The Byker Estate is unusual for a municipal housing development – it’s been critically acclaimed. When English Heritage awarded Byker its Grade II* listing in 2007, they praised both its ‘groundbreaking design…influential across Europe… and pioneering model of public participation’. The estate’s main element, the Byker Wall, is – like it or loathe it – an outstanding piece of modern architecture. The conception and design of the estate as a whole was shaped by unprecedented community consultation.
Byker was taken to represent a dramatic break with the aesthetic and ethic that had dominated the social housing of the sixties. It rejected the architectural brutalism of much of the local authority housing of the day. And it seemed to challenge the local government paternalism which underlay this. The truth is a little more complicated as we’ll see but, after all, dreams wouldn’t really be dreams if they ever came completely true.
In the early 1960s, 17,000 people lived in Byker. It was an area of terraced housing, back yards and back alleys, outside toilets and coal sheds. A lot of the homes were ‘Tyneside flats’ – single storey flats upstairs and downstairs in two-storey terraces.
This was a traditional, tight-knit working-class community beautifully captured in the images of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. But it was a community facing existential threat – by 1963, the whole area was scheduled for redevelopment. In fact, Newcastle’s Chief Planning Officer, Wilfred Burns, working closely with then council leader T Dan Smith, planned to demolish a quarter of the city’s entire housing stock in twenty years.
Whether Byker’s housing, suitably renovated, could or should have been preserved is a moot point but by 1968 (when both Burns and Smith had moved on), something radical had happened. Byker’s residents wanted to be rehoused where they lived and with their neighbours and Newcastle City Council agreed.
Their agreement was signalled by the appointment of Ralph Erskine, an architect and planner whose commitment to people-centred design was rooted in his parents’ Fabianism, his own Quakerism, and Swedish social democracy. Erskine’s vision – accepted by the Council in November 1968 – was for ‘ a complete and integrated environment for living in the widest possible sense’. This, he went on, would involve considering ‘the wishes of the people of all ages and many tastes’ with the intention (1):
…to maintain, as far as possible, valued traditions and characteristics of the neighbourhood itself…The main concern will be for those who are already resident in Byker, and the need to rehouse them without breaking family ties and other valued associations or patterns of life.
The principle of consultation was fulfilled in two main ways – through a pilot scheme involving 46 households working with architects in the design of their future homes and, more significantly, by shop-front offices in the middle of redevelopment to which residents could drop in. (They did – in large numbers – though often to raise concerns that the architects themselves were powerless to deal with.)
How real and effective this consultation process actually was is open to question. One critical observer concluded that ‘the real power to decide what should be done, and when, lay outside the community, in the Civic Centre’.(2) Perhaps this was inevitable given the constraints of finance and law and the politics of competing priorities.
A clearer-cut and more objective criticism lies in the failure to fulfil the first object of the scheme – the preservation of the Byker community. A population of 12,000 in 1968 was reduced to around 4400 in 1979. Of new homes, only about half went to locals. Years of planning blight, long delays in construction, a slow pace of demolition and the sheer disruption of redevelopment had forced around 5000 households out of the area.
But there is still much to praise. Older buildings important to the community were preserved, new ones built and community organisations supported. Corner shops (enjoying subsidised rents) and the retention of local employment in an existing industrial area added to the estate’s identity and vitality.
Careful landscaping which separated cars and people, plentiful open space and greenery all added to the attractiveness of the estate. The sale of subsidised plants and practical advice offered to support their own horticultural efforts added to the pride that many early residents felt in the estate.
And then there’s the architecture. Most people agree that Byker looks good and probably everyone can agree that it at least looks interesting. There is variety, colour, detail and a regard for human scale, values and needs which combine to make the estate an example of social housing at its best.
Technically, the famous Byker Wall provides a one and a half mile long perimeter barrier to North Sea winds and the noise and pollution of adjacent major roads. But there’s nothing austere about this block of 620 maisonettes – it rises and falls (from three storeys to twelve) and its textured and coloured façades of brick, wood and plastic, balconies and planters provide endless visual interest.
There were lessons learnt here from earlier mistakes such as those which marred the Quarry Hill development in Leeds. (There’s an earlier post on that pre-war scheme.)
The rest of the estate comprised areas of high-density low-level housing, each distinctive and bright and with a sensitive mix of small private gardens and larger communal spaces.
The estate – 200 acres, 1800 homes, a population of 9500 – was completed in 1982. How has it fared?
The build quality was poor and major refurbishment has been necessary. This has been costly (the more so now given the estate’s listed status) and ongoing.
Most significantly, the community has changed. This is not principally the result of some malign social engineering in the scheme itself. Much more it results from social and economic shifts that have damaged working-class communities – and social housing in particular – across the country.
As traditional local industries – notably the shipbuilding staple of Tyneside – declined in the 1980s, unemployment on the estate reached 30 per cent. It remained three times the national average (at almost 12 per cent) in the early 2000s. Unsurprisingly, levels of deprivation and complaints of antisocial behaviour rose accordingly.
The estate’s demographics were further affected by right to buy and the shrinking stock of social housing. As Sarah Glynn has observed (3):
The increasing residualisation of social housing as a minimally-maintained safety net for those who could not afford anything else meant that estates such as Byker became ghettos for many of those failed by society.
All this has led current residents to entertain very varied perspectives on the estate. There are those who think it ‘absolutely terrible’ and ‘a hole’ and those who have commented more in sadness than anger on the estate’s apparent decline: ‘It was a lovely place to live. Now it’s changing. People don’t feel safe anymore.’
Many are far more positive both on the quality of their homes and the strength of their community and we’ll leave the last word to one person who simply stated that Byker ‘had its fair share of good and bad, like any other area’. (4) There’s no headline there but it’s a corrective to both the exaggerated praise and extravagant criticism the estate has endured over the years.
And this picture is changing. There has been considerable investment in both the fabric and social environment of Byker and, generally, there seems a more optimistic feel to the estate and its future. In July 2012, the Byker Community Trust – a registered social landlord with four tenant representatives and two from the council on its thirteen-strong board – took over the running of the estate. As you will have noticed, I don’t think local councils are the devil’s spawn but there does seem to be a consensus that this represents a positive fresh start.
So it’s a mixed picture. There is certainly much to celebrate in Byker – the vision which inspired it, the daring and decency of its overall design, even a continuing record of community involvement, flawed though it has been.
The failings and shortfalls are undeniable too. Some of these may have been avoidable but reflect an eternal reality of investment never quite matching aspiration. Others seem to have resulted from intractable social dynamics – though, in this case, we shouldn’t forget the political choices which helped forge these apparent inevitabilities.
Let’s applaud the ambition and much of the execution and let’s support those whose dream it was – and is – to create decent, good quality and attractive housing for ordinary people.
(1) and (2) Peter Malpass, ‘The Other Side of the Wall‘, Architect’s Journal, 9 May 1979
(3) Sarah Glynn, ‘Good Homes: lessons in successful public housing from Newcastle’s Byker Estate‘, November 2011. This is an important article for anyone interested in Byker and in the fortunes of social housing in general.
A big thank you to Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen for allowing use of her images. More can be found at Amber Online. She has published books on Byker and its community in 1983 and 2009.