As last week’s post illustrated, Greenock’s housing problems were among the most severe in the country and exacerbated by severe wartime bombing. Besides a housing shortage, housing conditions remained dire; in 1951 over one-third of the town’s homes shared an outside toilet and 45 percent lacked a fixed bath. Britain may have won the war but ‘winning the peace’ required unprecedented action to tackle the housing crisis.
In Greenock, as elsewhere, one response took the form of temporary prefabs with perhaps around 300 erected across the town. Those imported from the United States were soon found wanting as ‘not suitable for the Greenock climate’ – ‘the latest complaint is of swollen floorboards through damp’. British Arcon and Uni-Seco models were apparently more successful. (1)
Another import, the ‘Swedish Houses’ – permanent prefabs assembled from flat-pack timber kits – were more successful. Forty-two pairs were built on Mallard Crescent, more along around Cedar Crescent and Fir Road in the Gibshill district; 3500 in Scotland as a whole. The steel-framed BISF (British Iron and Steel Federation Houses), of which around 40,000 were built across the UK, feature in significant numbers in the South Maukinhill district of Greenock. Both survive to provide good homes to the present, the BISF houses in Greenock thoroughly renovated from 2006.
In the post-war re-imagining of a better Britain, the proposals of Frank Mears, who had been appointed planning consultant to the Burgh in 1940 – enshrined in Greenock: Portal of the Clyde published in 1947 – received considerable publicity. A documentary film entitled Greenock Plans Ahead, directed by Hamilton Tait, was commissioned to accompany an exhibition in the Municipal Buildings. (2)
Mears aimed to capitalise on the town’s strategic location on the Firth of Clyde and address the deficiency of open space in the lower town identified by the Clyde Valley planning survey carried out under the auspices of Sir Patrick Abercrombie. He proposed lower density redevelopment, zoned industrial areas and, most strikingly, a ‘federal Garden City’ on American Parkway lines formed of new neighbourhoods dotted along the Kip Valley.
Whilst that vision may seem unfamiliar to current residents, major post-war housing developments in Penny Fern, Branchton and Larkfield to the south-west of the town owe something to Mears’ thinking (though the A78 hardly lives up to a Parkway billing). Such large-scale developments – 690 homes were agreed for the Penny Fern estate in 1950 – also reflected the availability of building land in the area.
The Council completed its 1000th post-war house in 1950 – an impressive record in an era of genuine austerity. Additional housing – 564 houses in Pennyfern and Larkfield – was built by the Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA). (The SSHA was originally set up in 1937 to provide employment and housing in Scotland’s most depressed districts. Its remit was later extended to cover the whole of Scotland when it became, in effect, a government housing agency operating within the Scottish Development Department.) By 1960, 5000 new post-war homes had been built in Greenock. (3)
A major redevelopment of the town centre proposing 600 homes in six-storey blocks and some 150 shops proposed in 1960 was implemented from 1968.
If low-rise suburbia was the predominant form of 1950s council housing, high-rise seemed the flavour of the 1960s. Whilst that popular perception was not always accurate, it was true for Greenock where shortage of land, a difficult hilly terrain and pressing housing need combined to impel high-rise as an apparently unavoidable solution to building at density. Some 32 multi-storey blocks were constructed in the town between 1962 and 1975. Some dubbed Greenock the ‘Hong Kong of the Clyde Coast’.
Three 16-storey blocks on Grieve Road were the first approved, followed by lower blocks in Upper Bow Farm and Cartsdyke in 1964 and 1965. In the latter year, the Burgh also bet big on system-built construction, approving the 15-storey Ravenscraig and Rankin Courts and six further blocks of 16- and 15-storeys in the comprehensive development area of Belleville Street. All were constructed using the Bison system, a rapid construction method using pre-cast concrete panels. (4)
Greenock’s steep terrain forced some innovative and daring design solutions to the creation of high-density housing, as seen in what are now dubbed ‘The Stilts’ and in the lower-rise blocks cut into the hillside further along Belville Street. Not all were to stand the test of time.
Ambition peaked in 1970 with the approval of Lynedoch and Antigua Courts, 18 storeys high, and Regent Court, another 18-storey block, system-built using the Camus system of large panel construction. The final high-rise block approved was the 16-storey Kilblain Tower, approved in 1975 by Inverclyde District Council, the larger successor authority to Greenock Burgh created that year.
In that respect, Greenock had challenged the marked shift against high-rise construction that was apparent from the later 1960s, marked symbolically by the partial collapse (and loss of life) of the Ronan Point tower block in east London in 1968 but given political weight by growing concerns at the cost of multi-storey building and questions over the housing density it achieved.
Subsequently, Greenock has followed trends across the UK in demolishing much of its high-rise; the first to come down – in 2002 – were the first built, those 16-storey blocks on Grieve Road. Currently, 13 remain. That fall from grace has been spectacular; literally so with the demolition by explosives of Octavia Court in February 2011 and the removal between 2013 and 2015 of the six tower blocks that once dominated Belville Street.
It’s also a fall that will confirm many prejudices though, as ever, the fuller story is more complicated. The tower blocks initially provided good homes for many – Broomhill Court (which survives) can provide a template. According to a local housing manager, ‘back in the 60s, you had to wait seven years to get a flat here’ but later, in the words of journalist Dani Garavelli, the picture darkened: (5)
From the 80s onwards … there was little investment. Families started to move away, often to bought properties elsewhere in the town. The fabric of the buildings degenerated along with their reputation. By 2012, anti-social behaviour was rife. Two-thirds of the flats in Broomhill Court – the most troubled of its three 15-storey tower blocks – were empty and residents were wary of walking around at night.
Design and construction flaws could certainly play their part (though it may be significant that in Greenock two of the eight Bison-built blocks and the Camus system block remain) but the overall story is of accreting ‘failure’: poor maintenance, a hard-to-let status that increasingly confined such buildings to more troubled tenants, problems of anti-social behaviour, and thus a spiral of decline.
Broomhill Court’s continuing story allows a different ending: a £26m regeneration project begun in 2014 which saw selective demolition of some lower-rise blocks and major renovation work, resident participation and substantial environmental upgrades (including a neighbourhood art project) that have restored place and community. One current resident commented:
A few people asked why I was moving to Broomhill, which had a reputation, but I couldn’t have afforded to buy a two-bedroom house in the private sector. My flat was needing done up, but once the regeneration started, I got the feel of the place. There’s a real sense of community here. I would never move. Never.
As Garavelli concludes, ‘the fortunes of social housing have risen and fallen … buffeted on the shifting winds of design trends and ideological orthodoxy’. But its necessity – and the need for investment that properly meets that necessity – remains unchanged.
Broomhill Court and Cartsdyke Court (renamed Cartsdyke Apartments) both now provide secure and independent living for the over-60s, part of River Clyde Homes’ ‘Silver Lining’ stock: a reflection of Greenock’s changing demographics and a reminder that high-rise flats can provide desirable homes for many.
In this final chapter (to date), Greenock illustrates another shift – towards what we must now call ‘social housing’. In 2007, Greenock Burgh’s housing stock was transferred to River Clyde Homes (RCH), an example of the ‘large-scale voluntary transfer’ that was forced on many councils barred politically from accessing the capital required for new investment (a restriction that did not apply to housing associations). It currently owns and manages a little over 5800 homes. As a not-for-profit, locally based membership organisation, RCH represents a model that has sadly been increasingly marginalised as housing associations have merged and become more commercially minded.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should acknowledge I was a guest speaker at RCH’s 2018 staff Christmas Party (they may have enjoyed the comic more) and I’m very grateful for the hospitality shown me on the day. That’s not even a footnote in Greenock’s housing history but I hope I’ve done some justice to its story in these posts. A £17 million pound investment programme announced by RCH in 2018 and a £10 million programme announced last year – upgrading homes and improving energy efficiency – remind us that this story continues and that social housing continues to provide much needed homes and to yet higher standards. (6)
My thanks to Keith Moore, Communications Manager at River Clyde Homes, for his support and friendship in providing resources and images and casting a critical eye over my copy. Any errors that remain – which I’m happy to correct – are my responsibility.
The McLean Museum and Art Gallery has a very extensive collection of archive images of Greenock which can be viewed online.
Additional thanks to Thomas Nugent for photographing Greenock so assiduously and allowing his photographs (uploaded here to Geograph Britain and Ireland) to be reproduced.
(1) ‘No More U.S. Prefabs for Us, Says Greenock’, Daily Record, 15 December 1945
(2) The film, Greenock Plans Ahead, can be viewed on YouTube. For more on Mears, read Graeme Purves, Frank Mears – a Pioneer of Scottish Planning (October 2014). See also Graeme Purves, Greenock Plans Ahead (September 2016)
(3) Joy Monteith, Old Greenock (Stenlake Publishing, 2004)
(4) See the comprehensive records of the University of Edinburgh’s Tower Block project.
(5) Dani Garavelli, ‘Insight: Why Scotland must invest more in social housing’, The Scotsman, 25 August 2019