Residents of Woodberry Park can transport themselves to the epicentre of Europe’s fashion and food delights. An endless array of couture boutiques and exquisite dining awaits.
The Berkeley’s Homes website for ‘Woodberry Park’ is almost a parody of what used to be called ‘yuppification’.(1) The chief selling point of this near East End location appears to be that it’s just 16 minutes away from the West End.
Earlier residents of the original Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney felt differently. One new tenant of Toxteth House in 1950 – she had been living in one room with her husband and two children, a third on its way – describes moving in: (2)
Up the stairs we ran, soon found number 9. The excitement of opening the front door, our own, finding a nice living room, large bedroom with fitted wardrobe and fitted chest of drawers, smaller bedroom and a bathroom with a green suite, separate toilet, a lovely kitchenette full of cupboards and shining stainless steel sink and draining board. What more could we want? We felt like King and Queen.
Back in the 1950s, Woodberry Down was heralded as ‘the estate of the future’. It’s seen some tough times since then but, in a strange way, that claim rings true once more. It’s just a very different future.
Its story begins in two events – in the drive towards slum clearance marked by Arthur Greenwood’s 1930 Housing Act and the election, in 1934, of a Labour majority on the London County Council under the leadership of Herbert Morrison. The new council was ambitious to build and it soon noticed: (3)
a site about 64 acres in extent to the north and south of Seven Sisters Road…suitable for redevelopment on a larger scale as a housing estate…close to the large public open spaces of Finsbury Park and Clissold Park, and served by excellent tramway, omnibus and tube railway routes.
The land was owned by the Church Commissioners, the LCC was armed with powers of compulsory purchase. In the event, the Church Commissioners pleased their conscience and their purse by selling – to the consternation of a small but well-off local population.
The local newspaper’s headline ‘£1,000,000 Slum Dwellers’ Paradise’ – not intended as a friendly welcome – indicates the views of its readership. On their behalf, it went on to state: (4)
Morrison has driven them out of London. They can find no homes to suit them under the area under his rule. In their place come people who will make Morrison even more secure in his County Hall office.
Some felt the area was going to the dogs in any case, literally so as Harringay greyhound stadium had opened nearby in 1928.
Planning of the new estate began immediately. LCC councillors made the European tour of the day, visiting some of the grander continental public housing schemes. They had concluded, in any case, that another cottage estate – such as those built at Becontree or Downham – would not suffice to house those who would be displaced by planned slum clearance.
EP Wheeler presented the first scheme, influenced by the Quarry Hill estate in Leeds, Vienna’s Karl Marxhof and Bruno Taut’s Hufeisensiedlung in Berlin, in July 1938. It envisaged 1660 dwellings, in two to five storey blocks linked in a horseshoe shape, for a population of some 8000.
This visionary plan would not materialise. Legal action and compensation negotiations delayed its start and war halted further action. Typically, however, as victory came closer, thoughts turned again to the new world that would emerge from the destruction of war.
In 1943 JH Forshaw – the co-author with Patrick Abercrombie of the County of London Plan of the same year – submitted a radically different scheme, one based (this is for the architectural historians out there) on the German Zeilenbau principle of aligned tall blocks set in parallel.
The five storey and eight storey blocks would run north-south ‘so that all rooms receive the benefit of sunlight at some time during the day’. With the addition of some two-storey houses and maisonettes, 1790 dwellings would be provided in all.
Land was also set aside for schools, a community centre, library, an old people’s home, health clinic and shops ‘together with a site for licensed premises’. This all very much reflected the ‘neighbourhood’ ideals of the day – an example of the ‘mixed development’ foretold in the London County Plan.
The first tenders were accepted in July 1946 and the first residents moved in just two years later. The earliest completed homes were the eight-storey Nicholl, Needwood, Ashdale and Burtonwood blocks, considered innovative for their use of lifts and reinforced concrete (from recycled air raid shelters).
There was a conscious attempt to give expression to contemporary architectural ambition here with the cantilevered balconies and deep eaves and the whole was finished – an indication of Viennese influence – in a cream and light blue finish described as Tyrolean Roughcast. The later five-storey blocks followed a more conventional balcony access model.(5)
In fact, professional opinion was generally unimpressed. One critic asserted the ‘layouts dull, architecture unimaginative, and detailing coarse’.(6)
The new residents, naturally, were more concerned with comfort and convenience than architectural controversy but they were generally positive. Very often, of course, they were moving from conditions which seem almost unimaginable today.
The flats seemed wonderful when we first moved in. I thought mine was marvellous compared to the conditions I was living in before…we had a couple of basement rooms.
Not that such sentiments were universal. Another incomer to Dean House ‘hated it’:
I walked in and all I saw was the distempered walls and I thought ‘Oh my God, what have we come to?’ And it was high up. I was terrified.
Still, the estate grew – by 1953 there were 6500 people living on the estate in 1796 homes – and a community developed. These first residents were ‘chosen people’, vetted for need and for ability to pay. Rents ranged from 14/6 (72.5p) for a one-bed flat to 51/10 (£2.59) for a centrally-heated five room flat and were collected weekly by the council rent collector.
And they were expected to behave respectably and obey the rules – no washing to be hung out, no pets, no subletting, no alterations, no floor coverings within one foot of any wall within the first 12 months…
But this wasn’t a one-way street. The tenants’ committee had over a thousand members in the early 1950s and ‘Woodberry Down tenants were well known at County Hall as determined and hard bargainers for their estate’. In 1956, after two years’ of campaigning, the LCC agreed to build eight children’s playgrounds. The committee was finally provided with a club room in 1959.
In these years, the Estate was a showpiece – the ‘Estate of the Future’ as one newspaper proclaimed in 1953 – much visited by dignitaries and housing professionals, eager to learn the lessons of this grandiose scheme of community development. (7) The health centre – a model for the new NHS – opened in 1952 and Woodberry Down School – the first purpose-built comprehensive in the country – opened in 1955. The final housing – Rowley Gardens – was completed in the seventies.
Such, such were the dreams. But by the 1980s (if you’ve been following this blog, that’s a familiar phrase) times had changed.
Crime – or fear of crime – had risen. Hackney boasted of being ‘Britain’s poorest borough’ The Estate felt and looked tired. Residents complained of neglect and lamented the loss of those caretakers and rent collectors – ‘they kept an eye on things, saw the estate was tidy and got jobs done quickly’. Now it took months to get something fixed.
Older residents missed their children who had moved away from the Estate: ‘The youngsters, they don’t want our flats. They’re not up-to-date enough for them’.
By 2002 that was official. Two years earlier the Labour government had set out its Decent Homes Standard for public sector housing. Woodberry Down didn’t meet it. Hackney Council’s Structural Evaluation Report on the Estate concluded that 31 out of 57 blocks on the estate were ‘beyond economic repair’ with wide-ranging problems including subsidence, damp, faulty drainage, poor insulation, asbestos and lack of disabled access and lifts.(8)
The regeneration strategy shifted from upgrade to rebuild. The 1980 council or former council homes on the estate would be demolished and 4644 new homes constructed. The 1458 socially rented homes would be ‘reprovided’ but an additional 2700 homes would be built by private developers for sale. The tenure mix of the Estate would shift from 67 per cent socially rented to 34 per cent socially rented, 65 per cent privately owned.
This made the scheme self-financing. The developers – Berkeley Homes – were guaranteed a 21 per cent profit in the deal agreed with the Council. This has been described by critics as ‘state sponsored gentrification’, even ‘social cleansing’.(9)
A three-bedroom flat in Woodberry Park sells for £885,000. For a cool £1m you’ll get a roof terrace too. It’s said most of the flats have been sold to foreign investors buying to rent and then sell at profit.
That’s the critical view. In defence of the Council, it can be said they had little option in financial terms – public funding for large-scale council housing development was simply not available. Moreover, the actual council housing stock was not diminished and the proportion of ‘affordable’ homes was – at 41 per cent – relatively high.
The Council has also pursued an extensive consultation programme with existing residents, evidenced in the focus groups, workshops, road shows and lots of newsletters.
It can’t be said that all existing residents – particularly the 522 leaseholders who had bought their council homes who stand to lose financially – are happy. To be fair, this likely reflects frustration from delays in the programme and the disruption it’s caused more than opposition to the scheme as such. (I’ve provided a highly edited version of what has been a very tortuous process here.)
So, welcome to the brave new world of social housing. Once our dreams were collective and, if the former Woodberry Estate never quite lived up to the hype, it represented, at least, an earnest and shared ambition to build high-quality housing and real community for ordinary people. Will the new estate do that?
(1) Berkeley Homes, Woodberry Park website, ‘Couture and Cuisine’
(2) This and later quotations from residents are taken from Woodberry Down Memories. The History of an LCC Housing Estate, 1989
(3) Quoted in Woodberry Down Memories
(4) North London Recorder, 25 November 1938 quoted in Woodberry Down Memories
(5) Most of the architectural descriptions are taken from London Borough of Hackney, Yellow Book: London – Hackney, The Woodberry Down Estate, 2001
(7) The Star, 17 November 1953 quoted in Woodberry Down Memories
(8) Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, Woodberry Down Case Study Baseline Report, ND
(9) Koos Couvée, ‘Woodberry Down in Hackney: How ‘Regeneration’ is tearing up another East London Community’, TMPonline
There’s a lot else to read about Woodberry Down regeneration online including the 2007 Masterplan.