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‘After 10 years and £60m investment, five estates in Peckham, south London, have finally been transformed from pits of urban blight into shining examples of regeneration.’  So wrote one housing journalist in 2004. (1)

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Cator Street – the new face of the Five Estates

In fact, as we saw in the first post of this series, the Five Estates hadn’t always been the pits and, in total, their regeneration cost something in the order of £290m.  Last week, I looked at what had ‘gone wrong’ with (or ‘on’ – there’s a significant distinction there) the estates to justify such expenditure.  This week I’ll examine and assess the thinking which underlay regeneration and the convoluted, troubled form it took.

It was said that £16m had been spent to improve the North Peckham Estate by the mid-1980s.  But already, there were many who felt that such palliative measures – chiefly tackling problems of security by adding bars to ground-floor windows and providing new front doors – were inadequate.  Some, allegedly tenants amongst them, felt that complete demolition was the ‘ideal solution’ but at the time that was judged both too expensive and – with 24,000 on the Southwark waiting list for housing – impracticable. (2)

Alice Coleman, the guru of design disadvantagement who had investigated Southwark’s multi-storey estates, lived up to her mantra that ‘two or three storeys are harmless, but more are harmful’ by proposing that all but the lower two floors of the blocks be removed. She was upset that this apparently simple solution to the estate’s problems was rejected as more expensive than demolition and as adding to housing shortage. (3)

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This plan shows areas improved under the Estate Action programme

The first serious attempt to tackle the problems of the North Peckham Estate in particular was the North Peckham Project established in 1985 – a joint venture of councillors, officers and tenants formed to agree a bid to the Department of Environment.  This bore fruit in the Estate Action programme begun in 1987.

This programme saw the refurbishment of around 1200 homes across the wider area.  On the Willowbrook Estate, for example, a relatively untroubled and mainly low-rise estate of four-storey maisonette blocks, £350,000 was spent on renovations, asbestos removal and a new entry phone system.  The twelve-storey Tonbridge House point block was demolished in a later wave of Estate Action improvements after 1992.

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A contemporary image of Shurland Gardens (with added pitched roof) on the former Willowbrook Estate

But the big idea and the focus of the bulk of the £40m pledged by central government was the radical remodelling of the North Peckham Estate – basically an attempt to rectify what were now widely accepted as the design flaws of the original plan.  The second-storey walkways would go, new ground floor entrances to flats would be created with front and rear gardens where feasible, and access points to the estate would be reduced.  All this, of course, was an attempt to create the ‘defensible space’ that the previous estate had lacked.

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Gated entrance to new development

The five-storey parking blocks (to which few now dared to entrust their vehicles) were to be adapted – one converted into neighbourhood offices, others into workshops and a training centre. Rolf Rothermel (of Rothermel Cooke, the architects with the new design brief) was keen to get cars – so assiduously removed in the original scheme – back on the estate, given the residents’ unofficial attempts to do just that: ‘people will do anything to park their cars reasonably near their homes, although this has meant driving through bollards or over landscaped areas up till now’. (4)

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Lynbrook Grove

If these plans had some significant local support, the next – from a Conservative government decidedly hostile to local authorities (especially Labour ones) and their management of housing – did not.  In 1988 the North Peckham and Gloucester Grove Estates were together designated one of six pilot Housing Action Trusts.  The Trusts were private consortia set up to take over and regenerate council housing in designated areas – their relatively generous funding (money denied to the local authorities’ own efforts) was in a sense both carrot and stick in this attempt to take the ‘council’ out of ‘council housing’.

Tenants, however, were suspicious of the initiative, fearing loss of council management would lead to increased rents and reduced security of tenure.  At a packed meeting of North Peckham tenants in November 1988, fears were expressed, against the assurances offered by Housing Minister David Trippier in attendance, that rents might rise fivefold. (5)  That might have been exaggerated but the higher rents of properties managed by Housing Associations (the likely successor bodies) and the planned replacement of secure tenancies with assured were real enough. Opposition in Manchester’s Hulme Estate established the principle of tenant ballots and when, in October 1990, Southwark tenants got their chance to vote, they voted decisively – by a margin of over 60 per cent – to reject the proposal.

This left the ball back in Southwark’s court but, without anything like the resources needed to finance the major changes still felt necessary, it was forced again to play the system and seek central government funds under the rules of what was, by the mid-1990s, the new game in town – the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB).

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The Peckham Partnership’s area of operation

Critically, SRB was predicated on bringing in outside capital through partnerships with private developers and housing associations.  The Peckham Partnership formed in 1994 was a consortium (comprising Southwark Council, tenant representatives, Countryside Properties plc, the Laing Group, a number of housing associations and other interested bodies) to prepare just such a bid.

There were a number of implications to this approach.  Firstly, the Partnership had a clear interest in accentuating and homogenising the negative.  Some pretty bleak statistics could be justified (and I used some in last week’s post) but there was a need, in Luna Glücksberg’s words, ‘to make the area look as desperate, needy and dilapidated as possible’.  As a local councillor recalled, ‘It wasn’t as if the area was all a sink estate…when you read the big document, you’d imagine this area was sort of beyond repair, sinking, sinking’. (6)

Secondly, because of that private sector and housing association involvement, this was a strategy, that placed a premium on redevelopment – in which new houses could be built for sale and shared ownership – rather than refurbishment.  To Graham Towers, the implications were clear: (7)

Despite good evidence of the success of the comprehensive improvement schemes and despite the very much higher costs, large parts of [the North Peckham Estate] were scheduled for demolition. The decision was arbitrary and so was its implementation. Selective redevelopment might have been justified by social and environmental objectives. What was actually done was simply to demolish a swathe of housing blocks – the dividing line between new and old cut straight through the middle of each estate.

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A contemporary image of St George’s Way with flats for private sale and rental

It’s true, however, that redevelopment also chimed with the wisdom of the day.  There was a growing belief that mono-tenure estates were problematic in themselves (though, strangely, this is never a criticism made of the middle-class suburbs).  Pollard Thomas & Edwards were the architects selected to oversee the new scheme and Steve Chance, one of its directors, was clear on their goals: (8)

The intention was to have a mixed tenure neighbourhood and make it possible for people to want to buy private property in an area that was not popular. We are not trying to build a new estate, we are trying to build a bit of ordinary London.

(I’ll leave you to decode what the words ‘popular’ and ‘ordinary’ actually mean in that statement.)

This was a philosophy Southwark embraced in its ongoing redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate too –  the Council was, in the words of Catherine Bates (one of the Borough’s planning officers), ‘determined to break down the estate concept’.

The successful Peckham Partnership bid secured £60m SRB funding to add to the £47m contributed by the Borough, £37m from other public sources and £79.6m from private sources. It committed almost £180m to housing, £12.1m to ‘health, culture and sport’, £10.8m to education and some £9.7m to ‘enterprise’. (9)  This was, commendably, an holistic strategy, which recognised that the estates’ troubles were as embedded in hard social and economic realities as they were in any design characteristics.

I’ll focus on housing and here the plans were radical.  The number of homes on the Five Estates as a whole would be reduced from 4532 to 3694. Some 1854 new homes would be built, 70 per cent with gardens. And tenure would be diversified, from 99 per cent council-rented to 60 per cent – in precise numbers from 4314 council-rented homes to 2154 council-rented, 915 housing association and 625 owner-occupied.

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Tilbury Close

The numbers can be confusing but the thrust was clear. The big idea, in design terms, was to return to a more traditional streetscape and more suburban style of architecture. The stated aim of the Peckham Partnership was to ‘provide family houses and a neighbourhood environment which encourages study, work, leisure and healthy living’.  The architect Will Alsop praised the new build’s ‘more traditional type of architecture with pitched roofs’ and a circulation around its buildings which felt ‘much safer and…more embracing’. (10)

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Cronin Street

To Pollard Thomas & Edwards, the previous renovations, which involved the removal of walkways and partial demolitions but had left the basic layout of North Peckham intact, had been inadequate: the ‘homes themselves were fine, it was the bits in between that were disastrous’.  The new scheme, they claimed, would create a legible street pattern and a link between the shops and amenities of Peckham High Street and Burgess Park.

This was ‘back to the future’ with a vengeance, echoing all the tropes of the contemporary ‘defensible space’ movement which emphasised the ‘natural surveillance’ of the streets and the need to increase private space and reduce twilight zones of semi-public space.

The other big idea was mixed tenure and, more implicitly, social diversity.  Estates were held to have failed as estates: owner occupiers would bring capital into the area – social capital, if you will, which might raise educational standards and overall aspirations and just plain capital (money, in other words) that would improve an area’s amenities and retail. The Five Estates weren’t then an obvious site of gentrification but the potential was thought to exist.

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Galleria Court, Sumner Road – a private development near to Burgess Park

Let’s critique all this. Firstly, the always over-extended process of ‘regeneration’ disrupts the lives of those who are its subjects.  As Anne Power observed of North Peckham, ‘whole children’s lives have been spent with the bulldozer’ –something which also sent the psychological ‘signal that the community is not good enough because they are knocking it down’.  Mike Rahman, a tenants’ representative, stated the project had turned the area into a ‘war zone’. (11)

Secondly, the process was experienced as top-down, the much-vaunted ‘consultation’ a sham, certainly in its earlier stages when the original masterplan emerged without tenant input (some modifications followed).  Besides, most tenants wanted to retain the council as landlord for the reasons touched on earlier and the promised ‘right of return’ was impossible to fulfil given that bedsits and one-bed flats were not replaced and given the overall reduction of council-rented homes. (12)

 

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A contemporary image of Willsbridge, Gloucester Grove Estate

After ten years, the North Peckham and Camden Estates had been completely demolished, as had the older and more conventional tenement blocks of the Sumner Estate. Willowbrook had been largely and comprehensively refurbished in earlier phases of renovation. It is now self-managed by a Tenant Management Organisation. Gloucester Grove, though it retains its earlier and striking form, has also been completely refurbished.

Physically, Gloucester Grove is the one part of the Five Estates area to retain some of the built bravura of that earlier, now derided, phase of council house construction.  What’s replaced the rest – save for the odd hold-out – is a generic mix of terraced, two-storey housing and medium-rise blocks of flats and maisonettes in the slightly tarty style now favoured.

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Kelly Avenue

It’s all pleasant enough in a low-key kind of way and – let’s be honest here – it almost certainly provides homes and an environment that are preferred by most of its residents. A Southwark survey in 2002 claimed 83 per cent of residents felt their quality of life had improved since moving. As someone who has defended the ‘pleasantness’ of the much criticised cottage estates, it doesn’t behove me to be too snooty about this later iteration.

What could be seen as the ‘official’ view is best expressed in this 2004 article in the trade press: (12)

After 10 years and £60m investment, five estates in Peckham, south London, have finally been transformed from pits of urban blight into shining examples of regeneration…Its trademark post-war high-rises were home to shocking levels of poverty and crime that were well above the national average. If you had told the residents that in a decade’s time, some houses in the area would be worth more than £300,000, they would have laughed you out of town.

Other than to question why the official measure of an area’s worth must always be the sale price of its property, there’s nothing much superficially to reject of this assessment.  But I hope – if you’ve managed to read all of this extended analysis – you’ll see a more complex truth emerging.

For one, not all the estates were ‘blighted’ and none from the outset.  What mattered most in their subsequent decline – more than any inherent architectural flaws – was the maelstrom of social (not design) disadvantage that shattered their community in the 1980s.  If the estates ‘failed’, they failed because we failed them. The historical truth is that council estates succeeded as flourishing and, in their way, mixed communities when their residents had decent and secure employment. It’s that simple.

As that traditional economy declined and as, additionally, council housing became increasingly confined to the most precarious of the new precariat, it was inevitable that the ‘respectability’ of estate communities would be eroded.  Their difficulties were a distillation of those suffered by those on the margins of the new economy. Design issues were triggered when these wider socio-economic factors come into play.

Most estates still provided good homes and good communities but, for some, by this point, ‘regeneration’ and the investment it released became a necessity.  The problem is that regeneration is too often a top-down process and is always, more than is necessary, a disruptive one.  It has also, almost uniformly, led to a loss of council housing and the diminution of tenants’ rights. The dependence on private capital to part-finance it makes this inevitable; the policy choice behind this isn’t and should be fought.

The irony of regeneration, here in the Five Estates and elsewhere, is that it seeks to reinvent architecturally a world that we lost through the political choices and economic dynamics accepted since the 1970s.

Sources

(1) Vikki Miller, ‘Peckham Rise’, Housing Today, 8 October 2004

(2) 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

(3) Alice Coleman, ‘Design Disadvantage in Southwark’, The Dulwich Society Journal, Summer 2008.

(4) ‘Walkways to go in five year plan’, Architects’ Journal, vol 187, no 3, January 20 1988

(5) Debra Isaac, ‘Rent Fears for the Tenants’, The Times, November 14 1988

(6) Luna Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’, PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, January 2013

(7) Graham Towers, Shelter in Not Enough. Transforming multi-storey housing (Policy Press, 2000)

(8) Matt Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’, Building Design, December 15 2000, pp16-19

(9) Peckham Partnership, A Bid for Single Regeneration Budget Funding (September 1994)

(10) Robert Booth, ‘Damiola: could better design have saved his life?’, Architects’ Journal, vol 212, December 7 2000

(11) Both quoted in Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’

(12) Discussed in Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City’

(13) Vikki Miller, ‘Peckham Rise’

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