The Brandon Estate was a concrete expression of the London County Council’s desire to build a better world. It’s telling that, in these more cynical or simply more jaded times, I hesitated in writing that sentence but it’s fact, not hyperbole, however much the expression may jar. Last week’s post looked at the ideals and design principles behind that aspiration; this week’s looks at how it all played out in practice.
To begin with, all was well. The Architects’ Journal concluded the scheme was: (1)
an important essay by the LCC to create a community in the true sense of the word rather than a mere housing estate. The diversification of design, although it has sometimes degenerated into inconsistency, reflects the provision for a wide variety of social activities…This is a positive attempt to overcome a major failure of much inter-war housing in the London area.
Even John Betjeman – admittedly most taken by the rehabilitation of the Victorian terraces – thought the Estate ‘attractive, habitable by modern standards, and probably the beginning of a general raising of the self-respect of the neighbourhood’. (2)
More importantly, its early residents liked it. Ethel Frampton, reminiscing after 40 years of living on Brandon, remembered ‘vividly being asked, how do you like living on a showcase estate. My answer then was, I love it.’ (3)
All this is a tribute to the design of the Estate and a commentary on the slum conditions most had moved from. As ‘Mrs Bedford’, a 77 year old widow, told Tony Parker in 1983: (4)
I couldn’t say I have any complaints about living on the estate at all. I never had had. When I think about the conditions we had to live in when I was a kid, well those days will never come back again and a good thing too. People complain and you sometimes hear them talking about the good old days and that sort of rubbish. All I can say is that they must have forgotten what the good old days were like because for the ordinary class of working people there was nothing good about them at all.
Another resident, who had moved into an 11th floor flat in one of the towers, remembers:
it was all very, very smart, somewhere really good, somewhere you were proud to live. Do you remember those what they used to call ‘garden cities’ before the war, Letchworth, Welwyn and those places? Well that’s the nearest to it in atmosphere I mean, it was like them. All very well kept and peaceful, with a sort of rural air about it; hardly like being in a city at all.
Most often, it was simply the size of their homes that most struck new residents – ‘It was massive, it looked like bloody Buckingham Palace compared to what we were living in’. This was, as intended, high quality accommodation.
But beyond this, there was a community. In one block of low-rise flats at least, they were ‘nearly all local people, all got moved in here together from the same streets when our houses were pulled down’ and ‘Joan Kirby’ describes singsongs along the balcony for someone’s birthday and landings cleaned for weddings and funerals when visitors would be coming.
There was a broader truth to this if the oral history is to be trusted; this from ‘Bert Weir’, a caretaker in one of the towers:
When they first built it twenty years ago or more it was going to be paradise, wasn’t it? For the people who were coming to live here, I mean. They’d all been living in slums and places like that, and here was this marvellous modern new housing estate which was going to give them a wonderful new life. It’s true, in those early days there was a great sense of community among the people who came to live on [Brandon]. They all knew they had all come here to have a new start in life. They all knew the sort of background they’d come from and what sort of background everyone else had come from and it gave them a big feeling of all being in the same boat. It was a fresh start for everyone.
I make no apologies for quoting extensively from Tony Parker’s important book. Most of what we know about council estates and their people comes from the concerned middle class; sometimes well-meaning sociologists, often a politically hostile commentariat. In People of Providence, Parker allows them to speak for themselves.
If there’s an element of nostalgia in these recollections, comments on the later estate make less comfortable reading. For the fact is that much of this early shine had rubbed off by the 1970s. As early as 1975, Neil McIntosh could write that ‘although the Brandon is a “show estate” it is also in some senses a problem estate’ with levels of juvenile crime and vandalism that rated it ‘among the worst estates’. (5)
By the end of the decade, Brandon was subject to an equal onslaught from the local press as its headlines made clear: ‘Vandal-hit estate goes to war’, ‘Corridors of Fear’, ‘It’s revolting! Slum estate tenants in new protest’. (6)
What happened? According to one of those articles, the Brandon Estate was simply – even as a panoply of security measures was being taken – ‘a monument to the dogged determination of the vandal’ but this is to look at the symptom rather than the cause.
Others blamed the Greater London Council’s removal of resident caretakers in 1971 but, in fact, those caretakers were already beleaguered – lacking the authority and means to tackle vandalism and removed for their own safety.
For Parker’s older interviewees, one explanation was simply ‘new people’ coming in. They could and would – as we’ll see – express this more pungently but, for the time being we might accept that an earlier community and perhaps a shared ethos were dissolving.
To Alice Coleman, the explanation was straightforward – ‘design disadvantage’ was the (more or less) technical term she applied; what she meant was council estate high-rise caused juvenile delinquency. It really was that simple: ‘two or three storeys are harmless, but more are harmful’. ‘Defensible space’ was one solution; in the later 1980s, one of her intrepid team: (7)
lived on the Brandon Estate and persuaded the tenants to use a small fund to fence in one of the blocks. The result was magical. Ground-floor tenants who had boarded up their windows and lived in artificial light to avoid the high risk of being burgled, felt safe enough to take the boards down and let daylight in.
If only it really were that simple. Now is not the time to critique Coleman yet again (though the article from which the quotation is drawn is hubristic even by her standards) but her refusal to engage with socio-economic factors, her lack of curiosity about change over time and her wilful ignorance of similar problems of antisocial behaviour in a range of housing environments should be enough to invalidate her position.
Still, to be clear, council tenants are entitled to be – and feel – safe so, of course, it made sense to install entryphone systems and beef up general security as the GLC and latterly Southwark Council have attempted to do.
There was another equally simplistic explanation to hand: ‘Enoch was right’. (8) A number of Parker’s interviewees associated the decline of the Estate with the arrival on it of (in their words) ‘coloureds’. We could dismiss this as white, working-class racism and move on but (apart from the fact that easy phrase lets the middle class off the hook) it’s more useful to look at the dynamics of what happened.
A second wave of slum clearance and rehousing in Southwark coincided with a change in council housing allocations policy from a system favouring established local residency to one prioritising needs. In this context, a black population which had hitherto been confined to low quality privately rented housing became eligible for council housing. In the competition for a scarce resource, what was ‘fair’ and progressive in policy terms – those in greatest need or those now being displaced being given housing – could be perceived as ‘unfair’ by those who felt they had longer-established claims. (9)
One of Parker’s interviewees described the Estate’s newcomers in stark terms: ‘Every one of them are all problem families…and all blacks, or nearly all of them’. This was racism but it was not racism based on some primal antagonism between white and black (as I believe later history has demonstrated) but a conflict in which race was the cipher. For long-term white residents confronting a decline in the Estate, it was easy to confuse correlation with causation but, in reality, most of the newer black residents were equally victims of the criminal behaviour of young people of varying ethnicity.
A final explanation rests on those youth demographics. For the Southwark Community Development Group in 1975 the reason for the prevalence of vandalism on Brandon was ‘not hard to find’ – 27 per cent of the Estate’s population were aged between 5 and 16. This was almost ten per cent above the Borough average.
Is this sufficient an explanation – a kind of updated version of ‘boys will be boys’? Surely not but in a context where traditional structures of authority were in decline perhaps it does represent a significant component of one.
Meanwhile, embrace the complexity. Parker also talked to ‘Ian’, a young lad in his early teens (white as it happens) who artlessly describes the favourite pastimes of he and his ‘gang’ of mates – stealing milk bottles, ‘bombing’ people by dropping bottles from balconies, petty theft, ‘tagging’ buildings, and so on. He had also embraced a school scheme which saw him helping out elderly residents with their shopping and odd jobs:
One old lady said to me when I did something in her house that she used to think children nowadays were all bad but it had made her change her mind.
Little did she know. How little any of us really know.
All this is to accentuate the negative. It dwells on a particularly dysfunctional period for the country as a whole, the strains and stresses of which were far from being confined to the Brandon Estate. In reality, as Parker’s introduction is at pains to make clear the reality was ‘mixed’. More recently, the biggest controversy has been Southwark Council’s needless and insensitive programme to replace functional wooden window frames with uPVC which was eventually overturned (for the leaseholders at least) in the courts. (10)
Life’s too messy for the Estate to have ever fulfilled all the hopes placed in it in 1961 but an estate described as ‘perfect’ and the ‘closest to heaven I’ll ever get’ can’t be all bad, can it? It’s had money spent on it – a significant refurbishment programme in the 1980s and a £1m repair programme in the early 1990s – but really this is little more than routine maintenance.
It has survived the worst of its social problems; with hindsight, a phase that afflicted estates of all kinds across the country (for which I’ve yet to see definitive explanation). It has been the only Southwark estate to escape major regeneration and it remains popular with the vast majority of its residents who value both the quality of their homes and environment.
The Brandon Estate has stood the test of time, a tribute to the vision of the Council and architects who planned it and, if it hasn’t created a better world – a tall order, it has certainly created a better life for many thousands of its people.
(1) ‘Housing at the Brandon Estate, Southwark’, Architects’ Journal Information Library, November 1 1961
(2) John Betjeman, ‘Making the Best of Brick’, Daily Telegraph, 9 February 1959
(3) The Brandon 1 TARA [Tenants’ and Residents’] Newsletter, July 2005
(4) Tony Parker, People of Providence. A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants (1983). ‘Providence’ is the name Parker applied to the Estate to preserve its anonymity. His interviewees are also anonymised though personal details are accurate.
(5) Neil McIntosh, Southwark Community Development Group, Housing for the Poor? Council Housing in Southwark, 1925-1975 (July 1975)
(6) These headlines are drawn from articles in the Mercury, 3 August 1978; South London Press, 12 March 1980; and Mercury, 28 May 1981 respectively found in the news cuttings files of the Southwark Local History Library and Archives.
(7) Alice Coleman, ‘Design Disadvantage in Southwark’ (2008)
(8) The quotation appears at least twice in People of Providence. It’s a reference to the then Conservative British politician Enoch Powell whose ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in April 1968 foretold social breakdown and violence resulting from ethnic minority immigration.
(9) This is argued in far greater detail by Harold Carter in ‘Building the Divided City: Race, Class and Social Housing in Southwark, 1945-1995’, The London Journal, vol 33, No 2, July 2008
(10) Euan Denholm, ‘Million Pound Window Fiasco in Walworth’, Southwark News, 27 January 2005