Last week’s post examined the huge growth of council housing that took place in Gateshead in the aftermath of World War One. Although some 10,500 children were evacuated at the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939, the town – despite being a major industrial centre – suffered very little from the wartime bombing anticipated.
The war, however, exacerbated an existing housing crisis and in 1942 it was estimated that 5620 people in the town were living in homes scheduled for demolition. One early response to that crisis was the temporary prefab programme though only a relatively small number of the 156,623 erected nationally were allocated to the Gateshead area – 25 on Sunderland Road and 55 at The Drive in what was then part of Felling Urban District Council. (1) The Borough of Gateshead itself had declared against temporary housing.
Permanent prefabricated housing was another attempt to solve the housing crisis and deal with the shortages of materials and skilled labour which persisted into the 1950s. A precast reinforced concrete Orlit block of 18 flats survives on Saltwell Road; 150 semi-detached Dorran houses, formed of concrete panel walls, were built on Rose Street and Carr Hill Lane at Black Hill and elsewhere in the early part of the decade. Most of the latter, still in council ownership, were refurbished and reclad in the 1990s and more thoroughly renovated in 2014.
A longer-term product of war and the politics of post-war reconstruction was the planning movement, exemplified in the formation of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the New Town movement. However, proposals in the Pepler-MacFarlane, North‐East Area Development Plan of 1949 to develop a New Town of 80,000 population in Barlow, eight miles to the west of Gateshead, were stymied by its distance.
Meanwhile the Council had announced ambitious plans in 1945 to build 1000 permanent homes within two years. In practice, in unprecedentedly difficult post-war circumstances, only 171 new homes were completed by 1947 and a further 387 by the end of the following year in new estates at Highfield and Blue Quarries.
Another 1300 homes were built at the Lobley Hill and Beacon Lough Estates by 1950. The latter was ‘a large and sprawling low-density estate’ according to Simon Taylor and David Lovie: (2)
typical of the large brick-built cottage estates constructed in many parts of the country in the years immediately after the war. With its numerous winding side roads and culs-de-sac, it was recognised by the Minister of Health as one of the best laid out housing estates in the country.
The ‘Wrekenton Neighbourhood Unit’, just south of Beacon Lough, of 1372 homes was another large-scale project. The Cedars Green Estate, on the other hand, was a deliberate contrast – small and secluded, comprising just 59 homes and regarded locally as a prestige development.
By 1956, the Council had built 5482 new homes since the end of the war but pressure on land and new opposition to urban sprawl was forcing consideration of new approaches as the drive to finally clear the slums intensified. This huge rebuilding drive was overseen by Labour Alderman Ben Nicholson Young who served as chair of the Housing Committee from 1945 to 1974. Leslie Berry was appointed Chief Architect in 1958 and the Borough Architect’s Department gained a national reputation for the novelty and quality of its designs.
The Council’s first high-rise blocks – four ten-storey slab blocks – were completed at Barn Close in the centre of town in 1955. Three eight-storey blocks – Priory, Peareth and Park Courts – were completed on East Street and the ten-storey Regent Court two years later as a further element in central area redevelopment. (3)
The Chandless Redevelopment Area nearby was approved in 1960. The three 16-storey towers, providing 384 flats, built in Phase I of the scheme were designed by the Architect’s Department and built by Stanley Miller Ltd – a major local contractor – using an innovative in situ concrete system.
Berry also oversaw the design of the 16-storey tower, Bensham Court, completed in 1963 and the four 12-storey towers at Beacon Lough in 1967. Redheugh and Eslington Courts, completed in the Teams Redevelopment Area in 1966 were the tallest Gateshead blocks at 21 storeys. Further high-rise continued across the borough.
In sheer numbers, the results were undeniably impressive. Gateshead built over 1000 new homes in 1965 and, in that same year, its 10,000th council home. By 1970, as the municipal borough’s historian recounts with some civic pride, 10,686 homes had been built since the war, at a rate of almost two each working day and three times the national average. (4)
And, amidst the drive to build big, were attempts to create innovative mixed development schemes. One such was the extension to the Beacon Lough Estate, built in the mid-sixties in which four 12-storey blocks in a parkland setting were accompanied by 165 flat-roofed ‘gunnel houses’ (named after the passageways connecting the semi-detached homes), patio bungalows for older people as well as some conventional brick-built terraced housing. A primary school, pub and shops completed the ensemble. The Estate won a Government award for ‘Good Design in Housing’ in 1968.
The most novel was St Cuthbert’s Village, completed in 1969, comprising: (2)
a maze of low- and medium-rise linking ‘scissor blocks’ with roof gardens, on either side of Askew Road and, radiating from the centre and linked by various communal walkways and steps around open communal areas.
It was planned as a self-contained community of 3500 people, largely young single people and couples, and opened, to much fanfare, by prime minister Harold Wilson in April 1970. But facilities followed slowly and residents felt isolated. The estate’s high-density living, far from promoting the neighbourliness intended, seems to have created dispute and ill-feeling. By 1992, a local press report was describing St Cuthbert’s Village as ‘as estate plagued by soaring crime and poor design’. Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council reckoned each flat cost £1000 a year to maintain compared to the borough average of £424. A survey of residents concluded that fully 85 percent wanted to move out. (5) By 1995, all but the 18-storey point block had been demolished.
A general disenchantment from high-rise was manifest from the late 1960s, reflecting – practically – its failure to deliver promised cost-savings and problems with construction and design, notably on system-built estates. One early local response to this was the construction of Clasper Village in 1970 though the choice to build low-rise cluster blocks also reflected the existence of underground mine workings in the Teams area which precluded high-rise construction.
In 2004, observers commented on the popularity of its ‘intimate scale’ – ‘accommodation there has always been in high demand; it remains an attractive and well-maintained residential unit’. (2) Seven years later, the Gateshead Housing Company found little to praise, complaining of its lack of housing mix (the estate comprised only two-bed flats), a void rate of 21 percent, an annual turnover of lettings of near 15 percent, and problems of condensation and water penetration affecting most of its homes. Levels of anti-social behaviour were said to be about average but perceptions were as significant: ‘the stigma and reputation has significantly affected demand for properties on the estate’. (6)
All that goes to remind us that all judgements are necessarily temporary and that reputational damage can be as harmful to estates as design flaws as real as the latter were in the case of Clasper Village. Demolition of the estate commenced in 2014. In May,. this year, as part of a £1.8 million funding deal with Homes England, the Council committed to a £30 million regeneration of the 12 acre site. (7)
Other high-rise estates suffered less dramatic problems – the lack of play areas at Barn Close was said to have caused problems of antisocial behaviour, Priory Court was apparently plagued by beetles breeding in heating ducts – but the shift from high-rise was now complete. (2)
System building was part of the problem. Four ‘Ronan Point-type’ tower blocks at Nursery Lane, built using the Larsen Nielsen system and designed by John Poulson for Felling Urban District Council in 1968, were demolished by the new metropolitan authority in 1987. (8)
In 2004, Gateshead Council transferred its entire housing stock of some 20,000 homes to the Gateshead Housing Company, an arms-length management organisation (ALMO). The promise was to improve housing services; the practical necessity was to secure funding needed to carry out the Decent Homes Programme announced by the Labour government four years earlier. The ALMO’s initial ten-year life-span was extended by a further five in 2015.
The decision to demolish the Chandless Estate, a system-built estate suffering structural issues said to prevent economic repair, was taken in 2010. As the 16-storey Monk Court block in Chandless was being prepared for demolition in 2013, Councillor Catherine Donovan (Gateshead Council’s Cabinet member for Housing) concluded ‘the world has moved on and families expect different things of their homes’. (9) Demolition was complete by 2015.
Two years later, Gateshead Council committed to building its first new council homes for thirty years – seven homes in Dunston and 14 in Winlaton and Blaydon. The Council also announced plans to 36 homes through its wholly-owned business, the Gateshead Trading Company though just 15 percent of the latter were categorised as ‘affordable’. (10)
All these were a modest component of a larger plan to build 11,000 new homes across the Gateshead area by 2030. The larger target would be met principally through cooperation with so-called ‘volume providers’ (including a joint venture between the Council and developers Galliford Try and housing association Home Group) as well as by support given to small and medium-enterprise building companies. (11)
Amidst ongoing policy changes and recent modest moves giving local authorities greater powers and financial freedoms to build, all this is – to say the least – shifting terrain. It’s also well beyond my comfort zone, both practically and ideologically. Suffice to say, that a relatively straightforward and highly cost-effective model which built what we must now call social-rent homes in huge numbers in Gateshead and across the country has been replaced by a system of complex public-private partnerships, opaque finances, and ‘mixed developments’ which all too often fails to deliver the genuinely affordable homes most required.
As we’ve seen, local government didn’t get everything right but it’s hard not to applaud the ambition or admire the scale of what was achieved. That ambition and scale could be a little intimidating, perhaps overreaching, at times as the above image suggests. Nevertheless, it’s entirely proper, in my view at least, to envy an era when the local and national state invested heavily to secure decent homes for all whilst, of course, we learn its lessons, both positive and negative.
My thanks to Gateshead Libraries for providing several of the images used in this post.
(1) According to the invaluable and comprehensive Prefab Museum website.
(2) Simon Taylor and David B Lovie, Gateshead. Architecture on a Changing English Urban Landscape (English Heritage, 2004)
(3) For further detail, see the incredibly useful and informative database provided by Tower Block UK.
(4) FWD Manders, A History of Gateshead (Gateshead Corporation, 1973)
(5) Andrew Smith, ‘Estate to be Demolished’, The Journal, 3 September 1992
(6) Minutes of The Gateshead Housing Company Asset Management Committee, 30 June 2011
(7) Gateshead Council, ‘£1.8 million to boost development of new homes in Gateshead‘, 22 May 2019
(8) ‘Gateshead to demolish four towers’, Building Design, no. 832, 17 April 1987, p44
(9) Katie Davies, ‘Gateshead’s Chandless Estate is demolished bit by bit’, Chronicle Live, 12 September 2013
(10) Peter Apps, ‘Gateshead Council to build first homes for 30 years’, Inside Housing, 24 November 2017
(11) Gateshead Council, Housing Delivery Test Action Plan (ND, c2017)