We left the Pepys Estate, recently constructed and a prestige GLC scheme, in a good place last week. It was popular and well-regarded: (1)
People were fighting to move onto [the Estate] and the lucky ones felt privileged. They were proud to be part of a showcase – spotlessly clean and well looked after.
Completed in 1973, by the end of the decade one newspaper report on the Estate was headlined simply ‘Nightmare!’, the detail seemingly justifying that exclamation mark. The Estate, it continued: (2)
is littered with abandoned cars, graffiti splatters the walls, garages are deserted because people fear to use them and piles of rubbish clog waste disposal units.
In this post, we’ll examine and assess this trajectory.
As we saw in the last post, the Estate was planned in line with some of the most innovative design principles of its day. Particular attention was paid to the need to re-create community. Perhaps this reflected a conscious sense of the strength of existing community in South London. It reflected too a growing literature celebrating the tightly-knit traditional working-class communities of the capital. Wilmott and Young were writing about East London but their lament for the terraced-street culture of family and kinship then being uprooted by wholesale redevelopment surely had strong echoes south of the river. (3)
According to Les Back, an academic who lived and worked on the Estate in the later eighties, it was envisaged as ‘a phoenix-like planned society that would emerge from the rubble of slum redevelopment’. To this end, beyond the architectural qualities and social amenities noted last week, the design as a whole was intended to promote community. Thus, the external walkways we’ve learned to hate – a strong feature connecting the various elements of the estate – and even the internal corridors – which linked the low-rise blocks – were seen as media of neighbourliness.
And it may surprise you to learn – given the obloquy that subsequently descended on these planners’ fancies – that they worked. One resident recalls a trip to the local shops – along those walkways – taking hours to complete as she stopped to talk to everyone she met, and she knew nearly everyone. The corridors were also a place to meet and socialise; doors left unlocked with children playing in one flat but regularly checked on by neighbours.
This was true, apparently, even of the now reviled tower blocks. People met in lifts and on landings. Fiona, my guide to the estate, living then in Aragon Tower, remembers a close and friendly community – ‘you could knock on any door’ – and recalls too how scrupulously tenants maintained the common areas according to a rota issued by the estate caretaker.
Residents also organised their own Social Club which in turn organised what Les Back calls ‘the pinnacle of local self-help’ – the Palaver celebrations (a kind of estate carnival) held annually in the early 1970s.
When Lord Mountbatten formally opened the Estate in 1966, ‘he suggested that each estate tenant should be given a history of the naval dockyard’. (4) Whether this was followed through or not, the area’s naval heritage was an important part of the Estate’s consciously patriotic identity, not just in the naming of the various blocks but also in the practice of the Tenants’ Association to formally ‘adopt’ a naval frigate. Naval officers would visit the Estate and some tenants would visit the ships when docked.
There was, of course, a context for all this – there is always a context though so often it gets forgotten in the architectural analyses of social housing. This was a respectable working-class community, still enjoying relatively high levels of employment. The rents of the Estate – at between £5 and £8 for the lower-rise flats from the outset – were generally higher than those of other local estates and, given that ability to pay was one of the most important criteria applied when allocating tenancies at this time, steady employment and reasonable incomes were necessary.
If you know the Pepys Estate or its sometime reputation, you’ll know there’s one other thing I haven’t mentioned – race. The Estate was in its early years and for some time an almost exclusively white estate, this the result of a more or less formal policy operated by the GLC. As one former council housing officer describes:
It wasn’t as simple as ‘We don’t want black people living there’. It was more like an assumption that black and white would rather live separately from one another. So, as you go down the Old Kent Road you can see some estates are white and others are black or mixed. It didn’t happen by accident. Housing officers just didn’t allocate black people to [the Pepys Estate].
Conversely, the Milton Court Estate, about a mile to the south on the border with New Cross, was understood as a ‘black estate’. Sonia Herelle had rejected a move to Milton Court for this reason; it appeared to her to be becoming a ‘ghetto’. In 1973, she became one of the first black people to move to Pepys. Looking back, she recalls a ‘painful racism, most often expressed as distasteful avoidance but which could easily erupt into overt hostility’.(5) Olaudah Equiano who was seized and returned to slavery on the steps that remain on the Pepys Estate waterfront could have hardly felt less welcome.
As late as 1981, 72 per cent of the Estate’s heads of household were born in the UK (and a further six per cent in the Republic of Ireland). Even Fiona, with her Scottish father and an Irish mother, felt she didn’t quite ‘fit in’ at the local primary school, so exclusively white and ‘local’ was it.
This would change. It changed, belatedly, as London itself became ever more diverse but it changed principally through a technical shift in housing allocations policy. By the late 1970s, needs-based assessment was becoming the norm and earlier criteria based on local connection and means were superseded. It was left to Lewisham Borough Council, who took over the management of the Estate in 1979, to implement the change.
At the same time, life was getting harder for some of the older-established residents on the Estate. Lewisham lost 10,000 jobs in the ten years from 1978 and unemployment trebled. The rate of unemployment for all economically active males reached 13 per cent in 1981 but, while this was relatively high (the rate stood at 18 per cent in the wider area), it was far worse for the Estate’s children now growing into adulthood – over half of those aged 16 to 29 were without work.
There were also criticisms, closer to home, of the Estate’s management. The nearest Housing Office was two miles away. Repairs were carried out from a depot on a neighbouring estate and, although a mobile care-taking team was based at Pepys, it was responsible for an additional 1900 properties elsewhere. All this seemed remote and inefficient.
As Right to Buy kicked in and the Borough’s housing stock fell and as central government grants fell (Lewisham suffered a 30 per cent reduction in its allocations from Whitehall in 1985), a perfect storm of housing shortage and disadvantage was emerging. And when things go wrong, the human tendency is to seek someone to blame. That was not Mrs Thatcher but, typically, figures closer to hand. Many older Estate residents associated the decline of the Estate with its new arrivals, those from the black and ethnic minorities.
It was at this point that the Estate’s reputation for racism took off. There was, it was said, strong support for the National Front and other neo-fascist organisations. There were many ‘racist incidents’, ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault to arson attacks on homes occupied by black and ethnic minority residents.
In this context, that strong sense of local identity and patriotism discussed earlier assumes a different, more sinister, meaning. To Les Back, what had developed was a ‘parochialism’ and ‘nationalism’. The ‘estate people’ (its older-established white residents) withdrew into a defensive occupation of their remaining strongholds, the Tenants’ Hall and Tenants’ Association, the bar in the community centre. Opposition to change took a racialised form in opposition to the incomers:
For the long-standing residents, their embitterment is essentially the result of what they feel is a broken promise. They were handed a residential space, which they took as their own, and now they feel as if that space is being invaded by ‘foreign’ newcomers and a council that is unsympathetic to them.
It’s ironic, really. In writing this blog, I’ve been waiting for years for ‘community’ to come along. Social scientists of the interwar years berated the lack of ‘community’ in the new cottage suburbs. Post-war commentators criticised its lack in the modern high-rise schemes. And then, when a powerful sense of community does emerge on a council estate, it’s the wrong sort!
I hope you take that as the tongue-in-cheek comment intended but I’m highly suspicious of this eternal quest for community in social housing. Put crudely, no-one bothers the residents of middle-class suburbia about their sense of community or lack of it – the middle class are never a ‘problem’. I question the romanticisation of earlier forms of working-class community and I’ve seen plenty of examples of neighbourliness and fellow-feeling on those council estates which have so troubled some middle-class observers.
That said, here was a success for the planners – that ‘phoenix-like planned society’ had come about but all around it had changed and its vices had become more apparent than its virtues. Let me be clear – this is not in any shape or form an apologia for racism but it is always working-class communities that suffer most from the shifts and stresses of capitalism.
Of those, the most significant recently have been de-industrialisation (the loss of traditional working-class jobs) and the changes brought about by immigration – not connected but sometimes perceived that way with xenophobia as a response. UKIP is perhaps the most recent result of these dynamics and while there are comrades on the left who feel that ‘racist’ voters of UKIP should be disdained, I believe the experience of the Pepys Estate teaches something different.
In any case, ‘racism’ is always a complex phenomenon (though not, of course, if you are its victim). Longer-term black residents of the Estate were generally respected and liked. Their children were often accepted as ‘locals’ sharing a Pepys identity by their white peers although they had to negotiate a difficult cultural terrain and accept, on occasion, racist name-calling that they could never have experienced as mere banter. It’s a cliché, of course, that black music often provided a shared culture for these young people.
The hardest-hit group appears to have been the Vietnamese migrants who arrived in the early eighties. They were affected by the perception (which appears to have been grounded in reality rather than urban myth) that they received sought-after low-rise flats desired by longer-term residents seeking transfers. More generally, they lacked the common culture shared in significant degree by the Estate’s black and white residents. In these years, many Vietnamese families locked their doors at night and refused to venture out.
The remaining element to address, as so often in the analysis of council estates at this time, is crime. Fiona, who has suffered one burglary in her time on the Estate and never any perceived personal threat, remembers it as a safe place but the statistics remain stark. Crime – burglaries, thefts, car crime and assaults – rose fast in the early 1980s, peaking at 49.1 crimes per 100 households in 1982. In 1985, a quarter of households reported burglaries.
Drugs played their part. A recreational use of marijuana among young people became something darker with the arrival of ‘scag’ – relatively cheap heroin – and drug use and dealing were widespread on the Estate. Alternative lifestyles and alternative economies among young people are perhaps not so surprising when conventional society has failed them so badly.
Many residents wanted to move. Some were able to buy properties elsewhere but many felt trapped as the Estate became more unpopular and transfers much more difficult. In the early 1980s, around a quarter of the Estate’s households were said to be on the housing transfer list. (6) As an unpopular estate, its now hard-to-let properties were increasingly allocated to those with least choice, typically vulnerable people housed as priority cases.
These became another ‘Other’ – seen less as victims than culprits and sometimes with disrupted or disruptive life-styles that may seem to have justified the antipathy that many felt towards them. As one resident remarked to Les Back:
When they moved the problem families in, that’s when you got a lot trouble and that…They started off with just one block. Now it’s all around the estate.
An older resident simply observed:
It’s like [this estate] is the end of the road, the toilet of society and we get all the dregs. A place is only as good as the people who live there.
We’ve come a long way from the showpiece estate of its earliest years but its highs and lows of this suggest a more complex story than is often assumed. The homes were mostly of good quality, the Estate’s conception and design had worked initially to create a pleasant environment and a strong community. But the Estate was victim to wider forces. Could those wider forces now come to its rescue? We’ll examine the regeneration of the Estate next week.
(1) Jean, a local health worker, quoted in Les Back, New Ethnicities and Urban Culture. Racisms and multi–culture in young lives (1996) in which it is semi-anonymised as ‘Riverview’. Much of the detail and some of the quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.
(2) South East London Mercury, 15 November 1979
(3) Michael Young and Peter Willmott, Family and Kinship in East London (1957)
(4) ‘Lord Mountbatten at Deptford Home of the Navy’, South London Press, 13 July 1966
(5) Jess Steele, Turning the Tide: the History of Everyday Deptford (1993)
(6) Tim Kendrick, Housing safe communities: an evaluation of recent initiatives – Pepys Estate Coordinated Estate Improvement Scheme, London Safe Neighbourhoods Unit (ND)