We left Norris Green last week in the early 1970s as one of ‘the most stable and respectable’ of Liverpool’s council estates. (1) Some people think that paints a rather rosy picture of an already troubled estate but there’s no doubt that by the later seventies Norris Green had real problems and a terrible local reputation. What on earth went wrong?
Nationally, the role of council housing changed. The 1977 Homeless Persons Act set a statutory duty to house certain vulnerable groups. The 1979 Thatcher government restricted new construction of council housing and diminished the existing stock through Right to Buy. In Norris Green, one third of the houses were purchased by tenants within five years.
This suggests that the Estate remained attractive to some but council housing became residual – new tenants were increasingly those in difficulty, lacking employment or stable circumstances. The decline of the Liverpool economy didn’t help matters as traditional employment opportunities plummeted.
A 1981 Merseyside Police survey of the Norris Green revealed that almost one third of those of working age were unemployed and three quarters of the tenants were in receipt of Housing Benefit. Over 75 per cent of children received free school meals. It went on to identify ‘a downward spiral of deprivation and communal fragmentation with all that implies for the health, wealth and well-being of residents’. (2)
Meanwhile, there was an elderly population of long-term residents – almost one in five of the Estate’s population was over 60 – who noticed these changes: (3)
In my day the houses were given to steady respectable hard-working people who kept the property nice. Now though, the houses are given to anybody, and you can see, they are certainly not well kept. Everywhere inside the estate looks a disgrace. The houses are never painted or repaired, and the children are allowed to roam around, and do anything. Fifty years ago, mugging, vandalism, drug taking was unheard of round here, not like today.
Another commented, ‘terrible types are being given the houses nowadays. I’ll leave that subject alone if you don’t mind, it upsets me so much’.
Norris Green – like many similar estates – had become (or was seen as) a ‘no-go area’ – rife with drug-dealing, gangs, car crimes and muggings. If crime was a potent factor in impoverishing its residents’ lives, fear of crime was equally so.
All this would be enough to cause problems but Norris Green’s perfect storm of disadvantage was completed by the severe physical decline of the Estate.
Residents complained of poor maintenance and slow repairs and blamed Corporation neglect, made more apparent as new owner-occupiers improved their homes purchased under Right to Buy:
These houses were well looked after years ago. Every house was decorated inside every 7 years, every 3½ years they did the downstairs, every 3½ years the upstairs. I remember mother used to go to the Works Department to choose the wallpaper. Every 5 years the outside was done and any repairs they were there. The houses are just neglected today, look, a lot are boarded up because they can’t be bothered to repair them.
A sympathetic view would suggest tight local government finances but there are those who, remembering the terrible inefficiency of the Housing Department in those days, suspect corruption.
Certainly, the Council’s housing policies were short-termist. However grateful the original tenants had been for their new homes, those non-parlour homes with a downstairs bathroom were clearly no longer fit for purpose. In 1970-1971 a limited modernisation programme had taken place which installed prefabricated ‘Gilbury Units’ incorporating a bathroom, sink and WC – flat-roofed composite extensions containing one small window – to the rear of 550 houses. This solution would cause problems of its own in the years to come.
Thereafter planned maintenance was scaled down and in 1983 the Militant-controlled Labour council halted improvements to the Estate completely.
The problem of the 3000 ‘Boot and Boswell’ pre-cast concrete homes could not be ignored, however. These had been faulty from the outset. The cheap sulphur clinker used in the manufacture of the concrete had led to cracking and shrinkage within two years of their construction and problems of damp and rust would plague these homes and make them very difficult to heat. They were officially declared defective and unmortgageable in 1985. (4)
These homes were progressively vacated and shuttered – a necessary measure but it did nothing to help the appearance or ‘feel’ of the Estate.
Belatedly, in 1983, the City Council launched an Urban Regeneration Strategy. This, though it targeted the neighbouring Croxteth and Gillmoss Estates, did not originally address the myriad problems of Norris Green.
In 1988, after intense lobbying from the two Norris Green tenants’ associations, three of the seven neighbourhoods in the Estate were declared Priority Areas. But only two-thirds of homes had been improved in the first area before the Strategy was abandoned and resources withdrawn.
Hillary Burrage, whose was a social worker on the Estate in this period, recalls her experiences: (5)
Here were elderly men who seemed to survive solely on Guinness, bread and marg; here were children with disability so severe that they had to live day-in, day-out in their parents’ lounge; here were old ladies who promised fervently to pray for me, simply because I was the first person they had spoken with for weeks.
Here, in fact, was a land, originally designed as the vision for the future, which, by those far-off days of the early 1970s, few knew, and almost everyone had forgotten.
This, thankfully, is not the end of the story – nor is it, of course, the entire story. Many residents continued to value their homes and their estate, even in these hard times. But, though regeneration can be a dirty word in the world of social housing, it was desperately needed in Norris Green.
The replacement of the Gilbury Units – a poor solution from the outset – began in 1990. By 1997 all 550 had been replaced by brick-built extensions.
In 1993 the Council received £27m under the Government’s Estate Action Programme. 1073 council and 723 owner-occupied houses in the Sedgemoor neighbourhood of the Estate were provided with central heating and double glazing and walls and fences were upgraded.
In 1999, it was accepted that the Boot and Boswell houses should be demolished. The first tenants were ‘decanted’ in the following year and by the summer of 2006 835 of the remaining 1509 properties had been demolished.
Meanwhile, in March 2002, two-thirds of Council tenants in Liverpool voted to transfer ownership of their homes to a new registered social landlord, Cobalt Housing. After this, we enter the brave new world of social housing and a fragmented nexus of housing associations, property developers, ‘affordable homes’ for purchase and smaller allocations of social housing and, frankly, the picture becomes too complex to detail.
To provide a flavour only, the property developers New City Vision began Phase 1 of their Ellergreen development – a rebranding of what had become known as the Boot Estate – in 2006: 90 houses for social rent to be let by Cobalt and 104 homes for sale – ‘two and three-bedroom mews and semis, three and four-bed detached houses and a four-bedroomed, 3 storey mews property’ as they are described in modern ‘developer-speak’. (6)
In 2011, Inpartnership – a ‘Manchester-based niche regeneration specialist’ and their ‘development partner’ Countryside Properties began Phase 1 of a six-phase £200m scheme to redevelop a 63 acre area of Norris Green, providing initially 60 homes – 15 properties for sale on the open market, 25 social rented and 20 ‘intermediate units, otherwise known as home share offers’ through Cobalt. (7)
In 2012, Liverpool Mutual Homes refurbished 74 homes on Broad Lane. (8)
Liverpool’s Labour mayor, Joe Anderson, claims at least that the Council – now acting as a ‘strategic partner’ in the provision of social and affordable housing – is finally addressing Norris Green’s long-running and deep-rooted problems:
This is an exciting time for Norris Green, and the days of its notoriety as ‘the Boot Estate’ are coming to an end. These new homes demonstrate our full commitment to the neighbourhood and I’m sure they will play a key role in strengthening community confidence and driving up the quality of lives. The regeneration of Norris Green is a key strategic priority for Liverpool and the region.
In July 2013, Liverpool City Council held a Bidders’ Day for a new ‘Strategic Housing Delivery Partner’ to provide the city with 1500 new homes and bring 1000 properties back into use.
There was a time when progressive councils built themselves. These pioneers decried the inefficiency of private contractors and deplored the profits of middlemen. Common sense and principle alike were served by their insistence on housing built and let by the local state. Those days have gone and social housing today exists in a miasma of partnerships and corporate interests.
But beyond all the developers and schemes, there are grass-roots projects, and within these there are people trying to make a difference. I’ll leave the last word with them: (8)
I think Norris Green is a fantastic area. There is still a lot of real community spirit left here but I do think we have got a lot of work to do now because of what’s gone on and the way it’s been reported…
I love the people in this area – everyone is dead friendly and has got a good sense of humour. If you don’t know them you can smile at them and they will smile back. It’s just a minority that cause problems.
(1) Barbara Weinberger, Liverpool Estates Survey, 1973, quoted in Richard Harris, Peter Larkham (eds), Changing Suburbs: Foundation, Form and Function (1999)
(2) Cited in Harris, Larkham (eds), Changing Suburbs: Foundation, Form and Function
(3) This and the following quotes are drawn from Madeline McKenna, The Development of Suburban Council Housing Estates in Liverpool between the Wars, University of Liverpool PhD, 1986
(4) Vinny Timmins, A Brief History of Norris Green
(5) Hillary Burrage, ‘Croxteth And Norris Green, Liverpool’, blog posting, September 6 2007
(6) BigDig Liverpool, ‘Ellergreen (Boot Estate)’, ND
(7) Details and the following quote are taken from the Homes and Communities Agency, ‘Regeneration of Norris Green Takes Significant Step Forward’, March 1 2011
(8) Stephen Cousins, ‘Broad Lane: from Estate Hell to Housing Heaven‘, Construction Manager, June 2 2013
(9) Participants in the Ellergreen Young People’s Project quoted in Paddy Shennan, ‘It’s time to focus on the positives in Norris Green’, Liverpool Echo, July 11 2012