Last week’s post looked at the diverse origins of Southwark’s so-called ‘Five Estates’ and the ideals which inspired them. This week, I’ll examine how those ideals failed or rather, perhaps, how they were betrayed by wider society. That also gives us a chance to assess some of the broader charges levelled against much of the mass housing of the period.
Already by 1987, an ex-local councillor was complaining how the snake-like design of the Gloucester Grove Estate amplified noise and – less a design flaw than a problem of upkeep – that towers and rubbish chutes at the end of each block were stinking and verminous. (1) A Times report of the same year reported of the same estate that ‘gangs of youths roam constantly. Within days of being repainted, the miles of corridors and elevated walkways are an eyesore of filthy graffiti’. (2)
In the 1994 bid for Single Regeneration funding, it was claimed £250,000 a year was being spent on repairing vandalised properties in the area. Some 42 per cent of residents of the Five Estates area as a whole reported that they felt unsafe. (3)
That proportion, though high, might seem low given the bid’s interest in accentuating the negative and the alarmist media portrayal of the estates. It’s maybe the more matter-of-fact assessment of one long-term resident which captures the reality better: (4)
It wasn’t all that bad once you lived on it, you knew your neighbours and you were basically fine if you were sensible…you don’t go around flashing your cash that’s for sure, but you were all right.
That, of course, was hardly a ringing endorsement and the truth of crime, and fear of crime, was real enough. Back in 1987 again, the police had recorded 70 muggings across the Five Estates area in one week. (5) The reality of crime, in its starkest form, became evident in November 2000 with the death of Damiola Taylor, a ten-year old Nigerian schoolboy whose family had recently moved to the UK – killed in an isolated stairwell of the North Peckham Estate.
The death occurred as the estate’s regeneration was already underway but it seemed to confirm the worst fears and strongest criticisms of those who blamed the estate’s design for its troubles.
That criticism had previously been most forcefully expressed by Alice Coleman. (6) Coleman began with a simple premise: ‘Even without the scientific details one has only to think how criminal youths abound in problem estates and are quite rare in roads of single-family houses’. But she was adamant too that her King’s College research team which surveyed Southwark’s multi-storey housing – its aim ‘to establish whether there were specific design features contributing to 21 types of crime and social breakdown’ – had provided a ‘scientific’ explanation.
Sixteen such features were identified, for example:
two or three storeys are harmless, but more are harmful. Up to four flats per corridor are harmless but more are harmful. If an entrance serves no more than six flats it is harmless but with over six it is harmful.
And so on…North Peckham achieved a 13.1 design disadvantage score on Coleman’s index.
There was a common sense truth to some of this. With 72 linked blocks in all, 92 vertical routes and 49 access points around the perimeter, the complaint of one resident that ‘you never know who’s prowling around because the walkways and the stairs are open to everybody’ seemed reasonable. (7) That article continued editorially:
These characteristics all contribute to a sense of anonymity due to intrusion by non-residents through each block, as well as providing escape routes for criminals. The walkways are faceless with a series of doors to upper and lower flats, and the doors frequently front directly on what is a public highway.
This was the defensible space thesis incarnate. It blamed both the nature of public housing – as neither literally nor psychologically ‘owned’ by its residents – and its modern form – its spaces encouraged and facilitated crime – for the rise of anti-social behaviour.
Coleman’s sweeping analysis (we’ll critique it later) received more genuinely scientific backing in the 1994 study ‘space syntax’ study by Bill Hillier of the Bartlett School of Architecture. He concluded that North Peckham’s design ‘had literally generated a pathological pattern of space-use by creating lacunas in the system of natural movement’; spaces into which ‘kids were moving unsupervised and forming gangs’. (8)
Back in 1966, the ‘case for segregating people from traffic ‘had seemed ‘urgent’ and those walkways were praised for their cleanliness, safety and promotion of neighbourliness. (9) The irony that they had now become, as ‘space…structurally excluded from everyday patterns of use’, ‘terrifying’ (in Hillier’s words), is almost too much to bear. Damiola Taylor had been killed in just such a location, one suffering from what Hillier labelled ‘perpetual night syndrome’.
Alice Coleman discounted socio-economic explanations of council estate troubles as vigorously (to paraphrase Owen Hatherley) as she counted dog turds but her statement that problems of crime and anti-social behaviour were ‘rare in roads of single-family houses’ was simply empirically wrong. ‘Suburban’ estates such as Norris Green (Liverpool), Blackbird Leys (Oxford) and Meadow Well (North Shields) suffered similar troubles and worse. What connects these very different estates to Southwark’s is, of course, poverty.
Let’s begin with straightforward demographics. In Liddle Ward (since abolished but then basically comprising the Five Estates) in the 1990s, 28 per cent of the population was under 16 – a similar proportion had been held to explain the problems of Southwark’s Brandon Estate back in 1975. Fifty-seven per cent of these children lived in low-income households (the highest in London); 16 per cent of households were lone-parent (the third highest in London). (10)
At the same time, unemployment stood at 31 per cent (the highest in London) and reached, among 16 to 19 year-olds, a staggering 62 per cent. This had been a long-term problem. Unemployment had rocketed from 22 to 43 per cent in the early 1980s. A local Labour councillor, Mary Ellery, described the North Peckham Estate as ‘brilliant’ till then but: (11)
Unemployment knocked six kinds of shit out of people. Careers officers came into schools with the bad news when kids were fourteen, and from then on they knew there was no bloody point. All you need to know is how to write your name and how to go on the dole. If you’re forty-plus, you’re on the shit-heap.
To the local vicar, in this context, burglary, where you could make £200 a night (in contrast to the £40 or £50 a week that scarce, regular employment offered), was ‘the kind of work that’s seen to be viable’. Drugs also played their part in this alternative economy.
Race was a further complicating factor. Previously people from the ethnic minorities had frequently been excluded from council housing through residency rules. The primacy of needs-based assessment after 1977 and the fact that minority populations were often confined to the worst private rented accommodation saw this change in the eighties.
The Five Estates, then, had a population disproportionately drawn from the black and ethnic minorities – 57 per cent by 1991; in two local primary schools, around 60 per cent of children spoke English as a second language. That liberal vicar commented on the disempowerment of the estates’ minority population and the criminality of some of the community’s young people as a compensatory way ‘to seek power in other ways’. Of course, some longer-established locals saw these newcomers as the cause of their problems rather than as fellow victims and so another layer of tension was added to a toxic mix.
By the 1990s, the annual turnover of homes on the estates had reached between 20 to 25 per cent and it was claimed 70 per cent of residents wanted a transfer though usually they found no problem with their individual homes. As homes emptied, squatters moved in – generally transient and disinvested in the local community – with the Council and police seen as apathetic or powerless in dealing with the issue.
As the estates became hard to let and as the local council housing stock diminished through Right to Buy, new bona fide residents were disproportionately those re-housed as homeless or vulnerable. Many, it was said, came from the nearby Maudsley Hospital as longer-term patients were removed as part of the (misleadingly named) ‘care in the community’ programme.
Such a combination of problems – and they were found most often on council estates, not because council estates were awful places marked out by some foundational flaw of concept or design but rather because wider society dumped its problems on them – naturally demanded greater resources. They didn’t get them. In 1979, Southwark had a budget of £60m to maintain its 36,000 homes. By 1987, as Thatcherite cuts kicked in, its budget to manage 62,000 homes (more inherited from the GLC) stood at £28.5m. It would have required £90m just to maintain its 1979 level of spending. (12)
Despite this, and in a very changed world – which saw councils fighting against the odds to effect positive change in a context where they were seen as part of the problem rather than a means to solution – regeneration efforts began in the mid-1980s. Those will covered in next week’s post.
Special thanks to Russell Newell, who grew up in the area and took the photographs featured as a young photographer in the 1980s. Visit his 7 Bridges project for further evocative images of the estate and its African-Caribbean community in particular and to find out more about his larger body of work.
(1) Quoted in Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter (1987)
(2) ‘Culture Shock Strikes Home’, The Times, 14 July 1987
(3) Peckham Partnership, A Bid for Single Regeneration Budget Funding (September 1994)
(4) Rose (in her 60s) 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) Joanna Coles, ‘Is There Life in Peckham?’, The Spectator, 3 July 1987
(6) The quotations which follow are drawn from Alice Coleman, ‘Design Disadvantage in Southwark’, The Dulwich Society Journal, Summer 2008.
(7) This quotation from Mrs Emminia Onua and the following are drawn from Southwark Sparrow, February 1987
(8) Quoted in Matt Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’, Building Design, December 15 2000. You can see images of the North Peckham Estate and Bill Hillier explaining the application of space syntax theory to it in this fascinating video from a 1993 edition of Tomorrow’s World.
(9) Christine Rouse, ‘City Village for the Birds?’, South London Press, 6 December 1974
(10) These figures and the following taken from Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’
(11) This and the quotation from the Reverend Graham Derriman which follows are drawn from Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter
(12) Dick Mortimer (coordinator of North Peckham Project) ‘Breaking the high-rise spiral of decline: one authority’s campaign of refurbishment’, Municipal Journal, 15 May 1987