As we saw in last week’s post, as Stage Two of the Highgate New Town redevelopment was winning plaudits, Stage One – the Whittington Estate – was unloved and, in some contemporary accounts, troubled. By 1983, it was described by the local press as a ‘haven for hoodlums’. In 2015, it appears to have become a haven for architects. Though some may fail to see the distinction, we’ll look at what’s changed and examine in more detail the contemporary face of social housing.
Trend Five: ‘Defensible Space’
Back in the 1980s, then fashionable theories of ‘defensible space’ ruled. Its ideologues argued, firstly, that public housing schemes were peculiarly liable to problems of crime and antisocial behaviour – because they were public, because their residents (or those passing through) felt no pride in ownership or sense of responsibility for them. They argued, further, that public schemes typically shared design flaws which both encouraged and facilitated crime. (1)
All this can – and should – be picked apart: the inappropriateness of Oscar Newman’s US model, the ludicrous failure to apply any socio-economic context, the failure to acknowledge that contemporary problems of antisocial behaviour afflicted schemes of very varying design. But the ‘common sense’ of an age is a difficult thing to oppose and it was taken up with gusto with regard to the Whittington Estate.
That alarmist headline quoted earlier came from the St Pancras Chronicle. Its report continued, in similarly lurid style, to describe the Estate’s residents living ‘in daily fear of robbery, burglary and vandalism’ and the Estate itself as ‘a warren of lonely walkways and blind spots’. Council officers commented on the ‘large number of potential hiding places for attackers who can then make their escape through any one of the many entrances to the area’. (2) The Council and the police promised to step up their patrols.
This was the ‘defensible space’ thesis in full flight and, of course, the problems it describes – the experience of crime and, as importantly, the fear of crime – were real enough even if one resident did wonder what all the fuss was about and thought the design of the estate ‘not better or worse than anywhere else’.
The problems – and the apparently compelling narrative which accompanied them – seem to have become even more entrenched fifteen years later. The Estate was a ‘dream that became a nightmare’: (3)
as an experiment in social housing, the Highgate New Town development has failed. Its white walls are daubed with graffiti, walkways cluttered with syringes, the heating system is defunct and cars are frequently set alight in its underground car parks.
Yet when Su Rogers described the Estate in a generally critical piece back in 1973, she noted how its walkways retained ‘the functions of a traditional street with much local activity, the milk float, children playing and the supervision from the dwelling units’.(4)
And a contemporary resident praises the design: (5)
as it’s pedestrianised the kids all play outside together without fear of the traffic. It’s easy to bump into neighbours and have a quick chat or wave from the balconies, there’s a real sense of community.
I don’t have a judgment to offer on all this, only a perspective. That is, whatever the specific factors which played in to the rise of antisocial behaviour in the 1970s and 1980s, they owed far more to dynamics in the wider society than they did to any given form of council housing. The long view and the wider view should allow us to move beyond any simple demonisation of council housing, then and now.
We can agree, I think, that the large underground car park built under the Estate – a last gasp of the car culture that briefly held thrall in the 1960s – was a mistake. It was certainly an engineering nightmare. Problems of water seepage instigated a £4m repair job in 2006 which, in conjunction with an overall refurbishment of the Estate, took three years and may in the end have cost the Council – as claims and counter-claims between it and contractors ensued – as much as £10m in total.
Leaseholders, who faced bills of up to £20,000, were particularly critical of the Council’s management of the process but were fortunate in having the expertise of six architects living on the Estate to make their case. (6)
Trend Six: ‘Tenure Diversification’
These, of course, were not council tenants. Around one third of homes on the Highgate New Town estates are now privately owned, a product of Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy legislation of 1980. For one former tenant, who bought his five-bedroom home for £39,000 and has seen its market value rise from £70,000 to over £600,000, this was ‘perfect, absolutely perfect’.
But many of those original purchasers have sold on, of course – one who bought his flat for £30,000 to an architect (what else?) who paid £250,000. ‘He bought a yacht, I expect’, says the latter; more likely he moved to Essex. (7)
These new leaseholders, overwhelmingly belonging to the professional middle class, love the Estate for ‘its Modernist aesthetic and attention to detail in the design’ and ‘the amount of space you get for your money’. (8) Yes, this is the council housing we’ve been taught to despise.
The newcomers are often active in the community and likely to praise its friendliness and mix. I’ve no interest at all in criticising them personally but, as a group, they are the beneficiaries of a process that in London particularly has vastly reduced the amount of affordable social housing available to those who need it most.
The weekly community lunches and food bank at the Highgate Newtown Community Centre tell another story – of those left poor and marginalised in our unequal society: (9)
There’s a lack of benefits, lateness of benefits, increases in rent, increases in food prices, electric, gas… just a general increase in everything.
Working-class families who once dreamed of moving into council homes of the quality of Highgate New Town are now, with no possibility of buying a property, forced to rent inferior and costly accommodation from private landlords whose income we subsidise though Housing Benefit. Over one third of council homes purchased through Right to Buy in London are now privately rented, some are even rented back by local authorities. (10) Madness!
Critically, councils were prevented from using the receipts of council house sales to build new homes. Presently, most of the new social housing being built is predicated on a financial chicanery – the sell-off of older social units and real estate, the construction of homes for sale and homes for ‘affordable’ rent which are nothing of the kind – which destroys existing estates and communities.
The most recent phase of construction in Highgate New Town is a very benign example of this. As we saw last week, the small prototype scheme at the corner of Chester Road and Raydon Street was arguably overdue for demolition. Twenty-five council homes were lost; of the 53 which replaced them, 23 are social rented, four for shared ownership and 26 for private sale. (All the latter are now sold – the cheapest studio flat at £300,000 in 2013.)
In the current topsy-turvy world of housing finance, Camden Council – which still manages directly about 33,000 homes in the Borough and houses around a quarter of the population – probably deserves some credit for this.
Not that you can please everyone. One of the private buyers has recently been bought off by the Council – there were teething problems in the build but he seemed most exercised by neighbouring tenants using their balconies: (11)
We bought this flat knowing there was a bit of a risk, because it was half council and half private. We were told there was a lease that was enforceable. We said we were quite worried, but they said they could not put laundry on the terrace or rubbish on the terrace. Now they are telling us the lease is not enforceable.
To be fair, as this blog always is, there’s a pretty long paternalist tradition of Council tenancy conditions banning laundry and the like on balconies to encourage ‘respectability’ within the working-class communities. It’s just that the attempt gains piquancy when tenants are expected so directly to defer to middle-class sensitivities.
Now all this will have frustrated the architectural groupies among you because most would see the real significance of the new scheme in terms of its design standards and principles.
Trend Seven: ‘Sustainability’
The £9.25m Chester-Balmore Scheme (as it’s known) built to replace the temporary and failed high-tech first phase of Stage Two, designed by Rick Mather Architects, is the first social housing scheme in the country and the largest scheme of any kind to be built to Passivhaus standard. The buildings’ insulation, triple glazing, high-tech boilers and air circulation systems – the only actual heating provided is a towel rail – are all intended to keep fuel bills down to less than a £100 a year…and help save the planet.
In terms of appearance, the scheme’s two residential blocks of stacked maisonettes with universal ground-floor front door access are intended to ‘fit’ the existing streetscape while a larger ‘gateway’ block (which will include new shops) marks the corner of Chester Road and Raydon Street. (12) Observers will have different views on how well its fulfils this brief.
Perhaps I’ve treated this last and significant development rather briefly but I may already be trying your patience. I hadn’t expected to write so much on Highgate New Town but the more I researched the more it revealed of the architectural fashions that have shaped council housing and the political and social forces which have moulded the lives of its residents.
I’ve no great conclusion other than to advise a longer view which accepts that tastes change and context is all. It is the latter which inexplicably is so often forgotten in much of what passes as analysis of social housing and it is that omission which has caused such damage to what should be understood as one of the proudest achievements of our welfare state.
(1) The key texts here are, from the US, Oscar Newman, Defensible Space (1972) and, his British acolyte, Alice Coleman, Utopia on trial: Vision and Reality in Planned Housing (1985)
(2) Terry Messenger, ‘Haven for Hoodlums’, St Pancras Chronicle, 15 April 1983
(3) Lara Lambert, ‘The Dream that Became a Nightmare’, Hampstead and Highgate Express, 17 January 1997
(4) Su Rogers, ‘Preview: Highgate New Town’, Architectural Review, September 1973
(5) Modernist Estates, ‘Chrissie Macdonald and Andrew Rae: Whittington Estate, London N19’, 1 July 2013
(6) The reference to six architects comes from Dan Carrier, ‘Estate revamp “sacking” chaos’, Camden New Journal, 26 April 2007; the £10m figure from Dan Carrier, ‘Town Hall pay out millions to sacked builders’, Camden New Journal, 22 October 2009. Residents were complaining that the repairs had been carried out inadequately as late as 2011 – see Kate Ferguson, ‘Highgate residents hit out at “shoddy’ management of estate’, Ham& High, 14 September 2011.
(7) Brian Milligan, ‘Right-to-buy: Margaret Thatcher’s controversial gift’, BBC News, 10 April 2013
(8) Modernist Estates, ‘Chrissie Macdonald and Andrew Rae: Whittington Estate, London N19
(9) Kate Beioley, ‘The food-bank family: Highgate residents in crisis and the community project easing the pain’, Ham & High, 31 January 2013
(10) Daniel Boffey, ‘Private landlords cash in on right-to-buy – and send rents soaring for poorest tenants’, The Observer, 12 January 2014
(11) William McLennan, ‘Town Hall faces £1m bill over trouble-hit flagship estate after couple offered £60k payoff’, Camden New Journal, 5 February 2015
(12) Rick Mather Architects, Chester-Balmore
Thanks again to Modern Architecture London for permission to use photographs taken in August 2011 of the now demolished section of the original development. Its post on Highgate New Town offers a range of good images and further detail on the development as a whole.
And my thanks also to the excellent resources and always helpful staff of the Camden Local Studies and Archives department.