A few weeks ago, I was in Nottingham to give a talk on my new book to the good people of Five Leaves, independent bookseller of the year in the 2018 British Book Awards. It was a chance to meet in person some people I’ve got to know on-line and, of course, to visit the city’s fine and particularly interesting array of council housing.
The definitive book on Nottingham’s council housing history – Chris Matthews’ Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses – has already been written so I won’t try to replicate that in this post. You can also read the guest post by Alex Ball on this blog on Nottingham’s earliest council housing. What you’ll get here is an exploration and lots of photos – a journey undertaken principally on the number 35 bus (courtesy of Robert Howard, you’ll find an map of the route and many of its points of interest online here) with a tram ride and a fair amount of walking thrown in.
The 35 arrives regularly – every ten minutes or so – courtesy of Nottingham City Transport. It’s one of ten publicly owned bus companies in the country and is regularly voted UK Bus Operator of the Year. (Technically, it’s run at arms-length with Transdev, a private company, owning a five percent shareholding.) In Greater Nottingham, bus travel makes up 34 per cent of all journeys and is increasing whilst in sharp decline elsewhere. The case for public ownership and management of this public service – outlawed in the 1985 Transport Act – seems self-evident.
We’ll start at Lenton, just to the west of the city centre. The area to the south of Derby Road was once the site of the five Lenton tower blocks and a purpose-built shopping precinct replacing the shops demolished on Willoughby Street. The 17-storey point blocks and their 480 flats were completed in 1967, system built by the Bison wall frame method. They survived until 2014, structurally sound but poorly insulated, some in low demand. Nottingham City Homes, the arms-length management organisation in charge of the city’s council housing, concluded their replacement better value for money than costly refurbishment.
What you’ll see now is a brand new development. The showpiece is Palmer Court, 54 independent living apartments and winner of the 2017 Constructing Excellence LABC award for the best social housing development in the UK. I got to look inside and was very impressed by the quality of the building and facilities.
In the surrounding streets are 88 family homes, an eclectic mix of houses, bungalows and flats. The overall total is 142 new homes, with ownership split between the City Council and Nottingham City Homes. With around 25,000 fully managed homes, it is one of the largest in the country and, with currently almost 900 new homes planned or proposed, one of the biggest builders among them.
While you here, take a quick look at the Lenton Centre on Willoughby Road. It’s a social enterprise now but the Lenton Cottage Baths, as they were once known, were opened by the City Council in 1931 and originally comprised a washhouse and two sets of slipper baths, twelve for men and eight for women. The washhouse included two washing machines, innovative for the time, which could be hired by the hour. A long proposed swimming pool, funded by the William Olds Trust, was finally added in 1966 and continues – alongside a range of other facilities – to serve a still evolving local community. (1)
Travelling east, the next stop is the Wollaton Park Estate, begun in 1926 in an interwar era when Nottingham, under City Architect Thomas Cecil Howitt, was among the foremost builders of council housing in the country in number – over 17,000 – and quality. Wollaton Park exemplifies the garden suburb ideals of the early post-First World War period with leafy streets and cul-de-sacs radiating from Farndon Green, the attractive open space at its centre. You’ll notice two shops (one a miraculously surviving local post office) with Arts and Crafts detailing, and then, as you enter the estate proper, among the 422 homes, a local peculiarity – the Crane bungalows.
William Crane was a building trades businessman and the Conservative chair of the Council’s Housing Committee from 1919 to 1957. In the early 1920s, a time of rising costs and severe shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour, there was considerable interest in finding innovative means to build prefabricated housing, generally using concrete or steel.
Crane’s solution was a steel frame house (nearly all the Wollaton Park examples are, in fact, bungalows) completed with walls of precast concrete. (I discussed a similar form of construction, though one of very different appearance in my recent post on Nissen-Petren houses.) He persuaded the Council to commission 1000; presumably it helped that he was chair of the Housing Committee though the homes also received the necessary imprimatur of the Ministry of Health.
Unusually also, the homes were originally built for sale; a semi-detached house could be bought for £490 on a Council mortgage with a £40 deposit and weekly payments of 14s 6d (75p). Though there don’t appear to have been any build issues with the new homes, they didn’t sell very well and only 500 were built. A large proportion of those which didn’t sell were added to the Council’s housing stock and offered for rent. (2)
Further evidence of Howitt’s influence is seen at our next port of call, the Lenton Abbey Estate straddling the tree-lined dual carriageway Woodside Road, also built in the later 1920s. Again, it’s a classic cottage suburb – all crescents, greens, avenues and closes – of very attractive appearance.
Look out too for some early street signs of a type you’ll still see dotted around the city’s estates – a distinctive circular sign on a short single post. With all the current talk of place-making, I hope the Council will retain these and replace them appropriately when necessary. There have been changes. Many of the homes – those not bought under Right to Buy – now have thick white thermal cladding. Somehow, the present mix of white cladding and red brick seems to work.
Back on the 35 bus, it’s a six minute hop to Grangewood Road in Wollaton Vale. The mid-1970s estate of low-rise flats was a North British Housing scheme originally envisaged as Phase II of the larger Balloon Woods development just to the north.
Crossing the railway line, you’ll see a small social housing estate built in the late 1980s, a mix of traditional brick-built bungalows and semis. It couldn’t – very purposefully, one assumes – be more different from the housing it replaced. The original Balloon Woods estate was a concrete, system-built housing estate (developed by the local authority consortium the Yorkshire Design Group) comprising some 647 flats in fourteen seven-storey and nine six-storey blocks. Completed in 1970, it lasted fourteen years.
Four stops on the 35 gets us to Stotfield Road. We’re in Bilborough now which, with neighbouring Broxtowe and Aspley, contain huge swathes of council housing, begun before the Second World War and expanded massively after. Though most of its houses now look like conventionally built post-war semis, you’ll see some surviving examples of the original and unreconstructed housing. These homes were originally Tarran Newland prefabs.
We’ve seen how shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour impelled an examination of non-traditional methods of housebuilding after the First World War. Similar pressures, alongside even greater ambition to build at scale, were anticipated in the Second. A Ministry of Works competition inviting designs for prefabricated construction attracted over 1400 entries. Tarran Newlands houses comprised a concrete and steel frame with infill precast reinforced concrete panels.
Byley Road, adjacent, offers just one example of the traditional brick-built housing which predominated even as, by 1951, over 156,000 prefabricated homes had been built across the country.
Hop back on the bus and travel north, you get to Burnside Green where you’ll see further examples of post-war non-traditional housing. The Wimpey No-Fines homes were built of concrete (with no fine aggregates) cast in situ. Traditional brick and blockwork and a generally rather grey weather-proofing rendering completed the building. You’ll see a range of such homes in this area, some recently renovated but a few reflecting their more austere original appearance.
You can walk the next bit onto Bracebridge Drive. You’ll see a health centre, a library and shopping parade here (still anchored by the Coop as was often the way when the new estates sprang up), and for our purposes, you’ll find various examples of yet another form of traditional hosing briefly trialled in the post-war period, the BISF house.
These were produced by the British Iron and Steel Federation to a design by Sir Frederick Gibberd. Naturally enough, given its provenance, it’s a steel-frame house with a characteristic steel-trussed sheeting panels on the upper storey (hence the ‘tin tops’ name the homes are sometimes given. Across Bilborough, Nottingham City Homes has added external cladding to around 450 Wimpey No-Fines and BISF houses to improve insulation and appearance. It’s an unremarked irony of Right to Buy that if you look around estates now, it’s as often as not the socially-owned homes that are better maintained, especially when it comes to the higher costs improvements sometimes needed with certain types of building.
Walk to the end of Bracebridge Drive and Monkton Drive and Staverton Road which lie off it to the south and you come to a dense network of bungalows, separated by narrow walkways. It’s a surprisingly intimate ensemble, unusual in its scale and form – and it has a simple explanation. These are homes built to replace around 90 post-war one-storey prefabs erected as a temporary measure. Expected to last about ten years, the prefabs here weren’t demolished until the early 1980s. Even then when they were finally cleared, their residents liked them so much that they were able to persuade the Council to replace them with the small homes you see presently, built on the existing footprint of the prefab bungalows they replaced.
Back on the 35 and a ten minute ride takes you into Broxtowe (the Nottingham estate, not the neighbouring borough). Broxtowe was built in the 1930s to rehouse those displaced by slum clearance. Its boxy neo-Georgian housing is a little plainer than its predecessors built in more generous times but it retains the same Garden Suburb ideals exemplified in its curving streetscapes and occasional closes and greens. It’s now among the ten percent most deprived areas of England but the housing and estate look well-maintained and it remains to serve its founding purpose – the provision of decent, affordable housing to those who need it.
Travel ten minutes by bus to the east to the Aspley Estate, over 2800 homes completed in the later 1920s, you see that earlier era and ambition in full spate with the striking Arts and Crafts-inspired gable ends and mansard roofs of some of its houses.
Ten minutes on, the Cinderhill Estate takes us to the 1930s and a more economical style, perhaps reflecting the impact of the Great Depression. Dulverton Vale and its solid red-brick semis provides the suburb; Munford Circus, just off it, offers some garden.
Finally, on the 35, we’ll travel towards its terminus and Bulwell. Towards the end of Cinder Hill Road, there is a series of small closes on your left and another set of bijou bungalows. These are the late-1990s replacements of another early post-war Tarran scheme, this time prefab bungalows. Among them, on Leonard Road itself towards the end of the estate, you’ll see a few in their original state.
For all what is now their rather archaic appearance, these were once state-of-the-art homes with a ‘plumbing unit’ containing a cooker, refrigerator and sink unit. The bathroom contained a heated towel rail and the living room fire provided a form of central heating through warm air ducts into the two bedrooms. Generously supplied fitted cupboards completed this modern ensemble. (3)
A short walk further on is a rather undistinguished 1970 scheme, Cinderhill Walk (part of the Crabtree Farm Estate) though the mature trees and greenery provide a pleasant environment and, no doubt, the flats themselves represent an advance on what was new and up-to-date in the late 1940s.
That’s the end of the bus journey. If you’re following the route, you can take the tram from Bulwell station and alight at David Lane for a ten minute walk to Stockhill Lane. This, with the exception of two unusual tenement schemes built for Corporation employees in the 1870s (the Victoria Dwellings, now renamed Park View Court, now privately owned, remain in Bath Street).
The Stockhill Lane scheme was commenced in 1919, the first in the city built under the Addison’s Housing Act of that year. The 225 semi-detached houses, some along Stockhill Lane itself, the rest grouped around a central circular green, are distinguished by their pitched roofs, prominent gables and painted pebbledash exteriors. The privet hedges remain a characteristic feature of Nottingham’s interwar council housing.
Retrace your steps to take the tram four stops further on to Hyson Green Market. Hyson Green was another troubled 1960s council scheme. The mix of 593 flats and maisonettes was a system-built estate using Bison wall frame. Construction defects – water penetration, condensation, poor heating and soundproofing – manifested themselves early and its design – with walkways connecting the various blocks – would also be criticised as fashionable ‘defensible space’ theories blamed it for problems of crime and antisocial behaviour. The hard-to-let estate became a troubled area as it came to house disproportionately more vulnerable tenants with little choice as to where they were housed.
The scheme was demolished in 1987, replaced by the mix of new houses and the Asda supermarket you see today. Of the original buildings, only the 17-storey Braidwood Court remains, now in private ownership, subject to a major refurbishment in 2006 and now renamed The Pinnacle.
Back on the tram, four more stops takes us back to the city centre and close to the Victoria Centre. This was another unusual scheme, begun in 1967 when the Council was under Conservative control and intended to provide a modern city centre with accommodation provided above a large new shopping mall. The accommodation element, designed by the private architect Arthur Swift, comprised 464 flats arranged in a series of conjoined towers rising at peak to 22 storeys.
These council flats were built on a 99 year lease from the shopping centre developers who purchased this prime city centre site from British Rail when they closed Nottingham’s Victoria Station. Rented as social housing, they have had special lettings policies applied for much of their lifespan, with the added irony that the flats are no longer subject to the Right to Buy due to the remaining length of the lease
It’s a five-minute walk to the south to get to a small 1937 council scheme on Cranbrook Street and Brightmore Street off Goose Gate. At this time, the Council was demolishing the inner-city slums and building small developments on the cleared plots. It’s a little bit of council suburbia in the heart of the city.
This is more strikingly the case in the Cliff Road Estate, a ten-minute walk to the south. This was once Narrow Marsh, one of Nottingham’s most notorious areas of slum housing. Clearance was first mooted in the Red Lion Street improvement scheme of 1923; the modified scheme you see today was built in 1934.
It’s an unpretentious estate but the ambition to build these little redbrick houses with gardens in an inner-city location is impressive and made more so by their location, perched beneath the sandstone outcrop of St Mary’s cliff and the dense urban development atop and around it.
From there it was a short walk to the station and trains elsewhere. If you’re more fortunate, you’ll have more time to explore Nottingham and I dare say there’s a few of you that won’t spend so much time looking at council housing. For the latter, there’s plenty more to explore including the large estates to the north and east of the city which, together with those we’ve explored today, provided the over 50,000 homes which once housed almost half the city’s population.
A special thank you to Dan Lucas, strategy officer at Nottingham City Homes, for his guided tour of the new Lenton scheme and nearby estates and the guidance and detail he provided to support the visit described above.
My thanks also to Chris Matthews and Robert Howard for sharing their own local knowledge of the city and its housing.
Chris has written guides to Aspley, Broxtowe and Cinderhill and Beechdale, Bilborough and Strelley which cover many other local points of interest as well as housing. You’ll also find Chris’s research and writing on his blog, Internetcurtains.
Robert Howard’s own deep knowledge of Nottingham history is referenced above and his illustrated blog of a walk through Bilborough and Strelley can also be found online.
(1) Robert Howard, ‘About the Centre’
(2) ‘The Crane Houses Of Wollaton Park: Simply Ahead Of Their Time?’, Lenton Times, issue 1, October 1988
(3) ‘Council’s Choice of “Prefab” Bungalow Full Description of the “Tarran” Type’, Christchurch Times, 24 February 1945 (pdf) [With thanks to Roy Hodges]