Blackbird Leys, situated on the south-eastern periphery of Oxford, is to all appearances a pretty ordinary, not to say humdrum, council estate. But it’s achieved notoriety. Some of this is typical of unloved and maligned marginal estates throughout the country but it’s loomed larger in Blackbird Leys and came to a peak in 1991 when three days of rioting followed a police crackdown on joyriding.
Oxford’s history of town and gown disputation is well-known but the divisions within the city grew after William Morris built his first car in 1913. From those small beginnings emerged the Morris car factory in Cowley, employing some 20,000 people by the 1970s. Oxford acquired an industrial working class and had to deal with it.
Blackbird Leys was one response. The city’s population had grown massively in the interwar period and demand for housing was high – there were 5000 on the council waiting list in 1946 and Morris Cars were expanding. Council planners saw the ‘final solution’ to the housing shortage in the development of large estates on the eastern and south-eastern fringes of the city.
Planning permission was granted in 1953 on 260 acres of land then occupied by a sewage works and farm in Blackbird Leys for an estate of 2800 dwellings with a projected population of 10,000.
The first residents moved in to what was still essentially a building site in 1958. Work continued over several phases into the seventies when the original scheme was largely complete.
A further expansion took place with the development of the Greater Leys estate on adjoining land in the mid-1980s. Around 14,000 people live in the area now.
A few residents had moved from a slum clearance area in the city centre and some from temporary housing erected during the war. Most of the men worked in the car factory and around half the population in the sixties had moved from elsewhere – from Scotland and Ireland in large numbers and from elsewhere in England – for employment.
There were tensions here already that the estate itself did little to warrant. A local newspaper wrote that the (1):
unlit building sites, inadequate police supervision, parental apathy and the provision of a public house catering mainly for young people, has provided the perfect setting for the idle, the mischievous, and the more sinister night people.
Who were these ‘sinister night people’? They surely weren’t as exciting as they sound but the phrase gives an early indication of the power of the media to shape perceptions and spread alarm.
Some residents surveyed in Frances Reynolds’ extensive analysis of the estate resented the former slum dwellers:
I don’t like it up here getting all the tail end. It’s a disgusting place. Putting all the backend up here won’t give people like us a chance to make this a decent place to live.
But those who saw themselves as ‘respectable’ might be equally resented by others:
from the beginning the estate was associated with ‘foreign’ workers come to get rich at the factories, with large rough families, and to a lesser extent with slum clearance. It was never accepted as part of the city proper and its reputation began the downward spiral…
From the outset, Blackbird Leys carried a stigma and many of its people felt ignored or victimised in equal measure despite the fact that it was in these early years predominantly an estate of the skilled and employed working class.
One resident recalls (2):
There was this big problem of being labelled. People were not able to get credit and hire purchase if they said they came from Blackbird Leys. Even the vicar could not get a phone in without having to pay in advance. None of us knew why. It was a brand new estate with no past as far as we were concerned. People working at the car works were among the best paid manual workers in Oxford.
That was Carole Roberts who had moved to the estate aged 14 from London when her father found work in the car factory. She went on to become a Labour Lord Mayor of Oxford but Blackbird Leys would remain her home.
The outstanding feature of the new estate, however, was its demography. It was built for families and in the sixties one quarter of its population was under five years of age, another quarter of school age. There were a lot of kids on the estate and later a lot of teenagers.
As to the design of the estate, in a word, it’s unexceptional – which points to both its good and bad aspects. It was solid, slightly ‘boxy’ housing – good accommodation in and of itself though space standards fell in later years.
Two fifteen-storey tower blocks with four two-bedroom flats on each floor were opened in 1960s. The Conservative mayor of Oxford who opened Windrush Tower in 1962 described the building as ‘modern living at its best’. But it wasn’t long before the common problems of lack of play space for younger children, lifts breaking down and vandalism of communal areas were being reported.
Housing density was relatively high and there many complained about poor noise insulation.
According to one resident:
They put you all so close together yet it’s a big estate. I can’t explain it. My neighbours are friendly and yet it’s not a friendly place. I think it’s because we’re all so close together that there’s always somebody doing something to annoy you, if it’s only music, or lighting a bonfire, or mending a car, it’s because we’re all packed together.
The quote also points beyond straightforward design failings to what sociologists have termed ‘neighbourhood sensitivity’ – a reduced tolerance to the behaviour of others reflecting social differences within the community.
Blackbird Leys – despite the easy stereotype of council estates – was not homogeneous. The divisions which existed between ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ residents, between owner occupiers (already 20 per cent by 1981) and council tenants, and between those of different backgrounds – though ethnicity itself was never a significant flashpoint – reduced tolerance of behaviours beyond the observer’s norm.
The estate was provided open space – particularly in the cul-de-sacs which were built in the early sixties – and later a large recreation ground but these were often not seen as ‘safe’ areas for younger children or inviting areas more generally. A single large community centre was provided but community amenities as a whole were thin on the ground.
Each of these elements are the quite normal features and failings of estates designed in the post-war rush to build – and build economically. But they came together in Blackbird Leys in peculiarly combustible form. The final piece in the jigsaw came in the estate’s changing demographics.
The 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act – alongside the unanticipated impact of Mrs Thatcher’s right to buy legislation and the halting of council new-build – ensured that ‘vulnerable’ tenants came to form a large part of new tenancies. This trend was strengthened by the reality that such tenants –in urgent need of housing – were far more likely to be housed in less popular estates with a more rapid turnover of occupants such as Blackbird Leys.
At the same time the eighties’ collapse of the manufacturing economy hit the estate’s economic mainstay. By the early eighties, the proportion of male heads of household classified as ‘skilled’ had fallen from half to little over a third. In the same period, the rate of unemployment on the estate peaked at 20 per cent and 50 per cent for those aged 16 to 19.
Statistics indicate that by this time Blackbird Leys was a ‘problem’ estate with more than its fair share of ‘problem’ families. To select just a couple of examples, the estate contained 15 per cent of the city’s children and 30 per cent of those under social services supervision; it contained 17 per cent of juveniles (aged 10 to 16) but 27 per cent of those prosecuted for crime.
Of course, such figures are not ‘innocent’. Residents felt unfairly labelled and ‘picked on’ by the agencies of the state. The estate’s reputation may also have highlighted problems which were contained or treated differently elsewhere. Still, the sociological fine-tuning didn’t alter the lived reality of an estate seen by outsiders – and, increasingly, by its own residents – as crime-ridden and dysfunctional. The residents’ reporting of their own experience of crime or troublesome neighbours confirms this truth even if it’s understood as a complex one.
All this came to a head in September 1991. ‘Hotting’ – the theft of cars followed by displays of driving prowess on the estate’s streets – had become a local sport for some of Blackbird Leys’ youngsters. A police crackdown was met by resistance when up to 150 youths stoned riot-geared police officers.
An academic analysis describing such activity as ‘carnivalesque’ is probably designed to enrage Daily Mail readers but the pleasure and meaning of it for participants – in its thrill-seeking and oppositional nature – should be understood.(3) It was correct to blame media attention – some spoke more darkly of media incitement – for giving a distorted picture of the estate but clearly something had gone wrong. These marginalised youth on a marginal estate were expressing something, however inchoately.
Another, very different, expression of the local community’s disaffection with the powers-that-be came in 2002 with the election of an Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) councillor, defeating Labour, for the estate. At peak, the IWCA returned four local representatives. The IWCA stood on an unashamedly populist platform which stressed New Labour’s abandonment of its class loyalties and called for local action against crime and drug-dealing – against those seen as ‘lumpen’ elements of the local proletariat.
All in all, this seems less a municipal dream, more a municipal nightmare. What more needs to be said?
Well, this for a start, though perhaps it comes too late to challenge all the negatives – two thirds of residents in Reynolds’ survey liked the estate and had no intention of moving. These contented residents reported they were happy with their homes, their neighbours and neighbourhoods and local facilities. They were also more likely to have relatives living on the estate.
Mrs Knight, 79 years old, got on well with the local children:
They’re ever so friendly. They call out Hello Nellie when I’m in the street. They’re never any trouble. It’s a wonderful place…
A few years later perhaps some of them were stoning the police.
Just last year, a resident who had lived on the estate for 51 years stated (4):
I love it here, even if I won the lottery I wouldn’t move. The area is peaceful, it’s lovely and all the neighbours get on with each other, it’s that community spirit. Blackbird Leys has so many facilities for children and adults and there’s a lot to do if you are prepared to go ahead and find it.
I don’t claim that these views are representative but they do add nuance. Council estates are not just bricks and mortar; they reflect complex human dynamics within and the impact of – often very difficult and damaging – political and economic currents without.
Blackbird Leys remains a significantly deprived area: in 2010 Northfield Brook ward was amongst the 10 per cent most deprived in the country – a long way from the ‘dreaming spires’, a marginal estate in every sense of the word.(5)
But Blackbird Leys has always had a community which has survived its problems and battled the stereotypes. That community exists today in its homes and streets and, semi-officially, in that complex nexus of self-help and state-sponsored regeneration which has emerged since 1997. Crime has fallen drastically, new facilities have been built, black spots eradicated – much has been done (too much according to some disgruntled Oxford residents who feel Blackbird Leys has been singled out for favourable attention) and much remains to be done.
If that seems an anodyne conclusion maybe it’s the only one that captures the past and present contradictions of the estate’s story: never the New Jerusalem, nor ever the Hell on Earth that many portrayed.
(1) This quote and unattributed quotes that follow are taken from Frances Reynolds, The Problem Housing Estate. An account of Omega and its people (1986) – Omega was the name Reynolds gave the estate to preserve its anonymity.
(2) Quoted in ‘We’re proud of our estate‘, Oxford Mail, 27 November 1998
(3) Mike Presdee, Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime (2000)
(4) Quoted in ‘Project unveils history of Blackbird Leys‘, Oxford Mail, 9 March 2012
(5) Oxford Safer Communities Partnership, The Indices of Deprivation, 2010: Oxford Results
BBC Oxford has pages on the Development of Blackbird Leys and the ‘Community Troubles‘ of 1991. The stills of ‘hotting’ and rioting above are taken from the latter.
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I lived on Blackbird Leys from 1961 until 1976 when I married and moved to Abingdon. I can’t say I enjoyed living there having led a sheltered life beforehand and couldn’t wait to move away. However, I’m glad I lived there as it’s made me what I am today, I’m an honest, hard worker who has never shirked my responsibilities and I thank you Blackbird Leys for giving me the incentive to get up and work for what I wanted.
Janice Wallis. Was Arnold said:
I lived in Blackbird Leys and left when my family moved to Drayton in about 1960 1961 ish. I lived at 8 Ladenham road them 18 Whitethorns Way. I went to Blackbird Leys school and I think the headmaster was Mr. Jacobs, or he was the doctor, cant remember. My teacher was miss Fazackerley. Lovely area to live in.
Diane kerry said:
I have lived on Blackbird leys / Greater leys since 1971 when i was born and i am still here 2015 i have raised my family here and it’s a lovely place to live . We have lovely family’s here hard working people and a fantastic community .. The stigma of 1991 with hotter’s and riot’s has stayed with us which is ridiculous you get good and bad everywhere .. BLACKBIRD LEYS is a lovely decent place to live and i have been very happy here and i have no intention of living anywhere else but here …X
Sheila layden said:
I have lived in Blackbird leys since 1965 my children went to school on the estate and now all live on the leys .it’s a good place to live dispute what some people say all estates have problems and blackbird leys is no different.
The so called hotter that was filmed , was paid to put on a display by tv film crews . Also most of the so called rioters didnt come from the estate .
The car that they filmed was owned by a Daily Mail reporter, was so funny when the driver drove off with is car after collecting the £50 he was paid. My how we laughed!!
Blackbird Leys is a good place to live I still have family that live there, Bbleys did get a bad reputation many years go which had nothing to do with the family’s that lived there. It was safe at night to walk round and almost every parent knew who’s who and the knew who the children belong to. We had great time as kids growing up there I hate it when people start to say things about Bbleys they should give it a award for all the good things that as happen over the years and a lot of respect Iam glad that grew up on Blackbird Leys. People should read up on the good things and not the bad things before they start to talk about Blackbird Leys
Sharon Irish said:
I have heard there was a community-run radio station at Blackbird Leys? Does anyone know about that?
Yes there was, It has suffered from a lack of support from local government and is now run as a commercial station just off cowley road. Its now known as DESTINY 105
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I went to the Wesley Green school. It was run by a hippie called Hugh Turner and he was on some kind of mission to make the Caribbean residents feel good about themselves, but nothing about British history. In a school where hardly anybody could write or speak English well, he would want to play Ethnic instruments in English and maths classes. I took adult education classes to improve my English, but I still see many of them online now, grown adults who use text type.
Michael Norwood said:
I grew up on Blackbird Leys living there with my parents on Balfour Road from 1959 until 1971. I attended BB Leys Primary School (Headmaster, Mr Jacobs) and Redefield Secondary Modern School (Headmasters Mr Hayes & Mr Lewis). My father lived there until 2013 in the same house which he bought during the Thatcher years.
It was a good place to grow up. We were not a particularly wild mob of kids although there were often negative attributes linked to the estate, unfair mostly. As kids we could roam widely and safely down to the river at Sandford or cycle into Oxford along the River Thames tow path. There were large recreation parks where we played football and before the estate was fully completed a lot of building sites we could roam around (perhaps we were a bit wild).
Entering the workforce in the late 1960’s early 1970’s my schoolchums and I had no difficulty finding employment. Now that we have all mostly retired from full time work, I note that we were all successful in our chosen careers. This stems from a good education at government schools. I do not recall feeling disadvantaged even though we were not wealthy.
A lot of the modern day negativity towards BB Leys stems from the problems of lumping together many underpriviledged and socially diadvantaged people in one area with insufficient employment opportunities. Addressing these concerns is the way to alleviate many problems.
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Michael Norwood said:
Why bother publishing inane ignorant comment that is not attributed. It seems like trolls are being facilitated here! Nevertheless most people living on Blackbird Leys are happy there and just get on with their lives. Here is to them. Michael Norwood (resident 1959 to 1971,parents 1959 to 2013)
Sent from my iPad
Municipal Dreams said:
Michael, I’m not sure which comment you’re referring too. I don’t pre-screen responses but there were two offensive comments I received recently which I deleted as soon as I saw them. I certainly don’t try to encourage trolls. MD
Michael Norwood said:
Dear Municipal Dreams,
The comments I was referring to are the ones about ‘pedos’ etc that I am glad to see were deleted and did not make it to the blog. However they appeared in my email notification and perhaps I erroneously jumped the gun here with my comment. I do beg your pardon for this.
However it seems to me that these offensive comments should not show up at all, hence pre-screening may be a good idea if possible.
Just another thought, if responders are not willing to put their name to comment made then do these replies warrant publication? ie what is the validity of the response?
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I lived in Blackbird Leys from 1964-1979 in Pegasus Road until i moved away for work. I went to Overmead School then St John Fisher . It was a fantastic place to live and grow up, and I do not really know how the area achieved its adverse reputation a this time. The estate had much to offer the young at the time as I recall, never a dull moment, and certainly safe too. The shops and The Blackbird (local)used to attract an interesting following, but that is pretty much the case anywhere these days on such estates. I’m thankful for a great childhood there!!
A Swede said:
I stayed one summer with a local family in Blackbird Leys as a language student (e.g. ESOL) when in 1996. Being a young kid from the Swedish countryside, I thought it was an absolutely dreadful place. People were unfriendly and unkind. I saw a man high on drugs being thrown out of his house by his wife one morning. Some fellow driving past in his car stopped just to tell me to “fuck off”, completely out of the blue – the two girls sitting in the car with him laughing delightedly at his masterful command of the English language.
I came back to Oxford the following summer but this time stayed with a family in Abingdon, which isn’t a place I’m likely to ever return to either, but it was better than the abject misery of Blackbird Leys.
Michael Norwood said:
Dear A Swede,
So another anonymous person. It is a pity that you witnessed such an unfortunate incident and were treated rudely. Unfortunately these days there does appear to be a lot more antisocial behavior occurring in society generally. Hopefully you meet at least a few pleasant people during your stays in both Blackbird Leys and Abingdon.
You say you are a country kid so I wonder if you have ever spent any time in the less well heeled or socially disadvantaged ares of Stockholm or Gothenburg? If so you may find that these days rude and ignorant people reside there.
I do not condone or apolagise for such rude an ignorant behavior however you should condem a whole neighborhood of people for a few individuals.
Further if you wish to be taken seriously stand behind your statements with your name otherwise you just another troll.
Michael Norwood (ex long term resident of Blackbird Leys)
England will never be like the rest of north Europe, as Tory priorities are to keep our economy closely linked with USA banks encouraging greed and debt, above anything else. Like they did in the 1980s making millions unemployed and then encouraged people to be greedy yuppies, for the economy to crash by the early 90s and crashes every few years after the USA since.
While old people were dying of the cold in the 1980s after Tories stole and sold off public owned energy, the secret service whistle blower David Shayler told how Thatcher was using British money to fund Al Q aeda in Libya against Gaddafi, and British people have been attacked by extremists from Libya since.
What’s that got to do with Blackbird Leys?
Mike Oxlong said:
Personally, i disagree with all your statements