The ‘Five Estates’ were a figment of Southwark Council’s imagination. That’s not to say that the five estates – wedged between Peckham High Street and Burgess Park – didn’t exist but rather that they were artificially combined for a £60m bid for Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) funding in 1994. That bid required a single narrative of design failure and social breakdown and it succeeded – it secured the largest SRB award ever made. Some £260m and ten years later, one of the country’s most sweeping regeneration projects was complete. This post will examine the high hopes and ideals which inspired the estates’ initial construction.
The five estates had little to unify them save that loose geographical proximity. The Sumner Estate was the oldest – an LCC scheme from the 1930s comprising 13 blocks, all traditional brick-built four- to six-storey, walk-up and balcony-access tenements of their time. It was extended in the post-war period with nine new blocks designed along essentially similar lines though now with lift access and jazzed-up, white concrete-faced balconies as a nod to modernity. The older blocks had to wait to the mid-70s to get lifts and central heating.
The Willowbrook Estate between Sumner Road and the former Surrey Canal was anchored by the twelve-storey Tonbridge House, completed in 1963. The block’s striking acid-etched concrete cladding slabs designed by William Mitchell didn’t save it from later demolition. A series of tile-faced, four-storey maisonettes followed, still standing and largely unaltered but for their new pitched roofs.
The other three estates form more of a package, at least in the sense that they were all completed in the early-mid 1970s, all at relatively high density and all incorporating contemporary ideas around the separation of pedestrian and road traffic and use of aerial walkways. It was possible, they said, to walk from Burgess Park to Peckham Road without touching the ground
The Camden Estate (including the earlier Monkland House built in the 1950s) comprised 874 homes of traditional brick construction. The other two estates –Gloucester Grove and North Peckham – were more innovatory and, given their prominence in the arguments for regeneration, I’ll spend most time talking about those.
Gloucester Grove is the northernmost of the estates, fronting Burgess Park. It remains (substantially unaltered) the most striking architecturally, notable for its long, linked, snake-like construction – 1210 homes in 29 blocks in total, of brick-clad, heavy panel construction, between three and eight storeys in height joined by high, semi-circular, glass-tiled entrances containing stairways and lifts which provide a deliberately and eye-catchingly ‘modernist’ look to the estate as a whole.
North Peckham is the best documented and – the most notorious – it’s often taken to represent the Five Estates regeneration as a whole. It was the largest of the five – 65 five-storey blocks in all on a 40-acre site, comprising 1444 homes. Despite its traditional, load-bearing brick, crosswall construction, this was the most innovative of the designs – a large-scale realisation of the ‘streets in the sky’ concept fashionable when construction began in 1966.
The estate was made up of two types of block – residential and parking. In the latter, three lower floors provided lock-up garages for residents and parking spaces for visitors; at the second floor level a large platform contained ‘shops, pubs, laundries, and communal facilities such as halls and meeting rooms’.
This was linked to a wide pedestrian deck which, according to the celebratory account in the Southwark Civic News, joined ‘the whole scheme together, forming a network of ways containing housing, shops and other facilities and forming the service route for postman, milkman, dustman and other tradesmen’. Residents, it continued, could ‘walk freely along this two and half miles of deck away from the dirt, noise and danger of London traffic.’ (1)
Let’s forget hindsight for a moment and examine the good intentions here. There was the variety and mix of housing for a start – one to five bedroom maisonettes and flats, each with their own front door to the deck and the whole planned to serve a wide cross-section of the community. As the Civic News continued, praising the scheme’s ‘visionary planners’ led by Borough Architect FO Hayes:
Far from being the stereotype ‘Little Boxes’ the four basic types of homes will be put together in so many different ways that they will have individuality and variety.
And the ground on which the Estate stood (excepting service roads) was ‘to be used entirely as an amenity for residents [as] a series of interconnecting courts, designed to cater for different age groups and family activities’:
Some will be planted with grass, trees, and shrubs where families may sit out, alone or with their neighbours, on summer evenings; others will be paved and out of reach of windows, so that the younger members may play ball games and make a noise in safety.
It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And it had emerged with due deference to the community of the run-down streets it replaced. Hans Peter Trenton, who succeeded Hayes as Borough Architect in 1969 (he had earlier designed Southwark’s Aylesbury Estate), praised the ‘social coherence’ of the former terraced housing and described its ‘closely-knit social ties’ as ‘one of the foundation stones essential for the preservation of a civilised society’. (2) This thinking informed preparations for the new estate.
The new design emerged from ‘detailed sociological and technical surveys’, initiated by the Council, and executed by the construction company Bovis, ‘before a brick was laid’. (3) Trenton himself toured the old streets, talking to their residents and ‘explaining what was meant by such unheard of things as patios’.
If all this sounds like good PR or self-deceiving rhetoric, it’s worth pointing out that the finished estate earned widespread acclaim – to Lord Robens, it was a ‘European showpiece’. A hard-bitten journalist (or perhaps I’m lapsing into cliché there) for the Municipal Review touring the Estate in 1972, found his ‘enthusiasm steadily mounting’: (2)
There are no towers or soulless slabs at North Peckham, no bleak expanses of exposed concrete, no grassed areas with ‘keep off’ notices to apply a cosmetic touch to harridan features. Instead there is grass which is meant to be played on and trees everywhere. The authority’s adoption of low-rise, high-density – it was one of the first in the country to latch on to this – has been continued with a layout which disposes the buildings around a series of courtyards where children can play in safety…The courtyards and the soft contours of the buildings around them…convey a feeling of enclosure and intimacy rarely found in large projects of this kind.
This, he said, was an (apparently successful) ‘attempt to recreate the neighbourly atmosphere of old-established districts’ and he concluded almost lyrically:
the housewife can open the door to the tradesman much as she does in an ordinary street. The children can also run around unmolested by traffic, just as they used to do in the days of hop-scotch and the hoop…For once the idea that planning is for people has been infused with some meaning.
Residents’ views could be positive too. Tina recalls (4)
her flat was beautiful…split over five levels, huge, with a big patio at the top…rooms for all her children, and the kitchen was so big they had a sofa and a telly in it, her children could play there, so they could keep the living room spotless for when family and visitors came along.
‘Mrs Smith’ remembers moving in: ‘We really liked it. It was more like a holiday camp. It was very, very good’. (5)
I’ve spent some time on this pre-history, not to exonerate planners and councils but, at the very least, to acquit them of the charge of ill intent. It allows us too to examine ‘what went wrong’ without prejudgment because, if there was a honeymoon period, it seems to have been a relatively short one.
By 1977, the Peckham Society noted that the Estate was suffering ‘wear and tear’; the overall appearance of the Estate was ‘handsome’ but the ‘uniformity of the design and decoration’ (everything was cobalt blue apparently) left visitors, even residents, feeling disoriented. The vicar described an active community and the estate as ‘a place designed for neighbourliness and meeting’ but the walkways, according to the article, had become problematic – ‘used for a variety of games including primitive football, cricket and tennis with the result that windows in the public areas are frequently smashed’. Those promised play areas don’t seem to have materialised. (6)
But this is tame stuff compared to what came later, a trajectory summed up in one magazine headline as ‘a dream in the 60s, a reality in the 70s and a nightmare in the 80s’. The report went on to claim that North Peckham had been described by the European Economic Community as ‘the most depressed housing area in western Europe’. (7)
We’ll look at the truth of that next week. What had happened to North Peckham and the other estates to turn such high hopes into ashes and what was the new thinking that would transform what were now so unquestioningly seen as the catastrophic errors of a previous generation of planners?
(1) ‘Life at Deck Level’, Southwark Civic News, July 1968
(2) HF Wallis, ‘A Living Showpiece at North Peckham?’, Municipal Review, November 1972
(3) Christine Rouse, ‘City Village for the Birds?’, South London Press, 6 December 1974
(4) Quoted in Luna Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’, PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, January 2013
(5) Quoted in Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter (1987)
(6) Bob Smyth, ‘The North Peckham Estate: a Brief Guide’, Peckham Society Newsletter, February/March 1977
(7) Sky Magazine, March 1988