In 1995, after a local school had been destroyed in an arson attack, the MP Roy Hattersley (a former chair of Sheffield’s Housing Committee in the sixties) dubbed the Manor Estate ‘the worst estate in Britain’ –quite a comedown for an estate which had once been one of Sheffield’s showpieces. The truth, as ever, was more complex but the reality of decline on the now troubled estate was undeniable.
For those that moved to the greenfield estate from the slums in the 1920s and 1930s, it was a very different story: (1)
It were great – corn fields and then there were a farm further over and horses – we used to play with horses and run around fields with horses and there were a brook – we used to go paddling down in the brook
By gum, it were like a palace – all the young’uns, they really enjoyed it, beautiful garden, plenty of room in t’ back
One long-term resident, born on the Estate in 1923, remembers his mother ‘always said that our house was a “Shangri-la” compared to where she lived before’.
Back then, moving to the Estate was seen as a clear step-up and there were those (as we saw in the Watling Estate in London) who believed that the new council estates heralded a new (and superior) England. The Warden of the Estate’s Community Centre, an idealistic young Cambridge graduate, published the first edition of an estate journal, The Manor and Woodthorpe Review, in 1934. It would be: (2)
an organ of propaganda for disseminating knowledge – not highbrow stuff but the kind of thing about which every intelligent human wants to know – what his neighbours are doing at home and abroad…a useful tool for helping the Association in its work and developing the cultural and educational life of the people.
And it heralded, he believed, ‘a new age, both in life on the Estate and in journalism’.
This, it turned out, was a little over-optimistic. The Review folded after twelve issues and the Community Centre’s more didactic ventures proved unpopular. The Warden’s attempt to force a more serious and self-improving tone by removing the Centre’s billiard and card tables and rebranding the recreation space as a reading and debating room created further rancour and division.
The Estate’s tenants were confident enough of their own decency and respectability to resist such heavy-handed attempts to impose middle-class norms of behaviour. In fact, one of the virtues of Estate life was precisely its domesticity. This might entail a rejection of the old (and unwanted) intimacies of slum life too as this exchange between a new arrival and the person next door suggests:
‘Oi, do you neighbour?’, he was asked.
‘No, no thank you I don’t neighbour, love.’ [And, in an aside to the interviewer, he added], ‘I’m not wearing that, no chance, no thank you’.
It was precisely such boundaries – such policed and self-policing respectability – that seemed lost by the 1980s. A single Daily Mirror article from 2007 can stand for the grand narrative of all that was said to have gone wrong with council housing and its community – once the taxi driver had been persuaded to take the intrepid reporter to the badlands of Manor. (3)
One 67 year-old resident explained she couldn’t ‘take it anymore’. She went on:
My nerves are shot to pieces and I’m right low. My doctor’s given me Valium to calm me down and help me sleep…The place is overrun by thugs. Recently they shot at my cat with a paint gun. One lad called me a miserable old c***. Days later my windows were smashed.
Across the road, a ‘single mum’ was ‘smoking a cigarette and drinking beer, while two of her four children play in the street with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier puppy and a large Alsatian’. For her the only problem with Manor was ‘mardy old biddies who forget what it’s like to be young and complain all the time’.
Of course, another ‘single mum’ might have been interviewed and a very different story told but the reality of crime and decline was real enough as was the context – the collapse of the local economy.
Between 1979 and 1983, Sheffield lost an average of 1000 jobs a month; 21,000 jobs were lost in the steel industry alone. Ten years later a survey of Manor found adult unemployment reaching almost 30 per cent – 50 per cent on some streets. A quarter of the unemployed had been jobless for ten years or more. (4) This was a community which had had its heart ripped out.
Compare that to the interwar period: ‘Everybody worked that I knew. There were very few people who didn’t have a job back then’.
The Estate itself had grown old and some of its housing was obsolescent. Parts of the Estate became hard to let and, typically, it was the most vulnerable and troubled families (those with both a right to council housing and a pressing need which obviated choice) who would be placed there. To older established residents, the process was clear (and the contrast to those earlier aspirational residents for whom council housing was a step-up is telling):
We seem to have people been brought on to the estate with poverty, with problems until the whole place is like a ghetto.
This trend continued into the nineties. By 1991 the percentage of Manor households with children and no economically active member had increased from 7 per cent to over 25 per cent in ten years. (5)
But local residents protested that beyond the lurid headlines and attention-grabbing news stories, things were different:
….underneath all that there are very genuine people
It’s got a bad name from people who don’t know it, you got to live here to know it. It’s just cos houses look rough from outside – it don’t mean people are rough inside.
Regeneration is – for good reason – a dirty word among many housing activists now but there’s no doubt that (short of a revival of Sheffield’s traditional industrial economy) something needed to be done to improve the Estate and the lives of its community. In practice, the Manor has been a laboratory for the gamut of initiatives which have attempted to revive our troubled council estates.
An Urban Programme scheme operated in the 1980s. At the same time 1682 homes were demolished and some 500 built new. Many of the cleared homes were suffering serious structural defects and said to be beyond economic repair.(6) A loss of 1000 affordable homes might, in another context, seem indefensible but the Estate’s population had fallen by a third in the 1980s. Some of the new houses were built for sale and by 2003 over a third of the Estate’s homes were owner-occupied.
The Manor Employment Project, which ran on the Estate between 1981 and 1987, was an attempt to provide local employment and training. Well-meaning, small-scale, it had some positive impact but provided very little permanent employment and suffered numerous conflicts and tensions. It was notable for empowering some of the women on the Estate, many of their menfolk were redundant and perhaps felt redundant in some profounder sense too.
A second wave of ‘regeneration’ occurred after 2002 with the creation of New Labour’s Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders Programme. This came to Sheffield in 2005 with all the pizazz and jargon of its type – its intention to: (7)
To build and support sustainable communities and successful neighbourhoods where the quality and choice of housing underpins a buoyant economy and an improved way of life
Laudable objectives perhaps but to be achieved by the contemporarily favoured means – improved housing through selective demolition, refurbishment and new build, support for community resources, and greater housing diversity through mixed tenure and a wider range of housing types. To critics, it was ‘little more than a programme of class cleansing’ and, in other cases (notably that of the Welsh Streets in Liverpool), the demolition of sound homes and threat to existing communities was fiercely opposed. (8)
The context for this was what was taken to have been the failure of the traditional council estate model. We might note that it had succeeded well enough in better times and that it had failed only when comparable economic circumstances would have devastated any community. We might question also the fashionable critique of ‘mono-class’ communities which only seems to find working-class communities objectionable.
Still, this is the world we live in and something needed to change. In 2007 the council housing stock of Manor was transferred to a new Registered Social Landlord, Pennine Housing 2000. Around £15m was found to invest in Decent Homes and improve the environment of the Estate.
By 2012, the press could find an alternative narrative for it: (9)
While many people perceive Sheffield’s biggest council estate to be a hotbed of unemployment, teenage mothers and anti-social behaviour, to those who live and work there it’s a homely haven.
Money – investment in infrastructure and community to speak in the technocratic terms anyone involved in housing must now employ – makes a difference and the Manor seems a more optimistic and better regarded place than it was in recent years. Of course, council housing – housing as it does (now more than ever) among the poorest of our society is hardly immune from this country’s broader economic difficulties. And that makes its role all the more vital.
PS Do read the comments below for some additional information and updates.
(1) Channel Four, On the Manor (1986 documentary)
(2) Alison Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture: the History of a Social Experiment (2001)
(3) Julie McCaffrey, ‘This is our Manor’, Daily Mirror, 27 April 2007
(4) Sallie Westwood, John Williams (eds), Imagining Cities: Scripts, Signs and Memories (2003)
(5) Cathy Dean, ‘From consultation to delegation: economic regeneration on a housing estate’, Local Economy: The Journal of the Local Economy Policy Unit, vol 9, 1995
(5) Matt Weaver, ‘Room for us all’, The Guardian, Wednesday 18 June 2003
(6) See comment by Cllr Howard Knight.
(7) Sheffield City Council, Wybourn, Arbourthorne, Manor Park Master Plan (2005)
(8) The quote is from Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010). To learn more of the Welsh Streets campaign, visit their excellent website.
(8) Rachael Clegg, ‘Welcome to the Modern Manor, Sheffield’, The Star, 31 July 2012