In this guest post, Dr Ruth Cherrington brings her story of the Canley Estate in Coventry up-to-date, following earlier posts on the origins of the Estate and the growth of its community. Ruth runs the Club Historians website and is the author of Not Just Beer and Bingo: a Social History of Working Men’s Clubs. You can follow Ruth on Twitter at @CHistorians.
At the end of the previous posting, we left Canley residents busy shaping their community and social spaces.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly it started but some streets began to look unsightly from the early 1960s. Rather than growing flowers in the front gardens some tenants instead piled up rubbish and discarded furniture. There were instances of anti-social behaviour, though that term was not used back then: ‘problem family’ was the expression used instead. Canley residents would have been quick to name the streets that were ‘rough’ as distinct from ‘respectable’.
As time went on, other factors contributed to a more general decline. Social divisions were exacerbated by developments experienced by council tenants across the country along with Canley-specific ones. The focus here will be how the estate fared as social, economic and political changes presented difficult challenges.
Changes and Challenges
The Right to Buy Act, which became law in the early years 80s, had far-reaching consequences as council tenants who met certain criteria could buy their homes at discounted prices. Not everyone agreed with selling off council housing, preferring to rent and looking critically at those who bought. The take-up of this offer started to change Canley, as it did elsewhere.
Some newly-purchased houses showed the tenant-turned-owner’s desire to distinguish themselves from their council neighbours. Doors, even whole houses, were painted different colours. Some built garages onto the side, added a conservatory at the back, changed the windows and put statues outside.
These were visible expressions of the differentiation amongst the Canley residents that were not previously possible. Some viewed these stamps of individuality as out of place and ‘showing off’. We will return to the implications of private ownership later on.
Another major challenge was the troubled state of British car manufacturing. The Standard Motor Company, part of British Leyland by the 1970s, had long been a major employer.
Short-time working and lay-offs had become common along with strikes during which management and trade unions blamed each other for the problems. The Canley plant was affected by what happened at others such as Speke, Liverpool. Families suffered when strikes became protracted. Hard times affected local shops, pubs and the working men’s club. The days of the affluent car worker when everyone had a steady job and income looked numbered.
After Sir Michael Edwardes took control at British Leyland in 1977, rationalisation gathered pace, bringing job losses and the eventual closure of three plants, including Canley. This was a major disaster as Canley had to some extent been built to house car workers. Thousands were directly or indirectly affected as many local businesses relied on the ‘Standard’.
Several generations of Canley men had worked there. Boys leaving school would take up apprenticeships and expected a job for life. This all ended suddenly in 1980 when the factory closed. Existing jobs and those for future generations disappeared along with expectations, ambitions and self-respect on the part of those made redundant. The Canley estate was bound to suffer from then on.
The last major manufacturing plant to close was Massey Ferguson tractor factory in Banner Lane, Tile Hill. Unemployment in the Canley area increased and school leavers found little on offer in the 1980s. By the 1990s Canley had become an area of social deprivation. Younger residents left if they could. Those who stayed had too much time and not enough money on their hands, never a good combination.
An alternative source of employment, though often low-skilled and low paid work, came from nearby Warwick University, right on Canley’s border. Opened in 1965, originally just outside the City’s boundaries, the fact that it took the name Warwick not Coventry, was and still is seen as a slight by locals. Its proximity to Canley didn’t bring it any closer to the experience of most of the estate’s residents outside of offering work. Warwick University employed some of those made redundant but could not absorb the growing numbers thrown out of work.
An almost symbiotic relationship developed with this University, whose star had risen as manufacturing industry declined. The University sent in two different types of visitors: sociological researchers on the one hand and student tenants on the other. Canley became a convenient case study of industrial decline and social deprivation for the former and a convenient source of housing for the latter, as well as a supplier of local labour.
This is where we pick up on the impact of council house sales. Some residents who had bought went on to sell up once the statutory period was over and landlords were quick to seize the opportunities. The private rental sector grew alongside a diminishing council sector with fewer residential homes and more temporary accommodation. In one Warwick University study, Canley residents stated they felt pushed out by the foreign students.(1)
I’ve lived here for 34 years in the immediate area and there are a lot of students. I will leave as soon as I can.
It is pertinent that in the Wikipedia article about Canley, one of its key features is that ‘the area is home to a large number of students attending the nearby University of Warwick’. There are some signs outside several pre-war, redbrick homes along Charter Avenue only in Chinese, advertising accommodation. It’s obvious their market is for Chinese compatriots but such practices fuel dislike for foreign students in general among Canley residents:
Foreigners – loads of Chinese in the last five years buying houses and renting them to students.
The majority of Canley residents (around 90 per cent) are white. When former residential homes are sold and effectively turned into student dormitories, divisions widen.
Warwick University researchers have documented feelings of isolation with levels of community cohesion levels dipping sharply over the past few decades. Residents feel ignored, unheard by government representatives at local and national levels:(2)
Policy was seen in the context of political correctness, which had become a pejorative term meaning beneficial treatment to anyone who was not white working-class.
There was a growing separation between private owners, council tenants and student renters.
Anti-social behaviour also rose as well as the perception of it: drugs, burglaries and vandalism were part of this. Canley had moved from being a pleasant estate to ‘not a reassuring neighbourhood’. (3)
Regeneration: Plans and Reality
In the mid-2000s regeneration was put on the agenda and plans presented to Canley residents. Glossy pamphlets were distributed detailing the options, with the benefits to be derived from each such as the use of some land for new housing in return for better facilities and a community hub. In one option, the ends of several streets of steel houses were designated for ‘street realignment’.
The meaning of this was unclear until residents who would be affected made enquiries. Street alignment actually meant demolition of some houses, including the one I grew up in, in order to free up the space for denser housing. The generous gardens would be lost and built upon.
On finding this out, some residents were motivated into action with claims the council were trying to hoodwink them, that they were being treated as fools. Protests about this and other aspects of regeneration led to that option being removed.
A master plan was agreed in 2007 that visualised new housing where the former Charter Primary school used to be on Charter Avenue. A new school had been built more on Mitchell Avenue, more central than the ‘old’ Charter Primary. More housing was planned elsewhere, a community building, and improved transport and retail facilities. Moreover, the money raised from selling land in Canley was intended to be reinvested in the area.
Some changes have resulted such as widened pavements along Charter Avenue, with an integrated cycle lane. Some locals see that as being more for the university students. Some new housing is being built, mostly in-fill. What was once a very large grass verge between steel houses on Howcotte Green and the railway line is now the nearly completed Cromwell Gardens. Forty-four homes have been crammed onto this one green space.
Another in-fill area is where a doctor’s surgery once stood on Kele Road. A dozen new homes stand nearly complete there now. More in-fill is planned around Canley.
New homes, however, have not so far brought plans for improved bus services and other facilities. Residents complain about the poor bus service, seen as the worst in the City, which adds to feelings of isolation. Whilst two bus services come up and down Charter Avenue, as they have done for decades, they do not both run all day, every day. The 18a via Cannon Park shopping centre finishes early evening and doesn’t run on Sunday.
Those wishing to shop outside those times have to walk. It’s over a mile from the steel houses to Cannon Park, the Phantom Coach pub and to the Cemetery where many locals have relatives buried.
There was discussion by residents in one study about the importance of pubs and clubs as places of community interaction. That was when Canley had three pubs and the Canley Social Club, but since then the Dolphin Pub in Sheriff Avenue has closed down: it is now a building site for housing. The Canley Social Club in Marler has also closed.
Even in 2003 these were not regarded as vibrant places but as failing institutions that illustrated Canley’s problems. The lack of money to spend was one reason for their decline along with the smoking ban but also the declining percentage of ‘Canley kids’ who had grown up there or moved in when they were younger. Student renters rarely used these once thriving social centres.
The loss of the Canley Social Club is a very visual representation of the decline of the ‘old’ Canley. Established in 1950 as a humble social centre by local residents, the Club expanded across the decades with no shortage of members and activities provided for them when employment was high and there was money to spare.
By the late 1980s, the once luxurious concert room and lounge were less than half empty and severely underused. It began to look shabby and unloved, just as did the estate more generally. There were attempts to revive it including lottery funding that transformed it into a Sports and Social club but its future was decided when no buyers could be found in 2013. One night, members were in there enjoying themselves. The next morning it was locked and boarded up.(4)
After suffering several arson attacks, it was finally destroyed by fire in August 2013 and demolished in April 2015.
The site will now be sold for housing with nothing to replace this former social venue with its bowling green, football pitch and five-a-side all-weather space along with its lounge, small bar and concert room. Locals complain about the lack of social facilities, just as the early residents did in the 1940s.
The ageing ‘Canley kids’ lament the loss of the Club, of the pride of former residents, the loss of the old sense of community when most people had a job and a salary. There will come a time when hardly anyone remembers the early days of the estate, with its model housing and green spaces. Many of the latter are now designated for in-fill housing and these will bring not only different types of residents but perhaps more divisions and less cohesion.
If it started out as an estate ‘in parts’ and it looks more patchy today than ever before. The future may well see the trend for putting a bit of new housing here, a bit there, increase. Canley may become an estate ‘in bits’.
(1) This and the quotation which follows are drawn from Harris Beider, Community Cohesion: the views of white working class communities, Joseph Rowntree Foundation/Coventry University (2011), p42
(2) Beider, p56
(3) Victoria Nash with Ian Christie, Making Sense of Community, IPPR, London (2003), p13
(4) See my YouTube video, Canley Social Club in Pictures
See also David Jarvis, Nigel Berkeley and Kevin Broughton, ‘Evidencing the impact of community engagement in neighbourhood regeneration: the case of Canley, Coventry’, Community Development Journal (2011)