As we saw in last week’s post, Portsmouth entered what were hoped to be the sunny uplands of the post-war era with high ambitions. In 1945, the City Council owned and managed around 3300 council homes but some 11,000 families were on its waiting list. In total, the council estimated that the city needed some 32,000 new homes within five years – to replace some 17,000 judged unfit or affected by re-planning as well as 15,000 required for ‘general needs’. As was typical across the country, however, the housing crisis at first dictated a crisis response in the form of temporary prefabricated housing. (1)
Temporary buildings to rehouse a bombed-out population had been erected in the Fraser Road area as early as 1941. Portsmouth, as a significant naval base, was also able to press Services’ Nissen huts into operation as it did in in Bedhampton and Leigh Park. Those on the Stockheath Camp formed Leigh Park’s first classrooms till replaced by permanent buildings in 1950. Additionally, around 700 more conventional temporary prefabs were constructed across the city. (2)
The Council’s first permanent new post-war housing was occupied in July 1946; 54 houses built on Peterborough Road, Wymering. And its 2000th new home was completed in Wymering in November 1947. This was an exceptional speed of building at the time; Portsmouth’s rate of construction placed it eighth among the 1469 local authorities in England and Wales.
A large number of these homes were built on land within the city borders at Paulsgrove to the west of Wymering and begun in 1946. The new estate was originally envisaged by City Planning Officer FAC Maunder as a self-contained community with a mix of private and council homes and a full range of shopping and social facilities.
Many of the estate’s new homes were of the permanent prefabricated type that it was anticipated would solve the housing crisis (they also drew additional subsidy). In Paulsgrove, around 1000 steel-framed and steel-clad British Iron and Steel Federation Houses (BISF) were built alongside smaller numbers of Howard (steel-framed and clad with asbestos panels) and Easiform houses (constructed of in-situ poured concrete).
But the Conservative Council’s preference for a mixed tenure scheme in Paulsgrove proved unfeasible as did, apparently, those promises of community infrastructure. The estate’s first shops (in temporary Nissen huts) weren’t opened till 1949; its community centre not till 1963. Inadequate bus services were also criticised. As around half the estate’s population – reaching 10,000 by 1951 – were under 15, social problems emerged though individual homes, with front and back gardens and generous space standards, were popular. (3)
Similar deficiencies appeared at Leigh Park, envisaged as the Council’s showpiece and originally planned to house 25,000 people in over 7000 homes. Construction work began in 1947 and the first residents moved into homes on Bramdean Avenue in 1949. At the same time, it appeared the larger project might be aborted. Max Lock had been appointed by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to prepare a district plan which the Ministry hoped might overcome the hostility of neighbouring local authorities to the Leigh Park scheme. Lock concluded that further expansion should be halted; that it was, essentially, a large, single-class, overspill suburb, rather than a new town. Fortunately for the city, the Ministry ignored this rather accurate critique and in 1951 gave permission to Portsmouth to expand the scheme to 9000 homes.
Whilst Leigh Park grew to a population of over 40,000 by the early 1970s, its early development was slow – the first permanent shops appeared in 1952 and permanent schools and places of worship from the mid-1950s. Many of the earliest residents – very much the pioneers – welcomed their new homes and green surroundings: (4)
My first impression of Leigh Park was that the freshness and the openness was like being set free. That was wonderful, the fresh air was marvellous. To us it was paradise.
But for others it was a difficult move:
It was a lonely life really … The air was nice and all that. I felt a bit depressed though, coming up from Portsmouth. But we had to settle, well, I wasn’t used to the countryside that’s what it seemed to me, coming out here.
And, for nearly all in the earliest years, there were the practical difficulties of unfinished roads and lack of pavements: ‘you would have to wear your wellingtons in Leigh Park and take your decent shoes in a bag on the bus’. In the mid-1950s, some 70 percent of local workers travelled more than four miles to work; 14 percent worked at the Portsmouth Dockyard. Local employment was created in a small industrial estate from this time but the cinema, civic centre and swimming pool promised never materialised and the estate has coped with many problems as it has matured. (4)
Politically, Leigh Park suffered as a Portsmouth estate situated in Havant which lacked political representation on the City Council though active tenants’ groups made up this deficiency in part. Some criticised the politics of the Council itself. Though it promoted a large-scale council housebuilding programme, the Council’s Conservative complexion was made clear in a number of respects.
It favoured, for example, ‘mixed development’. It had originally hoped that both Portsdown and Leigh Park might be joint public-private ventures. Post-war restrictions made that impossible but the Council was unusual in building a number of council homes for ‘higher income groups’. These, maintained on a separate register, apparently proved popular.
It was also an early proponent of Right to Buy, instituting the policy for its own council homes in 1952. The policy was paused in 1961 – by which time some 643 houses had been sold off – following the complaint of the Housing Director that the Council was losing many of its best homes but resumed in 1967.
The Council also pursued a policy of ‘economic’ rents in the hope of making the Housing Revenue Account self-supporting. Rent rises averaging 20 percent in 1965 prompted two protest marches, the latter involving some 20,000 people. A subsequent survey found Portsmouth’s average weekly rent of £2.58 a quarter higher than the national average and the highest outside Greater London. (5)
Nationally, as the immediate post-war housing crisis was receding by the mid-1950s, attention was turned again to slum clearance. In 1957, the Council identified some 7000 homes in the city for demolition. In the same year, the application of Portsmouth for a significant boundary extension – it shared with many urban authorities of the time a fear of population loss and rate revenue reduction – was rejected by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Portsmouth’s policy, pursued to some degree since the 1930s and formalised in 1962, of rehousing displaced residents in central areas added pressure to build at greater density in the inner city, as did the reluctance of some residents to move to the distant council suburbs on the mainland.
The city’s first multi-storey blocks – the eight-storey Darwin House in Australia Close and the eight-storey Brisbane House and seven-storey Blackwood House on London Road – had been built in the early 1950s.
High-rise was fully embraced with the agreement to build the twelve-storey Pickwick House nearby in 1960. City Architect Frank Mellor was an early proponent of high-rise and drew the attention of the Council to the ‘many people who are being rehoused … that want to stay in Portsmouth’. The argument of Housing Committee chair Frank Miles that ‘a diminishing population would adversely affect the Government block grant to Portsmouth’ and the attractions of the high-rise subsidy instituted in 1956 (which provided a higher grant the taller the building) completed the case. (6)
From then on, Portsmouth built high on a large scale. Millgate House, a twenty-storey block on Butcher Street, was approved in 1962; twenty-one storey Sarah Robinson House, on Queen Street in 1964; and 24-storey Ladywood House, off Winston Churchill Avenue, in 1966 – all constructed by Wimpey. Other high-rise blocks are dotted around the city.
But problems were soon to emerge in the high-rise and system-building drive that characterised the 1960s. Following the partial collapse of Ronan Point in east London in May 1968, eight similar Large Panel System-built blocks in Portsmouth were strengthened and their gas supplies removed. Among these were Leamington and Horatia Houses. More recently, the Grenfell disaster has added new and desperate concerns. Leamington and Horatia Houses have since had their later Grenfell-style cladding removed but a surveyor’s report has found the buildings structurally unsound. Their residents are being rehoused prior to the blocks’ demolition.
That, in the end, was also the sad denouement of Portsmouth’s last great innovative housing venture, Portsdown Park – a ‘mixed-rise’ scheme (blocks ranged from 17 to six storeys) of 520 homes built between 1968 and 1975. Designed, after a national architectural competition, by Theakston and Duell, problems developed early on despite – or perhaps because of – its striking design.*
Serious water penetration and condensation issues affected almost half the tenants: ‘condensation ran down the walls and dripped from light sockets, carpets became like wet sponges and clothes left inside wardrobes became mouldy’, according to one account. The estate’s overall layout, walkways and underground car parks and lack of facilities were also criticised and serious problems of antisocial behaviour developed. By 1984, the Council felt there was little option but demolition. The Cosham Heights estate stands in its place. (7)
In 1981, around 22 percent of Portsmouth’s population lived in some 25,000 council homes. By 2015, those numbers had reduced to 10 percent and some 10,250 council homes – a further 5000 homes were located in Havant and 6000 rented from housing associations. Right to Buy has had the major impact – over 12,200 houses and 1800 flats were sold to tenants between 1980 and 2011; the near cessation of new build to the present has compounded the problem. The Council has been criticised for its inaction in recent years but currently claims to be building around 200 new social rent homes. In one innovative departure, Wilmcote House, a Bison Large Panel System block completed in 1968, has recently been retrofitted to Passivhaus standards. (8)
Whilst there is no doubt that promise sometimes exceeded fulfilment, Portsmouth City Council’s housebuilding programme has made a vital contribution towards providing decent and affordable homes in one of the poorest cities in South-east England (currently around 22 percent of the city’s children live in poverty, the proportion reaches 40 percent in Charles Dickens Ward). The lessons of the past – both positive and negative – remind us that decent and affordable social housing is as vital today as it was when our story began in 1912.
* My thanks to Mark Swenarton for pointing me to this reference in his book Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2018). The design competition organised for the Portsdown development attracted 91 entries and was of national significance. A number of teams from the Architectural Association submitted low-rise proposals but found low-rise and stepped schemes ruled out by the assessors. A special protest issue of the Architectural Association Journal in March 1966 featured three proposed low-rise schemes for Portsdown and marked an important moment in the shift towards the low-rise, high-density design that became influential from this point.
(1) See Tatsuya Tsubaki, Post-war Reconstruction and the Questions of Popular Housing Provision, 1939-1951, PhD thesis in Social History, University of Warwick, 1993, and JA Cook, Policy Implementation in Housing: A Study of the Experience of Portsmouth and Derby, 1945-74, PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, 1985
(2) For full details of adapted naval bases, see Robert W Hind, The Naval Camps of Bedhampton and Leigh Park (Spring Arts and Heritage Centre and Leigh Park Community Centre, 2017)
(3) See Tsubaki, Post-war Reconstruction and the Questions of Popular Housing Provision and also Tim Lambert, A Brief History of Council Housing in Portsmouth
(4) Ralph Cousins, The Early Years of the Leigh Park Housing Estate (Havant Borough History Booklet No 69, 2016)
(5) JA Cook, Policy Implementation in Housing: A Study of the Experience of Portsmouth and Derby
(6) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (1993). For the subsidy argument, see R Windle (ed), City of Portsmouth Records of the Corporation, 1966-74 (1978)
(8) See Portsmouth City Council, A History of Council Housing in Portsmouth (2011) and Portsmouth City Council, Shaping the future of housing: A strategic plan for Portsmouth (ND)