We left the Honor Oak Estate last week, perhaps as oppressed by the inequality and constraints that have marked the lives of our poorer citizens as by Nazi bombs. 1945 brought the defeat of Hitler; the struggle to achieve decent conditions for all our people would be longer-fought. In this and for the new generation of planners, the Estate would feature as a warning of what to avoid. The ‘neighbourhood units’ and ‘mixed developments’ favoured – in principle rather better than in practice – in the post-war years were a conscious reaction to the design failings of interwar council estates, of which Honor Oak was taken to be a prime example. (1)
The General Election of 1945 saw a Labour landslide and a shift, it seems, in the politics and identity of the Estate too: ‘After the war we all went voting for Labour’, largely, as remembered, through the efforts of one party activist. ‘And it was only Mr Cooper who did it. He went round this estate, “Vote for Labour”. He got everybody out’. (2) I hope that gives heart to some of you pounding the pavements.
In a poignant turn of phrase, another resident recalls:
They had what was called the Labour Party then. They used to come round and collect our money each week and see what could be done. The majority of the estate was in it and it was that man who came round collecting who got all our action otherwise we had got nobody.
How you read that particular account will depend on your politics.
More concretely, additional shops and a pub arrived in 1948 – the pub, the Golden Dragon, in the ground floor of a new housing block. (It closed in 2009 and the building has been demolished.)
There were other changes too. The first black and ethnic minority residents, mainly of African-Caribbean origin, moved into the area in the sixties and racial tensions were strong. Nesta Wright and her three young children moved on to the Estate in 1970.
Her son Ian, seven at the time, remembers a difficult childhood and a struggle against the racial bigotry and antagonism that sought to hold him back. Fortunately, he met a teacher at the Estate’s Turnham Primary School – ‘my mentor and my major, main man’, he says – who made the difference (as good teachers can). Let’s hear it for that teacher, Sidney Pigden, and Ian Wright of Arsenal and England. (3)
These tensions dissipated only slowly. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation instigated a ‘Partnership Initiatives for Communities’ (PICs) project on the Estate in 1998. At a time when about half the residents were of black African and African Caribbean heritage, the project found little contact between them and their white neighbours and a sense that an older-established and more conservative white community monopolised community facilities.
Ironically, these ‘rival’ groups actually shared similar concerns and problems and both felt that the Estate was neglected and its people disrespected: (4)
The way the council looks at people on the estate, their perception of the people they are housing reflects the service that we are given. Most of them think we are brain dead.”
“Sometimes you go in to the council office and as soon as you say you are from Honor Oak you can see what they are thinking.
In fact, the Estate was subject to a plethora of initiatives. Some of the flats, particularly those of the ‘modified type’ which shared bathrooms, had been rehabilitated in the early post-war period and later the railway line on the western border of the Estate was replaced by Coston Walk, a new low-rise scheme of flats and maisonettes built by the Greater London Council in 1970.
But still, the Estate’s troubles and a sense of isolation continued: (5)
Hopelessly out-dated and lacking in facilities by modern standards, cramped and comfortless, the flats were fair game for vandals, their tenants discontented and demoralised.
When the Estate was transferred from the Greater London Council to Lewisham in 1971, the Borough declared it a General Improvement Area and major refurbishment followed. In Skipton House, for example, one of the last to be renovated, forty flats were replaced by 28 with larger rooms, fitted kitchens and bathrooms and new gas heating at a cost of around £10,000 a unit. Lifts were added and landscaping improved but the finishing touch was to invite Ideal Home to decorate a show flat. This was the 1970s so naturally there was Laura Ashley wallpaper in the hallway.
The 1977 History I’ve quoted from, published by the Honor Oak Estate Neighbourhood Association, was another conscious attempt to support and strengthen the Estate’s community:
The writers of this book also want to let the authorities know how much better the estate was managed and serviced in the past. Thus they hope to create improvements.
Such improvements were promised and partially fulfilled when Lewisham opted to participate in the Department of Environment’s Priority Estates Project in 1980 – one of twenty across the country. The Project brought various local management initiatives and some improvements to security and the physical environment. (6)
These seem to have increased residents’ satisfaction with the Estate and, though Lewisham’s bid for Estate Action funding in 1992 was unsuccessful, money was found to upgrade bathrooms and heating across the Estate. That much remained to do is clear from the three-year PICs project mentioned earlier:
I look out of my window and I see abandoned cars, kids hanging around, dog dirt everywhere. What do I want to go out for?
Honor Oak’s problems were far from unique, of course. At this time, the residents’ complaints of ‘disaffected youth and out-of-control children, crime and vandalism, drugs and alcohol abuse’ were replicated in ‘problem estates’ nationwide.
And, likewise, underlying such problems were economic difficulties felt with peculiar force in council estates increasingly housing a poorer working class. Of the families that made up half the Estate, almost two thirds were headed by lone parents. (No disrespect to single mothers of course but a group which can be assumed to be peculiarly disadvantaged.) Around one third of the Estate’s adults were on benefits.
To some that might seem all we need to know. Poverty blights any community and, in this regard, the quality of the Estate itself – its housing and environment – could be taken as almost irrelevant. The PICs focused on ‘soft regeneration’ – an attempt (in its fashionable jargon) ‘to build capacity and empower, and hopefully integrate, a fractured and excluded estate community’. A ‘citizens’ workshop’ was held and from it emerged a multiracial steering group to represent the Estate and lobby for improvements.
This ‘soft regeneration’ was fortunate, however, in finding its aspirations backed by some hard cash. In 2000, the Borough Council promised £18.4 million to refurbish the ‘forgotten estate’. The deputy mayor of Lewisham spoke with disarming honesty when he stated: (7)
We’re finally going to do something about Honor Oak. It’s going to be the biggest programme of housing investment Lewisham has had for ten years.
Over the years that followed, of the blocks which remain, all have been modernised with new kitchens, bathrooms and toilets, double-glazing and central heating. Externally, a visit to the Estate shows a green and pleasant and well-maintained environment.
Other initiatives accompanied and reinforced these physical improvements: in 2000 a £156,000 Home Office grant provided six wardens to patrol the Estate for a two-year period – ‘to reassure tenants, not act as security guards’, it was said, and wearing bomber jackets in a colour chosen by the residents.
In the following year, a Sure Start scheme opened; in 2003, a neighbourhood housing management centre and in 2005 a one-stop centre offering a range of services and support. Honor Oak’s first neighbourhood manager was one of the three unemployed single mothers who had joined the first steering group. The neighbourhood association is now said to be a diverse and representative organisation. Even that security team and the local police beat officers won awards. Either the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are brilliant self-publicists or something went right.
We can agree that money alone is not enough – but we might also conclude that it sure does help. The longer history of the Honor Oak Estate shows that the social costs of building cheaply far outweigh any short-term financial savings. The story is of catch-up and always, from the outset, exclusion – that buzz-word does capture something here. On the other hand, while money can’t create community, investment in its infrastructure certainly supports it. For the time being, the parting words of the residents’ history contain a plaintive truth that I can’t express better:
Why is it that housing continues to be geared more towards costs than the needs of the people?
(1) Ruth Glass and LE White, A Warning to Planners: the Story of Honor Oak Estate (1945)
(2) Maybe this was Fred Cooper of Revelon Road. He’s listed as the secretary of the local Clarion Cycling Club – a socialist organisation – in the 1930s by Hayes People’s History. Does anyone know for sure?
(3) See Rick Glanvill, The Wright Stuff (2012) and ‘Passed/failed: An education in the life of Ian Wright, footballer and broadcaster’, The Independent, 20 March 2008, from which the quotation is drawn.
(4) David Page, Respect and Renewal. A study of neighbourhood social regeneration, Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2006)
(5) ‘Design for Living Honor Oak’, Ideal Home, May 1978, vol 115, no 5
(6) Anne Power, Running to Stand Still. Progress in local management on twenty unpopular housing estates, Priority Estates Project (PEP), 1991
(7) Vicky Wilkes, ‘£18.4 million package for “forgotten estate”’, Mercury, 23 February 2000