The Peculiarity of British Post-war Reconstruction? Part I

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I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post – the first instalment of a two-parter – by Catherine Flinn. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Catherine Flinn is author of the book Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities, published by Bloomsbury. She particularly looks at the built environment through the lens of politics and economics, as well as social and cultural influences – broadly via national controls and policies, plus locally through micro-histories. She holds multiple degrees in architecture, landscape and history.

Recently on social media someone posted a photo of Münster, Germany, with this comment: ‘The more I read about post-war European architecture, the more I realise how peculiar was Britain’s approach to post-war reconstruction’. An interesting word choice, ‘peculiar’ – it means strange or odd or unusual. But was it? To be fair, I understand where they were coming from. Overwhelmingly, reconstruction in Britain after 1945 was modernist in style. Historic remnants and even substantial remains of medieval and Georgian and Victorian buildings were often pulled down and replaced with architecture that people today love to hate. But was that ‘peculiar’? I’m going to explain why I would not use that term, but also offer an explanation for why Britain’s rebuilding was so very different from many European examples that are much admired today.

Custom House, Hanover Street and the surrounding bomb damaged area, Liverpool, 1946, EAW001911 © Britain from Above

I have heard people ask over and over why architects, planners, local authorities and even property owners didn’t think to rebuild the old medieval core of Coventry, or restore the lovely feel of Dix’s Fields in Exeter, or why there were such drastic changes made to the core of Plymouth. Why did Britain so clearly go for modernist architecture and ignore the historic? As luck would have it, the Germans happily missed many key targets in their Baedeker raids which began in 1942 – the reprisals for the bombing of Lübeck when the Luftwaffe targeted historic cathedral cities such as Bath, Canterbury and Norwich. And a fair number of historic buildings – the Inner Temple in London as well as Portsmouth’s town hall come to mind – were actually restored to their original appearance. But those examples are few and far between amongst the vast amount of city centre reconstruction that took place in the 1950s. (1)

Like pretty much all history, the answers are complex. This post will answer some questions people often ask me about British and European reconstruction, in two parts. In this first part, I will talk about the contrasts between Britain and the Continent, describing some examples in Poland and Germany specifically. In Part II to come, I will discuss the logistics of British reconstruction and pose some answers as to why it was so extensively modernist in nature. Looking at some of the prevailing ideologies in rebuilding British cities, we will see some reasons why they are so very different from historically compelling European examples.

As we know, most bombed city centres in Britain were rebuilt in a mid-twentieth century modernist ideal. By contrast, in parts of Germany – as well as Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland – many cities we know today to have been mostly damaged or destroyed by Allied bombing show off a strong sense of pre-war history. (2)

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Here we will look at that stark contrast: what took place in a number of European cities where whole sections of historic streetscape were reconstructed either in an historic idiom or as recreations of 1939 – or even earlier – streetscapes. Today we value and appreciate the historicism in those European cities and they attract a huge amount of tourism with consequent added economic value.

There is a clear and striking difference in local post-war priorities seen in several examples of reconstruction in Europe. Particularly in Poland, and much later in Germany, a number of cities have been ‘resurrected’, or perhaps ‘reproduced’ – that is, they were constructed in large part to look as they had before the war. Several cities gave great attention to the past by rebuilding in a thoroughly historic idiom, re-creating versions – if not some exact copies – of what had been destroyed by Allied bombing. Britain’s post-war Minister of Town and Country Planning Lewis Silkin visited Poland and called the reconstruction of Warsaw ‘an almost superhuman task’.(3)

The Old Town Market Square of Warsaw © Guillaume Speurt and made available in Wikimedia Commons

In the Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk in particular we can find a completely different method, timeline and prioritisation of reconstruction values to those in Britain. Warsaw suffered massive damage as a result of Nazi bombing in the September campaign of 1939. However, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupier ultimately gave rise to even more far-reaching destruction. After the rising was crushed, the Nazis methodically dynamited swathes of the capital. (4)  Following the war, Warsaw officials took the decision to reconstruct large areas particularly the Old Town: the historic core of the city was rebuilt in its pre-war form – slightly modified – and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. While apparently controversial the decision was also made to replicate a central portion of the city as it would have looked in the eighteenth century. The first phase of the reconstruction of the Old Town was completed on 22 July 1953. (5) An unconfirmed rumour found in my research adds that one good reason for replacing buildings and streets as they were in Warsaw would have been the reduced cost of not changing infrastructure (gas, water, etc) or building all new foundations.

Gdansk Old Town panorama

Another Polish example is Gdansk, or Danzig. In 1945 authorities inherited a city which was almost completely destroyed and they were additionally faced with tens of thousands of refugees and a severe shortage of available housing. An overriding concern for many residents was a very strong desire not to rebuild the Danzig of the interwar Free City or the German/Prussian Empire which had developed since the last time the Poles had governed the city in 1772. (6)

In the end a ‘passionate argument’ was settled with the compromise that a part of the central area of the old town was rebuilt in a style that reflected more closely the Gdansk of 1772 rather than the Danzig of 1939. (7) That is, Gdansk was rebuilt with pro-Polish designs, avoiding the Germanic influences of the 19th century. Birthplace of the Solidarity movement, it’s now a major tourist destination. This example shows us that cultural and spatial identity – often lost or suppressed during the war – was a key factor in restoring and rebuilding occupied places. Some Polish cities clearly prioritised reconstructing with a sense of place, something we will see was not really true in Britain.

Prinzipalmarkt, Münster © Dietmar Rabich and made available in Wikimedia Commons

Shifting attention to Germany we find more of the same but also some big differences. A few West German cities – Nuremberg, Rothenburg, Münster and Freiburg for example – took a similar approach to Warsaw. But in general German reconstruction encompasses a large mixture of building styles and each German city adopted a different approach to post-war reconstruction. In 2010, the magazine Der Spiegel published a series on reconstruction called ‘Out of the Ashes’, and its (nationalistic) tagline says this: (8)

Germany’s rebirth following the annihilation of World War II is nothing short of a miracle. But the country’s reconstruction was not without controversy and it resulted in cities filled with modernist buildings which have not aged well. Now, a new wave of construction is underway coupled with a new desire to rebuild the old.

Luther Memorial and ruins of the Frauenkirche, Dresden, 1945 © Bundesarchiv (Bild_183-60015-0002)

The most notable example of (East) German reconstruction is the city of Dresden, today a popular tourist destination. Notorious for being very heavily bombed by the Allies near the end of the war, it was certainly considered one of World War Two’s most devastated cities. But visiting Dresden today one finds a city that would be recognisable to eighteenth century travellers. A British tourist website claims that it has ‘spires, domes and breath-taking baroque stonework – with an artistic life that … puts most capital cities to shame.’ (9) The site goes on to add that ‘So culturally important, and stunningly beautiful, is this German gem that the United Nations has declared a lovely great chunk of it a UNESCO World Heritage Site – giving it the same protection as the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal’.

Frauenkirche, Dresden, 2011 © Weyf and made available in Wikimedia Commons

Dresden gives a stark contrast to a city such as Coventry, also very heavily bombed, where the core was redeveloped in a modern idiom and the cathedral famously recreated anew, also in a very modern style. The differences between Coventry and Dresden today clearly juxtapose the ideologies around reconstruction that I will be discussing further. One of the star attractions in Dresden is the Frauenkirche. Reduced to a shell in 1945, the church was left in ruins, supposedly as an anti-war statement, by the East German government.

But the church always had grassroots support for rebuilding and after the fall of the Berlin Wall a 15-year reconstruction project began, which was completed in 2005. Since the consecration of the new building, more than 18 million people have visited the restored Frauenkirche – and ‘with 280 couples married and around 800 people baptized the church is finding it hard to keep up with demand.’ (10) An Al Murray television programme on Germany visited Dresden and focused on the ‘historic’ city (parts of which were much more recently rebuilt, from post-war modern back to a version of the pre-war city). Murray compared it to Britain: (11)

It seems strange to us, but this is what Germany feels it needs to do. It has to claim back that artistic heritage lost during the war by building the old anew. … In comparison, Coventry has hardly had the same five-star restorative treatment.

The city of Berlin is another major tourist destination today, though in fairness its attractiveness now is strikingly different to its draw for tourists before 1989. Berlin has a mixture of reconstructed ‘historic’ sites and modern new institutions. As the 2010 Der Spiegel piece comments: (12)

Berlin, in particular, demonstrates relatively consistently that the upheavals and scars of the past should not be papered over by a yearning for the (supposedly) ‘good old days’. Instead, as is the case with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, even the sins of the past can be confessed, and one’s own history can be commented on.

Berlin attracts about eight million visitors a year from around the world and it is claimed this is due to the ability to ‘experience contemporary history – both the good and the bad – more immediately here than anywhere else in Germany’. Berlin’s reconstruction has been ongoing since the end of the Second World War, and while the first wave of rebuilding began to slow down in the 1970s, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a renewed spate of construction.

In a theme that reappears in many places and different cities, the Der Spiegel writers also claim that in Germany ‘the aim is to undo past mistakes made due to urgency and an obsession with modernization’. They add that in the twenty-first century city planners and residents aim to rid themselves of the ‘principle of pure functionality that was spawned by necessity’. Ideology in 1940s and 1950s planning is replaced with more historicism but mainly cautious renovation and, in some cases, rebuilding. They admit too that new ideologies are often characterized by a ‘growing nostalgia and yearning for history, tradition, focal points and urban centres that provide orientation and a sense of identity within the metropolitan morass’. (13) In other words, historical city centres draw both tourism and local business interest.

In the post-war era, particularly the immediate post-war period, European cities had an unprecedented amount of reconstruction to contemplate. The resulting architecture of rebuilding and local street patterns were carried out in either historic idioms or even literal reconstructions in many cities and towns, though not all. Yet by contrast, British cities did not do the same.

Compared to these Polish and German examples, British reconstruction has been pretty exclusively modern. So why did most British cities ignore so much heritage and particularly the feel of the old narrow historic streets that today we find so interesting? The potential reasons are numerous and complex. Any answers, as such, involve complications not just of funding, labour, rationing and ownership, but conflicting priorities, varying agendas and more. In the next post I will discuss the way people thought about reconstruction in Britain – from owners to planners to local authorities – and suggest how and why modernist ideas prevailed.

Footnotes

(1) Note that no rebuilding actually started before 1952 and most happened much later

(2) For further reading: Jörn Düwel and Niels Gutschow (eds.), A Blessing in Disguise: War and Town Planning in Europe, 1940-45 (Berlin, 2013); J.M. Diefendorf, In the Wake of War: The Reconstruction of German Cities after World War II (Oxford, 1993); also his Rebuilding Europe’s Bombed Cities (Basingstoke, 1990); S.V. Ward, Planning the Twentieth-Century City: The Advanced Capitalist World (Chicester, 2002); A.M. Tung, Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. (New York, 2001); S. Essex, and M. Brayshay, ‘Boldness Diminished? The Post-War Battle to Replan a Bomb-Damaged Provincial City.’ Urban History 35:3 (2008) 437-61; J. Hasegawa, ‘The reconstruction of Portsmouth in the 1940s’, Contemporary British History 14 (2000) 45-62; N. Tiratsoo, Reconstruction, Affluence and Labour Politics: Coventry 1945-1960 (London, 1990)

(3) Minister Silkin made a trip to Poland and Czechoslovakia to view reconstruction in 1947, reporting back to the Cabinet. National Archives UK (TNA): CAB 129/22 [CP (47) 343, 31 Dec 47, ‘Impressions of a Recent Visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia’. 

(4) A. Jozefacka, ‘Rebuilding Warsaw: Conflicting Visions of a Capital City, 1916—1956’, unpublished PhD dissertation, New York University, 2011 (abstract); also A. Tung, Preserving the World’s Great Cities, for Warsaw: 73-95. On re-using street patterns for large cost savings, see M. Niemczyk, ‘City Profile: Warsaw’ (Warszawa). Cities 15:4 (August 1998), 301-311.

(5) Ibid. Also ‘Warsaw Old Town marks 60 years since phoenix-like reconstruction’, 18.07.2013 10:19 

(6) Note that borders in continental Europe changed fairly constantly for several centuries up to 1945.

(7) Jacek Friedrich, Chapter 5 (pp 115-128) ‘Polish and German Heritage in Danzig/Gdansk’, in M. Rampley ed. Heritage, Ideology, and Identity in Central and Eastern Europe: Contested Pasts, Contested Presents. Woodbridge, 2012

(8) R. Leick, M. Schreiber and H. Stoldt, ‘Out of the Ashes: A New Look at Germany’s Postwar ReconstructionDer Spiegel, 10 August 2010.

(9) Tim Hughes, Travel Reviews, Oxford Mail, 18 February 2009  

(10) ‘Commemoration of the destruction of Dresden’s FrauenkircheDeutsche Welle 11.02.15

(11) A. Murray, ‘Al Murray’s German Adventure’, Part 2, air date 8 December 2010, BBC Four. Also see ‘A German Phoenix’, Economist 327:7808 (24 Apr 93), 91, and Diefendorf, Rebuilding.

(12) Der Spiegel, ‘Out of the Ashes’ 

(13) Ibid. However, they add, ‘Almost seven decades after the end of World War II, Germany is once again [beset] by the emotional questions of what’s worth keeping and which of its lost icons are worth rebuilding.’


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Castle Hill, Eye: ‘Something Really Special’

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As Hugh Pearman noted back in 1981, ‘The challenge to have a go at something really special proved irresistible when a council design team was faced with Castle Hill in the Suffolk town of Eye’. (1) What emerged, though largely unsung, is a unique estate, innovative and modern in design but exquisitely tailored to fit its ancient surrounds.

Eye was a small town with a population of just 1660 in the 1970s. Eye (its name derives from a Saxon word for ‘island’ that denoted its watery location) had once been more august; a borough since 1205 though, by 1832, when its parliamentary representation was reduced from two MPs to one, a pretty rotten one. (2) It remained the country’s smallest borough until 1974 when, as part of a larger reorganisation of local government, it was incorporated into the new Mid Suffolk District Council.

This 1947 Ordnance Survey map shows the castle motte and bailey with existing buildings at its centre. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The castle, briefly significant in Norman times, was sacked in 1265 and largely obsolescent thereafter. A windmill was built on the motte (castle mound) in the sixteenth century which survived until 1844 when the Victorian folly ruins were built that constitute the present-day ‘castle’. Later in the century, a workhouse and school were built in the bailey (the castle yard) that ran to the west of the mound. By the 1920s, the workhouse was redundant and had been partly converted into the twelve homes that, deemed uneconomical to modernise, the council was given permission to demolish in 1978. The Church of England primary school on the site was deemed surplus to requirements at the same time.  

This presented an opportunity to build council housing – a few years later expectations would have been different and possibilities far more constrained – but, in the centre of town and within a conservation area declared in 1970, it was hardly a blank canvas.  ‘Something really special’ was therefore required both to fit the site and boost its location.

Architects’ site plans and elevations

In the words of Jonathon Wainwright, Principal Architect of Mid Suffolk District Council: (3)

The proposals for the redevelopment have been designed with two visual qualities in mind. The first is the necessity to maintain, indeed enhance, the visual statement by the castle earthworks. The second is to blend in with neighbouring buildings in the conservation area.

‘The proposed solution’, devised with his assistant Colin Hart, is, he continued:  

architecturally a very simple one: the twenty dwellings follow the perimeter of the inner bailey in a series of short, curved terraces, echoing the old castle walls. To reinforce this concept, division walls are enhanced to give a ‘buttress’ effect, which also has the advantage of enhancing privacy between dwellings.

Castle Hill, contemporary view (resident’s photograph)

Thus, as Hugh Pearman commented, ‘the scheme was given a fortified look, where dividing walls became buttresses and walls became ramparts’.

The commitment to a fitting and attractive appearance overall was matched by a concern with quality that won plaudits from the local parish council and the Suffolk Preservation Society. The houses were constructed by Stowmarket builders Haymills in traditional local russet brick. (The calibre of its work won the company a regional craftsmanship award.) It was also planned to re-use roofing slates from the former workhouse though, in the event, the tiles were in too poor condition and the cost constraints imposed by the Housing Cost Yardstick – a central government measure intended to cap construction costs – forced the use of factory-made grey slates.

Castle Hill, contemporary view (resident’s photograph)

Still, as Pearman noted:

The attention to detail [was] refreshing. Apart from humorous touches like the portcullis style garden gates, each house has an individually carved distinctive wood capping to the front doorway.

The gates have mostly disappeared though the wood capping above the doorways remains. Previously wooden doors and window frames on ground floors have been replaced by UPVC as is the way though the first floor wooden Velux windows remain. The tarmac of the original driveway has been replaced by brick; that perhaps is an improvement. The homes originally had solid fuel heating; high chimney stacks and tall terracotta chimneypots were made a design feature of the scheme and coal bunkers in the same russet brick were provided to the rear of the homes though most of the latter have now disappeared.

Individualised wood capping above the doorways

Council records provide evidence of the thought applied to landscaping too. Where it was impossible to retain existing trees, new semi-mature trees were planted. The planners preferred open front gardens and suggested a tenants’ planting scheme ‘that ‘would encourage awareness and involvement in creating the overall landscape of the site’. A selection of plants – six shrubs and two climbers – was proposed that interested tenants could order from the council. (4)  

Two-bed bungalow; architect’s plan

Most importantly, the scheme provided new homes – twenty in all (plus nine garages and 14 parking spaces): two six-room, four-bed homes ‘provided to cater for special needs in the area’; ten three-person, two-bed homes ‘in house form for the more active tenants’ and eight three-person, two-bed homes in bungalow form equipped for older tenants.  

The finished scheme, said to have cost £400,000, was officially opened on 13 March 1981. Roger and Mary Jones had already been resident in their two-bed chalet-style home for six weeks. ‘It is really so unusual’, they said, but they liked their well-insulated, double-glazed home with its Velux windows and smart fitted kitchen. The local press reporter noted its open beams ‘giving an impression of antiquity in a luxurious modern interior’. (5)

Jon Wainwright (left) and Colin Hart and their architectural model of Castle Hill © Building Design

Mid Suffolk’s Chief Technical Officer had complimented ‘the young and enthusiastic team’ behind the scheme and Castle Hill deserves wider recognition as a quite exceptional and unusually well and sensitively designed estate. It was, as the Mayor of Eye, John Lucas, expressed more trenchantly, a reminder that councils and public architects could provide housing of the highest order:

It is there but not obtrusive. Not like the usual monument to a brickworks that councils put up. This has proved that district council architects can rise to the challenge and produce something really good – it’s not just the private sector that wins prizes.

The estate can be a rather magical place at times as this image and image below testifies (resident’s photograph)

Note

I’m very grateful to one of the current residents of Castle Hill for bringing the estate to my attention and supplying the sources and some of the photographs from which this post draws. My thanks to the Planning Department of Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils for supplying the records cited.

Sources

(1) Hugh Pearman, ‘Seeing Eye to Eye on Castle Hill; Architects: Mid Suffolk District Council. Department of Technical Services’, Building Design, no. 547, 29 May 1981

(2) The 1205 date is disputed; it is now believed that this early grant was intended for the then similarly named town of Hythe in Kent – the burgesses of Eye carried on regardless – and that the town’s first real charter dates to 1575. 

(3) Report by JR Wainwright, Principal Architect, 29 June 1978

(4) ‘Landscaping Proposals, Castle Hill, Eye’, Chief Planning Officer to Chief Technical Officer, Mid Suffolk District Council, 21 October 1980

(5) ‘Award-winning scheme opened’, The Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, 20 March, 1981

Resident’s photograph

Ten Years of Municipal Dreams

This post marks the tenth anniversary of the blog Municipal Dreams. The very first, back in January 2013, discussed the Latchmere Estate built, using its own workforce, by Battersea Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903; Battersea had gained – appropriately for the purposes of this blog – a reputation as the ‘Municipal Mecca’.

Houses on the aptly named Reform Street, Latchmere Estate

Other posts followed on town halls, swimming baths, health centres and schools. These are all part of local government’s inestimable contribution to its population’s wellbeing but increasingly housing took centre-stage; our councils’ greatest endeavour, responsible, in the words of prime minister Theresa May in 2018, for the ‘biggest collective leap in living standards in British history’. (1)

In 1981, around one in three of the population lived in a council home; if you are a part of the early post-war generation, there is a one in two chance that you spent part of your life in a council home. Yet, for all that seismic impact, the story of council housing was a neglected topic. There were good academic studies and there was plenty written by a range of professionals in the housing field. But there was very little that addressed the general reader, even less that gave some of this history back to those who had lived it.

Media commentary was often pejorative and usually rested on ill-informed and negative stereotypes. More often, there was silence – local histories that described the Georgian townhouse but said nothing of neo-Georgian council estates; national histories that apparently believed council housing too humdrum to warrant attention. And yet a mere glance reveals the enormous impact of public housing in villages, towns and cities across the UK and many millions will testify to the practical and emotional significance of a council home to their own lives.  The blog was simply an attempt to put some of this on record.

I think, over this ten-year period, that attitudes have changed and coverage improved. Partly, this may reflect that housing crisis that has emerged since we stopped building council housing at scale in the 1980s whilst, at the same time, losing around two million council homes to Right to Buy. Most of us beyond the fringes of the neoliberal Right now appreciate the vital contribution of social housing to any viable housing market, to any proper fulfilment of that basic human right to shelter.

And once we started appreciating council housing, we could look again at the (shifting) political, architectural and planning ideals that shaped it, not always optimally but always – and this isn’t a mealy-mouthed apologia as the blog has always been clear-eyed about what worked and what went wrong and why – with good intent. It’s an important part of our shared story.

Immodestly, I hope the blog itself played a small part in this revival of sympathetic interest in council housing’s past, present and future.

Over its ten years, the blog has featured some 330 posts which have been viewed in total over 2 million times by more than 1.25 million readers. I’ve tried to range widely geographically across the nations and regions of the UK and with occasional forays into Europe. The Map of the Blog will give you an idea of this geographic coverage as well as links to past posts.

The top three most viewed posts are on Camden’s Alexandra Road Estate (with 46,777 views), the Blackbird Leys Estate in Oxford (31,884) and the Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster (30,793).

The Cambridge Heath Estate, formerly Lenin House

I’m not going to pick a personal favourite – one of the great things about the blog has been the ability to range so widely – but for sheer colour, I think my post on what was originally known as the Lenin Estate in Bethnal Green takes some beating.

I’m very grateful to the many people, including academics as well as expert local historians, who have contributed guest posts, almost forty in all. I’ve always hoped that the blog would become a kind of journal of record (it is archived by the British Library) and these contributors have helped greatly toward that. I will always welcome new guest posts.

There was no intention to write a book when the blog began – it was literally a labour of love – but the knowledge and expertise acquired from my own research and very much from the research of others has allowed me to publish Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing (Verso, 2018) and A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates (RIBA Books, 2022).

Meanwhile, the blog will continue, all being well perhaps even for another ten years. Thank you for your support and interest.

Notes

(1) Theresa May, PM speech to the National Housing Federation summit, 19 September 2018. She was almost certainly quoting Chris Matthews from his book Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses (Nottingham City Homes, 2015)

The Hartcliffe Estate, Bristol, 1944-1958: a Tale of Conflict and Betrayal

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I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Paul Smith. Paul is the Chief Executive of Elim Housing Association and prior to that he was the Cabinet Member for Housing at Bristol City Council. Paul grew up on the Hartcliffe estate and was a tenant there himself. He was elected as the councillor there in 1988 and served for 11 years. During this period he started researching the history of the area coming across the original plans which were very different from what was finally built. Paul has worked in housing for over 30 years in a variety of roles but rarely finds that his degree in Astrophysics comes in useful. Paul is a Chartered Member of the CIH (more useful than astrophysics) and a Fellow of the RSA.

In 1943, Bristol City Council started thinking about the reconstruction of the city once the war was over. In January of that year a report identified the need for 30,000 new homes and there was an acceptance that not all of these homes could be accommodated inside the existing city boundary. Talks began with both Somerset and Gloucestershire to secure extensions of the city to access developable land. One potential location was the farmland between the southern city boundary and the sprawling Dundry Hill.

A new estate could be built on the basis of a garden city model which was described in a book published by the local company J S Fry and written by the City Archivist, English City: the Story of Bristol (1945). Fry’s said they published the book as ‘We felt we should like to make some contribution to the rebirth of our city’. In reality, the book was a council document covering the history of the city but also focused on how it would be rebuilt. It described building:

self-contained districts called ‘Neighbourhood units’, each with its own amenities, including a shopping centre, clinic, school and churches, cinema and recreation grounds. Factories should be built in or near the ‘Neighbourhood’.

An illustration from English City: the Story of Bristol

The new estate on the Dundry Slopes was to be built to this model. However, there were things which needed to be sorted out. The first was the boundary. Bristol Council was worried about the chaotic distribution of services, with Somerset County Council responsible for the police, public halls and community centres, education, health services, welfare services, children’s care, libraries and food and drug inspection; Long Ashton Rural District Council would have street lighting, street cleansing, refuse disposal and highways while Bristol would be running the housing itself and the fire service.

The County Council wasn’t keen either, based in Taunton, over 40 miles away down the A38. The County stated in a letter to Bristol:

This undertaking will involve the County Council in vast expenditure in respect of an area of the County which the Boundary Commission have already indicated should be added to Bristol and may have the effect of disorganizing the basis of County Council administration.

In 1949 Bristol gained the land from Somerset but in doing so had to relinquish its interest in expanding to the north and the east into Gloucestershire.

The next challenge came over the name. The good people of Dundry village did not want their name used to describe the new council estate. When Bristol proposed ‘New Dundry’, old Dundry complained that this would confuse the post office. The name settled on was Hartcliffe, ‘the army on the hill’, taking the name of the medieval Hundred of Hartcliffe which covered the area. Later there was also an argument about the street names. There was a proposal to the council that they be named after Battle of Britain pilots. This was defeated in a vote in favour of the established Bristol practice of using names which had a historical link to the area. The streets were named after taxpayers in the old Hundred.

An aerial view of the estate in the 1950s

The plans for the estate were ambitious, matching the neighbourhood plan. Hartcliffe was to have 3100 homes, three junior schools, a secondary school, six nurseries, three churches, six pubs, a cinema, a library, a health centre, five youth and scout/guide centres, a community centre, swimming pool, cricket pavilion and a public café.

The first blow to the plans came within just six months of their approval by the council. In May 1950, the Citizen Party (a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals) was elected, ousting the Labour Party. In June 1951, the Housing Committee met and approved a lower standard for council houses. They would be smaller and cheaper and for the rest of that decade most council homes were built of pre-reinforced concrete, many of them the Easiform houses built by John Laing.

There was even a discussion about replacing a downstairs internal door with curtains; this was rejected because ‘the cost to the housewife would be more than in providing the doors’. This followed only eight years after the Bristol Post (13th June 1943) reported that ‘Standard must be Higher [for] New Homes for men who return from the forces’. Then it was noted:

Men returning from the war with revolutionary ideas of what the position should be would not be content to wait long for houses. They should plan for a higher standard of housing on a 15 year programme.

By 1951 the discussion had turned to rents and taxes. Conservative councillor K Brown, chair of the Housing Committee, stated:

If you build a cheaper house it is bound to make it easier for the tenant. You must build houses which can be let to them at a rent they can pay. It either means an increase in rents of their houses or an increase in the city rates.

This was not the view of the outgoing chair Alderman Gill who said ‘he felt there ought to be no skimping of the necessities’. It wasn’t until over 30 years later that the defects in these cheaper houses were identified and legislated for leaving many councils, not just Bristol, having to spend many millions on rebuilding these ‘cheaper homes’ starting with those sold under the Right to Buy.

At the same time, the main road into the estate was downgraded from a dual to a single carriageway as government grant declined and, to save money on bridges, the stream running down the middle of the estate was filled in.

Bristol Evening Post, 4 June 1951

The Lord Mayor of Bristol, Alderman Harry Crook, delivering a speech at the ceremonial opening of the 5000th Easiform house to be completed in Bristol at the Hartcliffe Estate © Historic England Archive. John Laing Photographic Collection  jlp01_08_043919

The building of the estate proceeded at pace in the early and mid-1950s. Many who moved there were displaced from inner-city areas destroyed by the Luftwaffe or by the council. Slums were cleared and residents moved from the heart of the city to the new estate six miles to the south. Early residents recall that the area had a stigma as soon as it was built. In Looking Back on Bristol: Hartcliffe People Remember (Bristol Broadsides, 1978), Jean Carey recalled, ‘this was the trouble in the beginning. Everybody sort of said Hartcliffe and turned their noses up; “We’re not going up there to live”‘.

People moving in soon found that the facilities promised were lost. Firstly, they were aware that the estate was built without pavements or side roads being completed. The area was a sea of mud, deliveries were only made to the main roads, shops and pubs only followed several years later leaving residents to wade out of the estate to access services.

Easiform housing on Luckley Avenue

The cinema, the swimming pool, the cricket pavilion, were never built, the library was completed over 20 years late, other facilities were scaled back – one nursery not six, three youth clubs not five, four pubs not six and the main shopping centre was also scaled back. Promises were broken and the estate became an outpost of the city, a sadly denuded version of the original vision.

Hartcliffe in 2019, Bristol lies to the rear © Wikimedia Commons, Paul Cli

The New Architecture Movement Digital Archive

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In 1983, Andrew Saint argued that the New Architecture Movement (NAM): (1)

has consistently been the only pressure group within architectural politics in Britain to grasp issues beyond the scope of self-interest, and to combine its suggestions for reform with some deeper understanding of the relation between architects, the construction industry and the general public.

The organisation had been founded in November 1975 at its Harrogate National Congress; its goals: (2)

to channel effectively the collective action of architectural and allied workers in order to bring about radical changes in the practice of architecture. NAM seeks to restore control over their environment to ordinary people, and social responsibility and accountability to the work of architects. In particular, it seeks to fundamentally change the existing system of patronage, the power structure in architecture dominated by architects who are principles, both in private and public practice, and powerful corporate and bureaucratic clients. NAM seeks not only to challenge the existing relationship of architect to client and user, but also the existing relations between employer and worker, to restore a voice both to those who provide the labour for architecture and those who use its products.

A cartoon featured in Issue 1 of Slate, March 1977

This month, a unique collection of documents from this significant activist movement that challenged the established order of architectural practice both in the private and public sectors goes online. In the mid-1970s NAM gave a voice to progressive and inclusive initiatives that encouraged people to promote social change and greater equality through their work in the built environment. The launch of NAM’s archive provides both a new resource for historical research and also a challenge to present and future generations in the field to reinterpret and apply NAM’s radical ideas to current issues.

NAM brought together young idealistic architects, engineers and planners from across the UK seeking ways to reform working practices and the planning and development process. In an intensely productive period from 1975-80 the movement ran workshops, campaigns and seminars on a range of issues – professional education and governance, workplace structures, feminism, public sector design, worker unionisation – to create an alternative vision that put the priorities of people and communities ahead of developers, corporations and officials.

Slate cover, July/August 1978

Generously funded by a Paul Mellon Centre Digital Project Grant, the archive brings together previously unavailable historical documents held by former members that give a comprehensive picture of NAM’s aims, actions and achievements. It also provides an insight into the workings of activist groups in the 1970s, a period when many young people came together to advance the idealism of the 1960s and find practical and effective ways to promote social change. Key items include the NAM Handbook, which captures the essence of the movement’s objectives, structure and activities, and a complete set of the movement’s lively magazine SLATE. With its provocative alternative graphics, SLATE encapsulates the collective energy of 1970s grassroots activism.

A graphic from Slate, issue 13 (not dated)

In 1980 the New Architecture Movement members moved on to develop their ideas, both in groups such as Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative and the Public Design Service, and also in the professional practice of individual former members. Between 1979 – 1985, Haringey Council Architects Department implemented a number of pioneering features from the NAM Public Design Service proposals, many of which went on to become adopted more widely. More recently there has been a renewed interest in the causes and issues that NAM championed in discourse, exhibitions and articles, and it is hoped the archive’s launch will further stimulate debate and fresh ideas to meet the critical challenges in the built environment today. (3)

NAM’s digital archive is available at http://newarchitecturemovement.org. The website is managed by MayDay Rooms, which also houses the physical archive which is freely accessible at the MayDay Rooms’ offices. (4)

The archive will be launched at the Bartlett School of Architecture, London on Saturday 26th November 2022. The NAM archive steering group and former members will gather to mark the occasion. Contact email: namdigitalarchive@gmail.com.

Notes

(1) Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect, Yale University Press

(2) Introduction, NAM Handbook, 1978/1979

(3) See, for example, How we live now: reimagining spaces with Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative and People’s Plan for the Royal Docks exhibit, part of the Jessie Brennan’s Making Space project.

(4) The MayDay Rooms has a growing collection that includes materials documenting social struggles, resistance campaigns and the expression of marginalised and oppressed groups and houses the physical archive and manages the online version. They are located at 88 Fleet Street, London and are open 11-6pm Wednesday to Friday.

The Victoria Centre, Nottingham: ‘a city within a city’

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I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Martin Shepherd on a significant but neglected scheme. Martin is currently a student on the MA in Architectural History programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He was formerly an NHS hospital pharmacist with a career in clinical practice and management.

An extended essay on the development of the Victoria Centre will be published in the Journal of Historic Buildings and Places in Spring 2023.

In 2022 the Victoria Centre in Nottingham celebrated fifty years since it opened. Throughout this time, it has occupied a pre-eminent place in the urban infrastructure of the city, comprising both a large-scale high rise social housing development and the city’s primary retail location. It continues to occupy a dominant position in the urban grain of the city, a feature that is reflected in its assertive place on the municipal skyline.

The Victoria Centre has an intriguing architectural and social history which echoes many comparable but better known, and celebrated examples of urban megastructure that sought to bring together aspects of living, work and recreation into unified structures.

Introduction

For many of Nottingham’s residents and visitors, the architectural character of the city is most visibly and forcefully characterised by its two large planned indoor shopping facilities – the Victoria Centre (Fig.1) and the Broad Marsh. 

Figure 1: Victoria Centre from Milton Street looking East. Source: Author

For the Victoria Centre, the fiftieth anniversary of its completion in 2022, comes at a time when the reputations of social housing and shopping developments of the same age (whose design was possibly driven by similar modernist architectural and social ambitions) are being positively re-appraised (for example Trellick Tower, Dawson’s Heights and of greatest relevance the Brunswick Centre, all in London). I suggest that now is an appropriate time to re-consider this little researched and overlooked example of a modernist integrated urban retail and social housing development.  Reassuringly in his recent comprehensive survey of modern British architecture, Owen Hatherley echoes this view, describing the centre’s housing as an ‘an image of ruthless modernity’ which he claims is rivalled only by Park Hill in Sheffield. (1) Fifty years after it opened perhaps the Victoria Centre’s time has come.  

Origins

Figure 2: Victoria Station in 1930. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3: Indicative Victoria Centre development site. Source:  Inspire Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL//2/185/300/8/64

Nottingham Victoria station (Fig.2), located just to the north of the city centre, opened in 1900 and closed in 1967. The 20-acre site (Fig.3) was purchased from the owners British Rail by Capital and Counties Property Company Limited. (2) Working with architects Arthur Swift and Partners (3), a scheme was presented to Nottingham city planners in August 1964 for the re-development of the station site with a ‘comprehensive development comprising shops, offices, warehouses, entertainments including sports facilities, theatre and cinemas, public houses, hotel, market and ancillary accommodation etc., in association with residential, bus station and car parking’.(4)

The lead architect for the scheme was Peter Winchester.(5) His modernist ambitions for the site were largely predicated both on its overall size and the depth of the railway cutting and the possibilities which this combination offered: (6)

By servicing shops and all facilities from underground and by producing a 20-acre traffic free area in the heart of a busy city. A city scheme will serve as a shopping, working, living and leisure and recreational centre… a city within a city.

Arthur Swift emphasised the explicit connection between the scheme and the recently published Buchanan report which had advocated the separation of car traffic and pedestrians,(7) and highlighted the integrated nature of the scheme, combining retail, commercial and residential/social elements:

We are fortunate in that the station has been closed, leaving us with a hole in the ground – which means that we can really practice Buchanan – put cars down there … This must be a new city centre – this is a complete entity; we have provided every amenity … Most city centres fail because they have ignored residential accommodation, sporting facilities. We have provided every amenity that the public require.

Elsewhere Swift reported his enthusiasm for the integrated nature of the scheme in particular the housing element: (8)

I am extremely happy that eventually my recommendations to include a number of flats on the roof of the scheme were accepted.

Compromise and Completion

Work on the centre commenced in September 1968, and the opening ceremony was performed in April 1972 by Conservative Environment Minister Geoffrey Rippon.

In stark contrast to the original plans, the final building showed significant changes with much of the ‘civic’ content being lost including the concert hall, public plazas, sports facility, and swimming and Turkish baths, leaving a two-storey shopping mall and an imposing five-slab-block residential complex of varying heights (seven to twenty-three storeys) –along with the intended 3,000 space underground car parking and bus station.

Records from the city planning committee show that the submission may have prompted thoughts of the need to abandon its previous laissez faire approach, in favour of the adoption of integrated urban planning for the city.  Approval for the scheme was granted based on a significant reduction in the allocation of retail space from 644,000 sq ft to 385,000 sq ft. This was ‘to ensure that the amount of floor space devoted to each of the various uses proposed is not excessive, having regard to the size of the site, and the needs of the city, and having regard to the existing and likely provision for shops elsewhere in the city’.  In this latter point the Council was clearly minded of its commitments to the planned Broad Marsh development to which it gave approval in December 1965.

Local architects argued however that the developers had held too great a sway in determining the final content of the centre in light of the city corporation having ‘no detailed development plan for the city’. They noted the profound downgrading of the scheme, ‘from the earliest proposals to the present ones we have seen a steady process of elimination of the recreational and entertainment facilities.(9)

Figure 4: Victoria Centre main entrance 1973. Source: picturenottingham.co.uk

Images of the newly completed centre show a unified structure encompassing all three elements – housing, retail and offices (Fig. 4). Despite the original aspiration for the centre to be woven into the urban fabric, there is a strong sense that this has not been fulfilled and that it sits somewhat awkwardly in the context of the surrounding areas.

Victoria Centre Municipal Housing

Paradoxically none of the published reviews of the Victoria Centre at the time of its opening made any mention of the municipal housing elements included in the scheme (Fig.5).

Figure 5: Victoria Centre Residential blocks looking South. Source: Author

Despite the somewhat hands-off approach that was adopted by city planners to the original development, there was subsequently a clear commitment to retain a social housing element in the final scheme, and it is the inclusion of this feature that sets the Victoria Centre apart from other British city centre development projects of the same era. It is in part a demonstration of the level of commitment evident in the city to support the expansion of municipal housing. Between the wars, 17,095 council houses were built, more dwellings per head of population than most cities outside Nottingham.(10)

By the 1960s the city had embarked upon the development of high-rise solutions to its social housing challenges, driven in part by government subsidy. The construction of the Victoria Centre flats clearly forms part of this approach. And yet the aspirations of Winchester in his vision of a wholly integrated structure were clearly not realised. The operation and development of the retail facility were undertaken entirely in isolation to the housing. In this respect there are strong parallels to be drawn with the history of Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre which was completed in the same year as the Victoria Centre.  While the original intention had been for the Brunswick Centre housing to be offered for private sale, the changes in the economic make-up of the scheme during the late 1960s led to the housing being taken over by Camden Council. The disconnection between the housing elements and the recently gentrified retail aspects at the Brunswick Centre echo strongly the conditions found at the Victoria Centre. 

Figure 6: Victoria Centre residential internal corridor. Source: Author

Figure 7: Victoria Centre two-bedroom flat internal view. Source: Author, courtesy Andrew Ellis

Externally, the high-density, austere housing development of 463 flats at the Victoria Centre is either largely invisible from the surrounding streets, or dominantly present.  The flats are all single height and aspect, accessed from narrow internal corridors and limited to one- or two-bedrooms, therefore catering for a limited  range of occupants.(11) The internal ‘street’ has no natural light and neighbours are largely oblivious to one another.  Moreover, the corridors are angled at times, obscuring the view behind corners (Fig.6).  The conditions are minimal and lacking in architectural as well as social interest. There is no provision of private outdoor space or direct access to shared outdoor space at the Victoria Centre (Figs 7 and 8), although in Winchester’s original proposals there was the intention to include such external spaces for the residents, but these were not fully realised. The only external space that can be accessed by residents is a fourth-floor roof deck with a small community garden and a number of large, raised planters that could be used to create green space but they are undeveloped (Fig. 9).

Figure 8: Plan of Victoria Centre Flat two-bedroom. Source: Inspire Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL/2/185/300/8/64

Figure 9: Victoria Centre fourth storey roof terrace. Source: Author

The flats can be accessed only through the shopping centre itself, with six lifts designated ‘residents only’ that are situated adjacent to those used by shoppers entering the centre from the car parks below. The selection of potential tenants is determined by an ‘allocation’ policy ‘because of the location of the flats and sensitivities around its city centre location’. The policy limits access to the flats based on a number of criteria including age restrictions on children under sixteen years. The original occupants of the flats would have been allocated from council housing lists.  Right to buy arrangements were suspended by the council in 2017 since the remaining life of the lease was less than fifty years, having originally been ninety-nine years at the time of construction.

Figure 10: Victoria Centre Main Entrance. Source: Author

Since its opening the centre has undergone several refurbishments, the most recent of which was completed in 2015. This included substantial, unsympathetic changes to the main and Milton Street entrances which have regrettably damaged the cohesion of the centre frontages (Fig.10). The application of coloured pebbledash render to the housing blocks in 1994 has similarly had a detrimental effect on the visual unity of the building (Fig.11), while the application of mirrored solar film to the windows of the flats means that there is no external perception of life going on within the tower blocks. The original sections of the proposed residential blocks (Fig.12) suggest an internal corridor positioned every two storeys with a subsequent ‘scissor’ design for the flats which could have provided maisonettes with dual aspects.

Figure 11: Victoria Centre flats showing coloured pebbledash render added in 1994. Source: Author

Figure 12: Section through original Victoria Centre proposal 1964. Source: Inspire  Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL/2/300/64

Conclusion

The architectural roots of the Victoria Centre are firmly embedded in the modern movement of the mid-1950s and its ambitions for the urban renewal of British cities. The development was however ultimately a product of opportunism and a misplaced belief in the capacity of a private developer to successfully achieve such renewal without a high degree of publicly-led planning and oversight.  Although the utopian ambitions of the Centre’s designers were seriously compromised, there can be no doubt that the Centre has been and remains highly successful not only as the principal focus for Nottingham’s major retailers for the last fifty years, but more significantly as a rare example of a popular, high density, high rise municipal housing development in a city centre.  Furthermore, in the context of architectural history, it is an overlooked example of hybrid modern architecture that transcended mere urban regeneration by its fostering of city living for council tenants. It deserves to be placed alongside better known and celebrated examples of such structures. 

At the time of its fiftieth anniversary however there is a need for particular reflection on the future of the housing element of the Victoria Centre. While the shopping mall is in a process of re-invention in response to post-pandemic consumer behaviour, the restrictive spatial ordering of the housing seems unlikely to meet the needs of the council tenants of the future: the lack of easily accessible exterior space is particularly problematic.  There is also clearly a case to be made for research into the experiences of those living in the Centre. While there have been modest, largely cosmetic improvements made to the flats, the limitations are clear and without further intervention to upgrade them, the Centre, notwithstanding the warm appreciation of Owen Hatherley, risks becoming just another example of the nation’s deteriorating stock of social housing.

martin.shepherd.21@ucl.ac.uk

Notes

(1) Owen Hatherley, Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer, (London, 2021), 352-354.

(2) Capital and Counties were at the time also involved in the development of the modernist Eldon Square shopping centre in Newcastle. It is the current owner of the Covent Garden Estate, London.

(3) Formed in 1953 the practice had offices in London, Dublin and Edinburgh. In addition to the Nottingham centre the practice, undertook large scale work on Hastings Civic Centre (1967-69) and  Ballymum New Town, Dublin (1965-68) in largely Brutalist styles. Swift spent three years at the Nottingham University School of Art and Architecture, followed by a short time with the city engineer’s department. Victoria Centre Takes Shape Bulletin No 4 (October 1969), Capital and Counties Properties Ltd.

(4) Planning Application Capital and Counties Properties Ltd – Nottinghamshire Archives CA/PL/2/264/7/72.

(5) Following the award of his Diploma in 1958, Winchester had worked for the following two years as one of the ‘young Turks’ in Basil Spence’s practice at a time when Spence was working on the ‘science city’ development for the University of Nottingham, and so may have had some familiarity with the city from that time: Peter Winchester, presentation recorded at the symposium Sir Basil Spence re-viewed: the architect and his office, held at the Old Blue Coat School, Coventry (29 August 2008). Peter Winchester (warwick.ac.uk) Accessed April 5 2022

(6) P. Winchester, ‘Nottingham Centre’ in ‘World Architecture Volume 2’, ed. J Donat, (London,1965), 65.

(7) Ministry of Transport, Traffic in Towns: a study of the long-term problem of traffic in urban areas (Buchanan Report), (London,1963).

(8) ‘Victoria Centre Takes Shape Bulletin 4’, October 1969, Capital and Counties Property Ltd.

(9) ‘Nottingham Victoria Centre’, Architecture East Midlands.

(10) Chris Matthews, Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses (Nottingham, 2019), 25.

 

Sedbergh: ‘the luckiest town in the country with regard to housing’

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In 1947, the Yorkshire Post declared Sedbergh ‘the luckiest town in the country with regard to housing’. (1) In the midst of a national housing crisis, no new council homes had been built in the district since the end of the war and apparently none were needed.  Nevertheless, Sedbergh had built before the war and would build substantially in the 1950s and 1960s. The story of council housing in the district is therefore both representative of wider rural dynamics and unique to the town.

Sedbergh in an Ordnance Survey map of 1920 (surveyed in 1912). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Sedbergh might be best known today for its independent school or as a ‘book town’ conveniently placed for visitors at the western edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, close to the Lake District. Until 1974, it lay in the West Riding of Yorkshire, administered by Sedbergh Rural District Council (RDC). Now it lies in Cumbria within South Lakeland District Council. It’s all change again in April 2023 when a new unitary authority Westmorland and Furness takes over. It’s a small town (the population of the Rural District stood between 3- to 4000 for most of the last century), significant historically for farming and woollen production but prospering today, as those past staples have receded, as a local centre of commerce and tourism.

In 1914, when traditional industries still held sway, the Local Government Board – as part of a significant national drive to increase the rate of council housebuilding – had urged the Council ‘to build cottages for the working classes owing to there being a scarcity in the neighbourhood’. By June, the RDC had responded positively, purchasing land in the town (with plans to buy more in the neighbouring hamlet of Millthrop) and commissioning Kendal architect John Stalker to design a scheme of twelve well-equipped houses, each with: (2)

a good living room, scullery, pantry, store closet, w.c., and coal house on the ground floor, and each cottage will have a separate wash house with washing copper. On the chamber floor there will be three bedrooms and clothes closets.

Scarcely six weeks later, the outbreak of the First World War forced other priorities. The plans were abandoned and, perhaps more surprisingly, were not initially revived at war’s end when Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act was passed to fulfil prime minister Lloyd George’s promise of 500,000 new ‘homes for heroes’.

Sedbergh bided its time but its housing needs remained pressing, albeit small-scale. According to the Council’s Medical Officer of Health, Francis Atkinson: (3)

The houses, which are stone-built, are many of them old in type and congested on site, making it impossible to carry out adequate improvements. In Sedbergh town there are many yards branching off the narrow main street, in which the houses are small and congested, and deficient in ventilation and sunlight.

An aerial view of Sedbergh, 1929. The new Fairholme development can be seen clearly at the upper left of the image. © EPW026569, Britain from Above
A postcard view of Fairholme, undated but pre-war. Note the hedges and well-tended gardens © Sedbergh and District History Society
This early view of Fairholme captures well its setting beneath the Howgill Fells that Alfred Wainwright described as resembling ‘sleeping elephants’ © Sedbergh and District History Society
Fairholme, contemporary photograph

Given the number of houses that might be declared unfit, it was ‘decided that the [Government] subsidy might be required for 30 houses’.  In 1925, the Council purchased five acres of land to the immediate north of the town on what became Fairholme and engaged Mr A Knewstubb of Penrith to prepare a layout and plans for six houses; 18 more were planned for the following year.

Havera, contemporary photographs

The Council’s second scheme of around 40 semi-detached and terraced homes at Havera was completed in 1935 – the date is recorded on a plaque in the gable end of a semi-detached pair of houses at the top of the street. The name is derived from the Saxon word ‘haver’, a hillside where oats were grown.

Elsewhere attention turned to reconditioning of existing homes in poor condition. Today, Millthrop is a picture postcard settlement of quaint stone cottages. In the 1930s, most of these were rural slums. Sedbergh’s application for a grant to finance improvements to 17 homes under the 1926 Housing (Rural Workers) Act was refused by the West Riding County Council (which administered the scheme locally) but, in this instance, the owner was prevailed upon to make improvements. Their scale – new floors, roofs and windows, internal redecoration, a new water supply, pail closets replacing privy middens (still no sewerage note) – is a reminder of the appalling conditions prevailing in many rural homes at the time.

Former council homes at Bridge End Field, Millthrop

An article published in the ‘patriotic’ John Bull magazine in May 1936 had publicised the case of an ex-serviceman, his wife and nine children living on the moors three miles out of town ‘in a wooden hutment the exact size of which is 30 feet long and 10 feet wide! No proper sanitation and no water supply’. Applications for council housing had failed as Sedbergh had no home big enough to house the family.(4) Perhaps this prompted the council to build two houses for large families living in unfit conditions on land purchased at Bridge End Field in Millthrop. The extensive back gardens signify a time when it was expected that rural tenants would grow a large part of their own food. (5)

By the outbreak of war in 1939, a total of 77 council homes had been built in the district. The war itself – as a result of Sedbergh’s relatively isolated position – increased housing pressures in the town. In August 1939, 126 children and 41 adults – mothers, teachers and helpers – were evacuated to the town from Bradford. (By the end of the year, just 41 remained in total; ‘generally the evacuees did not seem to take kindly to country life after town’, it was said.)  In 1940, 70 children and 29 adults arrived, mostly from London. (6)

Sedbergh prefabs © Sedbergh and District History Society
A press photo, unknown date, of the Pinfold prefabs © Sedbergh and District History Society

These incomers were billeted in local homes but a more comprehensive response was required when, after the bombing of Coventry, Armstrong Siddeley opened shadow factories manufacturing aircraft components in local mills at Farfield and Millthrop. Workers and their families were accommodated in two estates of prefabricated huts to the south-east of the town in Maryfell and, a little further out, Pinfold. Army personnel undergoing training at the 11th Battle Training School, housed in the former Baliol Girls School, were also accommodated in Pinfold.

As the end of the war approached and the closure of the temporary factories loomed, the Ministry of Aircraft Production asked the Rural District Council to take over the management of the two estates. (7) In the event, the council took over the Maryfell estate, buying its 50 bungalows for £80 each, but not Pinfold where Whitehall had deemed the site unsuitable for permanent housing. (The Pinfold site is now a caravan park.) As war workers returned home, Sedbergh had a readymade supply of empty housing to provide to local residents. In 1947, it was reported that there were just six households on the council’s housing waiting list and that vacancies for council homes were advertised in a main street shop window.

The Daily Mirror report concluded: (8)

the Housing Committee, with no worries, can sit back and plan carefully. ‘When our plans are finally approved,’ said the clerk, ‘we can carry out a first-class building programme and not be troubled by present shortages’

Castlehaw, contemporary photograph
Thornsbank, contemporary photograph

The clerk, Mr W F Lee, spoke of a planned building programme of 114 permanent homes but, while the temporary prefabs of Maryfell would certainly need replacing in the near future, for the moment it was a scheme just to the north along Cautley Road and Long Lane that took priority. The Council invited tenders for the construction of 46 houses in July 1950 – 38 in Sedbergh, eight in Dent where six were set attractively around a green on Dragon Croft. Semi-detached and terraced housing was built in the short culs-de sac of Castlehaw and Thornsbank in Sedbergh.

Dragon Croft, Dent

Maryfell, contemporary photographs
These images from the 1970s show horses and traditional bow top caravans gathered on the green at the edge of Maryfell for the annual gypsy and traveller Appleby Fair. They are now discouraged from parking in or near the town. © Sedbergh and District History Society

The redevelopment of Maryfell came two years later with an initial tender for 24 two-storey houses and 36 flats in three-storey blocks. The estate was completed by summer 1956. Early tenants were apparently discomfited by its open-plan layout, unpersuaded perhaps when the estate’s architect, T M Jones, ‘pointed to the practice on many modern housing estates and said the best effect had been gained through the absence of fences’. (9) Nowadays, only traces of the estate’s former unfenced design remain, even fewer as Right to Buy has exerted its own form of privatisation.

Press photograph, 14 April 1961 © Sedbergh and District History Society

In 1961, after slow beginnings, the Council celebrated the completion of its 200th home with due pomp when its keys were formally handed to Mrs B Douglas, the fortunate new tenant, by a group of local councillors.  

Gladstone House and bungalows, contemporary photograph

The following year, reflecting a typical turn within rural council housing in catering increasingly to an older and poorly-housed population, the Council opened Gladstone House on Fell Close in the Maryfell Estate – eight new warden-assisted bungalows and four flats and a community room, adjacent to some existing accommodation for older people on the estate. The West Riding County Council, whose responsibilities covered the welfare of the elderly, contributed to the scheme’s costs.

It was, according to a local press report: (10)

obviously a much cheaper and more humanitarian way of dealing with the problem of caring for the old by giving them every comfort in their local environment, rather than to send them to a home, which is liable to have something of an institutional character and atmosphere, however well camouflaged. 

Castlegarth, contemporary photograph

In the mid-1960s, its last major development, the Rural District Council built 17 three-bed and two four-bed houses and 30 two-bed flats on Castlegarth, to the north of Long Lane. Marking a new relative working-class affluence, 18 garages were provided with a further 31 to follow. A new fire station, new police station and three new police houses – county council responsibilities – were built adjacent. (The fire station remains; the police station is now a funeral directors.)  

In all this, Sedbergh RDC had become, in the words of that same press report, ‘one of the foremost local authorities in the North-West in its post-war housing development’. The town’s extensive new housing catered to the wider district as well as established residents; conversely some of the latter now found work in Kendal, many at K Shoes.

To conservation specialists, the town’s new eastern suburbs ‘present a bland appearance with “standard” house types that provide a harsh contrast alongside traditional stone buildings’ and it’s true enough that neither the town’s interwar council housing or, more particularly, its post-war made much effort to ‘fit in’ with a local vernacular. (11) Fairholme represents some of the best of interwar council housing; Havera, a decoratively pared down and presumably cheaper version of the same. The cream to grey roughcast, semi-detached pairs of the early post-war era are used fairly indiscriminately. At Maryfell, though the three-storey flats come as an initial surprise in this rural setting, standard housing is made more attractive by lighter colours and patterning, Castlegarth, greyer, appears rather stark by comparison.

On the other hand, it did all, of course, provide genuinely affordable housing meeting local needs. Currently, it’s estimated that around 12 percent of Sedbergh’s 1323 homes are second homes while, in recent times at least, rising house prices and declining social housing stock, have further limited the ability of lower-income residents or would-be residents to buy or rent local homes. It is reported that: (12)

families are moving out of Sedbergh to larger conurbations or to remote rural areas to access more affordable homes. Businesses of all sizes across all sectors have confirmed that both housing cost and availability is negatively impacting on their ability to recruit and retain staff.

Social rent housing isn’t a cost; it remains, as it ever was, an investment – both in the wellbeing of individuals and the vitality of local communities. Sedbergh’s past and present illustrate these lessons very clearly.

Note

I am very grateful to the Sedbergh and District History Society for providing information and resources to support this account and, as credited, some wonderful photographs to illustrate it.

Sources

(1) ‘Sedbergh Luckiest Town for Housing’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 January 1947

(2) ‘Sedbergh Housing – Council to Build Working Class Cottages’, Lancashire Evening Post, 19 June 1914

(3) Sedbergh Rural District Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1925

(4) ‘Eleven Doomed to One Room’, John Bull, 23 May 1936

(5) Sedbergh Rural District Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1937

(6) Sedbergh Rural District Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1940

(7) Karen Bruce Lockhart, ‘Wartime Sedbergh – The Final Months 1945’, The Sedbergh Historian, The Annual Journal of the Sedbergh and District History Society, vol VII, no. 3 Summer 2020

(8) ‘Town That Has No Housing Problem Put “To Let” Notices in Shop Window’, Daily Mirror, 6 February 1947

(9) Press cutting, 26 April 1956, supplied by Sedbergh and District History Society

(10) Press cutting, 30 March 1962, supplied by Sedbergh and District History Society  

(11) Sedbergh Conservation Area Appraisal Final Report for Public Consultation, December 2009

(12) Joanne Golton, Housing Growth in Sedbergh – Economic Assessment. Final Report, Autumn 2020

A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates

My new book; the RIBA Books press release is immodestly reproduced below (with a discount code for early purchasers) …

The need for building more social housing is growing, but how much do we really know about its history and origins?

From the popular author of the critically acclaimed book Municipal Dreams comes the highly anticipated A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates – a thought-provoking insight into the remarkable history of social housing in the UK.

Featuring examples from all around the UK, John Boughton provides a thorough and complete history of social housing. Beginning from early charitable provision to ‘Homes for Heroes’, garden villages to new towns, multi-storey tower blocks and modernist developments to contemporary sustainable housing.

From the almshouses of the 16th century to Goldsmith Street, the 2019 winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize, Boughton invites readers to explore the rich and varied history of social housing. He highlights the central principle running through all the evolving dynamics of politics and design, that personal and communal well-being require good housing for all.

Boughton comments: “The contemporary housing crisis and a small uptick in council housebuilding in recent years, often with a commitment to high-quality and sustainable design, may yet mark a new chapter in the longer story.

“For me, this is a moment to both celebrate the achievements of the past and better understand its missteps. Thus armed, we might build better, just as we need to build more, in the future.”

The book is beautifully illustrated with over 250 images including photographs and sketches that make the history of social housing come to life. It’s a truly engaging read that is sure to appeal to architects, students, history enthusiasts and general interest readers.

A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates is available exclusively from RIBA Books from 13th October and will be widely available on the 1st November. It can be pre-ordered here from RIBA Books with a 15 percent discount using the code COUNCILHOUSES15.

About the Author

John Boughton is the author of Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing and the blog Municipal Dreams, a record of local government reform and council estates across Great Britain. The book has been an Amazon best seller in its category and was selected by Rowan Moore as an Observer Book of the Year. The blog has had over 1.5 million views and 970,000 visitors.

Book Review: Chris Matthews with Clare Hartwell, Model Villages of the Nottinghamshire Coalfield

Chris Matthews with Clare Hartwell, Model Villages of the Nottinghamshire Coalfield (Nottinghamshire County Council, 2022)

This isn’t a book about council housing – in many ways, the housing built by the mining companies of the Nottinghamshire coalfield might be considered its antithesis excepting a certain commitment to quality and a similarity of design – but it offers an insight into some significant housing history in well-informed and accessible form.

Fifty major collieries were developed in Nottinghamshire between 1860 and 1970. Those opened in the interwar period in particular were, in Matthews’ words, ‘spectacular in size, modernity, technology, workforce, housing, amenities and investment’. These newer mines were intended as a break from the archaism of some older collieries, the squalor of many pit villages and the troubled industrial relations they spawned. But first the mining companies had to attract a workforce and more than a third of initial investment went on housing (tied to employment) and local amenities to do so. Matthews captures well the ambiguity of the mine owners’ motivations and conduct:

Discipline, and therefore output, could easily be imposed on a workforce who stood not only to lose their job but also their house. The positive incentive for good behaviour was also strong: committed miners enjoyed the fruits of good housing, pay, social activities, opportunities for promotion and often the personal support of management.

You will choose your own language and perspective on this but it was the case that Nottinghamshire miners did develop a distinct union politics generally at odds with the greater militancy of the national union. The ‘non-political’ Nottingham Miners’ Industrial Union was formed during the miners’ lockout in 1926 and, more recently, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers in 1985 after most Notts miners had refused to join the year-long strike called by the National Union of Mineworkers the previous year. (If you watched the recent BBC TV drama, Sherwood, you will have seen this split’s difficult legacy played out.)

This more moderate stance was clearly welcome to those who owned and operated the mines and they took steps to actively encourage it. As the book records, the Stanton Coal and Iron Company built a rival church in Bilsthorpe in 1932 to counter the radicalising influence of a local rector urging the workforce to rejoin the national union.

The 1920s plan from the Industrial Housing Assocation for Blidworth colliery village. From J. T. Walters, The Building of Twelve Thousand Houses (Ernest Benn, 1927). Courtesy University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections

The layout of all the model villages generally reflected the local social hierarchy with larger houses in better locations provided to white-collar workers and engineers and a big house, further from the village but closer to the mine, for the colliery manager. Humbler but nevertheless high standard housing of its time served the mines’ manual workforce.

The first new mine to be opened was at Annesley nine miles north-west of Nottingham in 1865; its plain red-brick terraced and semi-detached housing laid out in a grid-form. Amenity standards were improved by the 1870 Housing Act and layouts evolved by the end of the century as Garden City ideals became influential with its curving streetscapes and culs-de-sac. Arts and crafts touches were also apparent in the homes of the more ambitious schemes.

Bestwood Village, part of the later 19th-century second wave of model villages © Chris Matthews

The second wave of new pits and model villages occurred from the 1890s around Warsop and Mansfield and the largest and most significant in the interwar period in the so-called Dukeries after the large landed estates that dominated the area. Local aristocrats were sometimes fearful of the effect of the new mines on their verdant doorsteps. Earl Manvers was able to somewhat mitigate the visual impact of the new Thoresby pit opened in 1925 but, before the government bought them out in the 1938 Coal Act, they were very grateful for the royalties.

Some 6000 houses were built in the twelve model villages covered, 5000 of these in the interwar period. One of the largest providers of housing was the Bolsover Colliery Company who employed Percy Bond Houfton – well known for pre-war model villages Creswell (Derbyshire) and Woodlands (South Yorkshire). Houfton also won national recognition when his workers’ cottages designed for Sheffield City Council’s Flower Estate won first prize in the Letchworth Cheap Cottages Exhibition. In all, the Company’s housing accommodated some 40,000 mining employees.

1920s parlour houses for undermanagers and clerks built by the Industrial Housing Association on Hucknall Road, Newstead © Chris Matthews

Another large builder was the Industrial Housing Association, founded in 1922 as a non-profit organisation by a cooperative of colliery directors and financed by governments loans and grants. Sir John Tudor Walters (of the famous report that shaped so much interwar council housing) was appointed a director, tasked with overseeing the overall design and construction of the new villages. The Association, commissioned by a number of companies, built 12,000 houses in the 1920s.

Ty Trist Colliery, Tredegar © Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

The Second World War and the first majority Labour government changed much, not least by the nationalisation of the mining industry that took effect on the 1st of January 1947. The new National Coal Board would continue to operate existing villages and build new housing. The latter tended to follow the lines of the housing increasingly built by local councils in mining villages and elsewhere, including in the early post-war period many of the permanent prefabricated housing types of the day.

Finally, it’s worth noting – as the book does – the impact of CLASP. Nottinghamshire County Council embarked on a large-scale programme of school and library construction after the war, many built in mining areas where the land was prone to subsidence. The solution, devised by County Architect Donald Gibson with colleagues Dan Lacey and Henry Swain, was a form of system building using a pin-jointed steel frame that rode on a raft foundation, thus obviating the need for large and expensive foundations. The Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme, to give it its full name, was marketed to local authorities more widely in 1957.

All this is covered in more detail and beautifully illustrated with a plethora of colour and black and white images in the book and linked more explicitly to the villages studied. Chris Matthews, its chief author also responsible for many of the contemporary photographs, also did an excellent job of designing the book in attractive and usable style – a shout-here for sources and explanations of highlighted specialist terms that appear on the same page as the relevant references.

At peak in 1961, 56,000 people were employed in Nottinghamshire’s 39 pits. Thoresby Colliery, the last working mine in the area, closed in 2015. The industry is now to be classed as heritage though one with a significant (though fast declining) physical presence and perhaps a greater psychological legacy, at least for the older generation.

The book itself was supported by the Miner2Major project established to highlight the natural and cultural landscape of the Sherwood Forest. It is available for free download or free from larger libraries in the district. A set of leaflets covering nine of the villages with useful maps to aid exploration is also available for free download.

Note

For another example of planning for a new coalfield, see my posts on the East Kent coalfield and Aylesham.

Open House London, 2022: Some Significant Housing Schemes

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Here’s a quick and simple guide to some of the more interesting housing schemes – for me, those are principally public housing projects and others of broadly progressive intent – featured in this year’s Open House London which runs between 8 and 21 September with most events taking place on the weekend of the 17th and 18th.

The entries are listed in roughly chronological order.  The highlighted links in bold show Open House descriptions; earlier relevant blog posts are shown in bold and italics. Open House’s tagging is somewhat inconsistent. I’ve ranged across the categories but you can let me know if I’ve missed anything.

Bedford Park stores, Tabard Inn and homes, designed by Norman Shaw © Ian Alexander, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Bedford Park estate in Chiswick, privately developed from 1875 and featuring housing by Norman Shaw and other leading architects of the day, is considered Britain’s first garden suburb, a prototype for much that was to follow though more often in attenuated form.

North View, Brentham Gardens

Brentham Garden Suburb is significant as a co-partnership scheme intended by Ealing Tenants Ltd to cater for at least the more affluent of the working class. From 1907, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, emerging as the two of the country’s leading architects and planners, developed the estate along garden suburb and arts and crafts lines.

Roe Green Village (Brent) was designed by Frank Baines in 1916, chief architect of the Office of Works, as housing for workers engaged in First World War armaments production.  He had earlier designed the exemplary Well Hall Estate in Eltham for the same purpose. It offered a model for the ‘Homes for Heroes’ that were promoted at war’s end.

Barville House, Honor Oak Estate

The Honor Oak Estate in Lewisham, built by the London County Council (LCC) in the 1930s, was a very different animal comprising the typical four/five-storey, walk-up, balcony access tenement blocks intended to provide higher density housing for the inner-city working class. Early criticisms of the estate’s design saw it described as a ‘warning for planners’ in 1945.

Castell House, Crossfield Estate

The Crossfield Estate, further north in Deptford, is another London County Council Estate of the same era and form. Transferred in poor condition to Lewisham Borough Council in 1971, a visit will also cover the estate’s later, more bohemian history.

Great Arthur House, Golden Lane Estate

The high ambitions of the best of post-Second World War council housing are illustrated in the Golden Lane Estate, designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (also responsible for the Barbican scheme) for the City of London. The visit here focuses principally on sometimes controversial more recent renovation. Crescent House, a later completed section of the estate strongly influenced by Le Corbusier, features separately.

Crescent House, Golden Lane Estate

The Vanbrugh Park Estate was another Chamberlin, Powell and Bon scheme designed for Greenwich Metropolitan Borough Council in the later 1950s – a more modest scheme of 64 flats, low-rise terraced houses, and maisonettes planned to respect its surrounds and promote community.

Bevin Court staircase

The ambition of Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council was obvious in the commissioning of Berthold Lubetkin to design Bevin Court, opened in 1954.  Visit to see its crowning glory central staircase and the recently restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.

Alton West slab blocks

Meanwhile, the architects of the LCC were designing in Roehampton, west London, what an American commentator described as ‘the best low-cost housing in the world’. Alton East, from 1952, was designed by the New Humanists of the department who took the ‘softer’ lines and appearance of Scandinavian social housing as their principal model; Alton West, from 1954, was designed by those who favoured the ‘harder’, more monumental Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. The visit focuses on the landscaping that was a crucial component of the ensemble.

Keeling House

The self-guided walking tour of Bethnal Green takes in a variety of venues and sights including Denys Lasdun’s Keeling House cluster-block tower designed for Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council opened in 1959.

Eddystone Tower, Pepys Estate

Back to the LCC which began planning the Pepys Estate in Lewisham in the early 1960s. In the event, this showpiece estate was completed by the Greater London Council (GLC) that took over in 1965. The 78 metre, 26-storey Eddystone Tower is one of the three original tower blocks of the scheme and the visit provides fine views from its top floor. Arguably better views are offered by Aragon Tower, nearer the river, but that was sold to Berkeley Homes for £11.5m in 2002. This is your regular reminder that regeneration schemes promoted by local authorities and housing associations in partnership with private developers invariably lead to a net loss of social rent house, however self-promotingly sold.

Coralline Walk, Thamesmead, prior to its recent demolition

Thamesmead, conceived as a new town of some 60,000 population to the east of London by the GLC in 1966, never lived up to its early hype but some fine and daring architecture was created in the process – much of it, sadly, now being demolished. Two walking tours – Thamesmead: Beyond Brutalism and Town of Tomorrow: Thamesmead Through Film – capture some of this as well as the area’s later growth and reinvention.

Ethelburga Tower in Battersea was another LCC scheme completed by the GLC in 1967, part of the Ethelburga Estate which comprised 578 homes in a range of otherwise medium- and low-rise blocks. Architect designed and of in situ reinforced concrete construction, it pre-dates the fashion for off-the-peg and system-built schemes that would soon become significant in the post-1965 Borough of Wandsworth as elsewhere.

The new Camden Council, established in 1965, and Borough Architect Sydney Cook famously eschewed such ready-made solutions and in so doing created what Mark Swenarton has called in his book, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing, ‘an architectural resolution unsurpassed not just in social housing in the UK but in urban housing anywhere in the world’.

The terrace of five three-storey houses in Winscombe Street, Highgate New Town, completed in 1965 and designed by Neave Brown for himself and four of his friends initially as a co-op eligible for financial support from the council, represented the essential prototype for much to follow. Brown is the best-known figure in the talented team of architects that Cook assembled but the borough’s signature style of white pre-cast concrete and dark-stained timber was followed by his colleagues. This was the low-rise, high-density backlash to some of the high-rise missteps of the 1960s.

Stoneleigh Terrace, Whittington Estate

Peter Tábori designed the six stepped parallel terraces of the Whittington Estate, built between 1972 and 1979, as Stage 1 of the Highgate New Town development, creating 271 homes housing in total around 1100 people. A visit to 8 Stoneleigh Terrace allows you to see the interiors, characterised by double doors and sliding partitions allowing flexible use, that were as impressive as the scheme’s external appearance.

Mansfield Road

17a–79b Mansfield Road are part of the long terrace of 64 flats and maisonettes – an updated version of much of the housing they replaced – in Gospel Oak completed in 1980. Their architects, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, had worked with Brown on the celebrated Alexandra Road Estate and would go on to design the Branch Hill Estate, neither of which feature in this year’s programme.

Cressingham Gardens

Lambeth was another borough that pioneered low-rise solutions to housing need. Its Borough Architect, Ted Hollamby believed that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’.  The design and popularity with residents of Cressingham Gardens in Tulse Hill, completed in 1978, earned plaudits from Lord Esher, president of RIBA, who described it as ‘warm and informal … one of the nicest small schemes in England’. Its current residents are fighting plans to demolish and rebuild the estate as are those in Central Hill, a similarly inspired scheme designed by Rosemary Stjernstedt.

Dawson’s Heights

Southwark lacked such signature style but it built, to a design by another early and significant female architect Kate Macintosh – still around and still fighting for high quality public housing – one of the most distinctive council housing schemes of its day, Dawson’s Heights, built between 1968 and 1972. Crowning a prominent hill in East Dulwich, the estate’s two large ziggurat-style blocks offer views and sunlight to each of their 296 flats and moved English Heritage to praise their ‘striking and original massing that possesses evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’.

Trellick Tower © Ethan Nunn, CC BY-SA 4.0

The profile of the 98 metre, 31-storey Trellick Tower– distinguished by the free-standing service tower of the block – is equally eye-catching and perhaps better known. The younger sister of Balfron Tower to the east, the block was designed by Ernő Goldfinger for the GLC and completed in 1972. Unlike Balfron, sold off to the private sector, Trellick remains in local authority hands, managed now by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Walters Way

The Walter Segal self-build houses in Walters Way, Honor Oak, couldn’t seem more different but they have one thing in common – the role of a local council, in this case Lewisham which provided the land for the scheme and supported the self-builders, initially selected from the council housing waiting list, with a council mortgage. The homes were built using the simple post-and-beam system using standard and easily acquired building materials – principally wood and woodwool for insulation – devised by architect Walter Segal. [In Bromley, the Open House at 13 Nubia Way and exhibition provide an important history of Europe’s largest black-led community self-build for rent initiative.]

The Walters Way homes were completed in the 1980s, by which time new council housebuilding had ground to a virtual halt as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s hostility to public ownership and belief in free enterprise. Neoliberalism and the market look far less plausible now in housing terms and much else besides than they may have done to some at least in that earlier era.

So, we conclude this survey by looking at regeneration – a positive thing to the extent that many estates needed improvement and renovation as a result of expected obsolescence and regrettable neglect. But regeneration as implemented was mixed with the new conventional wisdom – an antipathy to public spending (better understood as investment) that forced a reliance on public-private partnerships with commercial developers.

The other mantra was ‘mixed communities’ secured by the provision of a range of housing tenures. The concept neglected the reality that most council estates were mixed communities and was rooted in an antagonism to ‘mono-class’ (i.e. working-class) areas seen as a drag on local uplift, gentrification in other words.

In practice, the number of new homes for sale and private rental ensured that social rent housing lost in such schemes was not adequately replaced. Across the country and combined with the impact of Thatcher’s flagship Right to Buy policy, we have around 1.4 million fewer social rent homes now than we had in the early 1980s.

Rosenburg Road, South Acton Estate/Acton Gardens

Open House London features three regeneration schemes. Acton Gardens was formerly – in a geographical sense at least – Ealing’s South Acton Estate, built by Acton Borough Council from 1949 and growing eventually to comprise some 2100 homes. Comprehensive regeneration was planned from 1996. The visit concentrates on the first new homes built in 2012 and a revised masterplan agreed in 2018 that will clear all the old estate.

Waynflete Square and Frinstead House, Silchester Estate

The Silchester Estate was a GLC estate in south Kensington (Grenfell Tower lies immediately to the east) built in the 1970s.  Open House London focuses on a new development of 112 mixed tenure homes, community and retail facilities designed by Haworth Tompkins architects.

South Kilburn Estate

The South Kilburn Estate, was developed by Brent Council from the mid-1960s, originally comprising 11 tower blocks and a range of lower-rise housing. The walking tour of Unity Place looks principally at the modern mansion blocks designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Alison Brooks Architects, Gort Scott and Grant Associates to replace two of the 1960s’ towers.

It’s good, of course, to see high-quality, architect designed schemes being built though many of the new so-called ‘affordable’ homes are not let at social rent. I remain nostalgic for a time in the 1970s when 49 percent of qualified architects were employed in the public sector in a state and society that took seriously its moral and practical duty to provide genuinely affordable housing for all in need – when public spending on the direct provision of housing was understood as an investment, a value not a cost.