As we saw last week John Scurr House was opened – to much fanfare and with justified local pride – in July 1937. Despite the plaudits, ‘Stepney Council’s New Luxury Flats’ (as one press headline of the day described them) were always most importantly homes to local people but as they became less new they also became very far from luxurious. In troubled times, even that notion of ‘local people’ became a contested one. Nevertheless, in 2015 we can say the estate has survived these crises and remains to provide high-quality housing that Stepney’s pioneering reformers would recognise and respect.
The East End has long been home to a diverse population and one of the first families to move in to John Scurr House were the Kings – a black family resident in the borough for three generations. War would find Mr King serving in the merchant navy and a son in the Royal Navy but when his daughter, Amelia, volunteered for the Women’s Land Army in 1943 she found herself rejected by the Essex committee, unacceptable, it was said, to local farmers.
The case was raised in Parliament by new local MP and serving councillor (in fact, the chair of the Housing Committee which had built John Scurr House) Walter (‘Stoker’) Edwards. He elicited an apology and a repudiation of the ‘colour bar’ from the Minister of Agriculture but there was no restitution for Amelia. (1)
Thirty years later, the ‘luxury flats’ of the 1930s were outdated, their decline compounded by systematic neglect by the successor landlord, Tower Hamlets Council, at a time when they were slated for demolition under a new road scheme. In fact, the planned Northern Relief Road was abandoned in 1982 but the deterioration of the Estate was so real and so severe that tenants’ complaints of faulty electrical wiring, inadequate heating, lack of washbowls in bathrooms, damp, and cracked and distorted window frames were formally upheld by the Local Government Ombudsman. (2)
While the Kings lived in John Scurr House, it remained a showpiece development but, as the estate declined and as the district became a centre of Asian immigration, issues of racial discrimination would resurface. The historic reality is that incoming migrants have traditionally been forced to accept the worst of the nation’s housing. This, however, this took a particularly sinister turn in the Tower Hamlets of the 1980s when many Bengali families were desperate for accommodation – by 1987 they formed some 90 per cent of the officially homeless in the Borough.
Accusations of officially-sanctioned and systematic discrimination against ethnic minorities in the allocation of Tower Hamlets’ council housing led, between 1984 and 1985, to a formal investigation into the Council’s housing policies by the Commission for Racial Equality. The CRE report, published in 1988, concluded that: (3)
the housing department over a period of 10 years had systemically allocated Asian applicants to poorer quality housing: specifically, John Scurr House where 49 per cent of the estate population were Bangladeshi compared to 9 per cent in the borough.
While the roots of discriminatory practice lay in earlier Labour administrations, the CRE argued that it had been maintained by the Liberal majority which came to power in 1986. That majority would survive until 1994 and it advanced a populist localism that most commentators saw as a barely disguised racial politics. But that’s another story… (4)
Back to John Scurr House, in 1985 it had been decided to sell off the estate only for the decision to be reversed a year later. In 1987, when only 23 of the 119 flats were occupied, it was agreed to pass the day-to-day management of the the blocks to a number of local housing associations; 59 of the flats to be set aside for homeless families nominated by the Council, the rest being let to single homeless people.
In 1993, these new residents – some of whom had lived in their flats for five years – faced eviction when the Council assembled a financial package that would finally enable the refurbishment of the estate. The implementation of the £6.6m scheme (supported by a £2.8m grant from the Government’s Estate Action programme and funding from, amongst others, the Housing Corporation and the London Docklands Development Corporation) followed between 1996 and 1998.
The line from a contemporary press report – ‘An eyesore estate branded unfit for humans is to get a new lease of life’ – conveys just how far the once proud estate had fallen. (5)
The £3.8m contract was won by Architype and included the provision of a new roof and windows, new kitchens and bathrooms, modernised heating systems, insulation and ventilation and a new entrance with concierge services. The number of flats in the northern block was reduced from 84 to 72.
The ‘light lid’ powder-coated steel roof jutting 2m out over the fifth-floor walkway is particularly striking; the ‘portholes’ (ventilating the stairways) and external flues offer a maritime touch, perhaps as a nod to the area’s docklands past. (6)
As you can see, it’s a radical transformation and one that will probably disappoint architectural purists. The white and pastel, ‘industrial’ appearance of the refurbished block’s façade is eye-catching but critics might argue it lacks the strong lines and ‘honesty’ of the original modernist design. I’m not an architect so I’ll let others adjudicate between conflicting architectural views of style and integrity – so long as they remember that for its residents John Scurr is not primarily a piece of architectural history but a home.
The southern block was demolished, replaced by six houses and six flats. Sixteen new housing association self-build homes were built on an adjacent site. The new flats were transferred to local housing associations. Since 2000, two thirds have been managed by Tower Hamlets Community Housing (THCH – a local housing association which ooperates exclusively in the Borough), the rest by Newlon Housing.
The estate’s proximity to the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel and gritty Commercial Road ensure the area remains for the time being a relatively poor and ungentrified part of the capital and THCH serves a diverse and vibrant community. Still, a two-bed flat in the block is currently on sale for £270,000 and, to the agents, it’s close enough to ‘sought-after Narrow Street and the popular Thames-side bars and restaurants’ to offer future pickings.
The Stepney councillors who celebrated its opening back in 1937 couldn’t have anticipated this or the turbulent future of their flagship project. They would take pleasure surely in the fact that John Scurr House continues to provide much-needed housing for local people and might recall the opinion expressed at the estate’s official opening that ‘the greatness of the country lay in the houses of the people’.
(1) Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984) and Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 23 September 1943 vol 392 cc390-1
(2) Lucy Ash, ‘Block was doomed’, East London Advertiser, 26 December 1986
(3) Jennifer Maureen Lowe, Social Justice and Localities: the Allocation of Council Housing in Tower Hamlets, University of London Queen Mary College, PhD Thesis 2004
(4) Sarah Glynn, ‘Playing the Ethnic Card – politics and segregation in London’s East End’ (2008)
(5) ‘Hello, John, got a new look?’, East London Advertiser, 3 March 1994
(6) Tender details from Construction News, 29 September, 1994 and David Birkbeck, ‘Economical with the Roof’, Building Homes, July 1997, Issue 7
My thanks to Tower Hamlets Community Housing for additional detail and resources.