Last week we looked at the pre-war origins and development of the Saffron Lane Estate. Today, we look at how the Estate has changed since 1945. It’s a good illustration of how council housing has evolved in recent years but also a tribute to the strength and resilience of its residents.
Leicester, with its light industries and consumer-based trades was never immune to economic downturns but had fared well in comparison to areas of traditional heavy industry. In 1936, the League of Nations Bureau of Statistics identified Leicester as the second richest city in Europe and from the mid-50s the local economy grew and diversified again even as its established focus on textiles and shoe manufacture declined.
As late as 1993, 29 per cent of Saffron’s workers were skilled craft workers and 17 per cent were unskilled. Just seven years later, only 12 per cent were classified as skilled and the numbers in unskilled occupations had doubled. Ten per cent now worked for agencies, rising to one in three of those under thirty. As unemployment rose, the consequences of this rise of insecure, unskilled employment were exacerbated. (1)
By 2007, Leicester was ranked as the 20th most deprived local authority region in the country and parts of the Saffron Lane Estate as among the 5 per cent most deprived of all areas in the country.
Leicester’s (relatively) prosperous working-class had declined and on council estates up and down the country this change was amplified by the changing nature of council housing. Once (as at the time of the Estate’s founding) it was reserved for those who could pay; increasingly – as needs-based assessment took over in the 1970s and the housing stock was drastically diminished through Right to Buy in the 1980s – it was allocated to those who (through no fault of their own) couldn’t.
Still, a 2003 survey suggested that the Estate remained popular with most of its residents. Sixty-nine per cent professed a strong attachment to the area; 76 per cent didn’t want to move. This, no doubt, reflected the stability of the community – almost four fifths had lived on the Estate for over ten years. While Leicester is among the UK’s most diverse communities, the Saffron remained a ‘white island’ – 92 per cent of its population were white British. Almost one third of residents felt their British nationality their key identity. (2)
One young woman who lived in a council house on the Saffron Lane Estate in the seventies might seem typical of some of its new realities – married at 18, three children by 22 and a single mother by the time she was 25, working in a series of low-paid, dead-end jobs. She liked writing though and completed her first book in 1975. It did well, this Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But, for Sue Townsend, it never was just history and never one she forgot: (3)
I’m a child of the municipal. Everything good had this word carved above its grand entrance. In Leicester, where I was born and still live, there were municipal libraries, majestic solid buildings with beautiful entrances, windows and doors, oak furniture and bookshelves. Then there were municipal baths, which had a swimming pool and what were called slipper baths…There were municipal parks, which were delightful places in which to take the air.
The Saffron Lane Estate’s library wouldn’t have been her local as a child (she was brought up in a post-war prefab to the south) but must surely have resonated. The Southfields Library and Infant Welfare Clinic, opened in 1939, was an extraordinary and eye-catching building. Inspired by Stockholm’s Central Library or possibly Charles Holden’s Arnos Grove tube station, designed by Leicester architects Symington Prince and Pyke, it’s a Moderne masterpiece, constructed of reinforced concrete with red brick cladding, now Grade II listed.
Less reverentially, locals called it – for obvious reasons – the Pork Pie Library and that’s its official name now too. (It’s nice to see as well that it’s located on Attlee Way.) A major refurbishment last year has brought a theatre area at the rear back into use, a computer suite has been installed for adult education and a new kitchen will served a lunch club. It’s good to see a community landmark still giving community value. (4)
Other things came and went (or almost went) on the Estate. The Saffron Lane Sports Centre north of the Estate was opened in 1967 and was the first in England to have a synthetic surface running track. It came close to closure in 2001 but received a £1.4 million refurbishment from the City Council in 2006 and remains well used.
The velodrome, opened in 1968 and once the national stadium, was demolished in 2009 – derelict through a combination of its open-air design and years of neglect. It’s now a site for new social and affordable housing.
These changes mark the effort that has gone into regenerating (no scare quotes this time) the Estate and supporting its community in recent years. The Saffron Lane Neighbourhood Council was established jointly by community leaders and the City Council in 1976. It currently manages three projects – the Saffron Resource Centre providing a range of advice and aid, Saffcare providing day-care services for elderly people and Saffron Acres. The latter took over 12 acres of disused allotments in 2006; its latest venture, employing and training young people, is to sell – via the Central England Coop – its own plum jam and apple chutneys. (5)
The Neighbourhood Council has moved into the housing field too. In 2014, it acquired (for the nominal sum of £1 from the City Council), thirteen acres of land destined to form what’s claimed as ‘Europe’s biggest eco-housing project’. Four one-bedroom flats, 23 two-bedroom houses, 20 three-bedroom houses and three four-bedroom houses – all built to sustainable Passivhaus standards – will be built and managed by the East Midlands Housing Group to house those currently on the council housing waiting list. The Homes and Communities Agency has provided £1.5m funding.
Times have changed. Many, though not those currently in power nationally, would like them to change again but, for the time being, as Leicester’s mayor Sir Peter Soulsby acknowledged: (6)
At one time the council would have built council houses but we can’t anymore because there just isn’t the cash or the powers to do it. So what we are doing is using our assets and our buildings much more creatively and enabling community groups to do it.
What about those Boot houses we read about last week though? There were quite early problems with damp and deterioration but they survived. By the 1980s, however, they were showing serious structural problems caused by the corrosion of metal reinforcements in the concrete frames and the use of clinker in the concrete.
In 1983, the City Council took the decision to replace them, ‘one down, one up’. Five hundred had been replaced by 1989 when money ran out. At this point, the Council looked to a private developer who proposed replacing the 500 Boot houses remaining with 800 new homes. This was a threat to an existing community and treasured environment that the Estate’s residents found unacceptable – they voted by 86 per cent to support an extension of the Council’s existing phased scheme even though it might mean in some cases a wait of 27 years for replacement housing.
At the same time, the Saffron Boot Housing Action Group was formed to speed things up. Another solution was devised in this era when the very notion of council construction had become taboo: a 50/50 partnership with a local housing association was offered. Tenants wanted to stay with the Council and stuck out. In the end, a 65/35 council/housing association split was agreed. (7)
When the last of the 972 remaining Boots homes was demolished in June 1997, Arthur Chimes of the Housing Action Group, could declare it – that rare thing – ‘a victory for the people’.
In its own way, the Saffron Lane Estate has been that too.
(1) Leicester City Council, ‘Local Employment Issues in Saffron and Eyres Monsell’, Strategic Planning and Regeneration Scrutiny Committee, 19 February 2004
(2) Asaf Hussain, Tim Haq, Bill Law, Integrated Cities: Exploring the Cultural Development of Leicester (2003)
(3) Sue Townsend, ‘My Heartlands’, The Observer, 24 April 2005
(4) English Heritage listing details and Dan J Martin, ‘Leicester’s Pork Pie Library to close for four months’, Leicester Mercury, November 12, 2014
(5) For full details on the range of activities, go the website of the Saffron Resource Centre.
(6) Laurna Robertson, ‘Land deal for country’s largest affordable Passivhaus scheme’, Inside Housing, 2 May 2014 and BBC News, Leicester, ‘Leicester’s eco-homes build is “Europe’s biggest” project’, 30 April 2014
(7) Saffron Past and Present Group, The Story of the Saff (1998)