The Mackworth Estate in Derby is a good example of the more ambitious of the new suburban council estates built after World War Two. Its story – from founding vision to flawed fulfilment – tells us much about the evolution of social housing in the last seventy years.
Derby, an industrial town with a proud railway and engineering heritage, had a strong tradition of council house construction. The Borough Council had announced plans for 1000 council homes in 1919 – the first 16 completed were in Victory Road, more followed in Stenson Road. In the 1930s, new housing estates were developed beyond the city centre in Chaddesden, Sinfin and Old Normanton. By 1940, the Council had built over 7000 homes. (1)
Labour won control of the council in 1928 and regained power in 1934. It would retain control until boundary changes in 1968. It was, then, this Labour-controlled council and its ambitious Chair of Housing, Alderman Flint, which would attempt to enact a social democratic vision of housing in the new Britain of the welfare state.
The first priority, however, was to tackle the immediate housing crisis. In May 1946, the Council ordered 150 ‘Trusteel’ prefabricated homes (steel frame construction with brick cladding). With one of these homes taking just 21 days to erect, the Council was pleased with the quick fix but saw it as very much a temporary solution. (2)
The planning of the Mackworth Estate began in 1948. It was an unusually ambitious scheme in straitened times but Derby, with its plentiful land, strategic industries and energetic Housing Committee, was well-placed to receive a sympathetic hearing from the Ministry of Health and Housing. The plan was approved and construction began in 1950.
The Estate, built on 450 acres of undeveloped land on the western outskirts of the borough, was envisaged as ‘a residential neighbourhood in full accordance with contemporary town planning principles’. Its design: (3)
would provide from the outset not only for dwellings but for schools, local shops, churches, and other buildings and, of course, recreational and ornamental open space. Thus it was planned that the day-to-day needs of the residents, the adults and the children, should be met within the neighbourhood, incidentally providing occasions for stimulating community life and feeling.
Behind the stilted bureaucratese, we see here post-war planning at its most far-reaching. The housing was cosily domestic, evolving from the earlier principles and practice of the Garden City movement and municipal ‘cottage estates’. This reflected the possibility of the Borough’s green-field site but also, for the most part, the wishes of would-be council tenants.
Beyond this was the intention to create – that post-war planning mantra – the neighbourhood unit. The Lansbury Estate in Poplar, a Festival of Britain site and exact contemporary of Mackworth, was an exemplar. And beyond this lay the ideal of a community which met the range of human needs – physical, psychological, intellectual, moral – and which would, in fact, extend human potential. There’s nothing more prosaic than a council estate, is there? But remember this spirit of ’45, this gentle, British utopia.
So, to practice. In all, some 3000 homes were planned – 203 private residences, 286 private leasehold and 2507 council. Of these, 2250 were houses – 593 two-bed, 1642 three-bed and five four-bed, mostly semi-detached – and just 152 were low-rise flats.
Whilst the Labour council would have preferred to build itself, this was not possible in a development on this scale. Wimpey were appointed the main contractor. Wates would also contribute. About 500 homes on the Estate were built by direct labour after 1952.
The homes had coal fires with back boilers for hot water (plus electrical immersions) but were more innovative in their through lounges. These were generally ‘felt to be a great improvement’ on the stuffy parlours of the better working-class homes previously. (4)
Another innovation was the use of Wimpey’s ‘No Fines’ system-building for a number of the Estate’s houses – perhaps over 500 in all. These were constructed from concrete with no fine aggregates (hence the name) cast in situ. The homes – large numbers were built across Britain at this time – have been criticised for their rather austere appearance but were structurally sound and have generally lasted well. Those on the Mackworth and Breadsall Estates in Derby were subject to a £6.3m refurbishment in 2003, chiefly to improve insulation and renew windows and doors.
The ‘spinal road’ of Prince Charles Avenue bisected the Estate and contained its main services – a shopping centre, secondary schools and churches. Other roads, arranged in sweeping curves and frequent culs-de sac, were free of through traffic. Forty acres of open space were included; the Estate is also adjacent to Derby’s 207 acre Markeaton Park. A current resident observes: (5)
Most visitors to the estate are still impressed by the greenery found there and, also, the feeling of spaciousness…not always found in other residential areas of the city.
The first homes were occupied – in Enfield Road in 1951 – as streets and paving were still being completed. Of necessity, primary schools came early – Brackendale School for 850 in 1953 and the similarly-sized Reigate School in 1955. A school intended as a girls’ secondary modern was pressed into service as a junior school in 1957.
This reflected the Estate’s demography which comprised, overwhelmingly, young families. While just 11 mothers attended the first infant welfare clinics in one of the Estate’s surgeries in 1955, attendance had risen to over 4000 by 1955.
Other community facilities followed more slowly. A small parade of shops opened in Humbleton Drive in 1954 and plans for the main district centre were announced the same year. The Council – working closely with the locally influential Cooperative movement – promised 26 shops, a supermarket, health centre, cinema and pub. The smaller, finished scheme was formally opened in April 1959.
To the Council, housing took priority and money was short for other facilities. The promised community centre wasn’t built and as the Townswomen’s Guild recalls:
Without the Church Halls and the goodwill of the authorities in opening them up to allow who wished to use their facilities social life on the estate would have been very restricted.
The Guild itself was founded in 1955 and a number of other groups and activities – more or less closely attached to the churches – catered for women and children. Apart from the British Legion, popular among the many ex-servicemen of the Estate, there appeared to be a ‘scant group life for the menfolk’ but four pubs were built which the Guild commented somewhat sardonically ‘obviously provide most men with the companionship that the majority of ladies find elsewhere’.
The Corporation’s trolleybus system had been extended into the Estate in 1952 and gave easy access to the town centre so it never felt particularly isolated despite its suburban setting. (The trolleybuses ran until September 1967.)
The Borough Council (Derby became a city in 1977) continued to build. Its 10,000th home was opened in 1965 – in the council’s first high-rise development, Rivermead House. At peak – in 1981 – the Council owned 24,476 homes.
By 2008, that number had fallen to a little over 13,700. A majority of the Mackworth Estate’s 3200 homes are now owner-occupied, the first homes being sold to residents by the incoming Conservative council in 1968. Still, a significant proportion of social housing – managed since 2002 by Derby Homes – remains.
The Estate has evolved, of course, and could not be immune to the wider social changes of recent decades. For a while from the 1990s the Estate acquired a reputation for drugs and crime and the nickname ‘Smackworth’ – though the latter really owed as much to rhyme as reason. A neighbourhood crime prevention group was formed in 2003 and by 2009 the burglary rate in Mackworth has been cut in half and total crime cut by a sixth. (6)
The crime prevention group meanwhile developed into an energetic community association with a busy programme of activities for local youngsters and ongoing plans to open that long-promised community centre for the Estate.
Now while the Estate is one of the poorer areas of Derby and parts are among the fifth most deprived nationally, unemployment is around the average. Anti-social behaviour remains a concern for many residents but almost three-quarters of residents think ‘their neighbourhood is a place where people get on well’ and rates of community involvement are above the Derby average. (7)
Meanwhile, the Estate continues to develop. A library – also pencilled in on original plans – was finally opened in March 2010. In March 2012 a community allotment scheme was opened. In October 2013, funding for a major refurbishment of the District Centre was announced.
So Mackworth seems to be doing pretty well and the environment of the Estate – its generous open spaces, well-tended gardens and quality of housing – stands still as a testimony to the planning vision of the post-war Council.
Mackworth was never a Utopia and, even if the Council had been able to fund its founding vision for the Estate, it probably wouldn’t have become one. But the Townswomen’s Guild which – if they don’t mind me saying – grew old with the Estate concluded in 1980 that ‘there seems little likelihood of a mass exodus from this pleasant estate as residents retire’.
That was modest praise but if Mackworth has provided a decent and affordable home for many people over many years it has served its primary purpose.
(1) John Newbould, ‘Revolution in Housing’, Derby Evening Telegraph, 17 May 2010
(2) JA Cook, Policy Implementation in Housing: A Study of the Experience of Portsmouth and Derby, 1945-74, University of Nottingham PhD thesis, 1985, and Michael Stratton and Barrie Trinder, Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology (2000)
(3) County Borough of Derby, The Mackworth Estate (1959)
(4) Mackworth Townswomen’s Guild, Mackworth Estate Jubilee, A Social History (1980)
(5) Denis Hardwick in ‘Estate boasts half a century of community spirit and great hidden talents’, Derby Evening Telegraph, 29 October 2007
(6) Shaun Jepson, ‘How we have won back our streets’, Derby Evening Telegraph, 19 March 2009
(8) Derby City Council, Mackworth Profile, 2011/2012
The website of the Mackworth Estate Community Association gives a fuller picture of the current estate and the association’s range of activities.