I was born on the 25th May 1938, in the front bedroom of a house in Orton Road, a house on the outer edge of Raffles, a council estate. I was a lucky girl.
Those are the first words of Margaret Forster’s memoir, My Life in Houses. (1) Raffles wasn’t the best council estate in Carlisle but it was built well – a garden suburb, designed by City Surveyor Percy Dalton, with plentiful green space, curving streetscapes, a variety of housing forms and just 12 homes to the acre.
Heysham Park, opened next to the new estate in August 1934, added to that greenery and amenity with its paddling pool and miniature golf course. A new church – St Barnabas; ‘like a glistening white palace’ in Forster’s words – added some surprising exoticism.
It is not so surprising then that a new council estate might be an opportunity for a sight-seeing visit as Hunter Davies recalls: (2)
When they were nearing completion, young families would walk round Raffles on Sunday afternoon to admire the new houses and all the greenery and the new shops.
All this describes an Estate which by 1994 was dubbed one of the worst in the country – part of a ‘No-Go Britain’ plagued by car theft, youth gangs and street violence. The article continued, with an indecent relish, to quote a local resident: ‘If you’ve got a problem in Raffles, get a shotgun’. (3)
Carlisle’s finest estate, as we saw last week, was probably Longsowerby, begun under the generous provisions and high standards of the 1919 Housing Act. Construction of the Raffles Estate started in 1926. It became the city’s largest interwar estate with 1518 homes by 1939, 1200 built under Wheatley’s 1924 Act when Carlisle built more council homes than any town of its size in the country.
All – apart from 24 purpose-built homes for the elderly built at Partridge Place after 1936 – were two- and three-bedroom houses. Nearly all – a mark of the economy measures now in force – were non-parlour. All had bathrooms, of course, when only one in five of Carlisle’s homes enjoyed such luxury but one unwelcome innovation were toilets accessed from the back-door – not quite outside toilets as they remained part of the main fabric of the house but the inconvenience was understandably resented.
The Estate was regarded as ‘a good place to live’ for those fortunate enough to be granted tenancies and, by the later 1930s, that was a representative cross-section of the local working class. Its proximity to Caldewgate and the Carr’s biscuit works was a bonus to many though, in fact, around four per cent of heads of households were white-collar and shop employees. A further 20 per cent were skilled manual workers but almost two-fifths were classified as semi-skilled and unskilled and – a sign of depressed times in 1936 – one-fifth were unemployed. While Carlisle as a whole would continue to be run by an anti-socialist alliance through the interwar period, Raffles was regarded as a Labour stronghold by 1930. (4)
One of Hunter Davies’ interviewees remembers the Estate in the 1950s as ‘a safe, pleasant and happy place’ – somewhere you left the door unlocked when you went off to Silloth (Carlisle’s seaside) for the day and a neighbour would bring in the washing if it rained.
But for Margaret Forster, something had changed; it ‘was no longer spoken of in garden-city terms but as an estate getting rougher all the time for reasons no-one understood’. Some roads had come to appear run-down; there was ‘a good deal of alcoholism which led to fights in some streets’. The Estate had acquired a reputation which tarred all its people, not just its ‘problem families’ and miscreants. (5)
The disagreement is perhaps more apparent than real – a product of emphasis and intent rather than anything more substantive (and the Estate’s later decline was certainly real enough). But Forster was growing disenchanted. A bright girl who had passed her eleven plus, she recalls (honestly and slightly ashamedly) a snobbery which resented her modest council home and aspired to the middle-class life-style of her friends across the Orton Road. Her house:
looked like a child’s drawing, and a child who had no talent for drawing. It was crude in shape, even I could see that without knowing anything about architecture. There were no distinguishing features – well, of course, there weren’t, the council’s money wouldn’t run to anything fancy. The front door, like all the other houses on the estate, was painted a dismal shade of green, not fern green, not forest green, but a withered-cabbage green.
In this, there are echoes of Lynsey Hanley and her own experience of the very different Chelmsley Wood estate. Hanley’s book Estates rightly gets a good press but it’s marked by a personal alienation – the sensitive Guardian-reading teenager disliked by her peers – which comes pretty close to replicating a demonisation of ‘chavs’ her thoughtful portrayal of the travails of social housing should avoid.
Forster’s own criticism of her childhood home also seems a little harsh. These maligned council houses look pretty good – solid, well-built, generously proportioned – when compared to the rabbit-hutch mass housing of today’s private developments. But she captures a shift – a changing perception of council housing from something looked up to to something looked down upon.
It’s hard to know what else would have changed at this time. More ‘problem families’; more ‘problem families’ behaving badly? Possibly but the pre-war demographics of Raffles were pretty mixed. Nor are the alcoholism and domestic violence which Forster notes issues confined to the working class or council estates. No doubt similar phenomena existed in the posh houses but more discreetly or, to use the jargon, in a less problematised way.
Still, this fine-spun analysis becomes pretty irrelevant down the line. A 2000 survey revealed Raffles to be the most stigmatised area of Carlisle – its most unpopular estate by far, rejected by fully three-quarters of local residents as a possible place to live. (6)
There was a wider context too:
Council housing is seen as a viable option by fewer and fewer Carlisle residents…The continuing flow of Carlisle tenants, both actual and potential, to the owner occupied sector will result in the sector emerging as a tenure of last resort – especially for the very young, the very old and the disadvantaged…Overall demand for council housing is likely to decline in future years and this will result in the growing over-supply.
At this point on the Estate itself, the void rate stood at around 30 per cent.
A household survey conducted in the following year allows us a look beyond the media condemnations and popular denigrations. Two thirds of Estate households were in receipt of some form of state benefit, for almost one third this was Income Support. One in five respondents existed on a total annual income below £5000. Twenty-five per cent of households were made up of single adults, 13 per cent were single-parent families. Twenty-eight per cent of the Estate’s population were children under 16. Burglary rates were said to be five times the national average.
I don’t use the phrase myself but I guess this would come close to other people’s definition of a ‘sink estate’. Let’s just say this is a large concentration of our fellow citizens living in poverty and let’s assume that many had other, less readily quantifiable, problems too. So, yes, the Raffles community was in a bad way – while still the majority lived good and decent lives, of course.
There were serious attempts to improve matters. Between 1987 and 1995 Raffles received £16m of Estate Action Programme funding, mostly spent on measures to physically improve the Estate – traffic calming, landscaping, window replacements and so on. In the following three years, £3m of Single Regeneration Budget funding went on employment and training initiatives.
All this, in the plaintive words of those that would regenerate the Estate, had created ‘no material change in the prosperity and stability of Raffles’. If you took an unfashionably socialist position on this, you wouldn’t be surprised that such palliative measures had failed. The next steps, however, were more radical.
In 1999, the Raffles Area Report ‘set out a four-year programme of decanting, demolition and redevelopment’ which would reduce the number of council homes, ‘create opportunities for tenure diversification’ and allow for the Estate’s physical redesign. Almost half the council houses on the estate – 642 – were to be demolished.
The other contemporary elements of this rejection of council housing and its legacy followed. In 2002, the City Council established a Project Team with its preferred regeneration partners – the Riverside Group (a housing association), the Lovell Group (a private sector development company) and Ainsley Gommon Architects. In July, Carlisle council tenants played their part – albeit by a rather narrow 52 per cent majority – by voting to accept the transfer of 7000 council homes to the Riverside Group’s local incarnation, the newly-formed Carlisle Housing Association.
The Raffles Vision was born and much has happened since. (7)
From this distance, perhaps this is best viewed in the changing tenor of local press headlines. The News and Star headed a 2003 article on the regeneration of Raffles, ‘£100,000 for a New Home as Rundown Estate Goes Posh’. By 2006, it was proclaiming Raffles ‘The Trendy New Place to Live’. In 2013, The Cumberland News stated that the £30m investment had left ‘Carlisle Estate’s Bad Old Days in Past’. (8)
The apparent hype seems largely justified. Kath Queen, a Raffles resident for nearly 40 years and a leading light in the Estate’s Living Well Trust, believes it ‘has got better – by a long way…It’s created a different kind of community’. Ken Swales said: (9)
I’ve lived here 45 years and love it. People don’t know what they’ve got in Raffles sometimes. It’s nice now. At one time you couldn’t leave your house, but it hasn’t half quietened down.
This anecdotal evidence is backed up by the statistics: overall crime down by 13 per cent, criminal damage almost halved and car theft reduced by 70 per cent.
There’s no denying a success here and one which comes directly from the regeneration playbook – clearance of unpopular council homes, the introduction of mixed tenure with a range of owner occupied, social rented and ‘affordable’ homes, a diversity of housing type, and £3m spent to bring former council properties up to Decent Homes Standard.
By 2014, 500 council houses had been demolished, some 262 new properties built. Of these, just 49 were for affordable rent with 58 more in the pipeline. And here’s the kicker: in 2011, Carlisle City Council identified a net annual shortfall of 708 affordable homes over the next five years. (10)
For all the success, there’s an Alice in Wonderland logic here which those in power in all parties have come to accept. Yes, as that earlier, 2000, report suggested, council housing had become unpopular and ‘residual’ – seemingly confined to those who could aspire to nothing better. ‘Demolish them; build the homes that people want’ was a natural response.
And yet now what people want – and need – are genuinely affordable homes: the type of home that was cleared and the ones we’ve demolished up and down the country. Imagine £30m spent on building high-quality council houses; imagine a world where those homes weren’t residual but belonged to a mixed community to which people were proud to belong. Or, don’t imagine but remember – recall the Raffles Estate in its heyday.
People will say that these are different times but I’m an historian and take a longer view. It is the property owning democracy of Thatcher (accepted by New Labour) that has come to appear transient, chimerical. What remains – or should remain – is the duty of the state to decently house its people. And to many there is once more a compelling logic that that duty is best fulfilled by building council homes. Raffles provides a microcosm of all this.
(1) Margaret Forster, My Life in Houses (2014)
(2) Hunter Davies, The Biscuit Girls (2014)
(3) ‘No-Go Britain: Where, What, Why’, The Independent, 17 April 1994
(4) Jean Turnbull, ‘Housing Tenure and Social Structure: The Impact of Inter-War Housing Change on Carlisle, 1917-1939’, University of Lancaster PhD, 1991
(5) Margaret Foster, Hidden Lives. A Family Memoir (1995) and My Life in Houses
(6) Sheffield Hallam, ‘The Dynamics of Local Housing Demand’ (2000) quoted in ‘Raffles Vision Draft Final Report’ (2003)
(7) Carlisle City Council, ‘Raffles Regeneration’, Carlisle Focus Spring 2004
(8) Julian Whittle, ‘£100,000 for a New Home As Rundown Estate Goes Posh’, News and Star, 8 October 2003; Deborah Kuiper, ‘Raffles: The Trendy New Place to Live’, News and Star, 14 September 2006; Chris Story, ‘ £30m Investment Leaves Carlisle Estate’s Bad Old Days In Past’, The Cumberland News, 6 September 2013
(9) ‘Raffles: From Riots to Show Homes In 10 Years’, The Cumberland News, 6 September 2013
(10) Riverside, ‘Work starts on £5 million affordable housing scheme Raffles’, 16 June 2014
Some images above are taken from a BBC Cumbria post on the Raffles Estate which contains additional images and detail.