By the early 1980s, Orchard Park in Hull was described as ‘one of the poorest peripheral estates in Britain’. (1) Anne Power was describing its relative affluence – or lack of it – but for many people her words would also reflect a judgment on the quality of the design and build of the estate. The long story of Orchard Park might justify that – it’s a tale of good intentions, poor execution, hostile circumstance and, perhaps in the longer term, lessons learned. In this post, we look at the apparent missteps and failings.
Hull had built some 10,700 homes before the Second World War. As a result of wartime devastation – over 1000 hours of raids destroyed 5300 homes outright in the city and damaged almost 115,000 – and the prevalence of the remaining slums, post-war ambitions were even higher.
Bransholme, with a planned population of 26,000, was the largest Hull estate (though not, as frequently claimed, the largest in Europe). Orchard Park, with 10,000 residents, was smaller but formed a significant part of the large-scale building programme. Overall the Council built some 35,400 homes in the post-war period and housed, at peak, in 1981 some 47 percent of the city’s households.
Planning for Orchard Park, on open farmland on the fringes of the North Hull Estate, had begun as early as 1951 but early proposals were stymied by the conflicting interests of the various local authorities and developers involved. The present-day estate emerged from 1963 under the aegis of City Architect David Jenkin.
The estate takes the form of four so-called ‘villages’. The first, named ‘the Courts’, to the east of North Hull, was completed in 1965 – 764 homes, almost all traditionally built two-storey houses with gardens front and back. It’s said to have ‘always been one of the more popular areas of the estate with a stable population’. (2) The overall layout is a fairly crude form of Radburn with service roads and garaging provided to the rear of homes generally facing grassed open spaces.
The original intention was to complete all four phases of the estate to similar design but, with a new City Architect in place in 1964, JV Wall, Village 2 – the Danes, on the north-western corner of the estate, took a very different form. Radburn principles – that separation of cars and people – were maintained but the homes, predominantly two-storey, three- and four-bedroom houses, were built in long and – to critical eyes – monotonous terraces: (3)
In many ways, ‘the Danes’ are similar in appearance to old terraced housing – rows and rows of high density terraces, all facing the same way. It is almost as if the design is an attempt to recreate the community feeling of the old slums.
Another distinctive aspect of the Danes was the large-scale use of Wimpey ‘No Fines’ housing, built of concrete (with no fine aggregates) cast in situ. The upside of the method was the speed of construction; some 27 ‘shells’ were completed weekly at peak. But there were downsides to which we’ll return.
Village 3, the Shaws, was begun in 1965 and finished in 1967. This phase saw a return to traditional, brick construction, carried out by the Council’s own Direct Labour Organisation. The tried and trusted methods applied seem to have ensured this part of the estate remained popular and problem-free.
Finally in Village 4, the Thorpes, on the north-eastern fringes of Orchard Park, there were around 500 terraced and semi-detached two-storey houses and some 48 town houses plus three ten-storey towers each comprising 47 one-bed flats.
Across the estate, eleven tower blocs were erected, most of 17 to 19 storeys with two at 22 storeys, the tallest residential buildings in Hull. The intent here, in this basic form of mixed development, was to achieve some greater housing density among the generally dispersed low-rise estate and to offer visual interest and contrast within Orchard Park’s low-lying flat terrain. (4)
In all, housebuilding was complete by 1969. In contrast, community facilities followed slowly and a promised neighbourhood centre never materialised. A modest shopping centre finally opened in 1974. By then, the estate was already seen as problematic.
One issue was the system-built Wimpey ‘No Fines’ housing. As we noted, its speed of construction was impressive but a 1985 report from the Centre for Environmental Studies (CES) described it as having ‘all the hallmarks of a “crash programme”’ – and not in a good way. It had been, they continued, ‘the root of many of the estate’s problems ever since’, unsurprisingly given the issues of condensation and internal rot and mould they refer to.
The problem here – as with system-built estates with similar flaws across the country – is not only the obvious discomfort for the residents directly affected but that estates (or parts of them) become unpopular and ‘hard to let’ and come to house typically those with least choice when it came to rehousing, the more vulnerable and disadvantaged of our community.
The same CES report also criticised the layout of the Danes, noting the designers’ intention that each of its homes have, in effect, ‘two “front” entrances’, one linking with pedestrian routes, the other to the service areas. This was a version of the Radburn system that existed across most of Orchard Park but, as Martin Crookston concluded, ‘so bastardised a version and so badly done, that the concept’s originators would not even recognize it’. (5) The CES report noted a lack of privacy with pedestrian walkways up against front windows and ‘functionless “open space”, criss-crossed by informal “paths”’.
This combination of housing form and estate layout, in conjunction with the estate’s peripheral location, left Orchard Park in a parlous state. Crookston, an advocate for the so-called cottage suburbs, is uncharacteristically critical of Orchard Park:
The overall layout has produced a lot of shapeless underused space which has no clear ‘ownership’ as well as a locality with no recognizable shape or sense of place. A walking trip is a long plod through nothing very much, and bus stops on the main loop road … feel as though they are in the middle of nowhere … the housing itself [is] frankly unattractive – boxy little rows running off at an angle to the sweeping over-designed through-roads.
This, as he acknowledges, is a harsh judgment on a place many people call home but, superficially from an outsider’s perspective, it’s a hard one to disagree with.
All this comes to look archetypical of a certain form of edge-of-town estate characterised by the town planner and urbanist Sir Peter Hall in a 1997 article. It first identified a number of physical problems often associated with such peripheral estates: poor housing stock, ‘an impersonal and alienating physical environment’, lack of variety in housing types and sizes, geographic isolation. Most of these can be applied, in part at least, to Orchard Park, as can the social problems the article linked to such estates. (6)
By 1981, unemployment in Orchard Park stood at 18 percent. This was four percentage points higher than the Hull average which itself was among the highest in the country. Youth unemployment on the estate was said to reach 80 percent. Ninety percent of tenants were on Housing Benefit, by some way the highest proportion in the city (on the adjacent North Hull Estate, by contast, the figure stood at around 40 percent). If we take larger families and single-parent households as metrics of relative social deprivation (I mean poverty), there too Orchard Park scored highly – almost 11 percent of households had three or more dependent children.
There were other indicators too of an estate with problems, seen most powerfully, in housing terms, in the 11.3 percent annual turnover rate for the ‘No Fines’ houses which were only marginally more popular than the estate’s high-rise flats where the turnover rate reached 12 percent.
Anne Power’s description of Orchard Park as ‘one of the poorest peripheral estates in Britain’ was more than justified and its associated problems of design and form seemed almost overwhelming. What could change? We’ll take a look in next week’s post.
(1) Anne Power, Hovels to High Rise: State Housing in Europe since 1850 (1993)
(2) Outer Estates in Britain: Orchard Park Case Study (CES Paper 25, 1985)
(3) Outer Estates in Britain: Orchard Park Case Study (CES Paper 25, 1985)
(4) Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State. An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970 (Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, 2017)
(5) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (2016)
(6) Peter Hall, ‘Regeneration Policies for Peripheral Housing Estates: Inward- and Outward-looking Approaches’, Urban Studies, Vol. 34, Nos 5-6, 1997