We left the Low Hill Estate last week in 1939 very largely complete. It was never a model development – it was too marked by the social and economic pressures and constraints that have always shaped council housing to be that – but, having escaped the Second World War virtually unscathed, it could face the future with some confidence. In practice, however, by the 1970s the woes that afflicted so much of our council housing of this period had left it bloodied…but ultimately unbowed.
It’s true that back in 1946 its then residents weren’t exactly effusive. A contemporary survey found 69 per cent of residents thought the Estate ‘nice’ or ‘all right (no enthusiasm)’ but there were grumbles about some of the homes in which cost-saving measures had left concrete floors and unplastered kitchen walls. More significantly, there were many – one in six – who thought the Estate ‘too mixed’. Their complaint? –that ‘slum people should not be mixed with decent people’. (1)
There was a second survey in 1971 at a time, it’s worth noting, when unemployment on the Estate stood at just 4 per cent. (Around one in three of the workforce were employed on the nearby industrial estate.) Still, the ‘most common complaint was that the estate was “going downhill”’ or, as one resident put it, ‘some areas have become slums due to scruffy people turning the place into a pig-sty – not digging the gardens, not repairing the houses and going about looking scruffy…’.
There was also anger with the Council over the lack of repairs and poor maintenance of the Estate. This was new; no-one had made this complaint in the 1946 survey but now 77 per cent of the sample felt the Council negligent. Parts of the Estate had become hard to let and the survey concluded that Low Hill had: (2)
already found itself locked in a spiral whereby few people other than those in desperate need of accommodation will choose to live there and, because people in desperate need of accommodation tend to come from those sectors of the community which are looked down upon by ‘respectable’ people, their presence serves to further lower the reputation of the estate.
Another change was that there were now ‘at least 200 “coloured immigrants” on the estate’. This was not unconnected in the specific sense that some felt – plausibly perhaps – that Wolverhampton’s new citizens were being housed disproportionately on what had now become an unpopular estate. The tensions common in the area at the time around the arrival of new neighbours from the ethnic minorities probably added a sharper edge to this concern.
Beyond all this, there was the usual anxiety of middle-class social commentators that the Estate was not community-minded enough. In fact, almost two thirds of the men interviewed had been to one or other of the nine local pubs in the last month and forty per cent of the sample had close relatives living on the Estate. This might remind us of the type of intimate working-class community that some felt had been lost in the new ‘anonymous’ council estates but it didn’t suit the more ‘improving’ types who wanted tenants to make better use of the library (only one in five did so) or the community centre (used by even fewer).
Practically, there was real discontent around some of the unmodernised homes of Low Hill – those still with downstairs bathrooms and outside toilets. The Council began an improvement scheme in the early 1970s, adding ‘Panelite pods’ to the rear of some 374 properties. Forty years later, as part of the £400m Decent Homes initiative in the borough, it was found these ‘botched extensions’ were seriously defective and unsafe; £20m was spent on rectification. (3)
Much has happened in the interim. By 2001, Goodyear, Eveready and a number of other local works had closed and unemployment stood at around 15 per cent. The Estate was blacklisted by insurance companies and banks: (4)
By the late 1980s three generations lives had been blighted by the scourge of unemployment and social instability. Many families lived on benefits and young people were growing up disillusioned. The condition of the homes had also deteriorated.
Many houses were empty and this sense of blight, combined with the antisocial behaviour common at the time, gave the Estate a poor reputation.
This was the context when, in April 1998, the Bushbury Hill Estate Management Board – a tenant management organisation – took over the day-to-day management of much of the Estate, local residents concerned by its deterioration and neglect and alarmed by a secret Council report which proposed the Estate’s demolition.
Subsequently, the energy of the Board coincided with a time when there was a real drive to rescue estates up and down the country from a period of prolonged decline. This is a fraught, not always benign process particularly where ‘regeneration’ has been reduced to a fashionable demand for ‘mixed communities’ and higher density. But in Low Hill its effects seem positive.
The Estate has been subject to a range of initiatives, most importantly New Labour’s Decent Homes initiative already touched on but including the Cities Strategy Pathfinder scheme in 2006 (‘allowing new approaches to tackle high unemployment, social exclusion and child poverty’) and an NHS Local Improvement Finance Trust scheme to build a new primary and community care centre in Low Hill, authorised in 2007 and now open, the latter – as was the way – a PFI initiative and public/private sector partnership. (5)
‘Regeneration’ also took the form of demolition – around 500 houses were rased, including Barrie Crescent and part of Keats Road on the Scotlands and Purcel and Humphries Road and parts of Fifth Avenue, Fourth Avenue and Broome Road in Low Hill. (6) The irony of demolishing social housing when overall need remains high is inescapable but in this case the overall context of community renewal seems genuine even if the stress on mixed tenure and social mix remains controversial to some.
The latter is best seen in the fifty new ‘eco-friendly’ homes – ‘a mix of market sale, HomeBuy direct and social rented two and three bedroom homes’ – began in 2010 in Showell Park, Low Hill, when a £3m grant from the Homes and Communities Agency was added to the Keepmoat Homes’ funding of £1.5m from the National Affordable Homes Programme and £1.2m GAP funding, not forgetting the ‘nearly £300,000…invested through the HomeBuy direct programme’ previously. I hope you followed that. (7)
To me, this all seems far more complex and costly than it need be – public investment and municipal initiative worked well enough in the past without high finance and the private sector taking its cut. But it does seem to have benefitted the Estate.
Meanwhile, at the coalface, the Estate Management Board has been successful in improving services and raising morale, to the extent that the Estate is now said to be ‘a popular place to live’. (8) Currently, the Board is recommending a stock transfer from Wolverhampton City Council to the Wrekin Housing Trust subject to tenant ballot.
Let’s hope it all ends happily ever after. The Low Hill Estate tells a complex tale – a story of a national and municipal drive to decently house our people and the politics and economics that have, in practice, always made this an imperfect exercise. I won’t pretend that I don’t prefer the simpler narrative of earlier years – the national and local state as provider and as a direct expression of collective democratic will. Personally, I think that model remains compelling but, right now, I’m happy that Low Hill will continue to provide good quality homes and necessary services to its community.
PS: Please read the comment posted below by the Bushbury Estate Management Board for a fuller and sharper view of the estate’s earlier problems and the tenants’ role in its revival.
I have also posted a further set of images on my Tumblr site to show how blighted parts of the estate were by the early 2000s.
(1) Tom Brennan, Midland City: Wolverhampton Social and Industrial Survey (1948)
(2) JP Smith, Low Hill: Study of a Wolverhampton Housing Estate, Wolverhampton Young Volunteers, 1971
(3) Express and Star, ‘£20m work starts on botched Wolverhampton council house extensions’, August 27, 2013
(5) ‘Black Country News: £5m boost for deprived areas’, Birmingham Mail, 11 August 2006 and Tony Deeley, ‘City families in £60m tonic; Windfall for health and care centres’, Birmingham Mail, August 21 2007
(6) Reanswolf, in the thread ‘Urban Decay Wolverhampton 1990-2000’ on SkyscraperCity.com
(7) Homes and Communities Agency, ‘Work starts on fifty new “eco-friendly” homes for Low Hill, Wolverhampton’, March 1 2010
The website of the Low Hill Community Association gives full information on the wide range of activities being run on the Estate.