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The Broadwater Farm Estate is – with apologies to its residents who know it differently and better – notorious: the scene of rioting in 1985, blamed by some for the disorder in Tottenham in 2011, and apparently one of the ‘sink estates’ to be transformed by David Cameron’s short-lived ‘blitz on poverty’ in 2016.   Let’s tell a different story.  We’ll look at ‘what went wrong’, of course, but offer an alternative perspective which questions the easy blame-game. And we’ll look at the high hopes and good intentions which created the Estate and at what, over the years, has gone right.

Panorama_from_Downhills_Park Iridescenti

The Broadwater Farm Estate from the west, Kenley and Northold towers to left (c) Iridiscenti and made available through a Creative Commons licence

For a start, there was a context.  In 1961, according to Haringey’s Planning Officer, 90,000 households occupied 70,000 dwellings in the borough. Mr Frith estimated judiciously – since some single people preferred to share – that there was a shortfall of 14,000 homes in Haringey.  Around a third were over 70 years old and half of the housing was privately rented and of poor quality. (1)

Contemporary thinking and changed economics might tell another story here – of solid terraced housing and potential family homes which should have been rehabilitated but were, instead, sacrificed to the hubris of politicians and planners.  But that came later.  At the time, as Ernie Large (the chair of Haringey’s Housing Committee till 1968) made clear, the logic of demolition and new build was compelling: (2)

What we were doing was clearing slums in South Tottenham and other parts of the borough, so that people who actually went into the Broadwater flats originally found them palaces compared with what they were living in previously, i.e. back to back slums.

The 21 acre site for Broadwater Farm was found on land allocated to allotments to the side of the Lordship Recreation Ground.  The Moselle Brook which meandered through the area was culverted underground.  The high water table and alleged risk of flooding justified the use of piloti on all the estate’s principal blocks – stilts which raised them above an open ground floor.

Some later critics thought this an affectation – Jim Sneddon (an architect who lived on the Estate for two years) condemned the use of ‘inappropriate architectural forms to preserve the stylistic quality of [the architects’] modernist designs’.  But they unquestionably fulfilled another, uncontroversial, design goal of the time as the Council brochure to new tenants explained: (3)

Complete vehicle and pedestrian segregation has been aimed at, and all blocks are linked by pedestrian access deck below which car parking facilities are provided together with a network of service roads.

Those extensive below-block ground floors provided around 1.5 parking spaces per household for a newly-affluent working class.

SN Tangmere shopping centre

Tangmere shopping centre as envisaged

In the original design, there were plans too for a significant local shopping centre – 24 shops including ‘a public house, supermarket, newsagents, etc.’ – in the Tangmere block. It was ‘intended to form a focal point of the scheme…a “ziggurat”, a building U-shaped in plan [with] shops on three sides around a central open space’. (4)

The artist’s impression also speaks to the relative working-class affluence that the Estate was intended both to reflect and foster.  The homes themselves reflected this progress – airy flats build to generous Parker Morris space standards with the mod cons now expected.

SN 1988 view of Tangmere L19-30 Tower Block

This 1988 image of the Tangmere shopping centre (after the 1985 riots from which it never recovered) shows a gritter reality. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

The Council brochure pointed to other features and amenities of the new estate including the district heating system – ‘constant hot water for heating and domestic use…supplied to all homes from the central oil-fired boiler’.  It couldn’t be regulated in the individual flats but, as the Council pointed out, you could always turn a radiator off.

Most new residents had little cause to complain: (5)

We came from a house that was built in 1816, so when we first arrived here it was like a holiday camp. There were bathrooms, indoor loos, you didn’t have to go out in the freezing cold anymore.

Dolly Kiffin later recalled ‘a lot of peace’ on the Estate: (6)

The front room was quite big and it was so warm for the kids…It was all nice and clean. And especially at night when you sit over the patio and look all over, it’s a beautiful sight.

In all, 1063 new homes were provided, predominantly one-, two- and three-bed flats and maisonettes, in twelve blocks, housing around 3400. Aside from Tangmere, there were eight other six-storey blocks, adjoined by lower four-storey maisonette blocks. Two nineteen-storey towers, Northolt and Kenley, completed the ensemble.  (All the blocks were named after Second World War airfields.)

SN Kenley

Kenley in 2016 after refurbishment

Taylor Woodrow Anglian won the £5.6m contract and began construction in 1967.  This was the heyday of industrialised building, then seen as essential to the effective delivery of the contemporary mass housing programme.  On Broadwater, the Larsen-Nielsen Large Panel System was employed.  The collapse of Ronan Point in May 1968 came as the point blocks were under construction and work halted for several months while a strengthened system was adopted.  Other blocks were also completed to a modified design.

The first families moved in in 1970; the last – into a small section of terraced housing – in 1973. All but 34 households – the local press described the exceptions as ‘the lucky 34 who will be given tenancy of brand new flats in the Broadwater Farm Estate’ – were people who had lost homes through slum clearance.  The Housing Committee looked forward to what they anticipated to be ‘an everlasting monument’ to their achievements. (7)

We might suppress the ready ironic snigger that comes with hindsight but it’s true enough that significant problems emerged early on the Estate.  The flat roofs seem to have created severe issues of water penetration and damp in many of the flats.  The heating system – now deemed inefficient – caused noise nuisance.   Cockroach infestation, lift breakdowns and frequent rubbish fires added to the litany of residents’ complaints.

SN Parking (2)

This photograph shows the ground floor parking in 2016

If these could be judged construction flaws, another, larger, criticism was voiced of the Estate’s overall design.  Here the piloti and under-block spaces they created took centre-stage. Broadwater Farm’s fiercest critic was, again, Jim Sneddon:

This single element has possibly been the modern damaging, as it physically created a concrete ‘underworld’ for crime to thrive. Badly lit and overlooked by nothing, these ‘dark arches’ became a muggers’ paradise. Tenants became afraid to venture out after dark. Security began and ended at the tenants’ own front door.

The necessary counterpart to these surface level spaces and the goal of traffic-free access were the raised walkways which joined the various blocks of the Estate.

SN 1988 Tangmere House L19-32 Tower Block

A 1988 image of Tangmere block with walkway to the right. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

According to Paul Dennehy, a neighbourhood housing officer on the Estate in later years, the ‘streets in the sky’ provided rat-runs and escape routes for criminals: ‘If you’d done a crime elsewhere, you’d come to Broadwater Farm and that was it. The police couldn’t find you’. (8)  Decades later, as court cases revisited earlier violence, senior officers complained that Broadwater Farm was ‘impossible to police’. (9)

All this, of course, played firmly and persuasively into the ‘design disadvantagement’ thesis of Alice Coleman who argued that typical features of modernist housing estates – walkways and the concurrent lack of private ‘defensible space’ being the most salient – caused crime and antisocial behaviour.  Not for nothing was her major work, published in 1985, entitled Utopia on Trial.

SN 1988 L19-37 General view of Estate Tower Block

The suggestive power of photography: the Estate not looking good in wet twilight in 1988. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

Unsurprisingly, her critique was echoed by Jim Sneddon: ‘the architectural dreams of the 1930s [a reference to Le Corbuserian-inspired modernism] have become a nightmare in the ‘70s and ‘80s’. He criticised the confidence of the 1960s as ‘unbelievable arrogance on the part of the architectural profession’.

We’ll come back to this but it’s important from the outset to establish another and arguably determining outcome of these early problems.  The Estate became unpopular, ‘hard to let’ in the language of the day.

As early as 1973, a suppressed Council report had identified emerging difficulties.  Paraphrased here in a local press article, the report allegedly: (10)

added to the ammunition already available to those who believe as tower blocks reach skywards, they reach previously unscaled heights of human misery.  ‘Problem’ families – many of them single-parent families – were seen to be placed together, claimed the author.  The sight of unmarried West Indian mothers walking about the estate aggravated racial tension. Adolescent absentees from school frequent the blocks, terrorising the elderly.

In another reading, you might question the labelling of single-parent families and wonder why the ‘sight of unmarried West Indian mothers’ should cause such apparent grievance but racial tensions on the Estate were real.  The Tenants’ Association, established in 1970, initially excluded black members and its president was forced to resign in 1974 after a TV appearance speaking on behalf of the National Front. Still friction remained as black youths, even white youths seen to mix with their black peers, continued to be barred. (11)  These prejudices, more so as they were expressed by key actors beyond the Estate, came to play their own part in its stigmatisation.

By 1976, 55 percent of would-be Haringey tenants refused the offer of a home on Broadwater Farm and the turnover of tenancies was twice the Borough average. (12)  Clasford Stirling, who moved onto the Estate in 1978 and was a hero of its later revival, concluded Broadwater Farm had become a:

dumping ground…It was just a mass of graffiti, shit everywhere, people didn’t care, neighbour didn’t know neighbour, we had a lot of empty flats, people didn’t want to live over here, we had a lot of suicides, a lot of muggings and a lot of crime.

At this point, you might expect we’d move directly to the violent disorder of 1985 but the actual history of the Estate is more complicated.  Serious measures to address the undoubted problems of Broadwater Farm began in 1979 when it was designated part of the Priority Estates Project, a Government scheme promoting systems of local management and repair and tenant participation as means of improving what were judged the ‘worst’ of the country’s council estates.

SN 1988 Tangmere L19-31 Tower Block

Another 1988 image of Tangmere block shows the estate, with new landscaping, in more favourable light. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

And improvement did occur.  A new neighbourhood housing office was set up and £1m spent on repairing and replacing windows, redecoration and improving security.  Caretaking and cleaning services were improved. The Council also made a concerted effort to recruit local staff to work on the Estate, particularly from its minority communities.

More importantly, the estate itself mobilised.  The Broadwater Farm Youth Association (BWFYA), founded by Dolly Kiffin, was set up in 1981, Clasford Stirling an early member.  Community leaders emerged, determined to revive the Estate and challenge its poor reputation.

All this appears to have made a significant impact.  By 1984, the Estate’s homes were no longer judged hard to let and crime rates had fallen markedly: burglaries by 62 percent, vehicle crime by 50 percent, for example. (13)

SN 1988 Map of Estate L19-33 Tower Block

The estate map, photographed in 1988, captures work to do and continuing political tensions. With thanks to Prof Miles Glendinning and Tower Block UK, University of Edinburgh.

This was a success story but other realities were more intractable.  The Estate remained disproportionately home to Haringey’s disadvantaged ethnic minorities – 42 percent of its population came from New Commonwealth and Pakistan backgrounds compared to 32 percent of the Borough’s population as a whole.  More importantly, 60 percent of young people on the Estate were unemployed and around 75 per cent of its population said to be ‘dependent on some form of welfare support’. The Department of Environment classified the Estate as ‘extremely/severely depressed’.

One other factor, that which would loom largest in the period ahead, remained.  Many residents, particularly the younger ones and those from minority populations, resented what they saw – what they frequently experienced – as heavy-handed and oppressive policing. Efforts, led by Dolly Kiffin, to ease police-community relations foundered.  Next week’s post examines the tragic events of August 1985 and their more positive aftermath.


(1) DW Frith, London Borough of Haringey Department of Town Planning, Houses and Flats: a Social Study (May 1967).  The private rental figure comes from Anne Power, Estates on the Edge. The Social Consequences of Mass Housing in Northern Europe (Macmillan Press, 1997)

(2) Quoted in Lord Gifford, The Broadwater Farm Inquiry: report of the independent inquiry into disturbances of October 1985 at the Broadwater Farm Estate, Tottenham (1986), ch 2, p15. Lord Gifford’s Broadwater Farm Inquiry Report and its 1989 follow-up can be found, alongside much else, in the Bishopgate Institute’s online archive of the papers of Bernie Grant, Haringey Council leader and MP.

(3) The criticism is from Jim Sneddon, ‘My years of misery on Broadwater Farm’, Building Design, October 25, 1985, p12-13.  Later quotations from Sneddon are drawn from the same source. The quotation which follows is from Haringey Council, Broadwater Farm Tenants’ Information (ND)

(4) London Borough of Haringey, Proposed Local Shopping Centres at Broadwater Farm and Park Lane (ND) and Haringey Council, Broadwater Farm Tenants’ Information

(5) Bill Kemp quoted in Ben Willis, ‘Out of the darkness’, Inside Housing, 30 September 2005

(6) Quoted in Lord Gifford, The Broadwater Farm Inquiry, ch 2, pp15-16

(7) Quoted in Dominic Severs, ‘Rookeries and No-Go Estates: St Giles and Broadwater Farm, or middle-class fear of “non-street” housing’, Journal of Architecture, vol 15, no 4, August 2010

(8) Quoted in Ben Willis, ‘Out of the darkness’

(9) Chief Superintendent Colin Couch speaking in 2014 at the Old Bailey trial of Nicky Jacobs for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock (he was found not guilty) quoted in Elizabeth Hopkirk, ‘Design of Broadwater Farm Estate criticised at Old Bailey’, BD Online, 10 March 2014

(10) Quoted in Severs, ‘Rookeries and No-Go Estates’

(11) ‘Broadwater Farm: a “criminal estate”?  An interview with Dolly Kiffin’, Race and Class, vol 29, no 1, 1987

(12) Anne Power, Estates on the Edge

(13) Haringey Council, Evidence to the Broadwater Farm Public Inquiry (May 1986). The same source provides the figures on ethnic composition and social disadvantage which follow.