It might seem a masochistic exercise to read what is, in effect, a real-time account of the sustained assault on council housing and its residents that occurred since 2010 but, on this occasion, it’s one I recommend. The Red Brick Blog is a product of the Labour Housing Group, affiliated to the Labour Party but describing itself – correctly, I believe – as ‘the place for progressive housing debate … open to anyone interested in the progressive debate about housing, communities, and wider politics’. As this anthology of over 100 of its past posts suggests, it’s been one of the most authoritative and best-informed forums for the analysis of contemporary housing policy of the last decade.
As you would expect, many of the posts deal with that assault in properly passionate but forensic detail. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government set out their stall early on – a 50 percent cut in cash terms in social housing investment in 2011. By 2016, as past editor and contributor Monimbo records, the Government was spending £43 billion on Help to Buy and ‘Starter Homes’ for first-time buyers and just £18 billion on affordable housing.
Subsequent posts unpick the multi-pronged nature of this attack on social housing – housing associations (too often not the good guys) converting homes to ‘affordable rent’ and voluntarily selling off their housing; Right to Buy where the promise of one-to-one replacement was rapidly forgotten (the actual figure was about one-in-seven); the inadequate powers open to local authorities to leverage planning gain to community benefit further weighted towards developers; regeneration schemes which generally reduced social housing stock; and so on. Many of you will be familiar with this broad picture but it’s salutary to see it delineated with such force and clarity.
The consequences, of course, were obvious – new social housing reduced to historically low levels, the rise of homelessness and of homeless households placed in temporary accommodation, increased overcrowding and rising house prices. A housing crisis in short. All this did indeed, as the title of the anthology – reprised from a powerful post by Steve Hilditch on ‘Beveridge: 70 Years On’ claims – mark a ‘return to squalor’.
Whilst such criticisms might be seen by some as politically partisan, Red Brick is scathing on the economic illiteracy of this approach. Harrow Council, for example, spent £500,000 buying back 35 former council homes sold at discount to house the homeless. Spending on Housing Benefit was massively increased as the Government forced significant increases in social rents and many more people into the expensive private rented sector.
Social security – increasingly translated into social insecurity – was the other great target of austerity, of course. The bedroom tax stands out for its basic inhumanity but the ‘reform’ with the greatest impact were the cuts to Local Housing Allowance in 2010 reckoned to affect 900,000 households, an average loss of £12 a week from a £126 benefit.
Fixed-term tenancies, ‘Pay to Stay’ (aimed at higher-earning tenants), the forced sale of high-value council homes all receive due attention as further attempts to undermine council housing. That not all these changes were fully implemented is a tribute to housing campaigners and the common sense of at least some legislators.
All this is duly depressing but a quality of the anthology is the positive case consistently made for a significant and viable public housing sector. That’s seen, firstly, in the necessary dismantling of some of the negative myths surrounding the sector. Those privileged ‘lifetime tenancies’ enjoyed by council tenants since 1981? Nothing more than the fact that a tenancy is not time limited and that public sector landlords are required like others to provide grounds for possession and get a court order.
Most powerful is the challenge to the argument that council housing is, in any meaningful sense, subsidised housing. Broadly speaking, social housing runs a surplus with initial loans paid off and maintenance cost covered. Sometimes an element of cross-subsidy from pooled rents helps finance newbuild. The further belief that sub-market social rents should emulate the far higher levels of the private rented sector is, firstly, to give quite unwarranted respect to a dysfunctional and failing housing free market and, secondly, to ignore the huge additional cost to the Treasury in benefits that increased social rents would bring.
Conversely, it’s the case that owner occupiers and private landlords enjoy a range of ‘subsidies’, ranging from renovation grants and mortgage interest support if unemployed to Right to Buy discounts and shared ownership deals. The most even-handed response here is to recognise that public spending on housing in various forms is not a cost but an investment.
Nowhere was the argument better made for investment in social housing than by SHOUT – the Campaign for Social Housing – formed back in 2014 when that case was far more marginalised than it has now, thankfully, become. SHOUT and its landmark 2015 report are properly lauded in these pages. The bottom line? – that a programme of 100,000 new social rent homes a year would cost ‘well under 1 per cent of planned 2013-14 spending; the equivalent of less than 1p on income tax, or just 13 days of welfare spending; and less than 15% of the planned cost of HS2’. The value – though reasonable projections could be made in terms of job creation and savings on Housing Benefit and less readily quantifiably in terms of personal and social benefit and health and educational outcomes – was and is inestimable.
Red Brick records subsequent expansions on this theme from the Chartered Institute of Housing in 2018 and Shelter in 2019. The Overton Window – the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time – had, as it noted, shifted. Even Theresa May, then Prime Minister, appeared a convert though the blog was correct to view this with a degree of scepticism. The role of housing and tenant activists and campaigners, a Labour Party belatedly converted to a significant programme of social housing newbuild, Tory overreach and the tragedy of Grenfell are credited with this hard-fought success which – despite the current uptick in new council homes – remains to be fulfilled at scale.
Grenfell which, of course, features significantly, reminds us of another theme broached frequently in the anthology – the need for a meaningful tenants’ voice. In 2012, the book laments how progress made in this regard by the New Labour government in its latter years was lost in the Coalition’s ‘bonfire of red tape’, one consequence of which was the very real fire at Grenfell.
There’s much else to absorb from this over-200 page collection – the need for planning and land reform, changes to the leasehold system, the impact of Covid 19, and some useful broader housing history touching on John Wheatley, Harold Wilson and including a thoughtful review of my own book on council housing.
It’s a book of bite-sized chunks to dip into (the lack of an index is one regrettable omission) but the whole – edited and significantly contributed to by Steve Hilditch, the pseudonymous Monimbo, Karen Buck (an MP who brings a rare and valuable personal and professional experience of social housing to her work), Alison Inman and many others – is an important record of a tumultuous, too often dispiriting, phase of housing history. I recommend it and hope that it offers not only a perspective on the recent past but a guide to what can be a more positive future.
The anthology is available as a paperback for £9.99 and as a Kindle book at £6.99. It can be purchased here. All royalties (around £2.50 per copy) will go to the Labour Housing Group.
I posted a piece on the Gleadless Valley Estate in Sheffield in May last year. Keith Marriott contacted me via email with a long and very interesting account of his own experience of growing up on the estate and his subsequent career. With his agreement and support in supplying many of the images included, I’m pleased to feature that response in this week’s post. Keith will introduce himself in the article that follows.
I grew up on Gleadless Valley in the 1960s. My Mum and Dad, my elder sister and I moved to Raeburn Road on Gleadless Valley in 1961, when I was aged two. I know that work began on the estate in 1955, and this was one of the earliest parts of the estate to be constructed so I don’t know whether the house was new when they moved in or not.
In the 60s, there was a wide socio-economic mix on the estate – unskilled and skilled manual workers, clerical and junior management. Many of the early residents of the estate had either grown up in the terraced back-to-back housing which was demolished to make way for the Park Hill flat or had quickly moved from Park Hill, which soon became prone to vandalism and became socially stigmatised.
My mum worked as a clerk at Sheffield Town Hall in the 70s ‘Egg Box’ extension. At the time they moved to Gleadless Valley my Dad was a commercial manager for British Tar Products in the city centre. Although he had left school in 1934 aged 14, this was only his second job including his six years in the army during WWII. He had the opportunity to go to grammar school but that was an unaffordable option for my grandparents. His company moved its offices to Manchester in 1966 so he took a job, instead, at the Orgreave coking plant and chemical works. We didn’t own a car until then but it was a necessity as the bus journey was not feasible.
My parents lived in the same house at Gleadless until they died; my Dad in 2001 and my Mum in 2015. They remained as tenants throughout. When Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy in the early 80s, they didn’t buy theirs, as many of their long-time neighbours did. They had a very risk-averse attitude to debt and were unpersuaded about the benefit of embarking on a mortgage late in their working life.
I recall there was a very narrow racial mix on the estate; I don’t recall a single black or Asian pupil at primary or secondary school, but I don’t know how far this reflected the mix across Sheffield in the 60s and 70s.
It’s about five years since I’ve visited the estate but I feel, despite a loss of architectural coherence due to the impact of the Right to Buy, it has remained fairly intact except for the loss of its schools, library and the missing third tower at Herdings. The much later Supertram terminus below the towers is a positive addition, I’d say.
Womersley’s team had designed a community centre, between the shops and the towers at Herdings with a timber gridshell hyperbolic paraboloid roof but it was sadly never built. It would have been a fabulous addition, architecturally and socially.
The private housing built in the 1990s at the base of the towers helps to give a bit of shelter to what was a pretty exposed hilltop. It’s 700 feet above sea level and was a bleak spot where you wouldn’t linger in winter. I remember visiting elderly residents in one tower in the 60s who felt rather isolated there when they were trapped in by bad weather. On the positive side, the panoramic views were stupendous, towards the hills of the Peak District or with the whole of the city lit up below. I’ve always felt that the Herdings towers were designed to be seen as landmarks in the landscape though rather than places to view from.
I think it is the estate’s low-rise, low-density housing that is its strongest point rather. The architectural team for Gleadless Valley comprised eight architects (credited in the Housing Department’s 1962 book ‘Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield 1953-1963’) who showed enormous creativity in developing housing types with their own private outdoor spaces to suit the steeply sloping terrain.
They display a wide variety of different relationships to both private and public outside space, putting a great emphasis on privacy, which is, I think, one key to its lasting appeal. The 1962 book (it’s very telling that it is printed in the same format as Le Corbusier’s L’Oeuvre Complet with text in French and Russian) states the percentage of the housing stock built on steep slopes as well as the density. The density is in sharp contrast to the way Park Hill and Hyde Park handle a similarly steeply sloped site. Here the aspiration was to allow easy access to use the open public space, whereas at Park Hill the public space is really only a visual asset.
The existing woodland has flourished especially where it was extended, particularly at its south-east boundary. Comparing the 1892-1914 OS map with the current aerial photo on Bing maps on the National Library of Scotland’s geo-referenced side by side OS maps, shows this really well.
All the infrastructure of social facilities – shops, schools, libraries, pubs – were planned and built very early as the design recognised this as fundamental to a thriving community.
Education and transport vision supports housing and health. Sheffield’s subsidised bus service was legendary throughout the 60s and 70s and well into David Blunkett’s tenure as leader of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. Cheap, frequent reliable buses made it possible to get anywhere in the city (except Orgreave!) out as far as Castleton in the Peak District punctually and affordably. Access to the countryside, particularly to the west of the city, was promoted as a key benefit and by the Council to be enjoyed by all. See Sheffield: Emerging City (C.R. Warman 1969).
The original Herdings, Hemsworth, Rollestone and Gleadless Valley schools are all gone now, sadly. Womersley’s department designed all these civic buildings. All very good examples of mid-century modern public buildings, carefully and thoughtfully designed; functional, practical but above all a joy to inhabit. Herdings primary school and Gleadless Valley secondary school were opened in 1961 or 62, I think.
Herdings was two-storey with the full width of the south side glazed onto a very spacious playing field. Despite their aspect, the rooms didn’t overheat, due to plentiful fully opening windows. All the ground floor classrooms had direct access to the playing field and all the upper rooms for the eldest pupils had dual aspect, so were even brighter and airier.
I don’t think it’s just ‘rose tinted glasses’ but I’d go so far as to say the education was inspirational and visionary – particularly at primary school. There was a culture designed to broaden children’s horizons. We were exposed to gramophone records of Rubinstein playing Chopin, Albert Schweitzer playing Bach during daily morning assembly and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett during indoor lunchtimes in the hall. French was taught from seven years, the head teacher published books on French and on sex education for primary school children.
I went to secondary school in 1969, the first year Sheffield introduced comprehensive education across the city. Prior to that Gleadless Valley school had been a secondary modern school and the large majority of its intake was from the Gleadless Valley estate. It was actually located about half a mile south-west of the estate on Norton Avenue.
It comprised a three-storey main block orientated north-south again with full-width windows overlooking spacious playing fields and clerestory glazing on the top floor. General purpose classrooms facing east and labs and arts rooms facing west. A block containing assembly hall, gym, dining room and kitchen and a separate technical block were connected to the main block by fully glazed single-storey link corridors.
Other public buildings now lost include the original Hemsworth public library on Blackstock and one of Womersley’s gems. It closed to much protest in 1995 and was converted into a Lloyds chemist shop. It was a long, low block with an over-sailing flat roof forming a wide entrance porch; two long sides of the rectangular box were full-height glazed with end walls in brick inside and out. Internally the fittings were purpose-made joinery and matched slatted timber ceiling; it was a sort of display cabinet for books and culture!
I went to Liverpool University to study Architecture in 1976, the first in my family to go to university and of course in those days fees and a full grant were paid by my Local Education Authority. Early in my working career as an architect I worked for Denys Lasdun, architect of the National Theatre. The theme of the visibility and accessibility of culture was a dominant one in his practice. I worked with him on a competition entry for the new Paris Opera House in 1983 and its key design principle was egalitarianism: everyone should have as good a seat in the house as everyone else and the glazed facade displayed what was going on inside to the world outside. He believed passionately, as did his patron at the National Theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier, that Culture (with a capital C) was not just for the privileged few; he would brook no dumbing down – he thought Shakespeare and Aristophanes could and should be enjoyed by all. This was a milieu that my teachers at Herdings primary school understood and promoted.
The churches have survived well. St Anthony’s Catholic Church at the Norton Avenue end of Raeburn Road and the now well-known Gleadless Valley Church on Spotswood Mount both remain. The former is not one of Womersley’s but with a distinctive copper roof is rather good example of a 60s Catholic parish church. The original entrance facing Sandby Drive was a glazed end wall but has been obscured by some untidy single-storey porches and ancillary spaces. St Anthony’s retained a patch of land alongside Norton Avenue on which it intended to build a Catholic school but this was sold to a housing developer in order to pay for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982.
One aspect of the estate which has not proved so successful into the 21st century is the huge increase in private car ownership. The roads, including the primary bus routes, are narrow, twisty and hilly. I think perhaps the increase in private car ownership was apparent to Womersley as early as 1962, by which time his department was already designing house types at a planned estate at Middlewood on the north side of Sheffield, which had integral garages. Perhaps it had become apparent that the limited number of rentable garages in small separate courtyards on Gleadless Valley was in high demand.
For me there are three outstanding achievements. Firstly, I love the ingenuity of the range of houses, maisonettes and flats to suit the hilly terrain. Secondly, Womersley’s positioning of the three tower blocks on the highest point of the estate where they can be seen from 15 miles was probably his bravest architectural move as Sheffield’s Chief Architect. Thirdly, the decision to retain and enhance the existing woodland allowed the relationship between public and private space to be both rich and usable. Gleadless Valley was a fine and humane place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. I found the relationship between its architecture and Sheffield’s topography and landscape to be an inspiring one.
I’m very pleased to host a new post by Chas Townley. He has written previously on the pre-First World War council housing of Dursley in Gloucestershire. Chas is a Labour District Councillor on Stroud District Council, a ‘no overall control’ authority in the county. He was chair of the Housing Committee. Chas has formerly worked in housing for both councils and housing associations and previously managed the Supporting People Programme in a unitary council. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing. He is a local historian and genealogist and has written on a variety of subjects including Chartism, Cooperatives, land clubs and building societies, and the Poor Law and pre-NHS health provision. Chas has recently started a PHD at the University of Bristol exploring the provision of working-class housing before the Great War.
Four houses at Mickleton are the sum total of Campden Rural District Council’s provision of houses before the Great War but they were the first council housing built in Gloucestershire under the Housing of the Working Classes Acts.
Campden was a rural district created in 1894 for administrative convenience from the Gloucestershire parishes within the Shipston-on-Stour Poor Law Union. As the Poor Law Union also had parishes in Worcestershire and Warwickshire, Shipston-on-Stour and Brailes Rural Districts were also created. The offices of the three districts plus the Poor Law Union were at the workhouse in Shipston with the same officers serving the four bodies. Members served a dual mandate as both Rural District Councillor and Poor Law Guardian.
The Mickleton Parish Council was exploring ways of providing houses and August 1910 discussed information from the Local Government Board on the terms loans for housing schemes could be provided to District Councils – 3 ½% over 80 years for land and 60 for buildings. The report extensively reports Charles Coldicott, who served as both Chairman of the Parish Council and the District Councillor for the Parish. Another quoted was Mr Dixon, a barrister and later a Justice of the Peace for both Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. (1)
The newspaper report noted that ‘A lengthy discussion took place with regard to the probable cost of erecting four houses and the amount of rent to be charged’. But one parishioner, Mr J Taylor, offered to give £600 towards the cost of the scheme providing that the rest of the cost could be raised and that houses became the property of the Parish Council – this wasn’t legally possible. Part of Taylor’s argument is enlightened self-interest:
They [the landowners and ratepayers] could not do without the working-man. He should not be in the position he was today if it was not for the men. It was their business and duty as Christians to see that the working-man was better housed.
The outcome of the meeting was that Dixon and Taylor were deputed to consult the ratepayers to see if they would assent to a voluntary rate for the houses.
At this point the Housing and Town Planning Act 1909 was in its infancy and the potential for the Act to deliver the improvement of homes in disrepair and the construction of new housing was largely untried in rural areas – even in four exceptional rural areas which had struggled through the barriers of earlier legislation to provide housing in their local areas.
Mickleton was undeterred and the Parish Council meeting in September made application to the Campden Rural District Council to ‘respectfully put into operation the Housing and Town Planning Act’. The CheltenhamChronicle account suggests this was due to both a housing shortage as well as the poor condition of existing housing. This led to a wider debate at the District Council about the work needed to put into force the systematic inspection of existing homes under the Act. As to the question of the new housing they set up a joint committee with the Parish Council to look at the provision of new housing in Mickleton. (2)
The Chronicle carried a short article later in the year giving an account of progress noting:
The promoters of the scheme have met with considerable difficulty one way or another, and some members of the Council have seemed reluctant to work under an Act which they know little or nothing about, as was shown by the discussion which took place at the meetings.
It also commented ‘but Mickleton people were persistent in their demand and their representative on the Rural Council (Mr Coldicott) threatened to appeal to the Local Government Board, if the Council refused to do that which was asked of them’. (3) Given that the legislation was a Liberal initiative and Charles Coldicott’s persistence to encourage the use of the new Act, it is easy to assume he was a Liberal but he was the leading Conservative in the village. (4)
The procedure of the Act provided that four residents of a parish or the Parish Council itself could lay a complaint before the Local Government Board enabling them to intervene and order the District Council to provide housing in a parish. Before intervening the board had to consider the ‘necessity for further accommodation’ as well as ‘the probability that the required accommodation will not be otherwise provided‘ as well whether it is prudent to do so ‘having regard to the liability which will be incurred by the rates’. The Act also provided default powers for the County Council to act instead of the rural district. Compulsion by way of writ of mandamus could result in a range of sanctions including imprisonment for continued default. (5)
If there was a will to avoid building there was a way, as a defect in the legislation left the Local Government Board powerless to intervene beyond persuasion and coaxing unless there was a formal complaint. By the end of the 1912-1913 financial year, only 37 Rural Districts out of 661 had applied for a loan to build housing. Consequently, by the eve of the Great War frustrations by the Liberal Government with rural districts were leading to an emerging policy of the state taking over the building of housing rather than leaving it to private enterprise and councils. (6)
The belligerence against rural districts also extended to smaller urban districts and during 1917 and 1918 Addison’s Ministry of Reconstruction advocated for another option of transferring of housing powers to the counties, leading to Lord Salisbury to comment in reaction to Local Government Board proposals, ‘For reasons which we have stated over and over again we believe that the County Council is a far sounder authority’. (7)
By the spring of 1911 Campden were ready to apply to the Government for a £600 loan to build the four cottages, having agreed to lease a site for a period of 99 years from Mr SG Hamilton. (8) The inquiry was held by Major CE Norton, a Local Government Board Inspector. It was left to Charles Coldicott to present the case to the inspector, suggesting this was still very much a local Mickelton scheme rather than one owned by the District Council as a whole. In part this was a consequence of the funding mechanism as any deficit on the scheme was to be met from Mickleton’s ratepayers rather than the District rate.
Coldicott’s evidence recounted a Parish Meeting held the previous year which had resulted in a 40 to 2 vote in favour of the project. He claimed that many cottages had been demolished in recent years and none built. The main industry of the parish was agriculture and market gardening and some of the farm labourers were having to live a considerable distance out of the parish. The suggested rent for the cottages was 3s 6d (17.5p).
Dr Finlay, the Medical Officer of Health, gave evidence that there were no empty cottages in the village and only a day or two ago a family had to go out of the village because the cottage had been bought. He also knew of men who worked in Mickleton who lived in Quinton, three miles away across the border in Warwickshire.
It was left to Charles Gander, the Council’s surveyor and sanitary inspector, to go over the plans which showed ‘a good back living room, scullery, joint washhouse for each pair of cottages, three bedrooms (two large and one small) and separate coal houses and domestic offices’. The selected site was small and Gander justified the lack of garden ground on the basis that ‘all the cottagers rented allotments in the parish’. (9)
Three opponents, supported by a petition signed by 28 ratepayers, spoke on the grounds that whilst there was an urgent need for housing in the village they thought the site selected was unsuitable. One of them suggested an alternative site which they considered more suitable owned by a Mr Box. The Inspector concluded the hearing by remarking that some alterations would need to be made to the plans before the Local Government Board would give its sanction to the scheme which would defer the matter for some time. Whilst it is not clear from the reports, the construction was probably solid brick rather than a cavity wall and this construction is assumed by the modern energy performance certificates for the properties – although cavity wall construction started in late Victorian times.
Walter Runciman, then President of the Board of Agriculture and actively interested in small holdings and rural housing, visited Mickleton in December 1911, accompanied by Sir Ashton Lister, then Chairman of the County Small Holdings Committee and subsequently ‘Coupon’ Liberal MP for Stroud. A description of the visit provides an account of the challenge for the County Council to provide affordable smallholders cottages alongside the newly developed council smallholdings: (10)
At Mickleton we came face to face with the rural housing problem in its most acute form. The soil is remarkably fruitful, and lets readily for market-garden cultivation at £4 an acre without buildings. Land which was down at grass a few years ago has been let by the County Council to men who are probably obtaining as much as £4 for every £1 raised from the soil hitherto, or, to use a classic phrase, making four blades of grass grow where only one grew before. Yet there are not enough houses for the people to live in. A two roomed cottage nearly a mile from the occupier’s small holding fetches, it is true, only £4 per year, but in this very cheapness lies the root of the difficulty. ‘The County Council’, Mr Runciman explained, ‘couldn’t put up cottages with three bedrooms which is the standard size, for less than £400 the pair. They couldn’t let them at less than £10 a year each. If such a cottage were on your holding, would you be willing to take it?’. ‘Well’, was the reply ‘that needs a deal o’ thinking on. Ten pound is a lot o’ money’. Plainly if the Cottage Bureau should lead to the discovery of that dream of many a reformer, the satisfactory hundred-pound cottage, it will be the salvation of such villages as Mickleton.
Sir Ashton Lister later noted at a Council meeting that one of the disadvantages for the Council was the fifty-year maximum loan period available for small holding buildings. (11) This compared to a sixty-year period allowed for the construction of dwellings under the Housing of the Working Classes Acts. It clearly mattered not how the house was used but under what legislation it was provided.
In another article was a more detailed explanation of the Cottage Bureau proposal that Runciman was developing, which was to ‘gather from all sources – whether English, American, or Continental – plans and specifications of modern-built country cottages, together with the details of the actual cost’. Very soon after in February 1912 Runciman appointed a Departmental Committee on the Equipment of Small Holdings which, when it reported a year later, included details of cottages suitable for rural labourers to be built as council housing. Whilst these developments did not directly benefit Mickleton they did ensure that model plans were available for other councils working to provide council housing in rural areas before the Great War. (12)
Returning to the development of four houses in Mickelton, by July 1911 work to resolve the perceived problems with the scheme had taken place and a new site owned by Mr Dixon was under consideration with a sixty-year lease on ‘nominal terms’ with a continuing lease for 999 years. The Local Government Board were willing to sanction the new site subject to the approval of revised plans. A sticking point appeared to be the design of the outbuildings which were considered to darken the scullery if placed too near the houses. (13)
Whilst we cannot be certain, it appears as if the original scheme was tendered before an application for a loan was originally made as in September the District Council had received an amended tender from the proposed contractor George Adams which was higher than the original taking account of the additional work required to assess the changes. Adams was part of a long-standing building firm based in Shipston-on-Stour and had undertaken other work for the Guardians in the past. (14)
Charles Coldicott was deputed to find out the views of the proposed tenants on a ‘small increase’ in the rent for the properties. This suggests that the properties had also been pre-let when the original plans were developed. At the October District Council meeting the revised tender of £674 was approved as a ‘fair charge’ for the work and formal application for a loan sanction of £700 was submitted to the Local Government Board.
Mr Gander, the surveyor, reported to the April 1912 meeting of the Council that the difficulty of draining the newly erected cottages had been overcome by connecting with the drains of the cottages opposite by agreement with the Sladden and Collier brewery of Evesham (eventually becoming part of the Whitbread brewing combine) who ran the Butchers Arms in the village. The Surveyor had also taken water samples from the well supplying the cottages. There is a later report stating that the well was ‘quite unfit ‘ – but this could be a misprint as the cottages were occupied by the May meeting, suggesting that any problems were quickly resolved with the Chairman saying they should be celebrated in a proper manner as the first council housing in the area. (15)
Mickleton like many rural villages in Gloucestershire acquired mains water and sewerage late in the day. A water supply project was completed in 1927 and, in 1933 when the Granbrook Lane council houses were developed, the council resorted to installing a septic tank. There was still no public sewerage system when planning took place for post-Second World War reconstruction. (16)
Who were the first tenants?
That’s a very difficult question to answer as the records for that period are scant. We know for certain who was resident at the time of the 1939 National Registration giving four families with three of the four having close links to agriculture. One couple, George and Elizabeth Norton, at the time of the 1911 census, were agricultural carriers and had been resident in a cottage close to Charles Coldicott’s farm.
Their cottage was clearly overcrowded with ten living in four rooms – which would have included the living room. They had been married for 17 years and had nine children, two of whom had died before 1911 and the remaining seven were all still living at home in a four-room cottage. Also living with them was ‘paralysed’ Samson Margretts aged 58. His original head of the household entry had been deleted and relegated to ‘boarder‘, perhaps suggesting he was the tenant of the cottage. But another household – again Norton – in 1911 had been living with members of three other concealed households in addition to their own children.
There is, however, a twist in the tale as all four properties appear to have ceased to be council housing by 1972. One of the properties is in private ownership having been auctioned off in 1972 with the other three owned by a local charity named after the person who leased the land to the Council in 1912. Whilst it is disappointing to find that the first council homes built in Gloucestershire are no longer providing affordable social rented homes, three continue to provide rented housing in the village.
This one scheme at Mickleton was not the end of Campden Council’s entry into the world of housing provision before the Great War as work had begun on developing a scheme of eight homes at Moreton in the Marsh. Despite the scheme having progressed a long way with a site ready to be purchased, plans drawn and loan terms accepted from the Government, paradise was postponed, like so much else, for the duration of the War, in October 1914.
Within Mickleton a further six council homes were provided on Stratford Road under the ‘homes fit for heroes‘ housing scheme in 1921. (17) Subsequently, during the late 1920’s and 1930s the provision of more homes took place along Granbrook Lane. (18) More housing followed in the post war period in Cedar Road but the direct provision of council housing ended with the decision of Cotswold District to cease being a landlord in 1997. And the village was the beneficiary of 15 new social rent homes granted permission at Hill View Close in 2000, one of the first schemes completed by Fosseway Housing – the Cotswold District Council stock transfer association – now swallowed up into the 40,000 home Bromford Housing Group. (19)
(1) Evesham Standard, 13 August 1910, p5
(2) Cheltenham Chronicle, 8 October 1910, p8
(3) Cheltenham Chronicle, 10 December 1910
(4) Evesham Standard & West Midland Observer, 8 February 1919; Gloucestershire Echo, 4 January 1902 reports him being re-elected as Grand Master of the Mickleton Lodge.
(5) Housing and Town Planning Act 1909 Section 10
(6) The Central Land and Housing Council, The Liberal Land and Housing Policy: Rural Housing, circa 1914.
(7) National Archives Letter by Lord Salisbury Chairman Ministry of Reconstruction Housing Panel circulated to War Cabinet by Christopher Addison. CAB 24/44/76
(8) Sidney Graves Hamilton (1856-1916), born in Dublin and resident in Malvern is described as Lord of the Manor of Mickleton in the report of his will. Cheltenham Chronicle 20 January 1917. See also 1911 Census Class: RG14; Piece: 17650; Schedule Number: 13. The Lloyd George Survey also shows that he owned substantial holdings in the village and one of his farm tenants was Charles Coldicott.
(9) CheltenhamChronicle, 25 March 1911
(10) Gloucester Journal, 23 December 1911, p9
(11) Gloucester Journal, 13 January 1912
(12) Departmental Committee on the Equipment of Small Holdings, Chaired by Christopher Turner March 1913, Cd 6708
(13) Evesham Standard, 15 July 1911
(14) There is an extensive archive of Adams Builders, Shipston-on-Stour covering the period 1796 to 1968 at Warwickshire Archives which may throw further light on this project. Ref: 03887
(15) Cheltenham Chronicle, 20 April 1912; Evesham Standard, 18 May 1912
(16) Cheltenham Chronicle, 2 July 1927; TheTewkesbury Register and Agricultural Gazette, 21 January 1933. Gordon E Payne, Gloucestershire: A Survey – A Physical, Social and Economic Survey and Plan (Gloucestershire County Council, 1945)
(17) GloucestershireEcho, 15 October 1921, p6 – report of Campden RDC meeting
(18) The Tewkesbury Register and Agricultural Gazette, 31 January 1931. This is an advert to complete 12 partially completed properties.
(19) Cotswold District Council planning files 98.02408 Construction of 15 dwellings for affordable housing, Meon Hill Nurseries, Nursery Close, Mickleton.
We left Barrow last week just as its first public housing was under construction. These were homes – though not all justified the term – built by the Ministry of Munitions to house Barrow’s huge armaments workforce just as, it turned out, the First World War was drawing to its bloody conclusion. In 1917, the town’s Medical Officer of Health (echoing the Council’s official line), had argued that ‘the only solution for gross overcrowding is a scheme for the provision of houses carried out by the Ministry of Munitions’. By April 1918, the Council’s Health Committee had concluded that ‘it is the duty of local authorities to carry through a programme of housing for the working classes’. Much had changed and this post will deal largely with the council housebuilding programme that ensued, albeit in faltering fashion. (1)
Firstly, however, there was the problem of the two Ministry of Munitions schemes launched in October 1917. The Roosegate development of semi-permanent housing was built by the Ministry itself; 200 bungalows (of the 500 originally projected) were completed in 1918 – to almost universal obloquy. As one Barrow resident recalled, ‘they were one-roomed and two-roomed houses. It was just simply a box with a lid on’. Locals called the scheme ‘China Town’. In June 1920, the Health Committee warned of the ‘intolerable condition’ of its streets; by March the next year, the Committee described the housing as a ‘a threat to the health of residents’. Its closure was announced in July 1925. (2)
The second Ministry scheme at Abbotsmead comprised permanent housing, built by the Council under Ministry contract to designs provided by the latter. The estate’s layout was better though the houses themselves were criticised for their small rooms and poor build quality. A bigger problem was the proposed rent levels, initially set at an exorbitant 17s a week (85p) by the Ministry with the Council considering even reduced rents of 10-12s (50-60p) too high. The scheme was abandoned by war’s end with around half of the proposed 500 houses completed. Hopes that the Council might purchase the homes in peacetime were thwarted by cost; most by the mid-1920s had been sold to sitting tenants.
Despite acknowledging in March 1919 that ‘the provision of housing [was] one of its most pressing needs’ and despite the combination of generosity and compulsion offered by the 1919 Housing Act, the Council was slow to respond. However, belatedly in April 1920, it agreed proposals to build in 113 homes on Devonshire Road and 44 on Walney Island. Both schemes were largely completed in 1921.
Local as well as national politics had shifted. Labour gained its first majority on the Council in 1920 and would govern again between 1928 and 1931 and 1934 to 1938. An average turnout of 69 percent through the interwar period, peaking at 81 percent in 1925, shows how fiercely contested these municipal elections were. (3)
However, through much of this period, economics loomed larger than politics. With military orders withdrawn and facing unprecedentedly harsh international trading conditions, Barrow’s traditional industrial mainstays were decimated. By 1922, 60 percent of its shipbuilding workforce and half of its engineering workers were unemployed – 44 percent of its insured workforce overall. Vickers’ workforce fell from 23,000 in July 1918 to a low point of just over 3700 in 1923. Wage cuts forced a bitter engineering strike in the town in May 1922.
The new housing crisis was manifest in rent arrears and evictions, the latter sometimes fiercely contested as when 20 police officers were sent with bailiffs to enforce evictions in Vickerstown (where 800 tenants had been laid off and rent arrears approached £7000) in February 1922. In the 1920s, the Council’s preoccupation lay with collecting rents – reduced in 1924 from the already low levels of 7s 6s to 5s (37½ to 25p) weekly – rather than building anew.
A second major slump hit Barrow with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 when at peak in 1931 some 7500 of the locally insured workforce was jobless. There was little female employment in the town to offset mass male unemployment. Rearmament in the later 1930s would restore the town’s fortunes whilst other of its former large employers in railway and locomotive building and metal founding closed permanently.
The Labour-controlled Council was able to commence one small building scheme in 1931 on land purchased from the Ministry of Munitions’ failed Roosegate development: 56 flats for elderly people on Thrums Street, followed by an adjacent scheme of 116 semi-detached houses finally completed in 1948.
The national shift towards slum clearance signified by the 1930 Housing Act and, in Barrow’s case more particularly, the 1935 Housing Act provided greater scope for the Council. Some 6384 homes were inspected under the surveys required by the latter legislation and just over half found ‘not in all respects fit for human habitation’ between 1935 and 1937. Applying overcrowding criteria, 887 homes accommodating 5475 persons were found overcrowded in 1937, equating to 6 percent of the town’s housing stock. Twenty-seven clearance areas were declared.
Barrow also suffered unusually from what might be kindly called ‘informal housing’ – shacks and tents predominantly on Walney Island’s western shore. Some of these were occupied by young people evading the household income provisions of the means test and the Council proceeded cautiously but 28 huts at Biggar Bank on Walney Island were cleared by 1939.
The biggest scalp, however, were the Scotch Flats in Hindpool discussed in last week’s post – tenement buildings dating to 1871 which were among the first of Barrow’s company housing. After two public enquiries, the Ministry of Health agreed the inspector’s decision to demolish in 1939 though – with war intervening – they were to survive till 1956.
From a low point of some 66,000 in 1931, Barrow’s population had increased to around 75,000 by 1940. Population pressures and increased finances encouraged the Council to embark on larger building projects in the later 1930s. The Risedale Estate was commenced in 1936; its 148 new homes were completed in 1948.
The Vulcan Estate, built on the site of the former Vulcan Ironworks in Salthouse, was built between 1936 and 1937 as a slum clearance estate to house those displaced from the Strand Clearance Area. Its relatively plain housing may reflect those origins.
Land a short distance to the north was purchased for the Greengate Estate, North and South, in 1937 but, with contracts for 180 houses and 54 flats not agreed till the summer of 1939, little progress was made before the war – just 18 houses in Greengate South were completed by February 1940.
Some of those were damaged in the Barrow Blitz, two sustained bombing raids on 14-16 April and 3-10 May 1941. Ironically, the town’s heavy industry was relatively unaffected but some 83 civilians died and over 10,000 homes damaged. In Barrow, as elsewhere, the desire to build bigger and better in the post-war world was expressed as conflict raged.
Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Health rejected immediate plans for rebuilding proposed by the Council as early as 1943 but the Borough Surveyor prepared further plans for Greengate South and a new estate of 900 homes in Newbarns – part of a vision announced by the mayor, Councillor GD Haswell, in November that year to create a ‘new post-war Barrow’. The Newbarns scheme was approved in May 1944.
The Council’s Barrow Development Committee, tasked with overseeing peacetime reconstruction, was clear on the ‘paramount necessity of suitably housing our people’:
The social benefits to health, education, family life and ‘moral well-being’ are of course ample justification for the provision of houses adequate in number, properly designed and located with ample accommodation. But even from an economic point of view ample and suitable accommodation is a valuable asset. The fact that we have the necessary labour to offer is enhanced in value greatly if we can show it is properly and suitably housed. Ours must be a slumless city.
As that ambition took shape, the town was allocated 400 temporary prefabs to help meet the immediate housing crisis in November 1944. Many of these Tarran concrete bungalows were erected in Tummerhill on Walney Island, replaced from 1956 by permanent housing; others dotted around the town survived longer. Permanent prefabs – in this case around 200 steel-framed British Iron and Steel Federation houses – were built by Laings on Park Road, and north of Chester Street and Bradford Street on the Ormsgill Estate. They were replaced in the mid-1970s as the estate continued to grow.
Earlier plans for the Greengate estates were completed in the late 1940s but Barrow’s new hopes were placed in the Newbarns Estate, planned to comprise some 800 homes housing around 3000. Post-war planning ideas around ‘neighbourhood units’ were reflected in the provision made for new churches, schools and recreation facilities though the promised tennis courts and recreation centre were never built.
Building continued apace with the Abbotsmead Estate completed in the mid-1950s and what was promoted as ‘a new town at Walney’ of over 2700 homes in the north of the island approved in 1953 where building continued into the 1960s. Some 2600 council homes were built between 1945 and 1961.
For Barrow, the era of large-scale council housebuilding was over by the late-1960s; new schemes were smaller and largely infill, including the Cartmel and Grange Crescent flats in the centre of town and bungalows and flats principally for older residents around Cotswold Crescent on the former site of the Griffin Chilled Steel Works. A scheme of 79 houses and flats on and around Exmouth Street in 1985 marked an adaptive return to more traditional terraced forms.
At peak, in the early 1980s, the Council owned around 5500 homes in the borough. Currently, it owns and manages just over 2500 homes with a much smaller number run by housing associations. Around 10 percent of households live in social rented homes, a surprisingly low figure – below the national average – for a town dubbed the most working-class in England (an admittedly inexact judgement apparently reflecting its prevalence of chip shops, workingmen’s clubs and trade union offices). That may reflect the early tradition of working-class owner occupation referenced last week, the amount of company housing since transferred to private ownership and council housebuilding programmes constrained by economic downturn. (5)
The town continues to be marked by its industrial history and the ups and downs of the local economy. Vickers, now BAE Systems (that is a considerable simplification of a complex history), was sustained by nuclear submarine orders into the 1990s but now employs only around 5000 workers from 14,000 in the 1980s. The pre-pandemic unemployment rate stood at around 4 percent, a fall from recent figures but above the national average. Earlier this year, the town was reported as having suffered the largest population fall of any area in England – around 6.8 percent between 2001 and 2019 to the present figure of around 67,000. (6)
Elsewhere, Barrow is often described as being at the end of the longest cul-de-sac in England due to its location at the tip of the Furness peninsula, 33 miles off the nearest motorway and 33 miles back. The fact that this ‘western industrial periphery’ had briefly been ‘a major Bessemer iron and steel centre of Europe and the world’ tells you something of its impressive and turbulent economic history. (7)
Give Barrow a visit – it has some proud municipal heritage and a unique housing history; it’s a hardworking town working hard to adapt to changing circumstance as it has throughout its lifespan. And that ‘remote’ location is actually pretty special.
(1) Quoted in Bryn Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built (Hougenai Press, 1985). Much of the information here and particularly that on later council housing, which is little documented elsewhere, is drawn from this invaluable source by Barrow’s leading historian.
(2) Quotations drawn from Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster 1880-1930’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol 127, 1978 and Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built
(3) Sam Davies and Bob Morley, County Borough Elections in England and Wales, 1919-1938: A Comparative Analysis (Routledge, 2016). The unemployment figures which follow are drawn from the same source.
In 1843, Barrow comprised some 143 people and 28 houses. The Furness Railway arrived three years later; by 1881, the town’s population had reached 47,259. With the arrival of what became the Barrow Haematite Steel Company in 1859 and the opening of its first major dock – the Devonshire – in 1867, the town’s impressive but troubled industrial history had begun. And, with that, a fascinating housing history perhaps unique in the country. That history was shaped by the local economy, in early decades to an unprecedented degree, and particularly – until the belated arrival of council housing – by its dramatic vicissitudes.
Barrow was incorporated in 1867 and became a County Borough in 1889. But it was most marked by what some have described as the ‘aristocratic paternalism’ of the Cavendish family – not so paternal here as the Devonshires (as the eponymous dock suggests) were most concerned with money-making – and the power of leading industrialists; Barrow ‘suffered from the lack of a strongly established middle-class element, and was virtually ruled by an industrial junta’. (1)
The key figure here was James Ramsden, managing director of both the Furness Railway Company and the Barrow Haematite Steel Company from 1866 as well as the town’s first mayor from 1867 to 1872. Ramsden also devised the first plan for what was essentially a new town though that, in truth, was soon overtaken by Barrow’s breakneck growth. This was the ‘English Chicago’ with, in the less complimentary words of one account, ‘a combination in appearance of Birkenhead and a goldfinders’ city on the edge of one of the western prairies of America’. (2)
To retain a new workforce drawn from across the UK, employers built company housing. The so-called Barrow Island Huts built for navvies and shipyard workers in the 1870s were among the first – 349 wood or brick prefabs arranged like an army encampment, serving a population of up to 3000 and of such squalor that they were condemned by the council in 1877 though they survived into the 1880s.
Far more substantial were the Scotch Buildings, built in 1871 for the employees of the adjacent steel, flax and jute works in Hindpool – tenement blocks built on ‘the Scotch principle’, appropriately it was felt as most of the workforce was Scottish.
The more monumental Devonshire Buildings, with their corner octagonal towers, were completed on Barrow Island by the Barrow Shipbuilding Company in 1874. Though designed by Lancaster architects Paley and Austin, their style – and the builders, Smith and Caird from Dundee – point again to this rare adoption of Scottish forms south of the border. Similar tenement blocks just to the south – a mix of brick and craggier sandstone – were completed in the early 1880s, again designed by Paley and Austin and built by Dundee contractors on what have since been rebranded the ‘Maritime Streets’.
The one- and two-bed flats provided a living room and scullery and basic sanitary facilities but, despite their relatively spacious rooms, this was no philanthropic venture. Ramsden, emphasising the bottom line, pointed out they cost £25 less to build per room than Peabody tenements whilst also offering slightly lower weekly rents – 1s 6d (7.5p) a room compared to Peabody’s 2s (10p). (3)
The Scotch Buildings are, as we’ll see, long gone but the refurbished Devonshire Buildings survive, listed Grade II*, part of the Cavendish family’s Holker Estate holdings. The Maritime Streets blocks, Grade II-listed, are now advertised as modern serviced apartments, their proximity to Barrow’s major employers still a key selling point.
That was also the case with the Roose Cottages, provided in the hamlet of that name to the west of Barrow in the mid-1870s by the Barrow Haematite Steel Company to serve the predominantly Cornish workforce of its new iron ore workings at Stank. (That Cornish influence – 80 percent of the population was listed as coming from the county in the 1881 Census – is allegedly responsible for the soft ‘s’ pronunciation of the district’s name which replaced the hard ‘s’ previously favoured by locals.) The 196 cottages in two parallel blocks were again built by Cairds of Dundee, a testament to the relative ease of employing Scottish contractors and workers in what seemed to many a remote corner of England.
Given the national and local politics of the day, it’s no surprise that there was no municipal housebuilding at this time though, in fact, the private 1873 Barrow-in-Furness Corporation Act had empowered the council to build artisans’ cottages. In the event, the cost to ratepayers of ancillary sewerage and street works ensured the question would be shelved for some time.
Returning to 1881, that 47,259 population was crammed into 6789 houses, an average of 6.96 persons per house. That made Barrow, after London, the most overcrowded town in England. An economic slowdown in the 1880s eased matters temporarily but the purchase by Vickers of the Naval Construction and Armaments Shipyard in 1897 led to renewed growth. By 1900, the town’s Medical Officer of Health lamented: (4)
There has been no adequate provision to relieve the congested condition of the town … I believe that 1000 additional houses would have been filled at once so great seems the overpopulation of nearly every working man’s house
Vickers’ workforce and 13-acre site on Walney Island doubled in size as cruiser orders filled its books and the company, like its predecessors, resorted to the provision of company housing to attract and retain its employees. In 1899, Vickers took over the Walney Island Estates Company (which was attempting to develop mixed housing and a seaside resort on the island) and promised a ‘marine Garden City’ of its own, Vickerstown. By 1904, the construction of the first phase of Vickerstown, comprising around 950 homes, was largely complete.
The solid well-built, predominantly terraced housing that emerged – complete with flush toilets, running water and its own electricity supply – was of good quality though its layout reflected few of the Garden City principles claimed to inspire it.
It was also rigidly socially segregated: Class A houses (the majority) offered more basic houses for ordinary workers at around 6s (30p) a week; Class J, for skilled workers and foremen provided larger rooms and, if you were lucky, a bathroom at 7s (35p) a week; commodious Class L houses – rented at 9s (45p) a week – were designed for administrative staff and lower management whilst the houses with sea views on the scheme’s fringes were intended for the elite. As Trescatheric suggests, ‘what Vickerstown more closely resembled was the older and less visionary concept of an industrial model village’.
These were also, of course, tied houses; it was said you needed a foreman’s recommendation to be considered for housing and the loss of a Vickers job would see you evicted. Rents were deducted from wages and the company retained direct financial control of all the housing and amenities provided. The appointment of Lord Dunluce as Estates Manager from 1901 to 1909 (he moved to take up a post as secretary of the Peabody Housing Trust) reinforces the heavy paternalism on display. (Vickers’ hard-headed approach is even better illustrated by their construction of the new Walney Bridge, opened in 1908, to serve the shipyard and its mainland workforce: tolls were charged for all traffic including pedestrians until 1935 even after protesting riots in 1922.) (5)
Despite or more probably because of that paternalism, Alex McConnell – a Vickers employee, a Scot steeped like many of his fellow-workers in trade union and socialist traditions – was elected Walney Island’s first Labour councillor in 1905. By 1914, with all three seats held by Labour, Bram Longstaffe, the secretary of the local party, could refer to ‘the Fortress of Walney which is secure for Labour’.
Conversely, local trades unions were also pushing home ownership. In the context of company housing, high rents and no prospect of council housebuilding, this made sense. As the Trades Council argued in 1904, provided a would-be purchaser could raise a £10 deposit (no easy matter, of course), a monthly mortgage repayment of 12s (60p) compared well with rents averaging a £1 a month.
For all Vickers’ growth and perhaps reflecting the impact of the company’s housebuilding, by 1909 the town’s Medical Officer of Health – in a new time of local slowdown, was concluding that:
The housing of the working-classes question has no significance in the town. There has never been any difficulty except on rare and temporary occasions for the workers to find houses for their wives and families.
That complacency would soon be challenged. Barrow’s population rose from 65,257 in 1911 to over 75,000 in 1914, By some estimates, it reached 90,000 in the next few years. ‘The rare and temporary occasion’ this time, of course, was the rearmament drive in the years leading to the First World War and the war itself.
As Barrow industry expanded to meet war’s demands, the housing shortage became devastating. Vickers provided a further 1000 houses before and during the war but its workforce had expanded from around 16,000 in 1914 to 35,000. Conditions for many single men sharing lodgings were described by a shipwright who had arrived in the town in 1913: (6)
We were working seven days a week in the yard for most of the war and the beds were never cold. As one left bed the next lot moved in—night shift and day shift, and it was like that all the time!
Other testimonies described shocking conditions for families
Father and mother, eight children, two of whom a boy and girl was over seventeen years of age, all living in one room. The mother was confined after, with child in this same room.
Elsewhere, sanitary inspectors reported 12 adults and seven children occupying a three-bed house in Melbourne Street while a family of six paid 7s 6d (37.5p) for a single bedroom in a house let at 4s 6d (22.5p) a week.
Class tensions strengthened; the perception that the town’s middle-class were evading the attempts of the Central Billeting Board to accommodate workers in their larger homes led to protest meetings at Vickers and the withdrawal of Labour representatives from the Board. At the same time, dilution (the use of unskilled or semi-skilled labour in jobs previously demarcated as skilled) added to trade union grievances and led in May 1917, to strike action, one of a number in munitions centres across the country, not least in Clydeside with which Barrow had close connections. The Government appointed a Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest. (7)
It reported on Barrow in August, describing conditions in the town as ‘a terrible indictment … against the Rulers and Governors’. Housing – or the lack of it – formed the major part of this indictment:
For nearly three years the population of this important working centre has been constantly increasing and there was no evidence before us that either the government or the Municipality had up to now taken any practical step to deal with the problem that has been urgent at all times and has now become a crying scandal.
Despite the criticisms of its Labour members, the Council blamed this inaction on the Government and, belatedly, the latter acted promptly. In October 1917 the Ministry of Munitions announced a scheme of 500 semi-permanent and 500 permanent houses to be built simultaneously and completed by March the following year. Salthouse Road was selected by the Ministry as the site of the Roosecote Estate’s semi-permanent housing; it was said to have ‘natural leanings … towards a rough and unthrifty class of tenant’. The better-quality permanent homes were allocated to a greenfield site in Abbotsmead.
Delays and controversy followed and neither were completed before war’s end; neither would be judged satisfactory. But this takes us to next week’s post which will conclude this chapter and tell the new story of Barrow’s first council housing and that which followed.
(1) John Duncan Marshall and John K. Walton, The Lake Counties from 1830 to the Mid-twentieth Century: A Study in Regional Change (Manchester University Press, 1981)
(2) Quoted in Bryn Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built (Hougenai Press, 1985). Much of the information here and particularly that on later council housing, which is little documented elsewhere, is drawn from this invaluable source by Barrow’s leading historian.
(3) Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster 1880-1930’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol 127, 1978
(4) Quoted in Trescatheric, How Barrow Was Built
(5) Caroline Anne Joy, ‘War and Unemployment in an Industrial Community: Barrow-In-Furness 1914-1926’, University of Central Lancashire PhD, 2004
(6) From the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into Industrial Unrest (1917), quoted in Roberts, ‘Working-Class Housing in Barrow and Lancaster’ and Joy, ‘War and Unemployment in an Industrial Community’
(7) David Englander, Landlord and Tenant in Urban Britain: The Politics of Housing Reform, 1838-1924, University of Warwick PhD, 1979
Michael Romyn, London’s Aylesbury Estate: An Oral History of the Concrete Jungle (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)
The estate was like a shiny new penny. It was lovely. It was really lovely. It’s hard for me to paint a picture for you but it was a beautiful place to live … The community side of it, you know? I mean you knew all the neighbours … You know you would never have got that sort of community in a row of houses as you did with the landings …
Robert Banks is talking about Southwark’s Aylesbury Estate. For many readers, his words might come as a shock and, to be honest, I’m tempted just to leave it there as a simple corrective to the unreasoned obloquy that the estate has suffered. As Michael Romyn writes in the introduction to his essential new book, ‘a reputation is usually earned; in the Aylesbury’s case it was born’. Even on the day of its official opening by Anthony Greenwood, Labour’s Minister of Housing and Planning in October 1970, it was described by one local Tory councillor as a ‘concrete jungle … not fit for people to live in’. That might have come as a shock to the new tenants who felt ‘it was like moving into a palace’.
The estate was born in the laudable post-war ambition to clear the slums and in the 1960s’ fashion for large-scale, modernist solutions to housing need. It comprised 2700 homes in all, housing a population of almost 10,000 at peak, in 16 four- to fourteen-storey so-called ‘snake blocks’ (including what was allegedly the largest single housing block in Europe). Designed by Southwark Council’s Department of Architecture and Planning, it was built by Laing using the Jespersen large panel system of prefabricated construction. The estate’s regeneration – in practice, its demolition and replacement – has been planned since 1998.
Romyn’s book offers essentially another form of deconstruction, not of the estate itself, but of the myths and meanings that have become attached to it. Robert Banks provides one of the 31 past and present residents’ testimonies that lie at the heart of this thoroughly researched book. That residents’ voice shouldn’t be an unusual means of understanding the actual lived experience of council tenants – who find themselves and their homes so frequently misrepresented and maligned in the media and wider commentary – but, sadly, it is. In the case of the Aylesbury, it is all the more vital as no estate has been so unfairly vilified.
We should begin, I suppose, with that ‘reputation’: the estate portrayed as a ‘concrete jungle’ (indeed, almost its archetype), a scene of crime and disorder. Romyn quotes Sir Kenneth Newman, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who in 1983 described London’s council estates more generally as ‘symbolic locations’ where:
unemployed youths – often black youths – congregate; where the sale and purchase of drugs, the exchange of stolen property and illegal drinking and gaming is not unknown … they equate closely to the criminal rookeries of Dickensian London.
We’ll leave aside for the moment the unconscious (?) racism of his comment and note its surprisingly conscious myth-making: estates, such as the Aylesbury, were imagined rather than analysed, just as, in fact, Victorian elites fearfully mythologised the slum quarters of their own large cities. (1)
As Romyn writes:
Simplified, fetishized, objectified, and finally commodified, council estates rendered in this way, were imaginary constructs, their meaning defined not by their histories or inhabitants, but by external agencies of control (politicians, police, the media, etc).
Newman avoided the word ‘gangs’ but Romyn reminds us how readily the stigmatising term was applied to very largely innocuous groups of young people, particularly those of colour, simply hanging out on their home turf. That so many of the estate’s population were young – in 1971, 37 percent of its 9000 population was under 16 – was, as he notes, an objective factor in such problems as did exist.
If this sounds dismissive of those problems, it should be said that Romyn is scrupulous in assessing the evidence. He notes, for example, that in 1999 around 40 percent of estate residents expressed fears for their personal safety. It’s a disturbing figure but it was roughly in line with the proportions in Southwark and London more widely.
Romyn contends that what really marked the estate out was:
its physical attributes – the brawny slabs … the circuitous geography of elevated walkways. Immediately expressive of the ‘gritty’ inner city, the estate distilled many of the fears and fantasies of urban life embedded in the popular imagination.
These, of course, were also grist to the mill of the ‘Defensible Space’ theorists who posited that elements of ‘design disadvantage’ – the illegibility of public/private space, multi-storey accommodation, shared entranceways and those walkways – were the cause of crime and antisocial behaviour. These, I hope, largely discredited ideas had become by the 1990s the ‘common sense’ of planners and politicians alike and featured heavily in the writings of the media commentariat.
But while lurid headlines and alarmist reports filled column inches, actual crime rates on the estate and the incidence of anti-social behaviour were similar to those of surrounding areas; the estate wasn’t an idyll (though many growing up in the era remember it fondly) but it was essentially normal. Romyn quotes Susan Smith who has suggested ‘fear of crime may be better seen as an articulation of inequality and powerlessness so often experienced as part of urban life. So too can it mask deeper anxieties about changes to the social order …’. Media representations of, as one report labelled it, this ‘concrete den of crime’ were, as Romyn argues, ‘wildly disproportionate, and wanton, too, in that they stoked and projected an unearned notoriety’. (2)
Moving to the question of ‘community’, a leitmotif of planning since 1945, Aylesbury might again surprise those who have criticised it so freely. Romyn charts, particularly in the estate’s early years, a neighbourliness and localism centred around the East Street market and nearby pubs and shops – in fact, a connectedness with the neighbourhood in direct contradiction to conventional wisdom surrounding estates and their supposed isolation. An active tenants’ association, a range of community activities, informal cleaning rotas of common areas and so on complete the picture.
Changing demographics could fray this community cohesion. The arrival of larger numbers of ‘problem families’ – at times described as ‘rough’ by more established residents – under homelessness legislation sometimes led to tensions and difficulties. But Romyn reminds us, again with personal testimony, how life-changing for the families themselves this move could be. Linda Smith, who moved to the estate with her two young children in 1990 via a women’s refuge and bed and breakfast accommodation, recalls how, ‘in [her] time of need along came Southwark’. I don’t need to say how necessary it is that these services are properly funded and resourced and how vital social housing is to that.
Race became another complicating factor for this initially very largely ‘white’ estate as black and minority residents moved in. But this necessary transition seems to have been negotiated well for the most part; the tenants association remained fairly old school but new grassroots community organisations emerged and made a vital contribution to Aylesbury’s life and vitality.
All this in an era of real and growing hardship. The data is profuse. As traditional employment declined and joblessness rose, by 1975 the average household income in Southwark was £1000 below the UK mean; by 1985, half its households were on Housing Benefit. By the late 1990s, Faraday Ward (largely comprising the estate) was the third most deprived ward in Southwark and among the fifth most deprived in England; half its children were on free school meals (compared to 16 percent nationally).
This wasn’t the time to cut public spending and services but the relentless Thatcherite urge to ‘balance the budget’ imposed swingeing central government cuts to housing grants and allocations. On the Aylesbury (as elsewhere), routine maintenance was cut and internal redecoration halted; caretakers were reduced and then removed completely in 1990; cleaning staff were reduced and then lost to Compulsory Competitive Tendering in 1991.
The real quality of Romyn’s book, however, is that it is not a polemic (and is all the more plausible for that). He acknowledges the inefficiencies of some of the Council’s services, its Direct Labour organisation, for example. He recognises the improvements achieved through new, more devolved forms of housing management. But the sense of an estate not failing but failed by others is palpable.
For all that, when in 1999 Southwark Council commissioned a ‘mutual aid’ survey of the estate, it found that 90 percent of residents knew and helped neighbours; 20 percent were helped by a relative living on estate and 35 percent had friends and relatives living nearby. This suggests a resilience and community challenging the dystopian stereotypes repeated most famously by Tony Blair in his first public speech after New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 on the estate itself.
We might, nevertheless, see the £56.2m awarded to the Aylesbury two years later as part of a New Deal for Communities regeneration package as an attempt to right past wrongs. In practice, it was for most residents a poisoned chalice which threatened established and generally well-liked homes and it came cloaked in a moralising language that insulted them and their community. This ‘moral underclass discourse’:
pointed to imputed deficiencies in the values and behaviour of those who were supposedly excluded – ‘an underclass of people cut off from society’s’ mainstream, without any sense of shared purpose’ according to Blair.
The apparently benign goal of ‘mixed and sustainable communities’ was expressed more crudely by Southwark’s Director of Regeneration, the suitably villainously-named Fred Manson:
We need a wider range of people living in the borough … [council housing] generates people on low incomes coming in and that leads to poor school performances, middle-class people stay away.
We’re trying to move people from a benefit-dependency culture to an enterprise culture. If you have 25 to 30 percent of the population in need, things can still work reasonably well. But above 30, it becomes pathological.
Local Labour politicians might, one hopes, have known better but the motion of censure for this intemperate and abusive language came from Tory councillors. The residents’ own response came in December 2001 when, in a 76 percent turnout, they voted by 73 percent to reject the transfer of their homes to the Faraday Housing Association (formed for the purpose) which would oversee the regeneration process. Fears of increased rents, reduced security of tenure, smaller homes and gentrification all played their part.
Since then, regeneration has rumbled on. It has had some beneficial effects. Increased spending and support for education, for example, increased the proportion of local students gaining five GCSEs at Grade C or above from a shocking 16 percent in 1999 to 68 percent – just below the national average – in 2008. That this was achieved before any part of the estate was demolished testifies to the benefits of direct public investment and the fallacy that clearance was required.
A small part of the estate was demolished in 2010, existing blocks replaced as is the fashion with mixed tenure homes in a more traditional streetscape. Most of the estate remains though it and its community have been scarred by the interminable process and continued threat of regeneration.
Whilst thoroughly readable, London’s Aylesbury Estate is an academic book – with an excellent apparatus of references and bibliographies – and it comes unfortunately at a hefty academic price. For anyone concerned to truly understand the estate and its history, however, I recommend it as the definitive text.
I’ll conclude with some conclusions that I think apply not only to the Aylesbury but to estates more generally. The first is that we should eschew simplifications and embrace complexity. Actual residents, for the most part, experienced the estate very differently from its media portrayals. Many didn’t even experience it as an ‘estate’ at all – they knew their corner of it and generally got on with their immediate neighbours. Some were fearful of crime and an unfortunate few experienced it but another interviewee recalls that he ‘didn’t come across anything anti-social in all [his] time there’. Many remember – and continue to experience – neighbourliness; conversely, some rather liked the anonymity the estate could offer.
Secondly, we must reject the idea of estates as alien. As Romyn argues:
Council estates are just homes after all. For most residents, they are not media props or architectural crimes or political rationales, but places of family, tradition, ritual and refuge …
Let’s allow the Aylesbury Estate to be simply – and positively – ordinary:
For all that was exceptional about the estate, and for all the mystification it endured, the Aylesbury, in the eyes of its residents, was mostly normal, unremarkable; a place of routine and refuge, of rest and recreation, of family and familiarity.
Thirdly, we might wish those residents for once to be not the object of other people’s stories but the subject of their own.
I’m grateful for permission to use the images above which are drawn from the book.
(1) This is argued by Dominic Severs in ‘Rookeries and No-Go Estates: St Giles and Broadwater Farm, or middle-class fear of “non-street” housing’, Journal of Architecture, vol 15, no 4, August 2010
(2) The reference here is Susan J Smith, ‘Social Relations, neighbourhood structure and the fear of crime in Britain’ in David Evans and David Herbert (eds), The Geography of Crime (Routledge, 1989)
I wrote about the Aylesbury Estate myself in two blog posts back in 2014. I’d revise some of my language and analysis back then in the light of my own further research and certainly with the benefit of Michael Romyn’s book but they might still serve as a useful guide to the overall history.
I’m very pleased to feature this week a guest post by Paul Wood. Paul is the author of three books about trees in London: London’s Street Trees, London is a Forest and London Tree Walks, and he writes the blog thestreettree.com.
London Tree Walks, published in October 2020, features a dozen walks around London from Acton to Walthamstow looking at the city through the trees found in it. One of the walks, ‘Architectural Utopias Among The Trees: A Pimlico Circular’, guides walkers through the Millbank and Churchill Gardens Estates. This guest blog looks at how trees have been used in planned housing developments since the end of the nineteenth century with particular focus on the Pimlico Estates.
Signed copies of London Tree Walks are available from the authorat this webpage.
By the end of the nineteenth century, trees in towns and cities had burst out of parks and squares to become established in new, urban and suburban settings across the UK and beyond. The opening of the Victoria Embankment in 1870 led to an almost overnight popularisation of planting trees in avenues, a phenomena that had hitherto been the preserve of great Continental cities such as Paris, where Hausmann’s grands boulevards had been attracting attention for several decades.
By the late nineteenth century, building houses among tree-lined streets had become an established practice for speculative builders wanting to attract the burgeoning middle classes to newly fashionable suburbs like Muswell Hill and Bedford Park. In Bedford Park, new street trees complemented those retained from the original fields, while in Muswell Hill, hundreds of London planes adorned the new avenues.
Planners and developers had realised that not only were trees an important part of a modern cityscape, they brought with them a host of benefits to those who lived near them. As the new craze for street tree planting reached fever pitch, it was only natural that the first public housing schemes should also have trees planted around them. The Boundary Estate in Shoreditch featured newly planted trees along its streets, mostly London planes and common limes, many of which, particularly those around Arnold Circus can still be seen. Rows of newly planted saplings feature in this photograph taken in 1903 soon after the estate opened.
Twenty years after the Embankment planting, Victorian engineers had taken on board the need to engineer tree planting into new road schemes, the complexity of which was outlined by Clerk of the Improvements Committee, Percy J Edwards in 1876: (1)
To secure the well-being of trees, pits were formed and filled with proper soil, and the footway surrounding the trees was covered with an open grating to admit the rain and air to the soil, and to enable it to be stirred and kept loose on the surface. The grating and footway were supported independently by girders over the pits, so as to prevent the settlement of the paving and the hardening of the ground around the roots of the trees.
Following similar principles, the trees seen at Boundary Road and the Millbank Estate constructed soon afterwards are extraordinarily well encased. High quality engineering means subsidence has not been an issue and big trees have been left to reach their full potential and are now a significant physical feature defining these estates as much as their architecture.
Trees planted in some privately developed housing schemes, including Muswell Hill, have not fared so well with whole streets of mature trees disappearing. This is down to two main factors: the cost of maintaining large trees is significant, sometimes at a level local authorities have struggled to keep up with; and the costs of paying out to litigious residents whose homes, built speculatively often with relatively poor foundations, have been subject to subsidence.
Trees are frequently implicated in subsidence cases, their adventurous roots, insurers claim, drain water from London’s porous clay soils causing contraction and can also undermine buildings. Rather than fight these often difficult-to-prove cases, authorities will avoid costs and conflict by simply removing trees. This practice has led to avenues being depleted, removed completely or being replaced piecemeal with different species. This last practice can mean an architecturally consistent scheme planted with, for instance, London planes can become a hotchpotch of trees with differing characteristics, size and age.
This is not the case on the Millbank Estate however, defined – even more so than the Boundary Estate – by its well-manicured and mature London plane trees. It was completed in 1902 and was an ambitious attempt at social housing, building on the experience of its smaller Shoreditch sibling. Millbank’s trees appear, 120 years after their installation, to be in great shape and add to the architectural rigour even more so than those on the Boundary Estate. It may be obvious, but unlike buildings, trees change dramatically over time, albeit in relative slow motion. They are also subject to differing management regimes which themselves change over decades and so reflect factors including fashion, economics and arboricultural practices whose impact becomes apparent over multiple human lifetimes.
Today, the Millbank Estate has a near full and consistent complement of trees, virtually all of which are London planes, the urban tree species of choice in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The Boundary Estate has some fine planes too, but appears to be relatively less forested today. Historically it appears, the Boundary Estate was planted with planes interspersed with common limes – another species well adapted to urban situations, mature examples of which can be seen on Rochelle Street. Elsewhere a handful of weeping ‘Pendula’ cultivars of wych elm, an ornamental species relatively resistant to Dutch elm disease are present. One in the small garden behind Sandford House next to Club Row is typical.
These curious crown-grafted trees were much in favour during the nineteenth century and are often a feature of public parks, however the estate examples appear to be rather younger than the buildings, they are perhaps second-generation replacements of original trees. In more recent years, streets such as Palissy Street have been planted with Field Maple, a smaller and shorter-lived species than London plane, but nevertheless, a good hardy tree.
The Boundary Estate has, it seems, lost some of its trees over the years, and those that remain have been less strictly managed than those on the Millbank Estate. Both feature mature planes that now reach the full height and more of the buildings that once towered over them. They have been planted close to the buildings, in retrospect maybe too close, often they have grown at angles several degrees away from upright in search of light. Their presence in such proximity to the buildings is testament to the high specification of the entire estate.
To walk round the larger Millbank Estate today is to encounter an environment, both architectural and arboreal, that has been very well maintained over the years. With both estates, it is interesting to reflect on the planners’ original vision of how the trees would become integral to the estates over time. Did they consider the trees should be left to reach the heights seen today, or were they intended to be managed on a severe pollarding regime reflecting the fashions of the early nineteenth century? It is hard to know, or even if the longevity of the trees’ lives was considered.
Now though, and particularly in the summer, the mature trees’ canopies provide cool shade and, as evidence from elsewhere shows, traffic speed, noise and pollution are all reduced in such lush surroundings. Integral to the design of the estate was the inclusion of open space and the provision of trees.
Communal, mostly paved, areas are tucked away between the blocks, and the trees planted over 120 years ago line the streets running between them. London planes form something of a monoculture, which from a visitor’s perspective offers a harmonious aesthetic that sits well with the arts and crafts inspired architecture, but to a contemporary planner, this rigour may seem uninteresting and even risky given the spectre of plant pathogens that, like Dutch Elm Disease, can wipe out whole species in a very short time.
It was undoubtedly a radical move to include trees in these early estates; by the late nineteenth-century social class was embedded in their selection and planting. As Harold Dyos wrote in his 1960s study of the growth of Camberwell: (2)
The choice of trees, too, had its social overtones: planes and horse chestnuts for the wide avenues and lofty mansions of the well-to-do; limes, laburnums and acacias for the middle incomes; unadorned macadam for the wage-earners.
Dyos’ observation illustrates that the high standards employed in early public housing development goes against the norms established by private developers. London plane, the tree that is associated with grand public thoroughfares like the Embankment and aspirational new suburbs like Muswell Hill was also the tree chosen to soften and embed these new housing forms into the fabric of the city. It would have appeared to be the perfect tree for planting as it is attractive, fast-growing and able to cope with the industrial pollution of the day. Over the years, the trees have been well cared for, having been regularly pollarded to keep them an appropriate size and shape for their location.
A short and interesting walk from the Millbank Estate through the stuccoed splendour of Thomas Cubitt’s Pimlico, Modernist Churchill Gardens illustrates how the relationship between trees and public housing has changed over the years, and represents what might be considered the pinnacle of post-war inner city landscaping.
London’s Second World War destruction provided planners with a rare opportunity to rebuild a modern city. Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1943 identified how war-damaged and slum housing could be cleared to make way for spacious modern homes with proper sanitation along with public open spaces. Born out of this optimistic vision, the Churchill Gardens estate was planned to provide 1,600 new homes.
Designed by the young architectural practice of Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, the estate’s development started in 1946, with the final blocks – those on the western side of Claverton Street – not completed until the 1970s. It is now a conservation area, with several of the oldest structures listed. Walking through the estate, it is possible to experience the utopian vision of large-scale planned housing. As well as one of the first, Churchill Gardens is one of the largest and most ambitious social housing developments with several innovations at its heart, notably the Accumulator Tower, a structure designed to hold hot water for heating the entire estate, which was pumped directly from Battersea Power Station across the river.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the estate is how it is enveloped by green space and mature trees. Unlike the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century urban ideal emphasising the separation of houses and greenery, Churchill Gardens represents a modernist vision of living among the trees. At every turn, mature hornbeams, tree privets, southern catalpas and other species are present. Well-kept gardens, tended by residents, pop up all over, and secret green corners among the tower blocks offer natural sanctuaries.
Unlike that other notable modernist development, the Alton Estate in Roehampton, where high quality architecture is scattered among a former Georgian parkland overlooking Richmond Park, the landscape at Churchill Gardens was planned from scratch. Consequently the trees reflect mid-twentieth century tastes that show both far greater species diversity and a modern sensibility regarding their purpose.
Unlike the Millbank Estate, the trees are no longer structural adjuncts to the built environment, instead they have become alternative focal points to the buildings. They act to soften the potentially brutalising effects of the monumental architecture, whose scale they cannot compete with. Between the slab blocks, gardens exist containing specimen trees which have more in common with park trees than street trees – a crucial difference between Churchill Gardens and the Millbank Estate, which has also led to different management practices.
Instead of well-pollarded planes, the trees here have been given ample space to attain fine maturity. Notable among the species are goblet-shaped hornbeams of the ‘Fastigiata’ cultivar, and evergreen Chinese tree privets, both neat, medium-sized trees. Elsewhere, a few larger trees like Italian alder, red oak, sycamore, Norway maple, southern catalpa and Japanese pagoda tree rub shoulders with smaller trees including ornamental cherries, magnolias and white mulberries. But perhaps the most exciting trees to look out for are an exceptional example of a southern European nettle tree next to Bramwell House, and a very rare (and poisonous) varnish tree next to Coleridge House.
According to Powell, the architects worked with a former Kew gardener on the landscape planting. As a result, Churchill Gardens is full of fine, well-tended trees that the people who live here are proud of and that help to foster a palpable sense of place and community.
Trees have been part of our town and cityscapes for centuries, but their use on streets and among housing is a late nineteenth century innovation. As the first social housing schemes were built, tree planting was considered an essential part of their development. This impulse continued over subsequent decades with a shift away from London plane monocultures to much more diverse planting which, at its best can be akin to parkland or even botanical collections.
The use of trees within planned housing developments arguably reached its zenith in the heroic modernism of the post-war period expanding on new insights, derived from pioneering schemes like the Millbank Estate, into how buildings, people and trees interact. As estates have aged, the trees have too. Now we can reflect on the benefits of living among the trees and appreciate the grandeur they bring to developments through softening and humanising the architecture, while also providing seasonal interest and tangible environmental benefits.
(1) Percy J Edwards, History of London Street Improvements, 1855-1897 (London County Council, 1898)
(2) Harold Dyos, Victorian Suburb: A study of the Growth of Camberwell (Leicester University Press, 1966)
I’m delighted to feature the second of two new posts by Steven Robb. Steven also contributed an earlier post providing an overview of Edinburgh’s council housing from 1890 to 1945. He is Deputy Head of Casework for Historic Environment Scotland. With qualifications in building surveying and urban conservation, he has a particular interest in early and interwar social housing in Edinburgh, and how new housing was incorporated within the historic city.
In last week’s post, I concentrated on the main three 1919 Council estates at Gorgie, Wardie and Northfield. In this part, I will look at 1919 Act housing built for Leith and Midlothian, which was inherited and taken forward by Edinburgh in 1920. I will also look at the new homes created from existing buildings, concluding with an assessment of Edinburgh’s approach to the 1919 Act.
Leith and Midlothian
In 1920 Edinburgh absorbed Leith Corporation and several suburban areas within the County of Midlothian, inheriting 1919 Act housing planned by these authorities.
Leith had planned sites for over 200 houses, but by September 1920 had only started three tenements on Ferry Road. Designed by Leith’s Burgh Architect, George Simpson, and judged to be ‘houses of artistic design’, the initial choice of tenements was rare in 1919 housing. A further nine houses were built round the corner in Clark Avenue.
Leith also received, towards the end of 1923, 66 new flats in tenements designed by Campbell. Situated on St Clair Street, off Easter Road, these tenements had two small two-bedroom flats on each landing, and due to Campbell’s space planning and the ‘most rigid economies’ cost only £350 a house, showing how far costs had fallen by this date.
Edinburgh inherited schemes by Midlothian County to build pockets of housing including 48 houses at Longstone, and other modest developments at Corstorphine, Gilmerton and Davidsons Mains. Midlothian engaged the private architect David McCarthy, best known for designing the city’s Veterinarian School. His two storey houses were both plain and small, as Midlothian had argued strongly for the right to build no more than two bedroom houses.
Reconstruction & Conversion
Scotland’s 1919 Housing Act was not only focused on building new homes; there was also a distinct focus on rehabilitating, or reconstructing, buildings for housing. Edinburgh’s overcrowded and decaying Old Town contained a number of many-storeyed historic tenements, several of which were in very poor condition.
Reconstruction works were led directly by the City’s Housing Director (and City Engineer) Campbell. The projects had become favourable after new provisions within the 1919 Act meant acquiring properties for demolition or reconstruction limited owners’ compensation payments to solely the value of the cleared site.
Intended as a cheaper option than newbuild, in many cases the reconstruction could be undertaken at around half the price of new build, with the subsidy often covering all costs.
Old Town tenements in the Cowgate, High Street, West Port, Dumbiedykes and St James were purchased and reconstructed, often with rear additions removed, to provide around 120 small flats. The flats in the centre of town were close to jobs and amenities and proved popular with tenants. Sadly, the legislation later changed so that no part of a retained building could be subject to a housing subsidy, to the great harm of the city’s heritage. Thus, later projects in the interwar period were mainly ‘conservative surgery’ schemes involving selective demolition and rebuilding housing in historicist styles.
An unusual use of the 1919 Act subsidies was the conversion of former army huts into homes, again at around half the price of permanent new houses. Early in 1920, as part of a nationwide project, a demonstration house was displayed to the public in the centre of St James Square. The hut had been converted to a three bedroom house by the Ministry of Munitions. It consisted of a timber structure on a brick base, lined and roofed with asbestos with internal concrete walls and was designed to last twenty years.
The demonstration house was obviously well received, as the Council went on to purchase 52 huts from the Ministry at a cost of £7470. The Council proceeded to convert these huts into 140 homes which they called ‘bungalows’, but we might alternatively call pre-fabs. They were sited in London Road, Meadowbank and Iona Street off Leith Walk, and included the St James Square example, itself converted into two homes. They were given to applicants, including, appropriately, ‘married ex-servicemen’ who were ‘clamouring’ for houses.
The 1919 Housing Act saw Edinburgh (and its recently acquired neighbours) build around 1300 new homes, with another 260 from reconstructed city tenements and converted army huts. The total cost was over £1.5m with over 80 percent of expenditure borne by the State.
Although this fell far short of the 3750 home envisaged, it was abundantly clear the circumstances were not ‘entirely favourable’. The State had embarked upon the largest country-wide public housing programme ever seen in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic World War. Dormant building contractors, reduced numbers of skilled tradesmen, and a sudden demand for scarce building materials led to spiralling costs. By the beginning of 1921 labour costs had risen by 300 percent, but the city still struggled to find builders. Joinery, lime and plaster costs had risen by 250 percent, brick costs had doubled and even the cost of carting materials to site had risen by 350 percent. Edinburgh suffered particularly with costs up to 70 percent higher than the Scottish average. As a country, Scotland ended up building around 25,500 houses, only 20 percent of its, admittedly more ambitious, target.
Oversight and approval from the Board of Health elongated the process, but the City still hoped for a subsidy extension to allow them to reach their targets (although some questioned whether the targets had been set too high). However, in mid-1921 State expenditure was drastically curtailed with ‘Geddes Axe’ cuts.
Over time the building market had begun to reach some form of equilibrium, and costs had started falling sharply in 1922. However, by this date it was forbidden to start new schemes, and expansion of existing schemes was confined to minimum standards to cut costs. Very sadly, at the point where criticism of expensive housing had ceased to be an issue, the subsidies were withdrawn.
As built Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing provided a specifically tailored version of the garden city ideal, differing from many other Scottish towns and cities by using a mix of cottages, flatted blocks and tenements.
In Scotland around 63 percent of all 1919 Act housing was within cottages, but Edinburgh’s percentage was closer to half that. Seen by many in the city as an imposed English housing model, cottages were initially used at Wardie and Northfield but their high costs saw them being phased out throughout the life of the Act.
Instead, around half of Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing would be built within flatted blocks, the hybrid between cottage and tenement. This was far in advance of a Scottish average of only 31 percent.
Another Edinburgh anomaly was the use of the tenement, far in advance of a very low Scottish average of 6 percent. This was especially evident in the latter phases of Gorgie, Northfield and Wardie which all used three-storey tenements. Edinburgh’s Housing Director had set out his stall as early as March 1921, determining that tenements of ‘up to date design and arrangement’ were the undoubted solution for the ‘poorest and lower middle classes’ in the city, allowing them to live near their workplaces. They could be ‘provided at less cost and with greater convenience’ than the cottage type of dwelling on the city fringes.
Less use of cottages also meant smaller flats, with over 65 percnt of Edinburgh’s 1919 homes built with only two bedrooms, with the Scottish average at 57 percent. Edinburgh had 16 percent of its housing with three bedrooms, well below a Scottish average of 35 percent. The remaining 20 percent were either one or four bed. Such figures may be considered ungenerous in comparison with the expected accommodation south of the border, but it was supposedly demand-led and still represented a quantum leap from the one- and two-room houses of the overcrowded city centre.
Stone was Edinburgh’s dominant building material, but it was only used extensively in Gorgie, and sparingly, (but to fine effect) at Northfield. Gorgie was consistently lauded as an example for stone building well into the interwar period. Although not unknown in the city, brick was still seen by many as an English material, and, with the exception of a few facing brick blocks at Northfield, was almost always covered in pollution-resilient grey harl. Edinburgh’s experimentation with unharled concrete blocks at Wardie didn’t pay off.
The design of the housing used Arts and Crafts styling with wet dash harling, rubble stonework, natural slate bell-cast roofs and multi-pane sash windows. The layouts were inventive, varied and attractive with generous green infrastructure, including large gardens, grass verges, trees, parks, open spaces and allotments.
So far so good, but the 1919 Act housing was not as transformative as hoped, with only a small dent made in the city’s horrendous overcrowding figures. Housing the very poorest wasn’t the concern or intention of the 1919 Act, and the Council soon sheepishly admitted the rents being sought set the housing way beyond the reach of many working-class families.
Although some councillors were keen to impose low rents, others had concerns over the gap between actual and economic rents. In any case they were at the mercy of the Board of Health who insisted on higher rents (upwards of £30pa) to keep subsidies low. Edinburgh set out to prioritise ex-servicemen with families, but an ability to pay the high rents would arguably become more important than homes for heroes. If paying high rents was not enough, the (then) peripheral locations required additional costs to travel to work and amenities.
So, rather than the Old Town poor, the new estates attracted the aspirant upper working and middle classes. A glance at the 1925 Valuation Roll for Boswell Avenue, admittedly Wardie’s best street, shows several clerks, engineers, a civil servant, geologist, lecturer, surveyor, engineer, excise officer and a Chief Armourer (me neither?) paying up to £44pa. Tenements were often allocated to those paying lower rents, but the 1925 Valuation Roll for Northfield shows tenement rents of between £31 to £37 with clerks and civil servants, an accountant, teacher, artist and engineer, besides occupations such as painters, joiners and a warehouseman.
An often overlooked part of the Act’s housing were the 120 or so houses achieved through the reconstruction of older buildings (and another 140 through reused army huts). As well as reflecting a strong conservation sensibility within the city, these ‘stitch in time’ conversions saved many of the city’s aged tenements that would otherwise have disappeared. Today we applaud the reuse of these historic buildings, but Campbell, who noted that ‘health was greater than history’, appears to have viewed the work pragmatically, as cheap fixes to give people improved homes as quickly as possible.
Conscious of the 1919 Act’s failure to house the poor, a few years later a Council memo noted that unless new housing models were developed the:
betterment of the slum dweller is doomed to a further postponement, with consequent ill health, low vitality, loose morals, and criminal habits, which are but part of the penalty we pay for suffering the continuance of slums within the boundary of our city.
Such models would be developed with new housing acts in the 1920s and 1930s, when overcrowding and slum clearance to assist the poorest became a priority, and the private sector were warmly encouraged by the Council to provide general needs housing for the clerks and armourers.
However, subsidies in the next housing Acts of 1923, and especially 1924, were far less generous, with surplus expenses shouldered by the Council. In the majority of schemes densities went up and the quality of design went down. By the early 1920s Campbell was arguing for one-bedroom flats of 485 sq ft, well below accepted minimum standards.
Plain flatted blocks and tenements designed to limited patterns took the place of expensive cottages, which would not be built again in the city until after WW2, notably at The Inch. Until the early 1930s repetitive estates of facsimile designs would replace the varied architecture and sinuous layouts of the 1919 Act.
Today the three main 1919 Act estates remain popular, with many houses privately owned. However, Right to Buy wasn’t a recent phenomenon, as 1919 Act provisions had allowed over a hundred council houses to be sold off before the second world war.
All the estates have suffered to some extent by the scourge of off-street parking, with the removal of boundary hedges and paved-over gardens, sadly and pointlessly eroding their essential greenery and garden suburb character. This really is unforgivable.
Most sash windows have gone, but the masonry walling and steep natural slate roofs largely remain in good order. Although none of the 1919 estates has yet been designated a conservation area, and only one stone crescent at Northfield is listed, (and deservedly so) there is a general appreciation of their quality, and the generosity of their planning. Perhaps, now the estates are a century old there may be some moves to recognise their significance as a part of the city’s twentieth century history ?
Scotland’s 1919 Act housing followed a different approach than England, and within the country, Edinburgh pursued its own bespoke path.
The city provided high quality homes within modified garden city layouts with a variety of handsome designs and materials. In addition, parts of the overcrowded historic city centre were regenerated with the refurbishment of ancient tenements.
By planning a housing mix that included smaller flats within flatted blocks and tenements, instead of simply concentrating on large peripheral estates of land-hungry cottages, the city limited urban sprawl. This was part of a strategy, at least in the Act’s later phases, that saw tenements in the ‘inner belt’ of the city as the solution to house the city’s workers close to workplaces and amenities. Campbell’s approach was followed by his successor EJ MacRae, but where large peripheral estates had to be built, they often floundered.
Above all Campbell believed in prevention rather than cure. His solution to the acute medical problems present in slum housing was to build ‘healthy houses for the people’. This, he maintained, was ‘the best Public Health Insurance’.
The capital suffered unduly from the high costs and labour shortages of the post-war period which sadly limited the numbers of homes built and reconstructed. It also saw a later dip in quality and space standards, that would accelerate throughout the 1920s with cost cutting and policy changes.
However, although it didn’t solve the city’s overcrowding problems, and their depiction as Paradise is undoubtedly a high bar, a hundred years on much of Edinburgh’s 1919 Act housing remains amongst the best social housing the city has ever created.
A Grierson (Town Clerk, Edinburgh), ‘Housing Schemes in Edinburgh’ in Thomas Stephenson, Industrial Edinburgh (Edinburgh Society for the Promotion of Trade, 1921)
John Frew, ‘”Homes fit for heroes”: Early Municipal House Building in Edinburgh’, The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland Journal, no 16, 1989
I’m delighted to feature the first of two new posts by Steven Robb. Steven contributed an earlier postproviding an overview of Edinburgh’s council housing from 1890 to 1945. He is Deputy Head of Casework for Historic Environment Scotland. With qualifications in building surveying and urban conservation, he has a particular interest in early and interwar social housing in Edinburgh, and how new housing was incorporated within the historic city.
Just over a hundred years ago in October 1920, Edinburgh’s first 1919 Act housing was opened by a proud city councillor.
In the first of two blogs I will look at Edinburgh’s particular housing issues and the ways in which the city used the Housing (Scotland) Act of 1919 to try and address them. It will then examine the three major housing estates built by Edinburgh Council, which between them provided around 1000 houses. The second part of the blog will look at additional housing provided in the city, and will conclude by assessing Edinburgh’s particular approach to housing under the Act.
Overcrowding was Scotland’s major housing problem. Edinburgh’s 1911 census found over 110,000 people living in either one- or two-room houses, which represented 41 percent of the city’s housing stock. Almost 40,000 people were living at least three to a room.
Although Edinburgh’s average density at this period was only around 30 persons per acre, in the most overcrowded districts like the Old Town, it rose well into the hundreds, with homes in tenements and houses ‘made down’, or subdivided, to cram in more tenants. In one block of eight tenements in St Leonards there were 186 separate homes containing 747 people; a density of 896 persons per acre.
Overcrowding was partly a consequence of Scottish building practice. Unlike England’s rows of relatively cheap brick terraces, Scotland’s urban workers were housed in stone tenements of three or four storeys. Such robust construction and stricter building regulations resulted in far higher build costs.
In addition, land values in Scotland were elevated by the medieval system of land tenure (feu duties), resulting in the UK’s most expensive building land (outside London).
To maximise returns developers built high density tenements, with their costs recouped by the highest rents outside the English capital. Rents were often paid communally by congested tenants.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the private sector found it uneconomic to continue building at affordable rents. To address this market failure, prior to WW1 Edinburgh Council built or reconstructed around 750 houses under legislation, including the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890). The City Engineer’s new ‘sanitary tenements’ had open deck-access balconies providing light and fresh air to small flats. They were popular and partly responsible for significant improvements in infant mortality and death rates. However, the cost to the Council was excessive, with compensation payments to owners sometimes costing nearly as much as the new housing.
The Rent Restrictions Act (1915), introduced after major rent strikes and civil unrest in Glasgow, together with the anticipated post-war costs of building, meant State intervention in the housing market was both inevitable and desirable.
The Housing (Scotland) 1919 Act looked to address overcrowding and the housing shortage under the ethos of ‘a healthy family in a healthy home’. Scotland’s specific problems saw a far more ambitious target than England and Wales, to provide 120,000 new homes.
Acknowledging Scotland’s higher building costs, there was a lower Council cap on expenses, at 4/5 of a penny on the rates rather than England’s penny.
The Act incorporated, informally during implementation, a series of recommendations from the 1917 Scottish Royal Commission on Housing (Ballantyne Report), which, along with the Tudor Waters report, acknowledged the different conditions and traditions in Scotland.
One of these traditions was that Scotland’s houses contained less rooms, with a custom of larger living and kitchen space doubling up as accommodation. The result was that 50 percent (but later increased) of 1919 Act houses were permitted to be the minimum three apartments (living room and two bedrooms), where England and Wales generally looked for three-bed houses.
Again, recognising traditions, there was a toleration for housing other than cottages, as individual houses on one or two storeys were called. Flatted blocks (four in a blocks) were acceptable and, although generally discouraged, there was even a place for suitably designed tenements.
The Scottish Act finally gained Royal Assent on 19th August 1919, but as early as November 1918 the Local Government Board (later Scottish Board of Health) had asked Edinburgh to assess its housing needs. The city responded with plans for 3000 new homes and 750 rehabilitated dwellings, a figure thought feasible within three years, if the ‘circumstances were entirely favourable’.
Edinburgh’s Town Clerk described the Act as being ‘imposed’ on the Council, and although, unlike previous legislation, it did compel action, this time the intention was Councils wouldn’t be left out of pocket, with generous subsidies bridging the difference between the outlay in building costs and rents received.
Gorgie (386 houses)
The Council had their eye on half a dozen sites within the city but soon settled on Gorgie, where they already owned land.
In January 1919, 50 acres of semi-rural land adjacent to the City’s Livestock Market were transferred (at £250 per acre) and James Williamson, the City Architect, drew up plans for 660 houses. In April 1919 the Board of Health found Williamson’s proposals for gently curving streets with individual flatted blocks ‘eminently satisfactory’. These streets enclosed areas of communal allotments and open ground.
Gorgie’s flatted blocks consisted of four houses under a piended (hipped) roof with a separate entrance to each flat. They were a hybrid between a cottage and a tenement, and suited a Scottish desire for one-floor-living. Cheaper than cottages, they could, virtually, be built to a garden city layout, in this case 14 houses to the acre, close to the recommended 12.
To keep tender costs down the Council’s surveyor recommended estimates for both stone and brick, as some builders were geared up for the former, and a mix of materials might be cheaper. The first tenders for 48 houses came back in June at around £800 a house, with the stone option only 0.5 percent more than the brick. In order to accentuate the Scottish character of the housing, against the perceived Englishness of brickwork, the housing Committee agreed to use rubble sandstone sourced from nearby Hailes Quarry, adding that ‘Scottish people wanted substantial houses’.
However, after brick prices fell and cavity walling was permitted, the cost difference increased, and the Board of Health refused to pay the additional subsidies for stone. Despite their earlier support the Council soon conceded that the second phase of Gorgie could be built in brick, which was rendered to cope with Scotland’s weather, and a lack of skilled Scottish facing-brick layers.
Begun in July 1919, Gorgie suffered several delays due to lack of skilled labour, rising material costs and availability, and even a plumbers and joiners strike. Pegged to costs, the economic rent for a two-bed house would have been around £60-65pa. The Council suggested rents of £25-27pa, but these were soon upped to £31 by the Board of Health.
With the first completions in October 1920, on opening, a councillor noted the houses were ‘commodious inside and artistic outside’ and would ‘compare favourably with any houses being built in England or Scotland’. Noting the generous gardens in front and allotment ground behind, the councillor added that ‘The City Gardener was preparing creepers for the walls and rambler roses for the gardens. If these houses were not Paradise, he did not know where they would have to look for such a place’.
In early 1923 the city architect’s second phase to Gorgie was built on Slateford Road. By this date the individual flatted blocks with gardens on curved streets were dispensed with in favour of cheaper tenements built facing the main road. These three-storey rendered brick tenements provided another 108 two-bed houses. Indeed, the majority of Gorgie’s houses, around 70 percent, were the recommended minimum of two bedrooms, with only 10 percent four bed and the remainder three.
Today the most distinctive Gorgie houses are the first-phase chunky rubble stone flatted blocks on Chesser Avenue, especially those with an additional twin-dormered storey for the few four bed flats. They retain distinctive sweeping slate roofs with swept eaves. On adjacent streets are a mix of rendered and stone houses with a handful of red sandstone blocks, all with generous gardens.
In mid-1919 the City Engineer Adam Horsburgh Campbell became Housing Director, controlling Council housing delivery until he retired in mid-1926. He insisted on combining this new role with his existing engineering job, and would soon stray into architectural work.
Despite the skills within his Department the City Architect had already been snubbed in April 1919 when the Council agreed to hold an open competition for the remaining housing sites. Early studies like the Tudor Waters Report had advised involving the private sector, and the Council had also been lobbied by the Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (later RIAS).
The competition, open to private Midlothian architects, offered four new sites with firms asked to submit the most economical designs for cottages, flatted blocks and tenements with two, three and four bedrooms at 14 houses per acre. Conditions included limited use of combed (sloping) ceilings, avoidance of rear additions, and minimum room sizes, including living rooms of 180 sq ft, principal bedrooms of 160 sq ft and ceiling heights of 8ft 6 inches (2.6m).
In August the panel Chairman Sir John Burnet, who had previously judged a 1918 Workers Housing Competition, awarded first prize for all four sites to Edinburgh architects AK Robertson and Thomas Aikman Swan.
However, as it had been previously decided no firm should have more than two schemes each, Robertson & Swan were awarded sites at Wardie and Craigleith. Charles Tweedie was given Saughtonhall, and Fairlie, Reid & Forbes allocated Northfield.
In due course the sites at Craigleith and Saughtonhall were abandoned so sadly Charles Tweedie, second placed in three competitions, got nothing. Meanwhile, Fairlie, Reid & Forbes, third-placed in only one competition, got one of the two surviving commissions.
Wardie (366 houses)
In April 1919 the Council purchased 73 acres of land occupied by nurseries belonging to the trustees of Major Boswall, at a cost of £250 per acre. The architects, Robertson & Swan, designed a geometric garden city plan with tree-lined streets, open spaces, and cul-de-sacs, built with a mix of cottages, four in a blocks and later a few tenements placed on main roads and closing vistas. Over 600 trees were planted at a cost of £180.
At the end of 1920 work began on 360 houses, but the Council only developed the western side, the eastern half being developed privately.
Unusually, to combat high brick costs, the houses were built with unrendered concrete blocks, provided by the Unit Construction Company of London. This early use of concrete was purely on cost, the tenders (for £408,246), being £12,000 cheaper than brick. The tender worked out at around £1130 a house, but by March 1921 costs had risen with the first batch of 300 houses coming in at around £1300 each. The largest four-bed cottages in Wardie would eventually soar to £1600 each, with critics considering them to be worth only £300 once the building boom was over. Their economic rent would have been £100pa but they would be let for, the still substantial, £44pa.
Contractors were accused of profiteering, an ugly accusation in the aftermath of World War One, but the system didn’t encourage parsimony.
The letters page of the Scotsman newspaper saw a flurry of taxpayer complaints. Critics judged Wardie as too remote from trams, schools and shops, whilst the houses were labelled ‘shoddy with small pokey rooms’. Others even grumbled that the rooms were too small for their furniture.
Having said all this, the housing was popular and would be oversubscribed, with 10,000 initial enquiries for Wardie’s 360 houses, perhaps before the high rents were set.
Scotland’s climate put paid to Wardie’s experimental concrete block housing, and by 1928 all 360 of its increasingly damp houses were roughcast by the Council at a cost of £10,000.
Today the estate is popular, with Boswall Avenue’s tree-lined grass verges perhaps Edinburgh’s best approximation of the garden city ideal. The houses are in an Arts and Crafts style with natural slate swept hipped roofs and generous garden space. There is a good variety of designs and mix of house types.
Northfield (322 houses)
In April 1919 the Council agreed to acquire 40 acres of agricultural land from the Duke of Abercorn’s Duddingston estate at £300 per acre.
In June 1920 the architects Fairlie, Reid & Forbes exhibited their ‘admirable housing scheme’ for 320 houses at the Royal Scottish Academy. It was thought likely to ‘produce a pleasing and picturesque ensemble upon the rising ground at the base of Arthur’s Seat’.
The firm was specially created for the competition. Reginald Fairlie was a noted Arts and Crafts architect who would later design the National Library, and became a specialist in Roman Catholic churches. George Reid & James Forbes would become Scotland’s foremost interwar school designers.
The plan is sophisticated, belying its lowly competition place. On the highest point is a large circus ringed by cottages – almost a cul-de-sac – but connected to the other streets by small pedestrian link paths – which bisect the estate. There is a raised pedestrian entry path on the busy Willowbrae Road, planted verges, generous gardens and open spaces.
The first tenders, in March 1920 suggested 196 cottages and flatted blocks could be built at an overall cost of £210,000 making a two-bedroom house £950 and a four bedroom house £1100. Again, costs rose quickly. Later estimates saw a four-bed cottage costing between £1360 and £1400. A Scotsman article judged these ‘phenomenal costs … preposterously and impossibly high’.
The cost of these cottages led to later phases of the estate being built in three-storey tenements. Between March 1921 and December 1923 around 130 tenements were built, all with gas for heating and electricity for lighting.
Northfield’s planning is sophisticated and the housing attractive and hugely varied, both in use of materials from facing brick, rendered brick and stone, to the rarely duplicated house patterns. Fairlie’s Arts and Crafts eye is evident in the stone boundary walls, decorative stone piers and carved timber gateposts, as well as in the stone tenements with relieving arches and brick and tile detailing. The tenements here served as a prototype for the Council’s later work in the city.
In next week’s post, I’ll look at the council housing schemes inherited by Edinburgh from Leith and Midlothian and offer an overall assessment of Edinburgh’s approach to the 1919 Act.
A Grierson (Town Clerk, Edinburgh), ‘Housing Schemes in Edinburgh’ in Thomas Stephenson, Industrial Edinburgh (Edinburgh Society for the Promotion of Trade, 1921)
John Frew, ‘”Homes fit for heroes”: Early Municipal House Building in Edinburgh’, The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland Journal, no 16, 1989
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.
(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’.