lack of amenities’ – had fallen short of the ‘new town’ ideals proclaimed on its inception. (11)  Typically, housing was prioritised at the expense of community facilities.

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‘The White City Estate and environs, 1947’ (c) Britain from Above, EAW005416. Loftus Road, home of QPR bottom right

For the time being, the LCC’s proclaimed aim in its treatment of housing ‘to maintain an appearance of domesticity whilst keeping within the bounds of economy’ held sway and another element of the planners’ description – they noted how ‘the repetition of blocks of similar size and arrangement lends itself to rapid and economic construction by a process of multiple contracts’ – seems more telling of the finished product. (12)

Nevertheless, the Estate, the flats certainly, represented a significant advance on the penny-pinching economies of Honor Oak and it’s provided a decent home to many thousands as at least one resident recalls: (13)

sn-douglas-grayI want to say how proud I am to say I lived on the estate…There was a wonderful sense of community on this estate and the flats were a design success apart from the small kitchens. My memories of living here are of children – lots of children,all playing in safety and in harmony (well as far as kids do!).

The outbreak of war and subsequent post-war austerity didn’t help fulfil the larger ambitions of its creation and in the succeeding decades, White City probably seemed a rather ordinary and even dull estate to some distinguished by its size but in other respects hardly reflecting the more extravagant claims which initially surrounded it.

By the turn of the new century, as the Estate grew old and its community fell on hard times, some politicians viewed council housing not as a solution to social problems but as one of their causes.  The Estate was ripe for regeneration but that would be, as we shall see, a controversial and contested process.

Sources

(1) ‘2,166 White City Flats’, The Times, 21 July 1939

(2) Susan Gray, ‘Great white hope; What hope is there for a blighted area where nobody wants to live?’, Evening Standard 22 March 2004

(3) Quoted in Simon Pepper and Peter Richmond, ‘Upward or Outward? Politics, Planning and Council Flats, 1919-1939’, The Journal of Architecture, vol 13, no.1, February 2008 which also provided much of the detail in the following paragraphs.

(4) These ideals were pursued by Director of Housing Lancelot Keay and Liverpool’s Unionist city council.  See Liverpool’s Interwar Multi-Storey Housing: Building an ‘A1 community in a properly planned township of flats’

(5) LCC, London Housing (1937)

(6) LCC, Working-Class Housing on the Continent and the Application of Continental Ideas to the Housing Problem in the County of London. Report by the Chairman of the Housing and Public Health Committee of the Council, Mr Lewis Silkin MP as the result of a visit to Continental Housing Estates in September and October 1935 (October 1936)

(7) LCC, London Housing

(8) Nicholas Merthyr Day, The Role of The Architect on Post-War State Housing: A case study of the housing work of the London County Council 1939-1956, University of Warwick Department of the History of Art PhD Thesis, June 1988

(9) LCC, Working-Class Housing on the Continent and the Application of Continental Ideas to the Housing Problem in the County of London

(10) Architects’ Journal, 27 July 1939 quoted in Pepper and Richmond

(11) Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, London 3: North West (1991)

(12) The first quotation is from LCC, London Housing; the second from in JA Yelling, Slums and Redevelopment: Policy and Practice in England, 1918-45 (1992)

(13) Douglas Gray who contributed his memories and this photograph to the Britain from Above website. Go to the page for extended memories of the Estate’s tradespeople and community in its earlier years.

Bradford’s Pre-1914 Council Housing: a ‘victory in one of the earliest of conflicts between property and life’

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According to JB Priestley, a proud native of the city, ‘Bradford was considered the most progressive place in the United Kingdom’ before the First World War. (1)  He referred to the vibrant cultural life of the town as much as its politics but we’ll concentrate on the latter and, in particular, the struggle to build decent housing for its working people.

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A Bradford slum, in the early 1900s

Bradford, capital of the UK’s woollen industry, was then one of Britain’s great industrial centres – a place where ‘wealth accumulates and men decay’ in the words of one critical local politician. (2)  Around seventy-five per cent of its housing was back-to-back and in the three poorest wards of the city the infant mortality rate reached 179 per 1000, twice the rate of the city as a whole. Fenner Brockway observed trenchantly that: (3)

these black areas were not only a prison to the spirit they were a slaughterhouse for their bodies…Herod, in the form of slum landlords and building speculators, massacred more infants in Bradford than he did in Bethlehem.

For his part, Priestley wondered why ‘those industrial workers, exiled from the sun and the fields, condemned to live their time between houses like barracks and factories like fortresses’ were not ‘sluts and brutes’. But he insisted that, despite such conditions, they were ‘yet among the salt of the earth…decent and kind, humorous and helpful’.

jowett-youngIf that was a romantic view of the lives and characters such circumstances spawned, it might at least be applied to Bradford’s great socialist leader, FW (‘Fred’) Jowett, described by the ever-quotable Priestley as ‘a figure compact of truth and integrity, utterly without pretence, and with the shining simplicity that belongs to the pure in heart’.  Jowett and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) founded in the city in 1893 led the campaign for better housing.

That politics was born initially in industrial struggle.  A tradition of progressive and, to some degree, cross-class Lib-Lab (Liberal-Labour) politics was broken by the great Manningham Lockout, instigated when the mill-owner Samuel Cunliffe Lister (in other contexts remembered as a paternalistic benefactor of the city) insisted, just before Christmas 1890, on a 30 per cent wage cut for his workers.   The bitter dispute lasted 19 weeks until Lister’s workforce was forced back to work under the new terms and conditions.

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An early image of Manningham Mills (c) Esther M Zimmer Lederberg Memorial Website

The Liberal Council tried to ban rallies and meetings in support of those locked out; the intervention of the Durham Light Infantry caused a full-blown riot.  As the futility of relying on the goodwill of the Bradford’s middle-class employers became clear to many of the local working class, Jowett led the political fight-back.  He was a founder member of the Bradford Labour Union in May 1891 and later the same year of the Bradford Labour Church – a deliberate break with the nonconformist chapels patronised by the local middle classes which set itself the task of nothing less than the ‘the realisation of the Kingdom of Heaven in this Life by the establishment of a state of society founded upon Justice and Love to thy neighbour’. (4)

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A modern mural (on the Priestley Theatre) celebrating the founding of the ILP in Bradford

Jowett was elected, aged just 18, to the Council in 1892 where he would serve fifteen years until first elected as one of the city’s MPs in 1906.  From 1906 the Bradford ILP held the balance of power and, at its pre-war peak in 1913, the Party polled 43 per cent of the vote and returned 20 councillors (29 Liberals and 34 Conservatives made up the remainder).

Jowett’s campaign for better housing began inauspiciously – his motion to the Sanitary Committee in 1894 that the Council take action to build housing under Part III of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act received just five votes – and would be stubbornly resisted for some years.  His first success was in persuading a sympathetic Medical Officer of Health, Dr Arnold Evans, to represent some of worst of local housing – in the Longlands district – as unfit for human habitation in 1898 but the Housing Committee’s proposal to clear the area was rejected by full Council.  Jowett persevered; a revised scheme was initially accepted by the Council the following year until that decision was rescinded by a newly elected Council (with a strengthened Tory presence) two months later.  Finally, in 1901 the scheme was given the go-ahead.

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An early image of Faxfleet Street

The Longlands clearance scheme covered a little under five acres – about the size of two football pitches – and contained 254 dwelling houses, 10 lodging houses, two public houses, 16 lock-up shops, a bakehouse, a storeroom and some 1350 people.  The homes, according to Evans, were ‘in a dilapidated state…old…the vast majority built back to back; the population, according to Brockway, ‘mostly wretchedly poor Irish folk with large families’. The death rate from pulmonary tuberculosis was – at 7.4 per thousand – almost five times the city average. (5)

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FEP Edwards

The first replacement housing built to accommodate those displaced, designed by City Architect FEP Edwards and completed in 1904, was in Faxfleet Street at some two miles’ distance but accessible by (municipally-owned) tramway. (6)   Sixty-six houses, each with a living room, scullery (complete with washing copper and bath), front and back bedrooms and an attic. These were, of course, ‘through’ houses, set back five feet from the footpath and with small backyards containing a WC, coal store and ash bin.

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These images show the interior of the new Faxfleet Street houses – the respectable working-class homes envisaged by housing reformers (7)

The houses cost £247 each to build with rents set at the lowest level possible to both repay within sixty years the 3.25 per cent loan which financed them and be affordable to those who needed them.  To housing reformers, the scheme furnished important proof that ‘”through” houses can be provided in Yorkshire at low rentals and can be made self-supporting’. (8)  Twenty-three further Corporation houses would be built in the area before 1914.

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Later pre-1914 council housing on Draughton Street

The local Labour movement celebrated this success in the municipal elections which followed. One ILP candidate, JH Palin of the Tramwaymen’s Society, declared ‘some of the men in their society were tenants of the Faxfleet-street property, and the only fault that could be found was a little shrinking of the woodwork’; ‘where, said Mr Jowett, can you get houses like those at 5s 6d a week clear of rates within a like distance of the Town Hall?’ (9)

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Chain Street tenements

Such houses represented the ideal for most Labour politicians of the day but inner-city conditions dictated other solutions.  In the cleared Longlands district itself, the Council erected tenement blocks based on models pioneered in Liverpool – the major pioneer of municipal tenement housing outside London – and Manchester. The first were five three-storeyed blocks, completed in 1909, erected on Chain Street and Longlands Place, each with a living room, scullery, one or two bedrooms and a WC and coal store on the rear balcony.  A second phase of two-storeyed tenements was completed in 1912 in Chain Street and Roundhill Place.

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A contemporary image showing the recently refurbished two-storey tenements on Chain Street

Some years later, it could be claimed that these undeniably modest homes could ‘compare very favourably with the best in England constructed for the occupation of the poor and needy’: their interiors presented ‘quite a cheerful and comfortable appearance’, it was said, and the tenants took ‘a keen interest in their homes’. (10)

Looking back in 1946, Brockway was familiar with the higher standards of later years; he admitted:

They are not comparable architecturally with the blocks of modern flats constructed by municipalities today but they are well-built, clean, healthy, and must have seemed palatial to those Irish families removed from cellars and vermin-infested rooms more than forty years ago.  To housing reformers they symbolise victory in one of the earliest of conflicts between property and life.

Several blocks were pulled down in the 1960s as Bradford built new roads to accommodate the increased traffic of a more affluent era but – though remaining blocks were refurbished and extended in the 1970s – such affluence itself had long departed by the turn of the century.  The area had become a haunt of sex workers and drug addicts; the homes were seen as ‘squalid hovels’ and the local press alleged that locals called the blocks ‘Death Row’. (11) In more measured terms, the City Council described the Chain Street area as suffering from ‘multiple problems including crime, the fear of crime, low income levels and higher than average levels of unemployment’. (12)

As one element of major plans to revive a city hit hard by deindustrialisation, a much needed £1.26m regeneration has ensued, supported by the Council, the Homes and Communities Agency and led, on the ground, by Incommunities, a social housing provider formed after a stock transfer of Bradford council housing in 2003.  Initially, 36 flats have been converted into 16 family-size homes. Thirty-two houses will replace a demolished 1925 tenement block; ten for sale, twelve let at market rents and ten at social rent. (13)  It’s the modern way – tenure mix and public investment part-financed by private profit.  Typically, there is a loss of social housing.

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A contemporary image of Chain Street with new housing to the fore and the refurbished three-storey tenements at the rear left

In contemporary terms, an ambitious local council probably had little choice but to proceed in this way.  Jowett would be disappointed to see the beneficent power of the state so subordinated to the laws of the very free market against which he had campaigned but he would surely be impressed by the quality of this new working-class housing. There’s no doubt that the appearance and ‘feel’ of the area is much improved and, as part of a package which includes a new linear park and rejuvenated town centre, I hope it helps Bradford which has changed greatly from the prosperous city which Priestley described.

Jowett himself served in the first Labour government in 1924 but his principled socialism and consistent pacifism was too left-wing for the second.  He stood for the ILP (which had broken from the Labour Party) in 1931 and 1935 but, despite the affection his home city retained for him, was not re-elected.  He died aged 80 in 1944.   The houses on Faxfleet Street and the tenements on Chain Street remain both a monument to his practical idealism and a symbol of changed times.

Sources

(1) Priestley, Preface to Fenner Brockway, Socialism over Sixty Years. The Life of Jowett of Bradford (George Allen and Unwin, London, 1946)

(2) The words of a Liberal reformer and later chairman of Health Committee in Report of an Address delivered to Bradford City Council on October 9th 1917 by Mr EJ Smith on Housing Reform

(3) Brockway, Socialism over Sixty Years

(4) Quoted in David Jones, Bradford (Ryburn Publishing, Halifax, 1990)

(5) W Arnold Evans (Medical Officer of Health), ‘The Operation of the Housing of the Working Classes Act in Bradford’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, no 23, 1902

(6) FEP Edwards was Bradford City Architect between 1903 and 1908, the second (outside London and after Hull) to be appointed in the country. He is cited as the scheme’s architect in James Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country (Batsford, London, 1905) though an English Heritage report names W Williamson.

(7) These images are taken from Lucy Caffyn, Supplementary Series 9: Worker’s Housing in West Yorkshire, 1750-1920 (West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, HMSO, 1986)

(8) Cornes, Modern Housing in Town and Country

(9) ‘Bradford Municipal Campaign. Councillor Jowett defends the Faxfleet Houses’, The Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury, October 13, 1904

(10) Frank White (Superintendent and Chief Sanitary Inspector) in ‘Discussion on Town Planning and Improvement Areas at Sessional Meeting held at Bradford, February 5th, 1926’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, vol XLVI, no 11, April 1926

(11) Kathie Griffiths, ‘Bradford “Death Row” flats transformed into “little palaces”’, Bradford Telegraph and Argus, 4 July 2013

(12) Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Report of the Director of Regeneration and Culture to the meeting of Executive to be held on Friday 11 November 2011. Subject: AH1 Option Appraisal for the Regeneration of Sites around Chain Street, Goitside

(13) Homes and Communities Agency, ‘From “Death Row” to Family Homes’, Press release, 22 April 2014

The image of City Architect Edwards is from Bradford Timeline on Flickr and made available under this Creative Commons licence.

Brutal London by Simon Phipps

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There’s been a spate of books on Brutalism recently but I’m happy to recommend Brutal London by Simon Phipps to the many enthusiasts out there. It’s a lavishly illustrated, 192-page guide to 93 of the major examples of the genre in the capital, organised in an accessible borough-by-borough form.

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Thamesmead (1967-74), Greenwich

Phipps’ powerful images – the heart and soul of the book – are in the monochrome which is de rigueur for a certain type of architectural photography but it works particularly well in capturing the stark power of Brutalist buildings: in the author’s words, providing ‘a stripped down aesthetic for a barebones architecture’.

However, he adds a brief, thought-provoking foreword and a very useful end section of Building Information.  The latter includes details of when the buildings were built and their architects – this detail can be surprisingly onerous to track down so I’m grateful for his efforts – as well as some extended observations on selected examples. It’s good to see maps included too, not practical for navigation but a useful guide to location.

I’m not an enthusiast of Brutalism as such…before some of you stop reading just there, let me clarify. I do admire the bravura and sheer presence of many of the best examples but, as an historian, I’m more interested in a building’s social and political ‘story’, particularly that of the council housing which forms the mainstay of this blog.  Of course, architecture and design are very far from innocent of social purpose and ideology and, nowhere is this more true than of British Brutalism – ‘widely seen as the architectural style of the Welfare State’. (1)

Phipps himself notes how ‘certain design elements suggest the socially progressive politics of the post-war state made manifest in the minds of architects’.  In a particularly powerful phrase, he commends this ‘forceful, belligerent, conceptually considered and egalitarian architecture of social purpose that manifested itself across post-war London’.

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Robin Hood Gardens (1969-72), Tower Hamlets

It’s interesting to note that a majority of the case-studies are of housing – a straightforward illustration of the argument – and salutary to note, as Phipps does, our loss of purpose in this regard with the demolition of the Heygate Estate and imminent destruction of the Robin Hood Estate.  (Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower and Lasdun’s Keeling House have been or will be sold to the private sector – a mark both of Brutalism’s now fashionably cherished status and our contemporary disregard for the high-quality working-class housing that was central to that post-war vision.)

Other flights of eloquence – reflecting his own arts and design background and a predominantly aesthetic appreciation of Brutalist architecture – leave me a little colder but I’m sure will speak powerfully to the movement’s fans.

Phipps adopts the seminal definition of Brutalism deployed by Reyner Banham in his path-breaking 1955 essay. (2)  The New Brutalism (as it was then) is characterised by:

formal legibility of plan, clear exhibition of structure and the valuing of materials for their inherent qualities “as found”.

It’s a broad definition and it allows Phipps to include a number of works that I wouldn’t personally have considered Brutalist. I’ve tended to assume that the use of concrete (particularly the béton brut often thought to have given the style its name) was a crucial component but I’m happy to leave this to be debated by the experts and enthusiasts and grateful that the wider perspective allows us to look anew at a number of significant schemes.

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Paddington British Rail Maintenance Depot (1966-68), Westminster

You’ll find the expected showpieces here – the National Theatre, the Royal College of Physicians, the Institute of Education – and a few you may have overlooked – a fire station and British Rail Maintenance Depot, both in Paddington, for example.  In terms of housing, there’s the Barbican, of course, and in the genuinely social housing that interests me, Balfron and Trellick, a number of the wondrous Camden estates of the 1970s, and many others. (3)

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Alexander Road Estate (1972-78), Camden

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Alton West, Alton Estate (1955-58), Wandsworth

Alton West is included naturally – in Phipps’ words ‘a riposte to the tidy geometries and bland stylings of the Scandinavian-inspired modernists’ who had designed the earlier eastern phase.

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Doddington and Rollo Estate (1969-71), Wandsworth

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The Aylesbury Estate (1963-71), Southwark

Also in Wandsworth, it’s interesting to see the Doddington and Rollo and York Road Estates covered, built using the Laings Jespersen Large Panel System and generally considered (for good reason given early teething troubles) to be system-built disasters. Other system-built schemes covered include the first system-built housing estate constructed in the country, the Morris Walk Estate built by the London County Council in 1963-1966 using the Larsen-Nielsen system.  The troubled but maligned Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, another built using the Jespersen system and now subject to its own controversial regeneration, is also featured.  No poured, in situ, board-marked concrete here.

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Lillington Gardens Estate (1964-72), Westminster

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World’s End Estate (1969-77), Kensington and Chelsea

Nor in Westminster, where Darbourne and Darke’s Lillington Gardens was praised by some as an example of the ‘new vernacular’ – a point at which you might feel the definition of Brutalism stretched. Down the river in Chelsea, Eric Lyons’ World’s End Estate is also noted. Since both are concrete-built and only brick-clad and since both that possess the Brutalist ‘clear exhibition of structure’ that Phipps values their inclusion is probably justified.

Anyway, buy the book and make your choices – in inner London in particular, anyone interested in modern architecture will find much to pique their interest.  If you love Brutalism, you’ll love the book.  If you don’t, it might at least give you pause for thought. Brutalism may not have been pretty but it does look increasingly attractive – both as a monument to earlier ideals and as a rebuttal to what Phipps rightly describes as ‘the bright vinyl-clad Wendy houses that count for much of today’s banal and mediocre housing’.

Photography (c) Simon Phipps

Brutal London by Simon Phipps is published by September Publishing, £14.99. http://www.septemberpublishing.org/product/brutal-london/ 

You can follow Simon Phipps on Twitter at @new_brutalism

References

(1) Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (2016) – an excellent and engaging academic guide to the subject which I’ve previously reviewed.

(2) Reyner Banhan, ‘The New Brutalism’, Architectural Review December 1955

(3) Of those I’ve written about: Alexandra Road, the Branch Hill Estate and the Whittington Estate.

 

Early Council Housing in Banbury, Part II: King’s Road and the Cow Fair Roarer

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I’m pleased to feature the second part of this fine guest post by Jane Kilsby – a wonderful record of the struggle to build decent working-class housing in the early years of the last century and a proper tribute to a man who dedicated his life to the cause.

Banbury was one of the very few shire towns to build council housing before the First World War. That it did so, as last week’s post made clear, owed much to the energy and idealism of Councillor Herbert Payne, the ‘Cow Fair Roarer’. This week’s post takes the story forward: Banbury built some of the finest early council housing in the country but for Payne himself life took a far more sombre turn.

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A contemporary map of Banbury; King’s Road is to the centre-left. From OpenStreetMap and used under the terms of this Creative Commons licence.

To secure high-quality design, the Council announced an architectural competition in December 1911.  The Council wanted 40 houses – 20 at no more than £175 each and 20 at no more than £135 each – but they also wanted entrants to avoid monotony and make best use of the land.  A local exhibition on the scheme was so popular that its opening hours were extended.

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Early twentieth century municipal housing schemes provided new opportunities and challenges for architects. Some 63 architects from across the country participated in the Banbury competition, attacking (in the words of the Banbury Guardian) ‘the problem of designing a cheap form of dwelling so as to give a maximum accommodation and amenity with a good deal of spirit’. Unfortunately, none of these plans appear to survive.  Mr J Fisher of Wellingborough, the architect appointed to design the new school in Grimsbury, was selected as adjudicator.  The winning design was by Messrs Geoffry Lucas and Lodge of Bloomsbury Square.

Thomas Geoffry Lucas (1872-1947) is best remembered now for his work with the garden city movement, notably in Letchworth where he designed a group of cottages in Paddock Close.  Lucas said of this ‘£150 House’ that ‘although simple, an effort has been made to obtain dignity, and an architectural treatment, without extravagance’. He also designed for Hampstead Garden Suburb and his house at 54 Parkway won first prize in a competition at Gidea Park. Together with Thomas Arthur Lodge (1888-1967), articled to Lucas and later his partner, he designed the art deco Parkinson Building for the University of Leeds and Hackney Town Hall.

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Paddock Close, Letchworth: the ‘£150 house’ designed by Geoffry Lucas in 1904-05. Now Grade II listed

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The roofs in King’s Road are very similar to Lucas’s houses in Paddock Close

Lucas and Lodge were paid a premium of £20 for their winning design.  Their plans for King’s Road are missing – they are not held by the current Town Council or by Sanctuary Housing Association, the current freeholders and managers – but the Banbury Advertiser of 7 March 1912 provides us with a detailed description:

Messrs Lucas and Lodge’s plans for the £175 houses show two-floor structures with gabled fronts at intervals, the bedrooms of the remainder of the houses having dormer windows rising from the eaves.  On the ground floor is the porch and lobby, the front living room measuring 13ft 7in by 12ft 1½ inches.  At the back is a scullery, about 7ft 6 in by 10ft, with larder, copper, coal-house, table-top bath and gas stove, with yard and w.c. at the rear.  On the first floor are three bedrooms, the dimensions of the front room being 15ft 3in by 10ft 3in, those of the two back rooms being 10ft 10in by 7ft 8in and 7ft 6in by 7ft 3in respectively.

The £135 houses were smaller but otherwise of similar design.  The cottages as a whole were constructed as reversed pairs in four groups of ten, each with its own garden.  It was ‘proposed that trees be planted along the road, with grass in the front gardens, and a bed of flowers and creepers against the cottages’.

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King’s Road in the 1960s with what appears to be larch lapping on the front elevation. Photograph courtesy of the Oxfordshire History Centre

The Council set out its budget and applied to the Local Government Board to borrow £7685.  An Inquiry into the Banbury Housing Scheme was held on 2 August 1912.  The Mayor, councillors, the Medical Officer, Gilletts’ representatives and others were all on message and the loan was confirmed two months later.  Messrs Bosworth and Lowe of Nottingham were appointed as contractors.

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Lucas and Lodge houses in King’s Road, front elevation, in 2016

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Three-bedroom Lucas and Lodge house in 2016

Councillors followed the progress of the scheme closely and in October 1913, when the houses were almost complete, the decision on the name was made: the Cow Fair crowd’s choice: King’s Road.  The houses were let at 5s 3d for the three bedroom houses and 4s 3d for the two bedroom houses.

The First World War changed the national politics of housing radically. From this point, Banbury’s housing policy was no different from numerous other towns: good housing was needed and quickly, and the council made use of national government’s substantial help and finance.

A total of 770 council houses were built between 1919 and 1940; 361 of these were in Easington, due west of the town centre, where the Council carried out extensive slum clearance.  The fields northwest of King’s Road, the streets now known as Hilton Road, Park Road, Boxhedge Road West and Townsend were also a high priority for new building.

By July 1926, a commentator in the Banbury Advertiser was able to say:

whatever Banbury lacks, it does not appear that the former shortage of housing accommodation can be levelled as a reproach against the town now.  The council of recent years has taken the bit between its teeth – a ‘bit’ that despite one of our Aldermen’s fears I believe is one that Banbury can chew – and houses are springing up in our midst like brick-built mushrooms.

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King’s Road with its red roofs is at the bottom of the photograph. It lies southeast of the medieval village of Neithrop, about half a mile from Banbury Market Place. Photograph by kind permission of Steve Gold.

King’s Road, the council’s model street, was now fully developed.  For six years the forty Lucas and Lodge houses had stood in pretty isolation in their semi-rural setting.  In 1914 the Council had, wisely, and at Payne’s instigation, negotiated with Gillett on an extension of the option period to buy the remainder of the land in King’s Road.  The pre-war experience was invaluable and the Council’s post-war plans began in King’s Road.

By October 1919 land clearing operations had begun at the western end of the road.  The land was cleared and plans were made and a set of 19 ‘non-parlour type’ workmen’s dwellings were built at a cost of £18,050.  These houses were built in the late 1920s.  These houses are of brick and have three bedrooms, a bathroom and large gardens.  Making use of Addison’s 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, the council sold Local Housing Bonds of £5 upwards at 6 per cent interest.

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Semi-detached house in King’s Road, one of the nineteen completed in 1921

A set of twelve semi-detached houses were built speculatively in 1928.

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One of the twelve non-council houses in King’s Road in 2016

Finally, six more houses were built by the Council in 1929.  Councillor Monks’ remarked upon the:

extraordinary number of applications for these houses – 20 or 30 people have applied to me personally.  The Borough Accountant said he had about 50 applicants for the six 2 bedroom houses.  24 of the applicants were single and wanted to get married.  Only three houses could be offered, as the other three were offered to tenants in condemned properties.

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The six council houses built in King’s Road in the late 1920s, photographed November 2016

The Council used ‘off the peg’-type designs available from the Ministry of Housing and the houses built in the 1920s have no remarkable architectural features.  They are solid, popular and durable, however, and King’s Road today is an unassuming, pleasant street with mature lime trees at its western end.  A residential street of less than 100 houses, it represents Banbury’s early municipal housing policy in microcosm and, you could say, a lasting memorial to our hero, Herbert Payne.

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King’s Road in 2016. The forty Lucas and Lodge houses are on both sides of the road.

Let’s return to Herbert Payne and see what happened to him. He continued to serve on the Town Council for most of the Great War.  With local politics deferring to the national good, he sounds calmer and more conciliatory.  He had been re-elected as an independent in 1912 and became friends with the Liberals.  Housing activities were not on the agenda and, within the Council Chamber, Payne’s contributions were confined to the fine details of the Education Committee’s accounts and incremental improvements to the town’s sewerage system.

He continued with the cutlery business he had started in 1905.  Trading from his premises and home in Bridge Street, a stone’s throw from the Cow Fair, his customers were caterers, hotels and boarding houses.  He travelled the country extensively.  His turnover for 1915 is recorded at £3,000.

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Herbert Payne, wife Florence and daughter Kathleen. Photograph with the kind permission of JR Hodgkins

He was, of course, young enough to join up.  He didn’t.  He was a pacifist to his core.  He was granted an exemption on conscientious grounds and in August 1916, the County Tribunal (on appeals for exemptions from military service) exempted him for a further three months on business grounds, with leave to apply again.

Payne’s career was all about making a difference to people’s lives and he did not give up easily.  Perhaps he thought he could change things, even in the War.  He took it upon himself to challenge the way the Oxfordshire County Tribunals were set up.  He lobbied hard for the County Tribunal to include employee representatives.  He went as far as organising and speaking at a public meeting – held in the Town Hall in full view of the military – to prepare a resolution for two representative trade unionists to be nominated for the Tribunal.  The handbills declared ‘ Attested Recruits, whether accepted or rejected, specially invited.  Ladies invited.’  In the Council meeting that followed, Payne presented the resolution that it was ‘imperative that [the County Tribunal] should have the confidence especially of the class from which the recruits are most likely to be drawn’.

By the time of the next appeal, casualty figures were catastrophic.  These were very dangerous times and, perhaps with some naivety, Payne told the County Military Tribunal that he refused to do non-combatant service but would be willing to do certain types of work of national importance.  The Tribunal ordered him to work on a farm.  He didn’t.

Details of the local appeals are set out in forensic detail in the Banbury newspapers, often on the same page as the lists of those who had fallen.  It’s impossible to know what his fellow councillors thought about Payne by then.  Some Town Council meetings start with expressions of sorrow for a councillor who had lost a son killed in action.  In any event, the knives were out for Payne.

His last Council meeting was on 2 April 1917.  True to himself, he spoke at length in congratulating the Medical Officer on a reduction in the infant mortality rate and badgered his fellow councillors on what further steps were being taken by the Water Company to improve the condition of the water supply.

A month later, he was arrested in Derby.  Handed over to a military escort, it is understood that he was sent to Winchester Prison.  Leading pacifist and conscientious objector, Fenner Brockway, remembered talking to Payne at the Martyrs Memorial in Oxford and that the next time they saw each other was in prison. (2)  He came home to Banbury in 1919.  There was no return to the Cow Fair crowds; he spent much of his time with the Congregationalists.  JR Hodgkins says that ‘he was a broken man and that the War had broken his heart’.  He died three years later, at 40.

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Herbert Payne’s plain and unkempt grave is in Banbury Cemetery, Southam Road.  He is buried with his wife Florence who died in 1936. The inscription reads ‘Herbert Payne who fell asleep 23rd March 1922’.

Hodgkins pays tribute to Payne as a vigorous and successful pioneer of housing reform.  He ends his chapter on Payne with the hope: (2)

that one day Banbury can find the time and spare the energy to mark his memory.  Since his death, things have been going ‘Payne’s way’ all over the country.

They have indeed.

Sources

(1) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1905 and 1930 held by the British Newspaper Archive

(2) JR Hodgkins, Over the Hills to Glory: Radicalism in Banburyshire 1832-1945 (1978)

My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for their generosity in allowing the use of the credited images.

Early Council Housing in Banbury, Part I: King’s Road and the Cow Fair Roarer

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I’m delighted to feature this week and next another guest post – a fascinating piece of social, political and housing history from Jane Kilsby in Banbury.  Jane worked in housing management for councils and housing associations across the country for over twenty years before settling in Banbury three years ago. Thanks also to her husband Steve, another former housing professional, who first spotted the significance of the King’s Road houses. 

It’s amazing what turns up on eBay these days, isn’t it?  Recently, I bought this postcard: (1)

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It’s a tribute to Herbert Payne, local councillor and advocate of social reform in early 20th century Banbury. Forty houses were built by Banbury Borough Council in King’s Road in 1913 and they came about largely as a result of Herbert Payne’s powerful commitment to the benefits of good housing for working people.

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King’s Road in November 2016

Banbury is 64 miles from London; a prosperous market town with a large rural hinterland.  On the edge of the Cotswolds, much of its early prosperity was from the wool trade; later it became a centre for cattle sales, horse trading, weaving, printing, engineering and comfort food of all kinds.  Cakes, custard, cheese, chocolate and coffee have all played a large part in Banbury’s employment and charm.  Banbury lies more or less in the middle of England; it’s a long way from the sea and transport improvements in the 18th and 19th centuries made a dramatic difference to the size of the town.  The Oxford Canal connected Banbury to the Midlands in 1778 and the railways invigorated Banbury’s trading links to the North of England and to Paddington. The M40 maintains Banbury’s role as a distribution centre today.

Banbury is a hardly a hotbed of reform and revolt but its famous nursery rhyme provides an air of innocence which belies some notable instances of radicalism in its history.  The townspeople, strongly Puritan, destroyed the original Banbury Cross and, later, Cromwell’s men smashed Banbury Castle to smithereens.  In the 1840s there were agricultural workers’ riots.

With the coming of the railways, Banbury’s population grew by about 40 per cent between 1851 and 1881.  Rapidly constructed terraces and much older agricultural workers houses made of the local ironstone rubble left a legacy of sub-standard property.

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Rag Row in Neithrop – a notorious slum pictured in about 1890. These houses lasted at most forty years. Photograph courtesy of Oxfordshire History Centre

Banbury was one of the boroughs reformed by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. The councillors and Town Clerk came from the local elite and, between them, the Liberals and the Conservatives busied themselves with matters of great importance such as new lighting for the Town Hall in time for the Hunt Ball.  They received regular reports from the Medical Officer of Health on the extent of insanitary housing but did nothing about it.

But the wider world was changing.  Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal landslide in February 1906 brought about a period of social reform and, with 29 Labour MPs elected, there was some impact on local affairs, even in Banbury.  A Banbury branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in 1906; Herbert Payne was among its early members.

One of the first ILP meetings, in September 1906, in Banbury took as its topic the ‘House Famine – its cause and cure’.  ‘The workers of Banbury are waking up’, it declared: (2)

In Banbury there was a scarcity of houses suitable for working men and high rents appeared to be the order of the day, and yet no attempt had so far been made by the Town Council to provide houses for the workers and their families, notwithstanding the utter failure of private enterprise.

The proposal to run two ILP candidates, one of them Herbert Payne, in the next Borough elections was met with acclaim and housing became a hot topic as the ILP renewed its case for municipal homes:

These cottages will be let as near cost as possible and would not cost a penny to the ratepayers.  Private builders are making fortunes.  Why then should it be a failure for the Council to build?

On 1 November, the two ILP candidates were elected.  With victory declared, Payne and William Timms were lifted up in chairs, cheered and paraded around the town, finally coming to rest at the ILP committee rooms, then in Parsons Street.

Herbert Payne was born in Uppingham in Rutland in 1882.  Nothing is known about his education except to say that he did not attend Uppingham School.  He came to Banbury in about 1901, working at Mawles, a large ironmongers in the Market Place. Dismissed for talking politics in the shop, he set himself up as a commercial traveller, selling cutlery, and that was his business for the rest of his life.  He lived in a terraced house in Queen Street, now Queen’s Road, later moving to Marston House, 37 Bridge Street, now demolished, where he had his business premises.  He was 24 when elected to the Town Council.

Payne was a respectable radical, a Congregationalist, a pacifist, a teetotaller and a vegetarian.  Above all, he was a great speaker, described as someone who could really hold a crowd, with a voice full of resonance and power.(3) It was not long before his opponents began to call him ‘the Cow Fair Roarer’.

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The Cow Fair was the favourite meeting ground for local politicians. Cows were tethered and sold in the street until 1931. The Town Hall with its tower is in the background.

Payne lost little time in making his presence felt at the Town Hall.  In February 1907, his motion to increase the wages of Corporation workmen was agreed unanimously.  At the same meeting, he demanded the Council appoint a ‘Housing Investigation Committee…to enquire into…the sufficiency or otherwise of the existing supply of dwelling-houses’ for local working people. Furthermore, he requested that it look into the work of other councils under the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act and whether Banbury itself should build.

After a lively debate, Payne got what he wanted.  The Banbury Advertiser mentions that this Council meeting set a record, lasting three and a quarter hours.  The reporter must have been exhausted.

Payne kept up the pressure, chivvying the Town Clerk for news of progress inside the Council chamber and agitating outside it.  In Boxhedge Square in Neithrop, an area notorious for its squalor, stench and unruly behaviour (4 ), Payne roared to a large crowd about ‘the rotten and bad houses with foul drains, leaky roofs, small windows and dirty walls…only inhabited because the people had nothing better to go to.’

Payne’s campaign was supported by the local Co-operative movement and railwaymen.  Mr T Jackson, secretary of the Banbury Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, told the Council in December that many of his members:

who were sent to Banbury had to wait weeks or even months before they could bring their wives and families to the town owing to their inability to procure houses at a rent suitable to their earnings.

Local businesses added their own pressure.  An open letter from W Braithwaite, the president of the Banbury Borough Development Association formed in 1907, suggested that some firms had declined to set up in Banbury due to ‘the present and prospective insufficiency of housing accommodation for their workpeople’.

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A house in the Tan Yard, photographed c.1903.  Banbury Borough Council issued a demolition order on it in June 1914 (from Barry Trinder, Cake  Cockhorse (the magazine of the Banbury Historical Society), vol 3, no. 6, 1966

The Medical Officer and the Inspector of Nuisances also reiterated to the Council the dire facts of Banbury’s housing situation.  The population was 13,483 by 1911 and the number of inhabited houses was 3085.  Rents for workmens’ dwellings ranged from two shillings to six shillings a week.  The former were mostly unfit for habitation – some had no backs and many were overcrowded – but six shillings was more than most workingmen in Banbury could afford when the average wage for unskilled men was 15 to 20 shillings a week.  The Medical Officer often stated that he would have condemned more houses had there been any possibility of alternative housing for the residents to move in to.

It was to be six years before King’s Road was built.  Most councillors were hesitant and they were anxious about costs – they wanted expansion but didn’t want to increase the rates.  Some of them were landlords and they worried that a larger pool of accommodation for working men and their families would reduce their rents.

Payne too was adamant that any house building should be done with a minimal impact on the rates. In 1908, he tried to persuade the Council to back the campaign of Huddersfield and other councils for land tax reform which would encourage landowners to sell land for housing:

Land is being held in Grimsbury and Neithrop – if people chose to hold their land idle, let them pay what they ought to pay for it in taxation.

The debate rumbled on.

JR Hodgkins mentions that Payne never enjoyed good health and it is tempting at this point to speculate that at times he was not particularly well.  Certainly he is absent from several consecutive Council meetings in 1909 and 1910.  By then he must have been working hard on his business which took him away from home for long periods.

It was the Housing and Town Planning Act, passed in January 1910, combined with Payne’s tenacity, which crystallised Banbury’s decision to build.  The Housing Committee also visited Newbury and returned impressed by the ten houses recently built by the local council:

Let at 4s.6d. per week each: these rents are rather lower than those charged by private owners for similar property and therefore there is no difficulty in obtaining tenants.

The death of both the Town Clerk and the Medical Officer – on whom the Council was heavily reliant for facts and advice – in August 1911 delayed progress but Payne, at last appointed to an enlarged Housing Committee, kept up the pressure.

In May 1911, he addressed a mass meeting – the Banbury Advertiser describes ‘a large assembly round the waggonette in the Cow Fair’ – alongside Liberal councillors Ewins and Viggers, and Mr Jackson of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants.  They accused councillors of slumbering ‘very peacefully’ and Ewins pointed to the example of Hornsey, which he had visited, where he found that ‘after six years the local authorities had 60 houses and were £360 to the good with which to put up two or three more houses’:

If other towns where land and labour were dearer than in Banbury, could go in for housing schemes and make them successful, why could not Banbury?  Were not Banbury workmen as good, as clever and as hard-working as those in any other place?

Payne and his comrades railed against complacency.  The crowd called for action:

people were in favour of having something practical and useful and why should the Council not build 50 or 100 houses, to start with, to commemorate the coronation of the King?

The question, however, remained where to build.  The Council already owned several acres of land in Grimsbury but there were problems of drainage and flooding.  Eventually the decision was taken to construct a new school and a mechanical sewerage system but no housing.

Thankfully, there were the Gilletts, Banbury bankers, Quakers and local philanthropists. In the mid 19th century many Oxfordshire farmers had their accounts with Gilletts Bank and, as farming profits fell, the bank acquired fields through forfeiture.  In 1895, Gilletts began a programme of land disposal, creating Queen Street in Neithrop (now Queen’s Road and parallel with King’s Road) by selling parcels of land to builders to build terraced housing for sale.

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Queen’s Road.  The bay windows and house names are a token of its respectability.

Gilletts set strict rules on the quality of construction which ensured that Queen Street became an attractive residential area. Payne’s first family home was in Queen Street; his rent was £15 per year. (5)

Joseph Gillett approached the Council with a field northwest of Queen Street that was let out as allotments.  At just a shilling a square yard, the price, £1000, was considered reasonable but the councillors still saw a dilemma – the site was too large.  To everyone’s relief, a deal was struck.  The Council paid £500 for half the land with an option to buy the rest for the same amount three years later.  From then on, the whole project ran smoothly.

The Council elections of November 1911 saw cross-party agreement that ‘housing has become the most pressing requirement of our town’. This was a striking achievement for Payne, a councillor for just five years and still a young man under thirty. Next week’s post looks at the fine new homes which resulted and the personal tragedy which followed Herbert Payne’s early triumph.

Sources

(1) Postcard from Past Time Postcards

(2) Contemporary quotations from the press, unless otherwise credited, are taken from the Banbury Advertiser between 1905 and 1930 held by the British Newspaper Archive

(3) JR Hodgkins, Over the Hills to Glory: Radicalism in Banburyshire 1832-1945 (1978)

(4) Barrie Trinder, Cake & Cockhorse (The magazine of the Banbury Historical Society), Vol 3, no. 6, 1966, pp83-127

(5) Derrick Knight, Once Upon A Time, Queen’s Road: Its Origins, Its Growth, Its Character (2014)

My thanks to the Oxfordshire History Centre of Oxfordshire County Council for their generosity in allowing the use of the credited images.

The Pendleton Estate, Salford II: ‘a distinctive neighbourhood with a strong identity’

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You’ll find more on the Pendleton Estate at the current exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester which showcases the work and archives of long-term residents John Aitken and Jane Brake of the Institute of Urban Dreaming.

Last week’s post examined what can only be judged in social and economic terms the failure of the Ellor Street comprehensive redevelopment of the 1960s.  As a further round of regeneration took off in the 2000s, new priorities and methods – and perhaps changed values – were in evidence.

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Bronte, Madison and Fitzwarren Courts with clearance to the foreground

When Ellor Street and surrounds were first comprehensively redeveloped fifty years ago, it was understood that responsibility lay with the state or, to use a language less currently tarnished, with the tools of democracy.  One of those tools was cheap finance – grants provided directly by central government and backed by the assets of local government. From 1979, however, under both Thatcher and New Labour, there was a belief that the private sector offered resources and capital that the state lacked – although no-one ever argued that the latter was in any way cheaper money.

There were other changes too.  Once council housing had seemed the necessary (if not unchallenged) solution to the housing needs of the working class.   Now reliance was placed to a far greater extent on the market.  This, at least, was the rationale of the Labour Government’s 2002 Pathfinder Housing Market Renewal programme: a plan to demolish generally structurally sound – sometimes neglected but rarely slum – housing in order to build smaller numbers of new homes and revive local housing markets.  Much of central Salford was covered in the scheme.

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Chimney Pot Park, Urban Splash

In Pendleton itself, the major intervention – well-known to planners and architects – occurred in an area of Edwardian terraced housing adjacent to Chimney Pot (or Langworthy) Park; the very same illustrated as an example of Edwardian bye-law housing in the first post of this series).   A joint venture between Urban Splash, English Partnerships, Salford City Council and the Northwest Regional Development Agency was agreed in 2003.  The first phase of the so-called ‘upside-down houses’ was completed in 2007,  remodelled with bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor, and living rooms and kitchens above where a new roof terrace spans the former back alley to create garaging and, on top, a communal deck.

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Chimney Pot Park showing deck and parking to left with Salford Precinct and blocks to rear

It’s attractive enough though it all seemed, despite the architectural acclaim the scheme has received, a little sterile when I walked through.  ‘Achingly fashionable’, in the words of one report, the scheme was designed for ‘a new community of urban pioneers’ and ‘aspirational young couples’. (1) But, at an initial sale price of £120,000 (judged three times what might count as ‘affordable’ in local terms at the time), it had little relevance to the lives of those who once lived there or those that live in the social housing nearby. Urban Splash themselves pulled out of the project in 2014, replaced by the Great Places Housing Association. (2)

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Pendleton Together’s masterplan for the current redevelopment

Still, in 2008, 93 per cent of Pendleton’s housing stock was council-owned.  In the next phase of regeneration, the ‘target position’ – outlined in the ‘Benefits Realisation Plan’ behind ‘Creating a New Pendleton’ in July 2009 – was to create ‘a mixed tenure residential area’.  The language is as telling as the detail. (3)

The vehicle for this shift – which would raise 1253 council properties to Decent Homes Standard, oversee the demolition of 860 homes including those in four multi-storey blocks, and ‘deliver a minimum of 460 units for affordable rent, circa 950 units for market sale and a minimum of 25 units for shared ownership’ – announced in 2013 was a Private Finance Initiative scheme.

I’ll quote from a contemporary report to illustrate the nature of the high finance involved. You might understand it better or differently but, to me, its an act of mystification; an example of the smoke and mirrors which currently reward capital at the expense of social need: (4)

Investec Bank arranged the bond issue on behalf of joint venture FHW Dalmore, with £71.7 million of Class A senior secured notes at 5.414 per cent and £10.9 million of Class B junior secured notes at 8.35 per cent.  The two-tranche approach sees subordinated B loan notes offering protection to A note investors, with the debt on-lent to the borrower as a single loan at a blended margin, and a standard project finance covenant package.

Pendleton Together, charged with delivering the scheme, was a consortium comprising, amongst others, the housing association Together Housing Group, ‘building and regeneration specialist’ Keepmoat, architects and planners Lathams, and Salford City Council.  Its vision is outlined in what is – and I don’t mean this quite as cynically as it sounds – a masterpiece of the type, a glossy brochure called An Ideal for Living.

For a total investment of some £650m, the Ideal envisaged: (5)

a distinctive neighbourhood with a strong identity…it will be a celebration of everything that is good about urban living. It will be an area of opportunity where anyone can make something of their life, set up a business and live happily, healthily and safely.

These are worthy enough aims although the idea that we should aspire to setting a business seems a far more sinister marker than intended – a sign of how far we have moved from the idea of dignified and secure employment, how easily we accept the current statistical lie of ‘self-employment’. The detailed agenda is  admirable: as well as improved housing, 10 hectares of ‘quality public space’, 500 new jobs, training for 3200, ‘healthy lifestyle classes and programmes’, a city farm and so on.  All this is accompanied by the new buzzwords – ‘secure by design’, placemaking’ and ‘people streets’. (‘Some would say’, the brochure pronounces, ‘that the 1963 Comprehensive Development Plan for the place was designed by a road traffic engineer. We think they are right.’)

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Salix Court with the refurbished Sycamore Court to rear

Alongside this were other, linked initiatives. Some Salford council housing stock had been transferred to City West in 2008. A new stock transfer of 8500 homes from Salford Council to the arms-length management organisation Salix Homes was voted through by tenants in November 2014 – though almost 40 per cent of those who voted rejected the proposal. By writing off an existing £65.1m debt, the new registered social landlord was released to access new funds – a prerequisite (not available to the council) to the expenditure of £22m on modernising 2000 homes across the city in 2015. (5)

Salford City Council’s report, Shaping Housing in Salford 2020; a Housing Strategy for Salford, published in November 2015, confirms that ‘private sector investment in the city will continue to provide a vital role in delivering housing development’ and – in an understandable and perhaps necessary display of civic boosterism – proclaims the success of other local regeneration initiatives, notably MediaCityUK [sic] in the new Salford Quays.

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‘New Pendleton by night’ as envisaged by Pendleton Together

Salford may still be, it admits, the 18th most deprived local authority in the country, but we have moved a long way from the politics of the 1980s when Hackney, as a form of political mobilisation, proclaimed itself. ‘Britain’s poorest borough’.  The report asserts that ‘Salford’s population and economy is growing, employment is rising and the social and cultural life in the city is thriving’. (6)

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Thorn Court

There have been improvements. The flat I stayed in in Thorn Court at the top end of Broadwalk was modern and well-equipped.  Thorn Court and most of the adjacent blocks have been refurbished, albeit reclad in the now de rigeur dayglow style.

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Mango Place with Magnolia Court to rear

There are new bright, shiny blocks too and suburban-style housing to please the new traditionalists. Of the original three slab blocks of the Ellor Street redevelopment, one had been demolished and those which remain now house students from nearby Salford University.  Social housing across Salford has been updated and modernised.

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Clearance underway off Churchill Way

In the meantime, in the midst of the Pendleton regeneration, things are a mess.  There are swathes of wasteland where homes have been demolished, barren open spaces still very far from the parkland envisaged, and down-at-heel or redundant community buildings untouched by the new Salford apparently emerging. There’s an alienating mix of contemporary refurb and the unreconstructed past exacerbated by the drawn-out process and blight of actually existing regeneration as it is experienced beyond the pages of the glossy planning brochures.

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Pear Tree Close where one resident remains, having refused to accept the level of compensation offered by the Council

St Paul’s Church, occupying a central position on the Broadwalk, still caters devotedly to those left behind by all this change.  The question remains – as it does for all such regeneration schemes (and I will acknowledge their generally good intentions here) – how far the plethora of training schemes and lifestyle programmes can address the intractable realities of non-existent or insecure and low-paid employment and simple, plain poverty.

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Broadwalk with the closed Flemish Weavers pub in the foreground and Spruce Court to the rear

Nor is it controversial now to question Private Finance Initiatives as a vehicle for – what should be, at least – public investment.  The method’s convoluted and protracted deal-making, the additional expense incurred catering for all the special interests involved, the high cost of borrowing have been widely criticised as have – although the Salford example doesn’t seem especially egregious in this regard – the long and disruptive delays in implementation.  It’s been ‘an extreme form of contractualisation’, proven, in particular, ‘to be far more complicated and expensive to apply to the social housing sector’. (7)

In all, as Stuart Hodkinson has concluded, rather mildly in the circumstances:

The PFI experience…calls into question one of the underlying principles behind the modernisation of social housing—that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector in providing housing services.

And that’s a good place to finish.  Clearly, this extended Salford case-study demonstrates that the national and local state didn’t get everything right in its own rehousing programmes.  There have been errors  and inadequacies in process and implementation which have treated its citizens poorly.  Having learnt from those mistakes but with an awareness now of our contemporary failures, it’s hard not to see public finance and democratic procedures as offering the most cost-efficient and accountable solution to our current housing crisis.  Beyond that, the lesson from Salford – and other left-behind communities – is that we owe a communal duty to all those who have not benefited from our nation’s affluence.  In this, decent and affordable housing is but one component.

Sources

(1) Phil Griffin, ‘On the Terraces’, Special issue. Housing Building design, BD magazine supplement no. 8, June 15 2007

(2) ‘Urban Splash Chimney Pot Park Housing Scheme Eyesore Slated by Salford Councillor’, Salford Star, 17 June 2014

(3) Creating a New Pendleton Benefits Realisation Plan (July 2009)

(4) Luke Cross, ‘Together closes Salford PFI with £82.6m two-tranche bond’, Social Housing, 4 October 2013

(5) Pendleton Together, An Ideal for Living (ND)

(5) Pete Apps, ‘Salford tenants vote for stock transfer’, Inside Housing, 4 November 2014 and Neal Keeling, ‘Modernising 2,000 homes to cost £22m: Investment follows vote to transfer ownership of housing’, Manchester Evening News, 9 February 2015

(6) Salford City Council, Shaping Housing in Salford 2020; a Housing Strategy for Salford (November 2014)

(7) Stuart Hodkinson, ‘The Private Finance Initiative in English Council Housing Regeneration: A Privatisation too Far?’, Housing Studies, vol 26, no 6, 2011

The Pendleton Estate I: ‘A Salford of the Space Age’ or ‘Concrete Wasteland’?

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You’ll find more on the Pendleton Estate at the current exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester which showcases the work and archives of long-term residents John Aitken and Jane Brake of the Institute of Urban Dreaming.

We left the people of Ellor Street last week facing the brave new world of comprehensive redevelopment in the early sixties with mixed feelings.  One reporter noted ‘a sense of uneasiness around…in many cases hidden by a joke or a resolution to face the new life’. (1)  Six years later, the scheme (with its ‘tree-lined open spaces, a community centre and a health centre all segregated from traffic’) well underway, another reporter – or perhaps the same one – described the residents’ embrace of their new surroundings.  He described the new Pendleton as ‘A Salford of the Space Age’.  ‘Small wonder’, he continued: (2)

that many Ellor Street folk have fought shy of moving to overspill areas or other parts of the City, and have waited eagerly for the chance of being rehoused here – if they leave their present homes.

Given the visionary idealism of the Report on the Plan which outlined the principles of the redevelopment scheme and the optimism which surrounded it both in Salford Borough Council and the local press, perhaps these hopes were understandable.

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‘View of flexi-maisonette area from service road to the south’ from The Report on the Plan

It’s true that some of the rehoused residents had wanted houses rather than high-rise flats but the amenities of their new homes soon won them over:

We really wanted a house but these new flats are so nice and well-designed that I would not change for a house.  I like the underfloor heating, the nice living room, and bright bedrooms, we used to pay 16 shillings a week rent and now it is 44 shillings and 10 pence and well worth it.

This was the era – a brief one, in fact – in which high-rise took off.  A few years earlier, back in 1956, only 6 per cent of homes nationally had been provided in flats of over five storeys.  Ten years later, as the new Pendleton took shape, that proportion had risen to (and peaked at) 26 per cent.  Avoiding the obloquy that hindsight has visited on such high-rise construction, there seemed, at the time, many compelling reasons for this shift.

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Ellor Street and Unwin Street under redevelopment (c) University of Salford and made available under a Creative Commons licence

The mass slum clearances of the period and the apparent requirement to build replacement housing at density in inner-city areas, compounded by new restrictions on greenfield construction and dislike of sprawling suburban estates, provided one causal bundle.  Salford, like many other inner-city authorities, also resented losing population and rateable income to beyond-border overspill.

There were less tangible but equally potent ideological currents too – a new concern for urbanism and a sense that high-rise represented the future, modernity in a new Britain sloughing off the obsolescence which seemingly characterised so much of its housing and townscapes.  The Report on the Plan claimed that the scheme represented ‘an unparalleled opportunity for Salford to think today what other cities would think tomorrow’.  In the end, the judgments of tomorrow would be far less positive but that’s to jump ahead. The Ellor Street redevelopment almost uniquely captures many of the hopes and ambitions of the period.

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A contemporary view of John Lester and Eddie Colman Courts (Walter Greenwood Court was demolished in 2001)

The original plans had been devised within Salford, a council, according to Glendinning and Muthesius, ‘dominated by its formidable City Engineer, G Alexander McWilliam, and by its equally entrenched direct labour organisation’.  Three 15-storey slab blocks – Walter Greenwood, Eddie Colman and John Lester Courts, designed in-house – had already been started. (3)

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Eight-storey flats at Salford as featured in Trussed Concrete Review, no 10, 1955

These and Salford’s earlier high-rise efforts – such as the Truscon flats in Kersal Moor – were judged drab and uninspiring by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government but it had little local power in this era of jealous municipalism.  Salford, however, wasn’t one of the big beasts of local government and here the Ministry – playing cannily on the Borough’s fears of loss of status – secured some influence.

Salford agreed, at the Ministry’s suggestion, to the appointment of former LCC Chief Architect and Robert Matthew and former LCC Senior Planner Percy Johnson-Marshall as architect-planners for the entire scheme.  The Architectural Research Unit of Edinburgh University, where both were now based, were to be executive architects for significant elements of it. The Ministry, for its part and against the preferences of the Edinburgh team responsible for detailed design, insisted on five 17-storey point blocks and prefabricated construction as central government sought to boost new methods of industrialised building – another contemporary manifestation of self-conscious modernity and seen as a necessary means of completing the rehousing revolution of the time. (4)

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Thorn Court and Spruce Court (in the foreground) before refurbishment and Broad Street, the A6

In housing terms and in sheer numbers, this was a success.  Salford completions increased from 30 in 1962 to 1468 in 1966; into the early seventies it built more housing per capita than any other English city, even Birmingham undergoing its own high-rise revolution. (5)  The civic centre – a much vaunted element of the original planning – didn’t materialise and the shopping centre never took off as any kind of regional hub.

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Peter Hook, invited to celebrate the demolition of one of the three 14-storey ‘Orchards’ tower blocks in 2013 (c) Manchester Evening News

On this occasion, there don’t seem to have been any particular problems arising from system-building but there were early criticisms of the housing. Peter Hook (‘Hooky’ of Joy Division and New Order) was no fan: (6)

All my friends moved to Ellor Street, which was all high-rise 70’s flats and a new shopping precinct all built out of concrete. It was rotten, horrible; like a concrete wasteland. And that was when it opened.

Nigel Pivaro (back in the day Terry Duckworth in Coronation Street – set in Salford, of course; now a respected journalist) speaks for many in decrying what was lost: (7)

the demise of the traditional street, the corner shop and small local pub…In short, a whole way of life ceased to exist and the way Salfordians interacted with their neighbours and the world around them changed dramatically.

‘Old institutions…were simply never properly replaced,’ he concluded; ‘what has replaced the old order is not only bland and characterless but actually has never been put back at all’.

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New blocks  – probably John Lester and Eddie Colman Courts – under construction in the early 1960s. St Paul’s Church in the centre on the new Broadwalk remains a mainstay of the present community (c) University of Salford and made available under a Creative Commons licence

In this, he echoed the bleak reportage of an ITN news story on Salford high-rise, broadcast in 1988: (8)

Society has broken down in some of Salford’s tower blocks. Civic squalor has become a breeding ground for crime. Muggings, burglaries and firebombs are a brutal fact of daily life. Here thousands live in fear of losing their property, even their lives.

One tower block, it was claimed, had suffered twenty arson attacks in a single year.

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The former Paddock pub (now a hostel) – one of the very few old buildings retained in the original redevelopment – with the unmodernised Albion Towers to the rear

The judgment between the competing narratives – bright-eyed modernity and its early welcome and the dislocation and loss it is subsequently held to have caused – seems pretty clear but there’s really no simple ‘truth’ here.  There are issues of timing and perspective. There is nostalgia both for the old and the old ‘new’. It seems to me that the romanticisation of the slums should be criticised just as much as we now attack the naivety (or worse) of planners.  And there are unexplored counterfactuals and neglected contexts.  Could slum clearance and redevelopment have been done differently, better? Very likely but we can’t re-write the wider history which has devastated our traditional working-class communities since the 1960s.

In 2007, Pendleton was rated the twelfth most deprived area in the country.  Some 41 per cent of its 18 to 24 year olds lacked any educational qualification (compared to the national average of 29 per cent); 48 per cent of adults were economically active (nationally, the figure stood at 63 per cent). (9)

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A contemporary view of Salford Precinct and the Briar Hill Court  block of flats

In 2011, when riots broke out around the Salford Precinct (intended as the great show-piece of the Ellor Street redevelopment), the area was described as the third worst area in the country for child poverty, and the seventh for unemployment.  In the high-end stores of central Manchester, people: (10)

made off with £2,000 guitars, plasma TVs, and designer clothes from Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green boutique, in the neglected Salford Precinct they were taking tins of food from Lidl and second-hand televisions from Cash Converters.

‘People who have got nothing wanted to show that they have nothing,’ said one of those involved. Behind this lay something both more diffuse – a resentment of local gentrification and the marginalisation it highlighted – and hostility towards the police as its enforcers.  The riots were, according to one study, a ‘response, albeit lacking in a formal political articulation, to perceived injustices that relate to poverty, exclusion and oppressive policing’.  David Cameron and others condemned them as ‘criminality, pure and simple’. (11)

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Brydon Court: where the police amassed in a show of force and the riots began

Alice Coleman argued that there was no excuse for such behaviour – after all, there had been no riots in the poverty-stricken interwar period so graphically portrayed by Walter Greenwood in Salford – though Love on the Dole portrays a brutal police attack on a peaceful protest of the unemployed against the new Means Test.  But perhaps people brought up in a post-war period which undertook to despatch such poverty, in an era of rampant consumerism (for some) of which the Salford Precinct had once been both symbol and promise, had higher expectations and a sharper sense of grievance.

At any rate, the time was ripe for new regeneration initiatives.  These, however, would reflect very changed times.  We’ll examine them in next week’s post.

Sources        

(1) Salford City Reporter, 3 April 1959 quoted in Kynaston, Modernity Britain, p289

(2) Salford City Reporter, April 1965, quoted in Tony Flynn, ‘50 years ago: ‘Space-age’ Salford high-rise dream comes true’, 8 April, 2015. The following quotation is drawn from the same source.

(3) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (1994)

(4) Soledad Garcia Ferrari, Miles Glendinning, Paul Jenkins and Jessica Taylor ‘Putting the User First? A Pioneering Scottish Experiment in architectural research’, Architectural Heritage, Volume 19, Issue 1

(5) Figures from Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block and EW Cooney, ‘High Flats in Local Authority Housing in England and Wales since 1945’, in Anthony Sutcliffe, Multi-Storey Living. The British Working-Class Experience (1974)

(6) Quoted in Pendleton Together, An Ideal for Living

(7) Nigel Pivaro, ‘Salford Street Loss’, Salford Star, 14 May 2010

(8) ITN, Salford Flats (1988)

(9) Cited in Luc Vrolijks and Maarten Königs, Urban Futures for Pendleton, linking city branding to urban regeneration, 43rd ISOCARP Congress 2007

(10) Helen Clifton and Eric Allison, ‘Manchester and Salford: a tale of two riots’, The Guardian, 6 December 2011

(11) Bob Jeffery and Waqas Tufail, ‘“The riots were where the police were”: Deconstructing the Pendleton Riot’, Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive

The Ellor Street Redevelopment Area, Salford: ‘No Hanky Park, no more’

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In early October, I was invited by John Aitken and Jane Brake of the Institute of Urban Dreaming to visit the Pendleton Estate in Salford, one a number of people who have visited.  We were asked to provide a response to the experience and an impression of the estate.  These will feature, along with the archive of documentation accumulated by John and Jane during their long years of residency in the estate, in an exhibition at the People’s History Museum running from 29 October 2016 to 15 January 2017.

The post which follows represents what might be called a prehistory of the estate – looking at the housing it replaced, the ideas behind the huge redevelopment which took place in the sixties, and the questions of community raised by each. 

…streets, mazes, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below; in some cases, only one room alow and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawnshops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness; churches, chapels and unpretentious mission halls where God is praised; nude, black patches of land, “crofts”, as they are called, waterlogged, sterile, bleak and chill.

Walter Greenwood cast an unsparing eye on the Salford he grew up in and knew so well. (1) He was brought up on Ellor Street in Pendleton, the only son of a master hairdresser and educated at the local Langworthy Road Primary School.  His schooling ended aged thirteen; he’d worked outside school hours as a pawnbroker’s clerk twelve months previously and would go on to experience a range of other menial jobs as well as periods of unemployment before writing Love on the Dole, published in 1933.

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56 Ellor Street, Greenwood’s birthplace, shown empty and derelict in the 1960s (c) WGC4-4-2, Salford University Library, Archives and Special Collections

The book’s protagonist, Harry Hardcastle, unwisely forsakes his ‘soft’ office job as just such a pawnbroker’s clerk to become as an apprentice at ‘Marlowe’s’, a local engineering works – man’s work to Harry but after seven years, his time served, Harry is laid off just as the men preceding him had been as the Great Depression hit.  The props – a living wage (just) and the dignity of work – which might have made his harsh environs endurable are removed and the squalor of the mean slum terraces and abject lives they spawned exact their toll.

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Greenwood wasn’t writing for effect and his novel – working men and women and those without work are its heroes – is a world away from the poverty porn which disfigures contemporary attitudes towards the poor.

Concerned middle-class observers such as the Manchester Social Service Group of the [Christian] Auxiliary Movement echoed his description of local conditions: (2)

Tall factory buildings pollute the air with smoke and block out sunshine and light, so that many householders have to burn gas all day.  Not a single house has a garden and all are grimy with soot.  There is no recreation ground, although small vacant plots, dusty, often littered with refuse, and absolutely devoid of grass, are sometimes used for this purpose.

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The corner of Florin Street and Douglas Street in the 1960s (c) WCG4-4-3, Salford University Library, Archives and Special Collections

They surveyed the Chapel Street/Blackfriars Road area of Salford two miles east of Hanky Park (nicknamed after the main local thoroughfare, Hankinson Street) where Greenwood set Love on the Dole.  Of some 500 houses, only four had baths and all, or very nearly all, needless to say, shared (outside) toilets.  On the other hand:

As is found in other poor districts, the shops catering for wants rather than needs are surprisingly numerous. The section first mentioned contains six public houses, five supper bars, and five shops selling sweets and tobacco.

Our modern-day critics might make something of that wasteful spending on fripperies but one senses here something more sympathetic – a realisation that hard lives needed something softer to make them bearable.

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The E Griffiths Hughes Chemical Works, the Adelphi Iron Works and environs, Salford, 1934 (c) Historical England EPW045058

Local government provided a more bureaucratic but more statistically telling account of local living conditions thirteen years later.  In the 50,500-odd homes of the County Borough of Salford (it had, of course, its more salubrious middle-class suburbs), over half lacked hot water; almost one in five were judged ‘totally unfit and scheduled for early demolition’, one in ten ‘other unfit homes’ were slated for later demolition.  Of the rest, 24,500 were substandard – too good for demolition but still, nevertheless, falling ‘below reasonably fit standard’.  JE Blease, a Salford sanitary inspector, pointed out that these obsolescent terraces were the late Victorian byelaw housing ‘heralded with pride’ for their sanitary improvements ‘by building surveyors some sixty years ago as an approach to the artisan’s utopia’. (3)

We’ve arrived at 1943 in a world at war – a war which made those redundant working-class male bodies of the thirties valuable once more, either in military service or on the home front in war production.  We can be cynical about a society which places a premium on human lives which it is otherwise busy destroying but there were, during this second world war, other more humane and progressive forces at play.

love-on-the-dole-film-snIn this context, the first film version of Love on the Dole in 1941 might initially seem surprising.  What more searing indictment of Britain’s class-ridden and socially unjust society could there be?  For this reason, the censors were initially reluctant to authorise its production (they deemed it ‘a very sordid story in a very sordid surrounding’) and yet the director John Baxter, was, for his part, determined that the film should ‘not be a star-vehicle because it should represent ordinary people’. (4)  (Deborah Kerr who played Harry’s sister, Sally, would make her name later.)

There was a significant shift, however. John Harris notes a ‘doughty, optimistic dialogue that was not in the novel’ and the film (unlike the book) ends on a positive note with the parting words of Harry’s mother:

One day we’ll all be wanted. The men who’ve forgotten how to work, and the young ‘uns who’ve never had a job. There must be no Hanky Park, no more.

walter-greenwood-election-leaflet_400x591Greenwood must surely have approved.  Some of his early mentors had been working-class activists and much of the novel had been written at Ashfield Labour Club in Salford. Greenwood himself was briefly – he wasn’t cut out for active politics himself – a Labour councillor.  In a later interview, he stated his novel’s purpose in showing ‘what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole, the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth’.

In this 1941 iteration, Love on the Dole was an emphatic ‘never again’ – both a demand and, implicitly, a promise of a better post-war world.

Again, the rhetoric of local government was drier but its planners believed their craft and vision central to this new world and saw planning, humane and rational, as the very antithesis of the destructive anarchy wrought by the free market.

In February 1942 Salford’s City Engineer, W Albert Walker, emphasised that the ‘central concern’ of town planning was ‘the health, happiness and well-being of the people’. ‘The very starkness in which we have now seen the defects’, he continued, ‘may arouse new interest with a fresh determination that prevailing conditions must be improved’. (5)

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The Beveridge Report, a 1943 best-seller

Nationally, the Beveridge Report published ten months after Walker’s Salford speech promised to slay the five ‘Giant Evils’ – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – which so straitened the lives of the Salford working class Greenwood portrayed. The Report sold 630,000 copies.  Many obviously shared Mrs Hardcastle’s hopes for the future.

But if all this was a revolution, it was a very British one.  Beveridge himself emphasised that his great scheme of social security was ‘first and foremost, a plan of insurance – of giving in return for contributions benefits up to subsistence level’ (though, crucially, without the Means Test which scarred the family lives of Greenwood’s protagonists).

In housing (the ‘Squalor’ that Beveridge attacked), there were similarly pragmatic proposals.  Mr Blease suggested that much of the borough’s terraced housing could be reconditioned.  However, his helpful sixteen point checklist of required improvements – covering roofs and guttering, windows and doors and much else beyond the now bare essentials of baths and toilets – suggested the difficulty.  ‘The desired up-grading of substandard houses will not be accomplished by philanthropic enthusiasm on the part of landlords’, he commented mildly; nor could it be funded under existing local government powers.

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An illustration of bye-law housing drawn from JE Blease, ‘The Unfit House’.  This area is now the site of Urban Splash’s radical redesign of these traditional terraces.

Labour’s 1949 Housing Act did, in fact, allow local authorities to acquire homes for improvement or conversion with 75 per cent Exchequer grants but this was not yet the approach prioritised by central or local government.

City Engineer Walker spoke to higher ambitions: for ‘large agglomerations…there must be satellite towns. When a central area is re-developed, there must be a reduction in density’.  He was far more sceptical about high-rise construction:

There appears to be no reason or excuse for blocks of flats in the average town of one hundred thousand population or under. There is an attraction about erecting a large block of buildings. They look compact and tidy. The proportion of the site built up may be kept low. But how will they be classed in, say, forty years? In the large urban aggregations to which reference has been made, flats will no doubt find a place, but they are only the next best thing to good houses.

We’ll just let those comments stand.  To many, they might seem an almost uncannily prescient anticipation of a debate that had erupted fiercely in the four decades which Walker prescribed.

At first, Salford followed Walker’s advice with the creation of a large overspill estate in the then Urban District of Worsley some eight miles to the west of Salford’s historic centre.  Inaugurated in 1949, the Salford-Worsley scheme had, by 1959, relocated almost 10,000 (of a projected 17,000) Salfordians.  In the fifties, the Borough proposed moving almost a quarter of its population (40,000 of 178,000) to greenfield sites beyond its borders. (6)

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Overspill housing in Little Hulton, part of the Worsley scheme (c) Eccles and District Local History Society, www.hultonhistory.btck.co.uk/Memories/Salfordoverspill

Such a shift was not without problems for those involved.  The new council rents were, on average, three times higher than those paid previously.  Seven in ten of the estate’s workforce commuted – one and half hours there and back – back to Salford for work.  And then, according to the planner JB Cullingworth, there were added expenses caused by a new ‘social necessity to “keep up appearances”’.

Ten per cent of families returned to Salford; in Cullingworth’s survey, three-quarters would have returned if only they ‘could obtain accommodation in Salford which was of “the Worsley standard”’.   There lay the rub, of course:

Over a quarter of the families have moved from shared and overcrowded houses; a further third had previously lived in damp and obsolescent accommodation. Their present living conditions form a most striking and welcome contrast.

So most settled and, in time, a new community would develop. It would, however, be a very different community from that described by Greenwood.  Cullingworth, in a single sentence, captures the shift which some contemporary observers decried: ‘The intimate life of the slums has given way to the more reserved, home-centred life of the typical middle-class suburb’.

Writing of the new out-of-county estates of the London County Council, Peter Willmott and Michael Young lamented the loss of ‘the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries’ that had made up the old East End and mourned, in particular, the break-up of the matriarchal kinship networks they held to have previously sustained community life. (7)  They’ve been criticised since for a selective use of evidence and a much romanticised view of slum living.

Greenwood is a corrective here and Cullingworth himself offered a far more sardonic take:

Separation from ‘Mum’ has not been the hardship which some sociologists have led us to expect; on the contrary it has often allowed a more harmonious relationship to be established. The possession of a house in which pride can be taken has resulted in a closer and more intimate family life: activities are now centred on the home, the garden and the television set.

Contrary to much conventional wisdom, this was an escape from the pub to be celebrated, not the escape to it required by previously inhospitable home conditions.

The charge – it was usually a lament or criticism – of embourgeoisement (the view that working people were adopting middle-class lifestyles and values) is a more interesting one.   For all the practical difficulties, Cullingworth found that the ‘majority of families were thrilled with their new way of life’.  Perhaps, therefore, we should recast this argument.

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A image of the new affluence: the new Salford shopping precinct as imaged in the Report on the Plan

Are we really saying that as soon as the working class achieve decent living standards that they have thereby become middle-class?  Sometimes it seems that way; sometimes it seems that some left-wing commentators would prefer the working class to be ‘poor but happy’ (or even unhappy if that better maintained a purer and more militant proletarian politics).  Let’s just scrap the labels which seem to affix too readily essentialist class attributes to certain modes of living.  Besides the definitive study of the so-called ‘affluent worker’ found that, despite their more ‘privatised’ home life, their working lives remained distinct and harder and their politics largely unaltered. (8)

Still, there was truth in Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s statement in 1957 that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’.  This was an era of full employment and rising living standards. It seemed a tectonic shift; Love on the Dole was an historic record, a reminder of a lost world, one not to be repeated.

The new world was represented in the redevelopment of the Ellor Street area first approved by the Municipal Borough in 1960.  In the words of Albert Jones, the chair of the Council’s Planning and Development Committee, ‘we may be thirty years late but we are trying now to obliterate Hanky Park as it was known and propose to make the area something of which we can be proud’. (9)

The bare bones of the plan were to clear 89 acres of land in which, according to Jones, ‘three thousand families lived in slum conditions as bad as any to be found in the country’. (10)  But the form of redevelopment was peculiar to its time.

In March 1961, the Council commissioned Sir Robert Matthew, formerly Chief Architect to the London County Council and now Professor of Architecture at Edinburgh University, to act as consultant.  His plan, prepared in collaboration with architect-planner Percy Johnson-Marshall, director of the University’s Housing Research Unit, envisaged something far more sweeping than the mere replacement of substandard housing.

The project was seen ‘strategically as a vital part of the regeneration of the industrial north of England’; its aim ‘to recreate within the Greater Manchester Region a city centre which will make for a high standard of environment in terms of living, shopping and civic affairs, using the latest techniques of planning and development to fit the new centre for the motor age’. (11)

Matthews continued, in the Report on the Plan which would form the template of the finished project:

The basic idea of the scheme is to provide a beautiful and spacious environment with large and continuous pedestrian space over a large area so that the citizens of the new Salford may drive off efficiently to work or else walk down a new parkway right into one of Europe’s finest shopping centres without having to cross any roads.

Much of the proposal therefore features what was planned as a combined Civic and Shopping Centre – the former containing a new town hall, library, and museum and art gallery as well as what was billed as a ‘contemporary Trafalgar Square’ for the borough; the latter, 400,000 square feet of retail space as well as parking for 2070 cars.  The adjacent A6 was to be brought up to motorway standard to aid traffic flow.

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‘View looking eastward along the main pedestrian way’ (Broadwalk from the shopping precinct) as envisaged in The Report on the Plan

Practically, this spoke to Colin Buchanan’s influential report, Traffic in Towns, published in 1963. It was designed to manage the problems caused by increased car ownership and enhance the quality of urban life – there were 10.5 million vehicles registered in Britain at the time but the figure was expected to almost double by the end of the decade.  It was the report’s support for urban motorways, however, which, as implemented, blighted a number of city centres that have secured its hold in the popular imagination.

Ideologically, the plan reflected the sense that a modern and prosperous Britain was emerging, one whose promise extended to a working class, more securely employed and better-off than ever before. In this context, Hanky Park did, indeed, seem a remnant of a benighted past.

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A 1961 concept model of the new estate

‘Forward to the City Beautiful!’ proclaimed one Salford newspaper headline of 1961 and the plan was claimed by its boosters as vital to the borough’s renaissance.  One Salford councillor asserted that ‘our future as a city stands or falls by Ellor Street’ – the redevelopment would ‘add 2800 families to our population, revitalise our trade, and give our rateable value its first boost since the war’.

There, of course, was represented another aspect of the scheme’s appeal. Salford, like other similarly placed towns and cities, had turned against the large-scale decanting of its population to distant and beyond-border estates.  The latter had, as we’ve seen, its practical problems for the new suburbanites but there was a fear too that the local authorities themselves were – literally and metaphorically – diminished by the loss of population the policy created.

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Aerial view of the Ellor Street Redevelopment Area, c.1964 (c) Salford University Library, Archives and Special Collections

The new housing, therefore, wasn’t – though it is discussed in the concluding section of the Report on the Plan – exactly an afterthought but it was covered rather summarily.  ‘Immediate housing requirements have been met by siting three 15 storey blocks on the north-west corner of the site’, it stated. For the rest, it proposed mainly eight-storey maisonette blocks, some four-storey, eight unit blocks providing family houses and, rather casually, three twenty-two storey point blocks and other 16-storey blocks which would ‘give emphasis and continuity to the visual sequence of the development’.

This was, to say the least, a sharp break from the two-storey terraces which had dominated previously and a clear contrast with the more cautious approach suggested by that wartime generation of planners discussed earlier.  But it reflected the wisdom of the age that assumed high-rise construction offered a quick and easy means to provide both the new housing and urban density required by the new wave of slum clearance.

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The Ellor Street redevelopment Stage 8 (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block (1984)

By some accounts, the residents of Ellor Street and surrounds, those who would inhabit the brave new world created by the planners and politicians, were less sure of the solutions proposed.  One local journalist observed: (12)

It is a district of people whose roots are firmly embedded in the hard ground, and there is every sign that they are not going to take kindly to the sudden upheaval.  There was a sense of uneasiness around, which is in many cases hidden by a joke or a resolution to face the new life – the sort of resolution one reaches when facing a visit to the dentist to have that worrying tooth removed.

It seems the stoicism deployed to survive the hardships of the thirties was required once more to cope with the benefits bestowed by modern affluence.  We’ll see how all this played out in next week’s post.

Sources

(1) Walter Greenwood, Love on the Dole (1933)

(2) Manchester Social Service Group of the Auxiliary Movement, No. 9 Report on a Survey of Housing Conditions in the Salford Area (Manchester, Sherratt and Hughes, 1930)

(3) JE Blease (Sanitary Inspector, Salford), ‘The Unfit House’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, vol. 66, January 1946, pp11-18

(4) The British Board of Film Classification is quoted in John Harris, ‘Rereading: Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood’, The Guardian, 7 August 2010, and John Baxter in Chris Hopkins, ‘Why Love on the Dole stands the test of time’, 20 January, 2016

(5) W Albert Walker, ‘Post-War Housing Development’, Read at a Sessional Meeting held at Salford on February 14th, 1942; The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, vol 62, April 1942, pp75-84

(6) JB Cullingworth, ‘Overspill in South East Lancashire: The Salford-Worsley Scheme’, The Town Planning Review, vol. 30, no. 3, October, 1959, pp189-206

(7) Peter Willmott and Michael Young, Family and Kinship in East London (Routledge, 2013; first published 1957), p97

(8) John H Goldthorpe, David Lockwood et al., ‘The Affluent Worker and the Thesis of Embourgeoisement: Some Preliminary Research Findings’, Sociology, vol. 1 no. 1, January 1967, pp11-31

(9) Quoted in David Kynaston, Modernity Britain, 1957-62, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), p397

(10) Cllr Albert Jones, Foreword, in Robert Matthew and Percy Johnson-Marshall, Report on the Plan (Edinburgh: Bella Vista, 1963), p1

(11) Matthew and Johnson-Marshall, Report on the Plan p6. The quotation which follows comes from p7.

(12) Salford City Reporter, 3 April 1959 quoted in Kynaston, Modernity Britain, p289

The Five Estates, Peckham, Part III: Back to the Future

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‘After 10 years and £60m investment, five estates in Peckham, south London, have finally been transformed from pits of urban blight into shining examples of regeneration.’  So wrote one housing journalist in 2004. (1)

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Cator Street – the new face of the Five Estates

In fact, as we saw in the first post of this series, the Five Estates hadn’t always been the pits and, in total, their regeneration cost something in the order of £290m.  Last week, I looked at what had ‘gone wrong’ with (or ‘on’ – there’s a significant distinction there) the estates to justify such expenditure.  This week I’ll examine and assess the thinking which underlay regeneration and the convoluted, troubled form it took.

It was said that £16m had been spent to improve the North Peckham Estate by the mid-1980s.  But already, there were many who felt that such palliative measures – chiefly tackling problems of security by adding bars to ground-floor windows and providing new front doors – were inadequate.  Some, allegedly tenants amongst them, felt that complete demolition was the ‘ideal solution’ but at the time that was judged both too expensive and – with 24,000 on the Southwark waiting list for housing – impracticable. (2)

Alice Coleman, the guru of design disadvantagement who had investigated Southwark’s multi-storey estates, lived up to her mantra that ‘two or three storeys are harmless, but more are harmful’ by proposing that all but the lower two floors of the blocks be removed. She was upset that this apparently simple solution to the estate’s problems was rejected as more expensive than demolition and as adding to housing shortage. (3)

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This plan shows areas improved under the Estate Action programme

The first serious attempt to tackle the problems of the North Peckham Estate in particular was the North Peckham Project established in 1985 – a joint venture of councillors, officers and tenants formed to agree a bid to the Department of Environment.  This bore fruit in the Estate Action programme begun in 1987.

This programme saw the refurbishment of around 1200 homes across the wider area.  On the Willowbrook Estate, for example, a relatively untroubled and mainly low-rise estate of four-storey maisonette blocks, £350,000 was spent on renovations, asbestos removal and a new entry phone system.  The twelve-storey Tonbridge House point block was demolished in a later wave of Estate Action improvements after 1992.

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A contemporary image of Shurland Gardens (with added pitched roof) on the former Willowbrook Estate

But the big idea and the focus of the bulk of the £40m pledged by central government was the radical remodelling of the North Peckham Estate – basically an attempt to rectify what were now widely accepted as the design flaws of the original plan.  The second-storey walkways would go, new ground floor entrances to flats would be created with front and rear gardens where feasible, and access points to the estate would be reduced.  All this, of course, was an attempt to create the ‘defensible space’ that the previous estate had lacked.

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Gated entrance to new development

The five-storey parking blocks (to which few now dared to entrust their vehicles) were to be adapted – one converted into neighbourhood offices, others into workshops and a training centre. Rolf Rothermel (of Rothermel Cooke, the architects with the new design brief) was keen to get cars – so assiduously removed in the original scheme – back on the estate, given the residents’ unofficial attempts to do just that: ‘people will do anything to park their cars reasonably near their homes, although this has meant driving through bollards or over landscaped areas up till now’. (4)

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Lynbrook Grove

If these plans had some significant local support, the next – from a Conservative government decidedly hostile to local authorities (especially Labour ones) and their management of housing – did not.  In 1988 the North Peckham and Gloucester Grove Estates were together designated one of six pilot Housing Action Trusts.  The Trusts were private consortia set up to take over and regenerate council housing in designated areas – their relatively generous funding (money denied to the local authorities’ own efforts) was in a sense both carrot and stick in this attempt to take the ‘council’ out of ‘council housing’.

Tenants, however, were suspicious of the initiative, fearing loss of council management would lead to increased rents and reduced security of tenure.  At a packed meeting of North Peckham tenants in November 1988, fears were expressed, against the assurances offered by Housing Minister David Trippier in attendance, that rents might rise fivefold. (5)  That might have been exaggerated but the higher rents of properties managed by Housing Associations (the likely successor bodies) and the planned replacement of secure tenancies with assured were real enough. Opposition in Manchester’s Hulme Estate established the principle of tenant ballots and when, in October 1990, Southwark tenants got their chance to vote, they voted decisively – by a margin of over 60 per cent – to reject the proposal.

This left the ball back in Southwark’s court but, without anything like the resources needed to finance the major changes still felt necessary, it was forced again to play the system and seek central government funds under the rules of what was, by the mid-1990s, the new game in town – the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB).

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The Peckham Partnership’s area of operation

Critically, SRB was predicated on bringing in outside capital through partnerships with private developers and housing associations.  The Peckham Partnership formed in 1994 was a consortium (comprising Southwark Council, tenant representatives, Countryside Properties plc, the Laing Group, a number of housing associations and other interested bodies) to prepare just such a bid.

There were a number of implications to this approach.  Firstly, the Partnership had a clear interest in accentuating and homogenising the negative.  Some pretty bleak statistics could be justified (and I used some in last week’s post) but there was a need, in Luna Glücksberg’s words, ‘to make the area look as desperate, needy and dilapidated as possible’.  As a local councillor recalled, ‘It wasn’t as if the area was all a sink estate…when you read the big document, you’d imagine this area was sort of beyond repair, sinking, sinking’. (6)

Secondly, because of that private sector and housing association involvement, this was a strategy, that placed a premium on redevelopment – in which new houses could be built for sale and shared ownership – rather than refurbishment.  To Graham Towers, the implications were clear: (7)

Despite good evidence of the success of the comprehensive improvement schemes and despite the very much higher costs, large parts of [the North Peckham Estate] were scheduled for demolition. The decision was arbitrary and so was its implementation. Selective redevelopment might have been justified by social and environmental objectives. What was actually done was simply to demolish a swathe of housing blocks – the dividing line between new and old cut straight through the middle of each estate.

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A contemporary image of St George’s Way with flats for private sale and rental

It’s true, however, that redevelopment also chimed with the wisdom of the day.  There was a growing belief that mono-tenure estates were problematic in themselves (though, strangely, this is never a criticism made of the middle-class suburbs).  Pollard Thomas & Edwards were the architects selected to oversee the new scheme and Steve Chance, one of its directors, was clear on their goals: (8)

The intention was to have a mixed tenure neighbourhood and make it possible for people to want to buy private property in an area that was not popular. We are not trying to build a new estate, we are trying to build a bit of ordinary London.

(I’ll leave you to decode what the words ‘popular’ and ‘ordinary’ actually mean in that statement.)

This was a philosophy Southwark embraced in its ongoing redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate too –  the Council was, in the words of Catherine Bates (one of the Borough’s planning officers), ‘determined to break down the estate concept’.

The successful Peckham Partnership bid secured £60m SRB funding to add to the £47m contributed by the Borough, £37m from other public sources and £79.6m from private sources. It committed almost £180m to housing, £12.1m to ‘health, culture and sport’, £10.8m to education and some £9.7m to ‘enterprise’. (9)  This was, commendably, an holistic strategy, which recognised that the estates’ troubles were as embedded in hard social and economic realities as they were in any design characteristics.

I’ll focus on housing and here the plans were radical.  The number of homes on the Five Estates as a whole would be reduced from 4532 to 3694. Some 1854 new homes would be built, 70 per cent with gardens. And tenure would be diversified, from 99 per cent council-rented to 60 per cent – in precise numbers from 4314 council-rented homes to 2154 council-rented, 915 housing association and 625 owner-occupied.

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Tilbury Close

The numbers can be confusing but the thrust was clear. The big idea, in design terms, was to return to a more traditional streetscape and more suburban style of architecture. The stated aim of the Peckham Partnership was to ‘provide family houses and a neighbourhood environment which encourages study, work, leisure and healthy living’.  The architect Will Alsop praised the new build’s ‘more traditional type of architecture with pitched roofs’ and a circulation around its buildings which felt ‘much safer and…more embracing’. (10)

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Cronin Street

To Pollard Thomas & Edwards, the previous renovations, which involved the removal of walkways and partial demolitions but had left the basic layout of North Peckham intact, had been inadequate: the ‘homes themselves were fine, it was the bits in between that were disastrous’.  The new scheme, they claimed, would create a legible street pattern and a link between the shops and amenities of Peckham High Street and Burgess Park.

This was ‘back to the future’ with a vengeance, echoing all the tropes of the contemporary ‘defensible space’ movement which emphasised the ‘natural surveillance’ of the streets and the need to increase private space and reduce twilight zones of semi-public space.

The other big idea was mixed tenure and, more implicitly, social diversity.  Estates were held to have failed as estates: owner occupiers would bring capital into the area – social capital, if you will, which might raise educational standards and overall aspirations and just plain capital (money, in other words) that would improve an area’s amenities and retail. The Five Estates weren’t then an obvious site of gentrification but the potential was thought to exist.

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Galleria Court, Sumner Road – a private development near to Burgess Park

Let’s critique all this. Firstly, the always over-extended process of ‘regeneration’ disrupts the lives of those who are its subjects.  As Anne Power observed of North Peckham, ‘whole children’s lives have been spent with the bulldozer’ –something which also sent the psychological ‘signal that the community is not good enough because they are knocking it down’.  Mike Rahman, a tenants’ representative, stated the project had turned the area into a ‘war zone’. (11)

Secondly, the process was experienced as top-down, the much-vaunted ‘consultation’ a sham, certainly in its earlier stages when the original masterplan emerged without tenant input (some modifications followed).  Besides, most tenants wanted to retain the council as landlord for the reasons touched on earlier and the promised ‘right of return’ was impossible to fulfil given that bedsits and one-bed flats were not replaced and given the overall reduction of council-rented homes. (12)

 

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A contemporary image of Willsbridge, Gloucester Grove Estate

After ten years, the North Peckham and Camden Estates had been completely demolished, as had the older and more conventional tenement blocks of the Sumner Estate. Willowbrook had been largely and comprehensively refurbished in earlier phases of renovation. It is now self-managed by a Tenant Management Organisation. Gloucester Grove, though it retains its earlier and striking form, has also been completely refurbished.

Physically, Gloucester Grove is the one part of the Five Estates area to retain some of the built bravura of that earlier, now derided, phase of council house construction.  What’s replaced the rest – save for the odd hold-out – is a generic mix of terraced, two-storey housing and medium-rise blocks of flats and maisonettes in the slightly tarty style now favoured.

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Kelly Avenue

It’s all pleasant enough in a low-key kind of way and – let’s be honest here – it almost certainly provides homes and an environment that are preferred by most of its residents. A Southwark survey in 2002 claimed 83 per cent of residents felt their quality of life had improved since moving. As someone who has defended the ‘pleasantness’ of the much criticised cottage estates, it doesn’t behove me to be too snooty about this later iteration.

What could be seen as the ‘official’ view is best expressed in this 2004 article in the trade press: (12)

After 10 years and £60m investment, five estates in Peckham, south London, have finally been transformed from pits of urban blight into shining examples of regeneration…Its trademark post-war high-rises were home to shocking levels of poverty and crime that were well above the national average. If you had told the residents that in a decade’s time, some houses in the area would be worth more than £300,000, they would have laughed you out of town.

Other than to question why the official measure of an area’s worth must always be the sale price of its property, there’s nothing much superficially to reject of this assessment.  But I hope – if you’ve managed to read all of this extended analysis – you’ll see a more complex truth emerging.

For one, not all the estates were ‘blighted’ and none from the outset.  What mattered most in their subsequent decline – more than any inherent architectural flaws – was the maelstrom of social (not design) disadvantage that shattered their community in the 1980s.  If the estates ‘failed’, they failed because we failed them. The historical truth is that council estates succeeded as flourishing and, in their way, mixed communities when their residents had decent and secure employment. It’s that simple.

As that traditional economy declined and as, additionally, council housing became increasingly confined to the most precarious of the new precariat, it was inevitable that the ‘respectability’ of estate communities would be eroded.  Their difficulties were a distillation of those suffered by those on the margins of the new economy. Design issues were triggered when these wider socio-economic factors come into play.

Most estates still provided good homes and good communities but, for some, by this point, ‘regeneration’ and the investment it released became a necessity.  The problem is that regeneration is too often a top-down process and is always, more than is necessary, a disruptive one.  It has also, almost uniformly, led to a loss of council housing and the diminution of tenants’ rights. The dependence on private capital to part-finance it makes this inevitable; the policy choice behind this isn’t and should be fought.

The irony of regeneration, here in the Five Estates and elsewhere, is that it seeks to reinvent architecturally a world that we lost through the political choices and economic dynamics accepted since the 1970s.

Sources

(1) Vikki Miller, ‘Peckham Rise’, Housing Today, 8 October 2004

(2) Dick Mortimer (coordinator of North Peckham Project) ‘Breaking the high-rise spiral of decline: one authority’s campaign of refurbishment’, Municipal Journal, 15 May 1987

(3) Alice Coleman, ‘Design Disadvantage in Southwark’, The Dulwich Society Journal, Summer 2008.

(4) ‘Walkways to go in five year plan’, Architects’ Journal, vol 187, no 3, January 20 1988

(5) Debra Isaac, ‘Rent Fears for the Tenants’, The Times, November 14 1988

(6) Luna Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’, PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, January 2013

(7) Graham Towers, Shelter in Not Enough. Transforming multi-storey housing (Policy Press, 2000)

(8) Matt Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’, Building Design, December 15 2000, pp16-19

(9) Peckham Partnership, A Bid for Single Regeneration Budget Funding (September 1994)

(10) Robert Booth, ‘Damiola: could better design have saved his life?’, Architects’ Journal, vol 212, December 7 2000

(11) Both quoted in Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’

(12) Discussed in Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City’

(13) Vikki Miller, ‘Peckham Rise’