We left Preston in last week’s post on the eve of war. The town, unlike some industrial centres, emerged relatively unscathed from the war itself but the post-war ambition to build a better Britain was fully felt – and for good reason. Half the town’s houses had been built between 1840-1890; of these, the experts reckoned, one-sixth should be demolished. Of the 5000 on the council house waiting list, 70 percent lived in overcrowded conditions. The Council, in the words of its 1946 planning manifesto, sought to lead the way Towards a Prouder Preston. (1)
In the first instance, that journey necessitated ad hoc solutions in the form of the temporary prefabs. Of the 156,000 provided across the country, 300 were allocated to Preston, constructed principally on the Grange Estate in Ribbleton. The Arcon Mark V model built, despite its ducted warm air heating, built-in cupboards and fitted kitchen (which included a refrigerator), aroused mixed feelings. ‘Concerned’, a correspondent to the Lancashire Daily Post, expressed ‘feelings of horror and disgust’ on realising that ‘far from being workmen’s temporary huts these erections were actually prefabricated dwellings to house the proud and victorious people of Preston’. (2)
Prospective tenants were more favourable. ‘Who’s first?’, said one; another concluded they were ‘nicer than 75 percent of the Council houses in Preston’. The councillors’ verdict was that: (3)
though externally these houses are not beautiful, internally they have more amenities and better layout than many permanent houses. The women members were particularly impressed.
The prefabs were intended to last ten years (though in Ribbleton they survived till the early 1960s); permanent housing remained the goal. In 1946, the Council’s immediate building programme projected 702 new permanent homes – around 88 on the Farringdon Park Estate, the rest (including 250 BISF houses – a steel-framed form of permanent prefabricated construction) on the Ribbleton Hall Estate.
Towards a Prouder Preston had envisaged a programme of 750 new homes annually for 20 years. It had also, in a clear echo of the dominant planning ideals of the early post-war era promoting ‘neighbourhood units’ and mixed communities, criticised interwar building: (4)
Housing between the two world wars failed because most of the estates were not planned as small communities within the town, and provided for only one class of tenant and lacked many of the basic amenities that were available in the centre of the town.
The Larches Estate, the first major scheme built in the west of the borough proper, in fulfilment of those neighbourhood unit ideas, was designed as a self-contained community of 600 houses and flats with ‘bungalows and a hostel for old people, a community centre, a health clinic, library and a church’.
In Preston, such principles necessitated building beyond the Borough’s then boundaries (they were extended in 1952 and 1956) as, for example, in the Brookfield Estate where work began in 1950 on a scheme of 1200 homes for a projected population of 5000. The planned addition, in 1963, of 2500 ‘luxury dwellings’ (intended for middle-class occupation) presumably reflected that earlier commitment to mixed communities.
The pace and ambition of post-war construction had been maintained in a second planning document, the Development Plan for the County Borough of Preston issued in 1951. A small out-of-borough estate at Middleforth Green and a large estate of over 1000 homes at Kingsfold in Penwortham to the south followed in the early 1950s in the Urban District of Walton-le-Dale (now part of South Ribble).
Leyland, around four miles to the south of Preston, was identified in the Plan as a major area of growth along the New Town lines favoured at the time. (This idea received partial and limited fulfilment much later in the creation in 1970 of the Central Lancashire New Town – in fact, despite the name, better understood as an Urban Development Corporation resting on collaboration between Preston, Leyland and Chorley.)
The new estate at Ingol, 2.5 miles north-east of the town centre, commenced in the early 1960s, was one of the last large suburban estates to be developed. By the mid-1950s, new housing priorities and planning dynamics were in play focusing on a renewed drive – now the major problems of post-war reconstruction had been tackled – to clear the slums.
In Preston, the first post-war clearance of 209 properties took place on the inaptly named Pleasant Street and Brunswick Street in the central Avenham area in 1955. The clearance of some 350 properties north of Walker Street began in the following year. By 1958, it was planned to clear around 6000 homes, predominantly dating from the first half of the 19th century, in the Nile Street and Marsh Lane areas east and west of the town centre – Marsh Lane had been identified as a district of particularly poor housing as far back as the 1920s.
A local press story of 1959 captures the optimistic mood around the sweeping changes being wrought: (5)
It is one more stage in a story of progress, whereby one by one, the blackest of Preston’s black spots are vanishing to clear the way for modern, bright and roomy houses and flats.
Preston’s first multi-storey scheme, opened in 1957 on Samuel Street, was a modest four- and five-storey development between an existing small council estate and earlier terraces but the circumstances of inner-city redevelopment impelled grander solutions. York House and Lancaster House – two eleven-storey blocks designed by Lyons, Israel and Ellis in what was originally designated the Brunswick Street Redevelopment Area – were completed in 1961 east of Berwick Street in Avenham. (6)
Three 16-storey blocks, built by Wimpey and completed in 1962, were built in the Elizabeth Street (Moor Lane) Redevelopment Area, by which time the Council was returning to a major redevelopment of the Avenham area. The latter would result in three 12-storey blocks (Carlisle House, Richmond House and Durham House) commenced in 1963, and – the peak of the borough’s ambition – two 19-storey blocks, Kendal House and Penrith House (later renamed Sandown Court), officially opened in June 1965. The latter, designed by the Building Design Partnership, were built using the Bison form of system-building.
This was a frenzied period of construction in Preston – in March 1968, the Borough celebrated its 10,000th council home – as it was across the country as national and local government cooperated to clear the slums and build anew. That cooperation became fraught as Treasury concerns over public spending increased.
Negotiated contracts between local authorities and the few developers capable of building at the requisite scale were one Government bugbear but determined councils held some power in this context. The Preston Housing Committee, anxious to increase housing production by 50 percent, invited bids from 19 contractors for its grand Avenham redevelopment scheme. When only two responded, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG) allowed Borough Surveyor and Engineer, EH Stazicker to negotiate a contract with J Turner, a local construction firm. (7)
A former architect of the MHLG discussing his ministry’s attempts to impose a cost-saving yardstick to constrain expenditure noted Preston’s: (8)
very powerful chief engineer … who built high rise everywhere. He didn’t look at this (the yardstick booklet). And he’d arrive on the doorstep one day with a tender and say ‘I want approval for this scheme, What the hell’s it all being held up for?’
In this context, when councils proceeded regardless of central government advice and when the Government itself was in the numbers game, he concluded, that ‘the administrators’ line [was] often “Well, we’ll approve this one. Just don’t let it happen again!”’
As we’ve mentioned Stazicker, we should digress briefly to note his significant role in the creation of that Brutalist icon, Preston Bus Station, designed by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of the Building Design Partnership and Ove Arup and Partners. Opened in 1969, it’s survived threats of demolition and is now rightly celebrated as an architectural masterpiece.
Another innovative design in Preston has not survived. As part of the Avenham redevelopment scheme, James Stirling and James Gowan designed a low-rise development – three-storey terraces, a four-storey block of flats alongside some two-storey houses and flats for the elderly – completed in 1961. Innovation and controversy lay in their choice of form and material – ramps and deck access, sharp angular edges and hard, red brick. It was all a conscious attempt – criticised and praised in equal measure as nostalgic – to replicate some of the design qualities and street life of the terraces (with echoes of mill forms too) it replaced; a ‘realist regionalism’ in Stirling’s words. (9)
The scheme won a Good Housing award in 1963 but it never seems to have commanded much affection. Perhaps it just tried too hard whilst there were practical complaints regarding its lack of open space and bleakness. Pitched roofs which replaced the parapet edges and pyramidic forms of the original in the 1970s didn’t save it and the scheme was demolished in 1999; done for by the then fashionable theories of ‘defensible space’ and criticisms of its illegibility, lack of natural surveillance and general aesthetics.
Criticisms of some of the high-rise developments were also emerging – complaints of condensation in some of the tower blocks as early as 1965. By 1978, when Preston’s two MPs contributed to a House of Commons debate on housing, the wheel had turned full circle. Stan Thorne noted that conditions in the tower blocks had: (10)
deteriorated noticeably in about 1970, when vandalism became rife and the behavioural problems produced the fouling of lifts, excess noise, bad neighbour relations and damage to windows and other property within the buildings.
His further complaints – regarding the lack of play space for young children, broken-down lifts, the high rents charged for unpopular homes with many seeking transfers – will seem familiar to critics of high-rise and were certainly becoming increasingly prevalent.
His Labour colleague Ronald Atkins (incidentally currently the longest-lived MP ever; he retired as a Preston City councillor in 2010 aged 92*) spoke for many when he observed:
We suffer from changing fashions in planning. In the 1950s and early 1960s planning opinion favoured high-rise flats as the answer to problems of land scarcity in town centres. These blocks today are almost universally condemned by the same planners.
He went on to argue ‘a need for consultation and a freer choice in all housing matters. Housing authorities provide better houses, but not always better communities’ and concluded that there was ‘much to be said for good old-fashioned houses to replace the old streets which are being demolished’.
I’m an advocate of council housing and a defender of well-designed and well-maintained high-rise in appropriate circumstances but it is important to acknowledge these sentiments. The assault on council housing – and multi-storey housing in particular – that emerged in the 1980s did not come merely from the clear-blue water of Thatcherism.
Preston Borough Council began to implement the new planning principles taking shape from the late 1960s which favoured the rehabilitation of terraced housing in what had been called ‘twilight areas’. From the mid-1970s, it adopted a more conservative approach with repair and renewal of older properties alongside only selective demolition and rebuilding.
Conversely, some of the tower blocks were demolished – the three Moor Lane blocks were razed in 2001; Lancaster and York House in Avenham in 2005. Sandown Court had been transferred into private ownership in the early 1980s.
Alongside that assault on council housing from the 1980s came a series of regeneration initiatives, welcome for the necessary investment ploughed into estates but resting on a similar critique of their failure. Estate Action, from 1985, saw extensive modernisation programmes implemented on four Preston estates. An Estate Management Board (taking over the ownership and management of its council homes) was formed on the Moor Nook Estate to harness and implement this programme.
Avenham came under the tender mercies of Alice Coleman’s Design Improvement Controlled Experiment (DICE) programme in 1990 – a £50 million project initiated with the direct support of Mrs Thatcher to eradicate what Coleman (the major UK guru of ‘defensible space’) saw as the ‘design disadvantages’ of multi-storey local authority housing.
In another reflection of the philosophical and financial principles now governing social housing, 1121 council homes in the Avenham area were transferred to the housing association Onward Homes in 1999. A fuller so-called Large-Scale Voluntary Transfer of Preston’s housing stock to the Community Gateway Association took place in 2005. Of the 11,610 social rent homes in Preston in 2019 (18 percent of the city’s total housing stock), none were owned and managed by the local authority (11)
Community Gateway now operates about 6500 social rent homes in the Preston area and prides itself on a model of ownership and management based (partly at least) on tenant membership and tenant democracy. It is also one of the ‘six anchor institutions’ of the ‘Preston Model’ of community wealth building pioneered by the City Council referenced in the first post.
Historically, much of Preston’s community wealth – the security and well-being of its population (social capital in its fullest sense) – was created by council housing. It will be interesting to see how far a new model operating in a much harsher climate, legislatively and financially, is able to match past achievements.
* Ron Atkins sadly died on 31 December 2020, aged 104.
(1) Towards a Prouder Preston, prepared by the Town Planning and Development Committee, was published in September 1946. The figures drawn from it are cited in David Hunt, A History of Preston (Carnegie Publishing and Preston Borough Council, 1992)
(2) ‘Ribbleton Prefabs: Not Things of Beauty but Needed’, Lancashire Daily Post, 12 June 1946. The cutting and an image of the prefabs can be found on the Preston Digital Archive.
(3) ‘Preston’s First Pre-Fab Finds Favour’, Lancashire Daily Post, 19 July 1946. The cutting can be found on the Preston Digital Archive.
(4) Quoted in Hunt, A History of Preston
(5) An undated cutting from the Lancashire Daily Post in the Preston Digital Archive Flickr stream.
(6) For details of Preston high-rise, see the University of Edinburgh’s Tower Block website.
(7) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (1993)
(8) Patrick Dunleavy, The Politics of High-Rise Housing in Britain: Local Communities Tackle Mass Housing, Nuffield College, University of Oxford PhD, 1978
(9) There’s a large body of writing on the scheme, notably Mark Crinson, ‘The Uses of Nostalgia: Stirling and Gowan’s Preston Housing’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 65, no. 2, June 2006 and ‘Village to Worktown’ scanned on this website. Reyner Banham described it as ‘Hoggartry’ (in a reference to Richard Hoggart whose Use of Literacy was seen by some as romanticising working-class life) in a February 1962 New Statesman article entitled ‘Coronation Street, Hoggartsborough’.
(10) Local authorities (housing management): House of Commons Debate, 8 June 1978: vol 951 cc511-20
(11) Lancashire County Council, ‘Dwelling Stock by Tenure’ (May 2020)