As we saw in last week’s post, Hull had acted energetically in building homes and clearing slums after the First World War but the impact of a second would require it to redouble its efforts. New estates were built on its northern fringes which made the original North Hull Estate seem rather old-fashioned – a good or bad thing according to taste.
Certainly, the Estate was ageing and subject, in recent decades, to the difficult transitions that have affected much of our council housing. This, and a conjuncture of the ambitions of politicians national and local, would combine to make the Estate the nation’s first Housing Action Trust in 1991.
The strategically vital city of Hull suffered more damage from German bombing than any other in the UK except for London – over 1000 hours of raids destroyed 5300 homes outright and damaged almost 115,000. In fact, it was estimated that only 6000 homes had emerged unscathed.(1) Nor did suburbs such as the North Hull Estate escape this destruction – bombs not dropped on port or factories were jettisoned over outlying areas to ease the bombers’ return to base.
Over 1400 people were killed; 152,000 (around half the population) were made homeless. The ‘opportunity’ – an inappropriate word in the circumstances – to rebuild was recognised in 1942 when the Corporation commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens and Patrick Abercrombie to design the post-war city. The ‘fairer and nobler city’ that their Plan for the City and County of Kingston upon Hull envisaged was, however, only partially fulfilled: ‘not the brave new world of Coventry nor the stodgy classicism of Plymouth, more a grittier version of Welwyn Garden City following a civic style set in the 1930s’, according to Jones the Planner (2)
Early efforts focused necessarily on emergency measures – by 1948, 2525 temporary homes had been created in the city and repairs and rehabilitations returned a further 2720 bomb-damaged homes to use. North Hull was complete before the war but 111 flats and bungalows were built on the estate in the early post-war years – infill development where bombing had destroyed existing homes.
In due course, much larger building schemes – in what was seen in the 1960s as a final push to solve the problem of the slums for once and for all – would affect Hull’s northern suburbs. In the late-sixties, the Council embarked on the construction of the Bransholme Estate on the north-east fringes of the city – not the largest council estate in Europe as sometimes claimed but, with a population of 30,000 on its completion, very large indeed and a very different animal to the garden city that Luytens and Abercrombie had earlier envisioned.
The smaller Orchard Park Estate, adjacent to North Hull, was begun at around the same time. It was built, according to the latest town planning principles, on Radburn lines, using cul de sacs, feeder roads and walkways to separate cars and pedestrians. Both estates would suffer problems as they matured which we’ll examine in future posts.
North Hull, on the other hand, was a mature estate already and enjoyed in the 1950s and 60s what was probably its heyday. Certainly residents looking back remember a safe and friendly community, a ‘good place to grow up’ and, to someone who moved to the Estate as a youngster in 1963, ‘like a village, with trees and bushes and nice houses and plenty of shops and a school’. (3)
Of course, the housing stock was ageing and its facilities increasingly old-fashioned in an era when, so it was said, ordinary people had never had it so good. Belatedly, in 1974, a major refurbishment took place, intended, as one resident recalls, ‘to bring the area back to the glory of the old days’. ‘It worked for a while,’ she concluded, ‘but the shops never got back to what they had been before’. The Coop closed shortly afterwards.
North Hull’s reputation declined as it – and the broader local economy – fell on harder times. As council housing allocation policies shifted in the later seventies, the Estate (in the words of one observer) was ‘used to rehouse homeless people or single mothers’. The stigma implied is unwarranted but it marks the shift in the role of council housing – and more so of perceptions of its role and residents – characteristic of recent decades. A 1991 survey showed 70 per cent of tenants in receipt of housing benefit and one in five of the economically active population as unemployed. Almost one in three of residents were over 60.
Still, it was very far from being a notorious ‘problem estate’ and local residents were quick to defend it: (4)
Outsiders see North Hull as a difficult area, they concentrate on marginal matters, drugs and the like, and fail to recognise this is a stable community. Mothers live next to daughters, and nobody wanders too far…Some people see this as an indication of a lack of adventure. I wouldn’t, I would see it as a symptom of stability. We have a tradition of strong women on the estate, neighbourhood ties and family ties are strong.
Maybe one of those strong women was the ‘weeping female’ noted in last week’s post who had once so embarrassed poor Mr Whitby.
Further repairs and refurbishment began in the mid-eighties and almost half the Estate’s homes had been improved by 1989. Hull City Council – the landlord of around half the city’s homes by this time – was anxious to complete the job but running out of money. It needed £50-60m to complete the work but the Conservative government refused funding under the Estate Action programme. It did, however, indicate that money might be available under a new scheme it was keen to get off the ground, the Housing Action Trust (HAT).
The first attempt to launch a HAT had been rebuffed by tenant activism in the Hulme Estate in Manchester and they were anathema to most Labour-controlled authorities as they required that the council cede ownership and control of its housing to an independent corporation. But in Hull (where Labour held 57 of 60 seats on the local council), the Government met a man who wanted to do business.
John Black, chair of the Housing Committee, was, in his own words, ‘not an idealist’ – his interest was ‘in seeking to achieve results, not some theory of government’. The makings of a deal began in a two-hour car journey shared by John Black and deputy housing minister, David Trippier, from Blackburn to Hull in July 1989. (John Black remains a powerful and, to some, a controversial figure on Hull City Council, currently ‘Portfolio Holder for Strategic and Operational Housing.)
In March/April 1991, on a 77 per cent turn-out, 69 per cent of tenants voted in favour of a HAT – the product of an assiduous campaign in its favour by the City Council and numerous concessions which the Council had wrested from a government needing a ‘victory’ for one of its flagship policies. In brief, Hull – uniquely – secured a £5.75m ‘dowry’ for its North Hull housing (spent on the refurbishment of other estates), Estate Action grants for projects at the Bilton Grange and Bransholme Estates and, crucially, agreement that the tenants could – if they wished – return to the council as landlord when the HAT wound up. (5)
Ironically, given the ideological intent which underlay the HAT programme, Steven Tiesdell sees the result ‘as a demonstration of loyalty to the local authority’. To other tenants, it came down to ‘a straight issue of whether you wanted your house done up in five years or twenty years’.
North Hull thus became the first HAT. It comprised 2436 dwellings (the half not previously refurbished): 2109 council-owned and 327 owner-occupied. Apart from mandatory structural repairs, tenants were empowered to choose from a ‘menu’ of home improvements which included such things as rear porches, french windows, wall lights and higher-quality kitchen units. An average of £31,000 was spent per property. Streetscapes and the local environment were improved. There were also various programmes – familiar from later iterations of ‘regeneration’ – to raise residents’ health and ‘self-esteem’ and increase employability through training and education.
The HAT was wound up in 1999. Though residents complained about the lengthy disruption imposed by the refurbishment programme, most seem pleased with the results. North Hull was improved – after all, adequate resources combined with a proper respect to tenants’ wishes and interests can achieve quite a lot. But it wasn’t transformed – it wasn’t one of the ‘worst estates’ (supposedly targeted by the HAT programme) in the first place and it continues to exist in social and economic circumstances which determine the life chances of its population as they do – for good or ill – the rest of us.
When tenants voted for their new landlord, 48 per cent elected to return to the City Council (down from 86 per cent in 1991) and 33 per cent to join one of a range of local housing associations. The rate of owner occupation increased from 14 per cent to 18.
So, the story of council housing in Hull continues. We’ve moved some way from the heady days of the interwar period when cottage estates such as North Hull seemed so obvious and vital a solution to the housing needs of the people but we can learn from them and should continue to build on their legacy.
As Martin Crookston concludes in his recent study: (6)
The cottage estates were, and are, garden suburbs. The best of them already show this country’s twentieth-century architecture and planning heritage at its most appealing and successful. Their next 100 years should be based on reinvigoration, and a celebration, of that birthright.
(1) AC Saword (Chief Sanitary Inspector and Chief Housing Inspector, Kingston upon Hull), ‘Housing – Retrospect and Prospect’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 1949, 69: 547
(2) Jones the Planner, Hull: City of Culture offers an excellent overview and insight into all that Hull offers despite – or possibly because of – this omission.
(3) Quoted in Audrey Dunne and Alec Gill, The Quadrant and Little Greenwood Communities of North Hull (2005)
(4) Quoted in Brian Lewis, New for Old. The Story of the First Housing Action Trust (1988)
(5) All this detail is taken from Steven Alan Tiesdell, The Development and Implementation of Housing Action Trust Policy, University of Nottingham PhD thesis 1999
(6) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (2014)