We left Orchard Park in Hull in last week’s post in a bad way, in some ways a typical peripheral estate with what by now seemed the usual problems but in other respects an example writ large in terms of its poor quality design and level of social disadvantage. A further element was introduced by what appeared to be rising problems of criminality and antisocial behaviour. In this week’s post, we’ll examine the ongoing attempts to revive and improve such increasingly stigmatised estates for which Orchard Park was a significant test-bed.
It certainly qualified as a hard-to-let estate, a phenomenon identified by the Labour government of James Callaghan in 1978 and then targeted in the Priority Estates Programme (PEP) inherited by the Conservative government which succeeded. Its emphasis was on modelling systems of local management and repair and promoting tenant participation. A growing assumption was also that particular housing forms encouraged crime.
A retrospective Home Office study of three PEP estates (two in Tower Hamlets, London, and the other the Orchard Park Estate) concluded that while all ‘had high crime rates and adverse design’, Orchard Park ‘had a greater level of disorderliness, associated with youth in particular, which fostered a greater sense of insecurity amongst residents, particularly women’. (1)
All this played into the mix of changes carried out in Orchard Park in PEP-related activity from 1986 to 1992. A local estate office was established to deal with repairs, caretaking and lettings. Neighbourhood Management Committees were set up in 1989; various security and environmental initiatives ensued. A Gardening Competition for residents inaugurated in 1993 takes us back to the domestic respectability promoted by similar such competitions in the cottage suburbs since the 1920s. (2)
There was also some attempt to use the lettings policies in supporting established residents and engineering a more socially beneficial mix of new tenants. The Home Office report captures the contradictions and limitations of such a policy in the face of the intractable realities governing council housing allocations in a period of growing shortage and increased hardship.
The report concluded that ‘Territoriality, social cohesion and “empowerment” increased among the residents of the houses’. Among new tenants, the single mothers, generally provided houses (rather than flats), seem to have complemented the more established residents living disproportionately in the estate’s low-rise homes and contributed to their relative low turnover and ‘respectability’.
At the same time, the combination of a declining economy, homelessness legislation and the shortage of council housing stock ensured that:
a greater number of young poor people and those discharged from institutional care were coming on to the estates. Their arrival at a time of high unemployment and into conditions of poverty created a destabilising influence, swelled the numbers of vulnerable tenants and encouraged more disorderly activities and lifestyles.
These new tenants were housed disproportionately in high-rise flats and:
Despite a programme of improvement to the security of the tower blocks, and better management of the estate as a whole, the newcomers – that is the young, childless poor – displaced many of the previous, elderly residents and attracted crime to themselves, both as perpetrators and victims, concentrating crime in their part of the estate.
It’s all a reminder that council estates are disproportionately required to bear the burden of social and economic problems beyond their purview or, as I would argue, that estates are a victim of societal failings but not their cause.
The Home Office report (found, appropriately, on the National Police College website) focused on crime prevention and the various attempts to ‘design out’ crime. It epitomised a critique and prescription for troubled council estates which became mainstream from the mid-eighties, aimed at, in its words:
1. Creating better dwelling security and more ‘defensible space’
2. Halting a spiral of deterioration … [by] reducing ‘signs of disorder’ and fear of crime
3. Investing in the estate so that resident’s will develop a positive view and thus a greater stake in their community …
4. Increasing informal community control over crime both through increased surveillance and supervision by residents and housing officials and facilitating the development of a set of norms and expectations against offending on the estate.
That’s a pretty good summary of the ‘design disadvantagement’, ‘defensible space’ theories that were popularised in the UK (and simplified) by Alice Coleman in the mid-1980s though, in Orchard Park (its high-rise blocks notwithstanding), it was applied not to modernist, multi-storey housing but to a generally low-rise estate.
Another, perhaps not altogether disinterested, account celebrates the design modifications implemented across the estate. (3)
Monotonous, unkept [sic] pathways in front of terraced houses were transformed by creating fenced off private yards for each household. A programme of colourful redecoration to external areas did much to brighten the estate’s formerly drab façade.
And ‘attractive tiled canopies were erected around the entrances’ of the three Mildane high-rise blocks, ‘creating a pleasing appearance, as well as giving protection from falling objects’.
At the same time, entryphone systems were installed and CCTV within lifts and ground floor communal areas, the latter at the time apparently accessible to view by tenants on a dedicated TV channel through a communal aerial, bringing a whole new level to our obsession with crime drama on the box.
The article concludes that offences committed by non-residents ‘virtually ceased’ and that the ‘few cases of theft and vandalism’ that persisted were attributable to ‘a minority of residents’. The changes clearly represented an improvement and there’s no need to sneer at sensible crime reduction initiatives which reduced its prevalence and meaningful environmental improvements even if the overall argument seems a little overstated. Generally, things were looking up; the chair of the Danes Management Committee concluded ‘The estate is a cleaner, happier place. Repairs are done quickly, the local office is run efficiently.’ (4)
Nevertheless, Orchard Park remained a ‘problem estate’ into the 2000s even as, of course, it continued to provide a decent home to most of its residents. Of those homes, Right to Buy having wrought its changes even in this apparently unpromising terrain, only around 68 percent were social rented by 2011 with now nine percent let by private landlords.
It remained an unpopular estate to outsiders; when some choice existed between 2001 and 2003, the vacancy rate stood at 26 percent and the average re-letting period at 322 days, three times worse than any other Hull estate. Fifty-two percent of OP residents were satisfied with their neighbourhood against an average of 72 percent city-wide. (5)
When the urban design consultancy Urbed worked with Gateway Pathfinder to create (in their words) ‘an engagement and capacity building programme for tenants and residents’ in Orchard Park, the vision of some seemed modest at first glance though the attitudinal shift they wanted might have been life-changing for some: (6)
My vision for Orchard Park is that it comes in line with all the other communities in Hull and it’s not singled out, when my son is eighteen and goes for a job he isn’t discriminated against because his postcode is HU6.
The veteran local Labour councillor Terry Geraghty articulated a similar ambition:
We need to get away from the idea of Orchard Park being on its own; we are all one community and we need to break down those barriers. The image the area has is not deserved, 90% of the people that live here are incredibly hard working people and we need to get the information to those in business that just because someone lives in Orchard Park it doesn’t mean they are any less capable of doing the jobs that everyone else in Hull can do …
At the time, unemployment among the economically active was at 27 percent on the estate, compared to 12 percent in Hull as a whole and six percent nationally. The Estate was among the five percent most deprived in the country; the Danes, tainted by its original design and construction flaws, was in the worst one percent. Meanwhile, for all the previously lauded design modifications, the Estate suffered the highest crime rate in Hull. (7)
Martin Crookston, an advocate for the cottage suburbs and their revival, concluded uncharacteristically that:
Orchard Park, created at the tail-end of the long years of estate-building, and at the outer edge of its city as that city started to run out of economic steam, was probably always an estate ‘too far’ – at the problem rather than potential end of the corporation suburb spectrum.
He counselled ‘radical change’.
In many ways, the Council has acted on that advice. The first three of the high-rise blocks to be demolished went in 2002, including ironically two of the Mildane blocks improved by those ‘attractive tiled canopies’ back in the eighties. The twenty-two storey Vernon House in Homethorpe was demolished in 2004. In 2008, the council began planning the clearance of the remaining seven.
This obvious, apparently radical change wasn’t universally welcomed. With little in the first instance to replace them, one local resident feared it as a sign of ‘managed decline’. An elderly resident of one of the tower blocks, confounding stereotypes, lamented their loss: (8)
I like the flats as they are, I don’t want them changed at all. I leave my door open most of the day but I lock it at teatime … We’ve got beautiful views, you must admit, you get away from everybody, you don’t answer the door if you don’t want to. I would miss my view, I would never go and live in a house and look across at somebody’s back yard.
She suggested they reserve her block for those aged over 55, a solution to tower block living adopted in two of the estate’s towers.
Despite initial stays of execution for Gorthorpe and Kinthorpe blocks in 2012 (such was the housing shortage), demolitions continued. Twenty-storey Highcourt, was demolished in March 2015. Residents’ comments capture the mixed feelings of the event: (9)
I was a young girl living in north Hull when this block of flats was built. I remember the new building being celebrated because there was a houses shortage at the time but now it’s demolition is being celebrated.
For another, it was an eyesore but he’d miss it on his morning walk. The last of Orchard Park’s high-rise blocks went with the demolition of the Gorthorpe flats in 2016.
Meanwhile, Orchard Park and Hull more widely was subject to the initiatives governing housing policy and finance nationally. The Housing Market Renewal or Pathfinder programme laudably aimed to ‘provide lasting solutions for communities blighted by derelict homes through investment and innovation’; its chosen means – which seemed to focus on the demolition of sometimes decent housing and market-led solutions – were far more controversial.
The Hull and East Riding Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (or Hull Gateway) was established in 2005 but plans to tackle the Thorpes in Orchard Park came to nought and the initiative as a whole was defunded in 2010. (10)
The Council also entertained hopes that the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), introduced by John Major but significantly expanded under New Labour, might enable the sweeping changes many nevertheless thought necessary. The title of the 2008 bid document, The Transformation of Orchard Park – Shaping the Place, Creating a Fruitful Future, captures those hopes; its 16 sections and 29 appendices reflect their breadth; and the price tag – at £142m – suggests the extent of the work deemed necessary. (11)
In summary, the proposals envisaged the demolition of 752 council houses, 255 privately owned houses, and 33 council bungalows and their replacement with 1020 new homes in the private sector and 680 new homes for social renting. This was a net gain of 660 homes but the figure conceals a net loss of 105 social rented homes.
It’s worth pausing – amidst the money talk and statistics – to examine what’s going on here and how powerfully it symbolises the policies and presumptions of the era. Firstly, we have the dependence on private capital – the minimisation of state investment reflecting both a callow political fear of public spending (better understood as investment) and an unquestioning belief in the efficiency and ultimate beneficence of the market.
Secondly, perhaps less controversially still, there is the belief in so-called mixed communities (ignoring the fact that estates already accommodate a mixed community) and mixed tenure. It marks a moment when council estates as such were deemed to have failed socially and economically. For all the specific design shortcomings of Orchard Park, we might think it the victim of social and economic failure rather than its agent. And we should certainly question why all these contemporary ‘fixes’ to long-term housing problems seemingly require the loss of desperately needed social rented homes.
The Orchard Park PFI was awarded £156m in July 2009. In one of the first substantive acts of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, all new PFI schemes (including Orchard Park) were cancelled in November 2010. Given the huge and ongoing expense of the PFI programme and its complexity and troubled implementation, that might seem a relief but it left Hull still scrabbling for finance and dependent on partnerships with private developers or housing associations which could access capital.
Nevertheless, some of that has borne fruit in the construction of new homes in the Danepark area and a recently completed scheme in association with Wates and the Riverside Group housing association at Homethorpe creating 52 new homes for rent including 16 one-bed council flats. A major refurbishment programme providing external cladding to the 1668 ‘No Fines’ homes in Orchard Park began in 2016. The Harrison Park extra care apartments for those who need to assisted living are some of the finest in the country.
The £14m Orchard Centre (a local council hub and health centre) opened on the southern fringe of the estate in 2009. A new community park and multi-use games area has opened. Remodelling of the run-down shopping centre has made that a more attractive space.
How to conclude? What to conclude? If you want an illustration of the power of selective narratives, let’s look at two recent press reports. A March 2018 report in the local press recounts three recent stabbings and residents’ fears that violence on the estate was ‘getting out of hand’. A few months earlier, another report had been headlined ‘We’ve lived on Orchard Park for 50 years – and it’s never had it better than now’. Mrs Gray moved with her husband to their terrace house in Cladshaw in 1966 and has lived there ever since: (12)
I know some people have bad things to say about Orchard Park but we have had no trouble and we brought up our children here.
Let’s finish with that – not because Orchard Park has been untroubled or without failings, some of which could have been foreseen and forestalled with greater investment and better design, but because it reminds us it’s been a home to many thousands, usually a good one and, hopefully, an improving one.
My thanks also to Tim Morton for providing the 1993 PEP report referenced and Keith Jacobs for supplying photographs of the demolition of Highcourt.
(1) Housing, Community and Crime: the Impact of the Priority Estates Project (Home Office Research Study 131, 1993)
(2) ‘Orchard Park, Hull’ (Priority Estates Project, 1993)
(3) Roy Carter, ‘Designing Crime Out of the Urban Environment’, Orchard Park Case Study, Architect and Surveyor, vol 64, no 9, October 1989
(4) ‘Orchard Park, Hull’ (Priority Estates Project, 1993)
(5) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (2016)
(6) Quoted in Charlie Baker, Urbed, Orchard Park (September 2006)
(7) Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow?
(8) Angus Young, ‘Orchard Park’s Gorthorpe and Kinthorpe tower blocks to be demolished after Hull City Council U-turn’, Hull Daily Mail, May 2, 2014
(9)Quoted in Claire Carter, ‘Gone in Eight Seconds’, Daily Mail, 9 March 2015
(10) The Urban Rim website Gateway Pathfinder provides full details.
(11) The Urban Rim website also provides a full chronological account of the Orchard Park PFI.
(12) Phil Winter, ‘’”Orchard Park violence is getting out of hand”: Fear as estate sees three stabbings in under a month’ Hull Daily Mail, 21 March 2018 and Kevin Shoesmith, ‘We’ve lived on Orchard Park for 50 years – and it’s never had it better than now‘, Hull Daily Mail, 30 September 2017