I was interviewed this week by N Quentin Woolf for the Londonist. It’s a wide-ranging conversation around council housing, its history and the controversies which surround it. You can find the podcast here:
You’ll find more on the Pendleton Estate at the current exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester which showcases the work and archives of long-term residents John Aitken and Jane Brake of the Institute of Urban Dreaming.
Last week’s post examined what can only be judged in social and economic terms the failure of the Ellor Street comprehensive redevelopment of the 1960s. As a further round of regeneration took off in the 2000s, new priorities and methods – and perhaps changed values – were in evidence.
When Ellor Street and surrounds were first comprehensively redeveloped fifty years ago, it was understood that responsibility lay with the state or, to use a language less currently tarnished, with the tools of democracy. One of those tools was cheap finance – grants provided directly by central government and backed by the assets of local government. From 1979, however, under both Thatcher and New Labour, there was a belief that the private sector offered resources and capital that the state lacked – although no-one ever argued that the latter was in any way cheaper money.
There were other changes too. Once council housing had seemed the necessary (if not unchallenged) solution to the housing needs of the working class. Now reliance was placed to a far greater extent on the market. This, at least, was the rationale of the Labour Government’s 2002 Pathfinder Housing Market Renewal programme: a plan to demolish generally structurally sound – sometimes neglected but rarely slum – housing in order to build smaller numbers of new homes and revive local housing markets. Much of central Salford was covered in the scheme.
In Pendleton itself, the major intervention – well-known to planners and architects – occurred in an area of Edwardian terraced housing adjacent to Chimney Pot (or Langworthy) Park; the very same illustrated as an example of Edwardian bye-law housing in the first post of this series). A joint venture between Urban Splash, English Partnerships, Salford City Council and the Northwest Regional Development Agency was agreed in 2003. The first phase of the so-called ‘upside-down houses’ was completed in 2007, remodelled with bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor, and living rooms and kitchens above where a new roof terrace spans the former back alley to create garaging and, on top, a communal deck.
It’s attractive enough though it all seemed, despite the architectural acclaim the scheme has received, a little sterile when I walked through. ‘Achingly fashionable’, in the words of one report, the scheme was designed for ‘a new community of urban pioneers’ and ‘aspirational young couples’. (1) But, at an initial sale price of £120,000 (judged three times what might count as ‘affordable’ in local terms at the time), it had little relevance to the lives of those who once lived there or those that live in the social housing nearby. Urban Splash themselves pulled out of the project in 2014, replaced by the Great Places Housing Association. (2)
Still, in 2008, 93 per cent of Pendleton’s housing stock was council-owned. In the next phase of regeneration, the ‘target position’ – outlined in the ‘Benefits Realisation Plan’ behind ‘Creating a New Pendleton’ in July 2009 – was to create ‘a mixed tenure residential area’. The language is as telling as the detail. (3)
The vehicle for this shift – which would raise 1253 council properties to Decent Homes Standard, oversee the demolition of 860 homes including those in four multi-storey blocks, and ‘deliver a minimum of 460 units for affordable rent, circa 950 units for market sale and a minimum of 25 units for shared ownership’ – announced in 2013 was a Private Finance Initiative scheme.
I’ll quote from a contemporary report to illustrate the nature of the high finance involved. You might understand it better or differently but, to me, its an act of mystification; an example of the smoke and mirrors which currently reward capital at the expense of social need: (4)
Investec Bank arranged the bond issue on behalf of joint venture FHW Dalmore, with £71.7 million of Class A senior secured notes at 5.414 per cent and £10.9 million of Class B junior secured notes at 8.35 per cent. The two-tranche approach sees subordinated B loan notes offering protection to A note investors, with the debt on-lent to the borrower as a single loan at a blended margin, and a standard project finance covenant package.
Pendleton Together, charged with delivering the scheme, was a consortium comprising, amongst others, the housing association Together Housing Group, ‘building and regeneration specialist’ Keepmoat, architects and planners Lathams, and Salford City Council. Its vision is outlined in what is – and I don’t mean this quite as cynically as it sounds – a masterpiece of the type, a glossy brochure called An Ideal for Living.
For a total investment of some £650m, the Ideal envisaged: (5)
a distinctive neighbourhood with a strong identity…it will be a celebration of everything that is good about urban living. It will be an area of opportunity where anyone can make something of their life, set up a business and live happily, healthily and safely.
These are worthy enough aims although the idea that we should aspire to setting a business seems a far more sinister marker than intended – a sign of how far we have moved from the idea of dignified and secure employment, how easily we accept the current statistical lie of ‘self-employment’. The detailed agenda is admirable: as well as improved housing, 10 hectares of ‘quality public space’, 500 new jobs, training for 3200, ‘healthy lifestyle classes and programmes’, a city farm and so on. All this is accompanied by the new buzzwords – ‘secure by design’, placemaking’ and ‘people streets’. (‘Some would say’, the brochure pronounces, ‘that the 1963 Comprehensive Development Plan for the place was designed by a road traffic engineer. We think they are right.’)
Alongside this were other, linked initiatives. Some Salford council housing stock had been transferred to City West in 2008. A new stock transfer of 8500 homes from Salford Council to the arms-length management organisation Salix Homes was voted through by tenants in November 2014 – though almost 40 per cent of those who voted rejected the proposal. By writing off an existing £65.1m debt, the new registered social landlord was released to access new funds – a prerequisite (not available to the council) to the expenditure of £22m on modernising 2000 homes across the city in 2015. (5)
Salford City Council’s report, Shaping Housing in Salford 2020; a Housing Strategy for Salford, published in November 2015, confirms that ‘private sector investment in the city will continue to provide a vital role in delivering housing development’ and – in an understandable and perhaps necessary display of civic boosterism – proclaims the success of other local regeneration initiatives, notably MediaCityUK [sic] in the new Salford Quays.
Salford may still be, it admits, the 18th most deprived local authority in the country, but we have moved a long way from the politics of the 1980s when Hackney, as a form of political mobilisation, proclaimed itself. ‘Britain’s poorest borough’. The report asserts that ‘Salford’s population and economy is growing, employment is rising and the social and cultural life in the city is thriving’. (6)
There have been improvements. The flat I stayed in in Thorn Court at the top end of Broadwalk was modern and well-equipped. Thorn Court and most of the adjacent blocks have been refurbished, albeit reclad in the now de rigeur dayglow style.
There are new bright, shiny blocks too and suburban-style housing to please the new traditionalists. Of the original three slab blocks of the Ellor Street redevelopment, one had been demolished and those which remain now house students from nearby Salford University. Social housing across Salford has been updated and modernised.
In the meantime, in the midst of the Pendleton regeneration, things are a mess. There are swathes of wasteland where homes have been demolished, barren open spaces still very far from the parkland envisaged, and down-at-heel or redundant community buildings untouched by the new Salford apparently emerging. There’s an alienating mix of contemporary refurb and the unreconstructed past exacerbated by the drawn-out process and blight of actually existing regeneration as it is experienced beyond the pages of the glossy planning brochures.
St Paul’s Church, occupying a central position on the Broadwalk, still caters devotedly to those left behind by all this change. The question remains – as it does for all such regeneration schemes (and I will acknowledge their generally good intentions here) – how far the plethora of training schemes and lifestyle programmes can address the intractable realities of non-existent or insecure and low-paid employment and simple, plain poverty.
Nor is it controversial now to question Private Finance Initiatives as a vehicle for – what should be, at least – public investment. The method’s convoluted and protracted deal-making, the additional expense incurred catering for all the special interests involved, the high cost of borrowing have been widely criticised as have – although the Salford example doesn’t seem especially egregious in this regard – the long and disruptive delays in implementation. It’s been ‘an extreme form of contractualisation’, proven, in particular, ‘to be far more complicated and expensive to apply to the social housing sector’. (7)
In all, as Stuart Hodkinson has concluded, rather mildly in the circumstances:
The PFI experience…calls into question one of the underlying principles behind the modernisation of social housing—that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector in providing housing services.
And that’s a good place to finish. Clearly, this extended Salford case-study demonstrates that the national and local state didn’t get everything right in its own rehousing programmes. There have been errors and inadequacies in process and implementation which have treated its citizens poorly. Having learnt from those mistakes but with an awareness now of our contemporary failures, it’s hard not to see public finance and democratic procedures as offering the most cost-efficient and accountable solution to our current housing crisis. Beyond that, the lesson from Salford – and other left-behind communities – is that we owe a communal duty to all those who have not benefited from our nation’s affluence. In this, decent and affordable housing is but one component.
(1) Phil Griffin, ‘On the Terraces’, Special issue. Housing Building design, BD magazine supplement no. 8, June 15 2007
(2) ‘Urban Splash Chimney Pot Park Housing Scheme Eyesore Slated by Salford Councillor’, Salford Star, 17 June 2014
(3) Creating a New Pendleton Benefits Realisation Plan (July 2009)
(4) Luke Cross, ‘Together closes Salford PFI with £82.6m two-tranche bond’, Social Housing, 4 October 2013
(5) Pendleton Together, An Ideal for Living (ND)
(5) Pete Apps, ‘Salford tenants vote for stock transfer’, Inside Housing, 4 November 2014 and Neal Keeling, ‘Modernising 2,000 homes to cost £22m: Investment follows vote to transfer ownership of housing’, Manchester Evening News, 9 February 2015
(6) Salford City Council, Shaping Housing in Salford 2020; a Housing Strategy for Salford (November 2014)
(7) Stuart Hodkinson, ‘The Private Finance Initiative in English Council Housing Regeneration: A Privatisation too Far?’, Housing Studies, vol 26, no 6, 2011
You’ll find more on the Pendleton Estate at the current exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester which showcases the work and archives of long-term residents John Aitken and Jane Brake of the Institute of Urban Dreaming.
We left the people of Ellor Street last week facing the brave new world of comprehensive redevelopment in the early sixties with mixed feelings. One reporter noted ‘a sense of uneasiness around…in many cases hidden by a joke or a resolution to face the new life’. (1) Six years later, the scheme (with its ‘tree-lined open spaces, a community centre and a health centre all segregated from traffic’) well underway, another reporter – or perhaps the same one – described the residents’ embrace of their new surroundings. He described the new Pendleton as ‘A Salford of the Space Age’. ‘Small wonder’, he continued: (2)
that many Ellor Street folk have fought shy of moving to overspill areas or other parts of the City, and have waited eagerly for the chance of being rehoused here – if they leave their present homes.
Given the visionary idealism of the Report on the Plan which outlined the principles of the redevelopment scheme and the optimism which surrounded it both in Salford Borough Council and the local press, perhaps these hopes were understandable.
It’s true that some of the rehoused residents had wanted houses rather than high-rise flats but the amenities of their new homes soon won them over:
We really wanted a house but these new flats are so nice and well-designed that I would not change for a house. I like the underfloor heating, the nice living room, and bright bedrooms, we used to pay 16 shillings a week rent and now it is 44 shillings and 10 pence and well worth it.
This was the era – a brief one, in fact – in which high-rise took off. A few years earlier, back in 1956, only 6 per cent of homes nationally had been provided in flats of over five storeys. Ten years later, as the new Pendleton took shape, that proportion had risen to (and peaked at) 26 per cent. Avoiding the obloquy that hindsight has visited on such high-rise construction, there seemed, at the time, many compelling reasons for this shift.
The mass slum clearances of the period and the apparent requirement to build replacement housing at density in inner-city areas, compounded by new restrictions on greenfield construction and dislike of sprawling suburban estates, provided one causal bundle. Salford, like many other inner-city authorities, also resented losing population and rateable income to beyond-border overspill.
There were less tangible but equally potent ideological currents too – a new concern for urbanism and a sense that high-rise represented the future, modernity in a new Britain sloughing off the obsolescence which seemingly characterised so much of its housing and townscapes. The Report on the Plan claimed that the scheme represented ‘an unparalleled opportunity for Salford to think today what other cities would think tomorrow’. In the end, the judgments of tomorrow would be far less positive but that’s to jump ahead. The Ellor Street redevelopment almost uniquely captures many of the hopes and ambitions of the period.
The original plans had been devised within Salford, a council, according to Glendinning and Muthesius, ‘dominated by its formidable City Engineer, G Alexander McWilliam, and by its equally entrenched direct labour organisation’. Three 15-storey slab blocks – Walter Greenwood, Eddie Colman and John Lester Courts, designed in-house – had already been started. (3)
These and Salford’s earlier high-rise efforts – such as the Truscon flats in Kersal Moor – were judged drab and uninspiring by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government but it had little local power in this era of jealous municipalism. Salford, however, wasn’t one of the big beasts of local government and here the Ministry – playing cannily on the Borough’s fears of loss of status – secured some influence.
Salford agreed, at the Ministry’s suggestion, to the appointment of former LCC Chief Architect and Robert Matthew and former LCC Senior Planner Percy Johnson-Marshall as architect-planners for the entire scheme. The Architectural Research Unit of Edinburgh University, where both were now based, were to be executive architects for significant elements of it. The Ministry, for its part and against the preferences of the Edinburgh team responsible for detailed design, insisted on five 17-storey point blocks and prefabricated construction as central government sought to boost new methods of industrialised building – another contemporary manifestation of self-conscious modernity and seen as a necessary means of completing the rehousing revolution of the time. (4)
In housing terms and in sheer numbers, this was a success. Salford completions increased from 30 in 1962 to 1468 in 1966; into the early seventies it built more housing per capita than any other English city, even Birmingham undergoing its own high-rise revolution. (5) The civic centre – a much vaunted element of the original planning – didn’t materialise and the shopping centre never took off as any kind of regional hub.
On this occasion, there don’t seem to have been any particular problems arising from system-building but there were early criticisms of the housing. Peter Hook (‘Hooky’ of Joy Division and New Order) was no fan: (6)
All my friends moved to Ellor Street, which was all high-rise 70’s flats and a new shopping precinct all built out of concrete. It was rotten, horrible; like a concrete wasteland. And that was when it opened.
Nigel Pivaro (back in the day Terry Duckworth in Coronation Street – set in Salford, of course; now a respected journalist) speaks for many in decrying what was lost: (7)
the demise of the traditional street, the corner shop and small local pub…In short, a whole way of life ceased to exist and the way Salfordians interacted with their neighbours and the world around them changed dramatically.
‘Old institutions…were simply never properly replaced,’ he concluded; ‘what has replaced the old order is not only bland and characterless but actually has never been put back at all’.
In this, he echoed the bleak reportage of an ITN news story on Salford high-rise, broadcast in 1988: (8)
Society has broken down in some of Salford’s tower blocks. Civic squalor has become a breeding ground for crime. Muggings, burglaries and firebombs are a brutal fact of daily life. Here thousands live in fear of losing their property, even their lives.
One tower block, it was claimed, had suffered twenty arson attacks in a single year.
The judgment between the competing narratives – bright-eyed modernity and its early welcome and the dislocation and loss it is subsequently held to have caused – seems pretty clear but there’s really no simple ‘truth’ here. There are issues of timing and perspective. There is nostalgia both for the old and the old ‘new’. It seems to me that the romanticisation of the slums should be criticised just as much as we now attack the naivety (or worse) of planners. And there are unexplored counterfactuals and neglected contexts. Could slum clearance and redevelopment have been done differently, better? Very likely but we can’t re-write the wider history which has devastated our traditional working-class communities since the 1960s.
In 2007, Pendleton was rated the twelfth most deprived area in the country. Some 41 per cent of its 18 to 24 year olds lacked any educational qualification (compared to the national average of 29 per cent); 48 per cent of adults were economically active (nationally, the figure stood at 63 per cent). (9)
In 2011, when riots broke out around the Salford Precinct (intended as the great show-piece of the Ellor Street redevelopment), the area was described as the third worst area in the country for child poverty, and the seventh for unemployment. In the high-end stores of central Manchester, people: (10)
made off with £2,000 guitars, plasma TVs, and designer clothes from Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green boutique, in the neglected Salford Precinct they were taking tins of food from Lidl and second-hand televisions from Cash Converters.
‘People who have got nothing wanted to show that they have nothing,’ said one of those involved. Behind this lay something both more diffuse – a resentment of local gentrification and the marginalisation it highlighted – and hostility towards the police as its enforcers. The riots were, according to one study, a ‘response, albeit lacking in a formal political articulation, to perceived injustices that relate to poverty, exclusion and oppressive policing’. David Cameron and others condemned them as ‘criminality, pure and simple’. (11)
Alice Coleman argued that there was no excuse for such behaviour – after all, there had been no riots in the poverty-stricken interwar period so graphically portrayed by Walter Greenwood in Salford – though Love on the Dole portrays a brutal police attack on a peaceful protest of the unemployed against the new Means Test. But perhaps people brought up in a post-war period which undertook to despatch such poverty, in an era of rampant consumerism (for some) of which the Salford Precinct had once been both symbol and promise, had higher expectations and a sharper sense of grievance.
At any rate, the time was ripe for new regeneration initiatives. These, however, would reflect very changed times. We’ll examine them in next week’s post.
(1) Salford City Reporter, 3 April 1959 quoted in Kynaston, Modernity Britain, p289
(2) Salford City Reporter, April 1965, quoted in Tony Flynn, ‘50 years ago: ‘Space-age’ Salford high-rise dream comes true’, 8 April, 2015. The following quotation is drawn from the same source.
(3) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (1994)
(4) Soledad Garcia Ferrari, Miles Glendinning, Paul Jenkins and Jessica Taylor ‘Putting the User First? A Pioneering Scottish Experiment in architectural research’, Architectural Heritage, Volume 19, Issue 1
(5) Figures from Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block and EW Cooney, ‘High Flats in Local Authority Housing in England and Wales since 1945’, in Anthony Sutcliffe, Multi-Storey Living. The British Working-Class Experience (1974)
(6) Quoted in Pendleton Together, An Ideal for Living
(7) Nigel Pivaro, ‘Salford Street Loss’, Salford Star, 14 May 2010
(8) ITN, Salford Flats (1988)
(9) Cited in Luc Vrolijks and Maarten Königs, Urban Futures for Pendleton, linking city branding to urban regeneration, 43rd ISOCARP Congress 2007
(10) Helen Clifton and Eric Allison, ‘Manchester and Salford: a tale of two riots’, The Guardian, 6 December 2011
(11) Bob Jeffery and Waqas Tufail, ‘“The riots were where the police were”: Deconstructing the Pendleton Riot’, Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive
In early October, I was invited by John Aitken and Jane Brake of the Institute of Urban Dreaming to visit the Pendleton Estate in Salford, one a number of people who have visited. We were asked to provide a response to the experience and an impression of the estate. These will feature, along with the archive of documentation accumulated by John and Jane during their long years of residency in the estate, in an exhibition at the People’s History Museum running from 29 October 2016 to 15 January 2017.
The post which follows represents what might be called a prehistory of the estate – looking at the housing it replaced, the ideas behind the huge redevelopment which took place in the sixties, and the questions of community raised by each.
…streets, mazes, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below; in some cases, only one room alow and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawnshops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness; churches, chapels and unpretentious mission halls where God is praised; nude, black patches of land, “crofts”, as they are called, waterlogged, sterile, bleak and chill.
Walter Greenwood cast an unsparing eye on the Salford he grew up in and knew so well. (1) He was brought up on Ellor Street in Pendleton, the only son of a master hairdresser and educated at the local Langworthy Road Primary School. His schooling ended aged thirteen; he’d worked outside school hours as a pawnbroker’s clerk twelve months previously and would go on to experience a range of other menial jobs as well as periods of unemployment before writing Love on the Dole, published in 1933.
The book’s protagonist, Harry Hardcastle, unwisely forsakes his ‘soft’ office job as just such a pawnbroker’s clerk to become as an apprentice at ‘Marlowe’s’, a local engineering works – man’s work to Harry but after seven years, his time served, Harry is laid off just as the men preceding him had been as the Great Depression hit. The props – a living wage (just) and the dignity of work – which might have made his harsh environs endurable are removed and the squalor of the mean slum terraces and abject lives they spawned exact their toll.
Greenwood wasn’t writing for effect and his novel – working men and women and those without work are its heroes – is a world away from the poverty porn which disfigures contemporary attitudes towards the poor.
Concerned middle-class observers such as the Manchester Social Service Group of the [Christian] Auxiliary Movement echoed his description of local conditions: (2)
Tall factory buildings pollute the air with smoke and block out sunshine and light, so that many householders have to burn gas all day. Not a single house has a garden and all are grimy with soot. There is no recreation ground, although small vacant plots, dusty, often littered with refuse, and absolutely devoid of grass, are sometimes used for this purpose.
They surveyed the Chapel Street/Blackfriars Road area of Salford two miles east of Hanky Park (nicknamed after the main local thoroughfare, Hankinson Street) where Greenwood set Love on the Dole. Of some 500 houses, only four had baths and all, or very nearly all, needless to say, shared (outside) toilets. On the other hand:
As is found in other poor districts, the shops catering for wants rather than needs are surprisingly numerous. The section first mentioned contains six public houses, five supper bars, and five shops selling sweets and tobacco.
Our modern-day critics might make something of that wasteful spending on fripperies but one senses here something more sympathetic – a realisation that hard lives needed something softer to make them bearable.
Local government provided a more bureaucratic but more statistically telling account of local living conditions thirteen years later. In the 50,500-odd homes of the County Borough of Salford (it had, of course, its more salubrious middle-class suburbs), over half lacked hot water; almost one in five were judged ‘totally unfit and scheduled for early demolition’, one in ten ‘other unfit homes’ were slated for later demolition. Of the rest, 24,500 were substandard – too good for demolition but still, nevertheless, falling ‘below reasonably fit standard’. JE Blease, a Salford sanitary inspector, pointed out that these obsolescent terraces were the late Victorian byelaw housing ‘heralded with pride’ for their sanitary improvements ‘by building surveyors some sixty years ago as an approach to the artisan’s utopia’. (3)
We’ve arrived at 1943 in a world at war – a war which made those redundant working-class male bodies of the thirties valuable once more, either in military service or on the home front in war production. We can be cynical about a society which places a premium on human lives which it is otherwise busy destroying but there were, during this second world war, other more humane and progressive forces at play.
In this context, the first film version of Love on the Dole in 1941 might initially seem surprising. What more searing indictment of Britain’s class-ridden and socially unjust society could there be? For this reason, the censors were initially reluctant to authorise its production (they deemed it ‘a very sordid story in a very sordid surrounding’) and yet the director John Baxter, was, for his part, determined that the film should ‘not be a star-vehicle because it should represent ordinary people’. (4) (Deborah Kerr who played Harry’s sister, Sally, would make her name later.)
There was a significant shift, however. John Harris notes a ‘doughty, optimistic dialogue that was not in the novel’ and the film (unlike the book) ends on a positive note with the parting words of Harry’s mother:
One day we’ll all be wanted. The men who’ve forgotten how to work, and the young ‘uns who’ve never had a job. There must be no Hanky Park, no more.
Greenwood must surely have approved. Some of his early mentors had been working-class activists and much of the novel had been written at Ashfield Labour Club in Salford. Greenwood himself was briefly – he wasn’t cut out for active politics himself – a Labour councillor. In a later interview, he stated his novel’s purpose in showing ‘what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole, the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth’.
In this 1941 iteration, Love on the Dole was an emphatic ‘never again’ – both a demand and, implicitly, a promise of a better post-war world.
Again, the rhetoric of local government was drier but its planners believed their craft and vision central to this new world and saw planning, humane and rational, as the very antithesis of the destructive anarchy wrought by the free market.
In February 1942 Salford’s City Engineer, W Albert Walker, emphasised that the ‘central concern’ of town planning was ‘the health, happiness and well-being of the people’. ‘The very starkness in which we have now seen the defects’, he continued, ‘may arouse new interest with a fresh determination that prevailing conditions must be improved’. (5)
Nationally, the Beveridge Report published ten months after Walker’s Salford speech promised to slay the five ‘Giant Evils’ – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – which so straitened the lives of the Salford working class Greenwood portrayed. The Report sold 630,000 copies. Many obviously shared Mrs Hardcastle’s hopes for the future.
But if all this was a revolution, it was a very British one. Beveridge himself emphasised that his great scheme of social security was ‘first and foremost, a plan of insurance – of giving in return for contributions benefits up to subsistence level’ (though, crucially, without the Means Test which scarred the family lives of Greenwood’s protagonists).
In housing (the ‘Squalor’ that Beveridge attacked), there were similarly pragmatic proposals. Mr Blease suggested that much of the borough’s terraced housing could be reconditioned. However, his helpful sixteen point checklist of required improvements – covering roofs and guttering, windows and doors and much else beyond the now bare essentials of baths and toilets – suggested the difficulty. ‘The desired up-grading of substandard houses will not be accomplished by philanthropic enthusiasm on the part of landlords’, he commented mildly; nor could it be funded under existing local government powers.
Labour’s 1949 Housing Act did, in fact, allow local authorities to acquire homes for improvement or conversion with 75 per cent Exchequer grants but this was not yet the approach prioritised by central or local government.
City Engineer Walker spoke to higher ambitions: for ‘large agglomerations…there must be satellite towns. When a central area is re-developed, there must be a reduction in density’. He was far more sceptical about high-rise construction:
There appears to be no reason or excuse for blocks of flats in the average town of one hundred thousand population or under. There is an attraction about erecting a large block of buildings. They look compact and tidy. The proportion of the site built up may be kept low. But how will they be classed in, say, forty years? In the large urban aggregations to which reference has been made, flats will no doubt find a place, but they are only the next best thing to good houses.
We’ll just let those comments stand. To many, they might seem an almost uncannily prescient anticipation of a debate that had erupted fiercely in the four decades which Walker prescribed.
At first, Salford followed Walker’s advice with the creation of a large overspill estate in the then Urban District of Worsley some eight miles to the west of Salford’s historic centre. Inaugurated in 1949, the Salford-Worsley scheme had, by 1959, relocated almost 10,000 (of a projected 17,000) Salfordians. In the fifties, the Borough proposed moving almost a quarter of its population (40,000 of 178,000) to greenfield sites beyond its borders. (6)
Such a shift was not without problems for those involved. The new council rents were, on average, three times higher than those paid previously. Seven in ten of the estate’s workforce commuted – one and half hours there and back – back to Salford for work. And then, according to the planner JB Cullingworth, there were added expenses caused by a new ‘social necessity to “keep up appearances”’.
Ten per cent of families returned to Salford; in Cullingworth’s survey, three-quarters would have returned if only they ‘could obtain accommodation in Salford which was of “the Worsley standard”’. There lay the rub, of course:
Over a quarter of the families have moved from shared and overcrowded houses; a further third had previously lived in damp and obsolescent accommodation. Their present living conditions form a most striking and welcome contrast.
So most settled and, in time, a new community would develop. It would, however, be a very different community from that described by Greenwood. Cullingworth, in a single sentence, captures the shift which some contemporary observers decried: ‘The intimate life of the slums has given way to the more reserved, home-centred life of the typical middle-class suburb’.
Writing of the new out-of-county estates of the London County Council, Peter Willmott and Michael Young lamented the loss of ‘the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries’ that had made up the old East End and mourned, in particular, the break-up of the matriarchal kinship networks they held to have previously sustained community life. (7) They’ve been criticised since for a selective use of evidence and a much romanticised view of slum living.
Greenwood is a corrective here and Cullingworth himself offered a far more sardonic take:
Separation from ‘Mum’ has not been the hardship which some sociologists have led us to expect; on the contrary it has often allowed a more harmonious relationship to be established. The possession of a house in which pride can be taken has resulted in a closer and more intimate family life: activities are now centred on the home, the garden and the television set.
Contrary to much conventional wisdom, this was an escape from the pub to be celebrated, not the escape to it required by previously inhospitable home conditions.
The charge – it was usually a lament or criticism – of embourgeoisement (the view that working people were adopting middle-class lifestyles and values) is a more interesting one. For all the practical difficulties, Cullingworth found that the ‘majority of families were thrilled with their new way of life’. Perhaps, therefore, we should recast this argument.
Are we really saying that as soon as the working class achieve decent living standards that they have thereby become middle-class? Sometimes it seems that way; sometimes it seems that some left-wing commentators would prefer the working class to be ‘poor but happy’ (or even unhappy if that better maintained a purer and more militant proletarian politics). Let’s just scrap the labels which seem to affix too readily essentialist class attributes to certain modes of living. Besides the definitive study of the so-called ‘affluent worker’ found that, despite their more ‘privatised’ home life, their working lives remained distinct and harder and their politics largely unaltered. (8)
Still, there was truth in Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s statement in 1957 that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’. This was an era of full employment and rising living standards. It seemed a tectonic shift; Love on the Dole was an historic record, a reminder of a lost world, one not to be repeated.
The new world was represented in the redevelopment of the Ellor Street area first approved by the Municipal Borough in 1960. In the words of Albert Jones, the chair of the Council’s Planning and Development Committee, ‘we may be thirty years late but we are trying now to obliterate Hanky Park as it was known and propose to make the area something of which we can be proud’. (9)
The bare bones of the plan were to clear 89 acres of land in which, according to Jones, ‘three thousand families lived in slum conditions as bad as any to be found in the country’. (10) But the form of redevelopment was peculiar to its time.
In March 1961, the Council commissioned Sir Robert Matthew, formerly Chief Architect to the London County Council and now Professor of Architecture at Edinburgh University, to act as consultant. His plan, prepared in collaboration with architect-planner Percy Johnson-Marshall, director of the University’s Housing Research Unit, envisaged something far more sweeping than the mere replacement of substandard housing.
The project was seen ‘strategically as a vital part of the regeneration of the industrial north of England’; its aim ‘to recreate within the Greater Manchester Region a city centre which will make for a high standard of environment in terms of living, shopping and civic affairs, using the latest techniques of planning and development to fit the new centre for the motor age’. (11)
Matthews continued, in the Report on the Plan which would form the template of the finished project:
The basic idea of the scheme is to provide a beautiful and spacious environment with large and continuous pedestrian space over a large area so that the citizens of the new Salford may drive off efficiently to work or else walk down a new parkway right into one of Europe’s finest shopping centres without having to cross any roads.
Much of the proposal therefore features what was planned as a combined Civic and Shopping Centre – the former containing a new town hall, library, and museum and art gallery as well as what was billed as a ‘contemporary Trafalgar Square’ for the borough; the latter, 400,000 square feet of retail space as well as parking for 2070 cars. The adjacent A6 was to be brought up to motorway standard to aid traffic flow.
Practically, this spoke to Colin Buchanan’s influential report, Traffic in Towns, published in 1963. It was designed to manage the problems caused by increased car ownership and enhance the quality of urban life – there were 10.5 million vehicles registered in Britain at the time but the figure was expected to almost double by the end of the decade. It was the report’s support for urban motorways, however, which, as implemented, blighted a number of city centres that have secured its hold in the popular imagination.
Ideologically, the plan reflected the sense that a modern and prosperous Britain was emerging, one whose promise extended to a working class, more securely employed and better-off than ever before. In this context, Hanky Park did, indeed, seem a remnant of a benighted past.
‘Forward to the City Beautiful!’ proclaimed one Salford newspaper headline of 1961 and the plan was claimed by its boosters as vital to the borough’s renaissance. One Salford councillor asserted that ‘our future as a city stands or falls by Ellor Street’ – the redevelopment would ‘add 2800 families to our population, revitalise our trade, and give our rateable value its first boost since the war’.
There, of course, was represented another aspect of the scheme’s appeal. Salford, like other similarly placed towns and cities, had turned against the large-scale decanting of its population to distant and beyond-border estates. The latter had, as we’ve seen, its practical problems for the new suburbanites but there was a fear too that the local authorities themselves were – literally and metaphorically – diminished by the loss of population the policy created.
The new housing, therefore, wasn’t – though it is discussed in the concluding section of the Report on the Plan – exactly an afterthought but it was covered rather summarily. ‘Immediate housing requirements have been met by siting three 15 storey blocks on the north-west corner of the site’, it stated. For the rest, it proposed mainly eight-storey maisonette blocks, some four-storey, eight unit blocks providing family houses and, rather casually, three twenty-two storey point blocks and other 16-storey blocks which would ‘give emphasis and continuity to the visual sequence of the development’.
This was, to say the least, a sharp break from the two-storey terraces which had dominated previously and a clear contrast with the more cautious approach suggested by that wartime generation of planners discussed earlier. But it reflected the wisdom of the age that assumed high-rise construction offered a quick and easy means to provide both the new housing and urban density required by the new wave of slum clearance.
By some accounts, the residents of Ellor Street and surrounds, those who would inhabit the brave new world created by the planners and politicians, were less sure of the solutions proposed. One local journalist observed: (12)
It is a district of people whose roots are firmly embedded in the hard ground, and there is every sign that they are not going to take kindly to the sudden upheaval. There was a sense of uneasiness around, which is in many cases hidden by a joke or a resolution to face the new life – the sort of resolution one reaches when facing a visit to the dentist to have that worrying tooth removed.
It seems the stoicism deployed to survive the hardships of the thirties was required once more to cope with the benefits bestowed by modern affluence. We’ll see how all this played out in next week’s post.
(1) Walter Greenwood, Love on the Dole (1933)
(2) Manchester Social Service Group of the Auxiliary Movement, No. 9 Report on a Survey of Housing Conditions in the Salford Area (Manchester, Sherratt and Hughes, 1930)
(3) JE Blease (Sanitary Inspector, Salford), ‘The Unfit House’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, vol. 66, January 1946, pp11-18
(4) The British Board of Film Classification is quoted in John Harris, ‘Rereading: Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood’, The Guardian, 7 August 2010, and John Baxter in Chris Hopkins, ‘Why Love on the Dole stands the test of time’, 20 January, 2016
(5) W Albert Walker, ‘Post-War Housing Development’, Read at a Sessional Meeting held at Salford on February 14th, 1942; The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, vol 62, April 1942, pp75-84
(6) JB Cullingworth, ‘Overspill in South East Lancashire: The Salford-Worsley Scheme’, The Town Planning Review, vol. 30, no. 3, October, 1959, pp189-206
(7) Peter Willmott and Michael Young, Family and Kinship in East London (Routledge, 2013; first published 1957), p97
(8) John H Goldthorpe, David Lockwood et al., ‘The Affluent Worker and the Thesis of Embourgeoisement: Some Preliminary Research Findings’, Sociology, vol. 1 no. 1, January 1967, pp11-31
(9) Quoted in David Kynaston, Modernity Britain, 1957-62, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), p397
(10) Cllr Albert Jones, Foreword, in Robert Matthew and Percy Johnson-Marshall, Report on the Plan (Edinburgh: Bella Vista, 1963), p1
(11) Matthew and Johnson-Marshall, Report on the Plan p6. The quotation which follows comes from p7.
(12) Salford City Reporter, 3 April 1959 quoted in Kynaston, Modernity Britain, p289
‘After 10 years and £60m investment, five estates in Peckham, south London, have finally been transformed from pits of urban blight into shining examples of regeneration.’ So wrote one housing journalist in 2004. (1)
In fact, as we saw in the first post of this series, the Five Estates hadn’t always been the pits and, in total, their regeneration cost something in the order of £290m. Last week, I looked at what had ‘gone wrong’ with (or ‘on’ – there’s a significant distinction there) the estates to justify such expenditure. This week I’ll examine and assess the thinking which underlay regeneration and the convoluted, troubled form it took.
It was said that £16m had been spent to improve the North Peckham Estate by the mid-1980s. But already, there were many who felt that such palliative measures – chiefly tackling problems of security by adding bars to ground-floor windows and providing new front doors – were inadequate. Some, allegedly tenants amongst them, felt that complete demolition was the ‘ideal solution’ but at the time that was judged both too expensive and – with 24,000 on the Southwark waiting list for housing – impracticable. (2)
Alice Coleman, the guru of design disadvantagement who had investigated Southwark’s multi-storey estates, lived up to her mantra that ‘two or three storeys are harmless, but more are harmful’ by proposing that all but the lower two floors of the blocks be removed. She was upset that this apparently simple solution to the estate’s problems was rejected as more expensive than demolition and as adding to housing shortage. (3)
The first serious attempt to tackle the problems of the North Peckham Estate in particular was the North Peckham Project established in 1985 – a joint venture of councillors, officers and tenants formed to agree a bid to the Department of Environment. This bore fruit in the Estate Action programme begun in 1987.
This programme saw the refurbishment of around 1200 homes across the wider area. On the Willowbrook Estate, for example, a relatively untroubled and mainly low-rise estate of four-storey maisonette blocks, £350,000 was spent on renovations, asbestos removal and a new entry phone system. The twelve-storey Tonbridge House point block was demolished in a later wave of Estate Action improvements after 1992.
But the big idea and the focus of the bulk of the £40m pledged by central government was the radical remodelling of the North Peckham Estate – basically an attempt to rectify what were now widely accepted as the design flaws of the original plan. The second-storey walkways would go, new ground floor entrances to flats would be created with front and rear gardens where feasible, and access points to the estate would be reduced. All this, of course, was an attempt to create the ‘defensible space’ that the previous estate had lacked.
The five-storey parking blocks (to which few now dared to entrust their vehicles) were to be adapted – one converted into neighbourhood offices, others into workshops and a training centre. Rolf Rothermel (of Rothermel Cooke, the architects with the new design brief) was keen to get cars – so assiduously removed in the original scheme – back on the estate, given the residents’ unofficial attempts to do just that: ‘people will do anything to park their cars reasonably near their homes, although this has meant driving through bollards or over landscaped areas up till now’. (4)
If these plans had some significant local support, the next – from a Conservative government decidedly hostile to local authorities (especially Labour ones) and their management of housing – did not. In 1988 the North Peckham and Gloucester Grove Estates were together designated one of six pilot Housing Action Trusts. The Trusts were private consortia set up to take over and regenerate council housing in designated areas – their relatively generous funding (money denied to the local authorities’ own efforts) was in a sense both carrot and stick in this attempt to take the ‘council’ out of ‘council housing’.
Tenants, however, were suspicious of the initiative, fearing loss of council management would lead to increased rents and reduced security of tenure. At a packed meeting of North Peckham tenants in November 1988, fears were expressed, against the assurances offered by Housing Minister David Trippier in attendance, that rents might rise fivefold. (5) That might have been exaggerated but the higher rents of properties managed by Housing Associations (the likely successor bodies) and the planned replacement of secure tenancies with assured were real enough. Opposition in Manchester’s Hulme Estate established the principle of tenant ballots and when, in October 1990, Southwark tenants got their chance to vote, they voted decisively – by a margin of over 60 per cent – to reject the proposal.
This left the ball back in Southwark’s court but, without anything like the resources needed to finance the major changes still felt necessary, it was forced again to play the system and seek central government funds under the rules of what was, by the mid-1990s, the new game in town – the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB).
Critically, SRB was predicated on bringing in outside capital through partnerships with private developers and housing associations. The Peckham Partnership formed in 1994 was a consortium (comprising Southwark Council, tenant representatives, Countryside Properties plc, the Laing Group, a number of housing associations and other interested bodies) to prepare just such a bid.
There were a number of implications to this approach. Firstly, the Partnership had a clear interest in accentuating and homogenising the negative. Some pretty bleak statistics could be justified (and I used some in last week’s post) but there was a need, in Luna Glücksberg’s words, ‘to make the area look as desperate, needy and dilapidated as possible’. As a local councillor recalled, ‘It wasn’t as if the area was all a sink estate…when you read the big document, you’d imagine this area was sort of beyond repair, sinking, sinking’. (6)
Secondly, because of that private sector and housing association involvement, this was a strategy, that placed a premium on redevelopment – in which new houses could be built for sale and shared ownership – rather than refurbishment. To Graham Towers, the implications were clear: (7)
Despite good evidence of the success of the comprehensive improvement schemes and despite the very much higher costs, large parts of [the North Peckham Estate] were scheduled for demolition. The decision was arbitrary and so was its implementation. Selective redevelopment might have been justified by social and environmental objectives. What was actually done was simply to demolish a swathe of housing blocks – the dividing line between new and old cut straight through the middle of each estate.
It’s true, however, that redevelopment also chimed with the wisdom of the day. There was a growing belief that mono-tenure estates were problematic in themselves (though, strangely, this is never a criticism made of the middle-class suburbs). Pollard Thomas & Edwards were the architects selected to oversee the new scheme and Steve Chance, one of its directors, was clear on their goals: (8)
The intention was to have a mixed tenure neighbourhood and make it possible for people to want to buy private property in an area that was not popular. We are not trying to build a new estate, we are trying to build a bit of ordinary London.
(I’ll leave you to decode what the words ‘popular’ and ‘ordinary’ actually mean in that statement.)
This was a philosophy Southwark embraced in its ongoing redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate too – the Council was, in the words of Catherine Bates (one of the Borough’s planning officers), ‘determined to break down the estate concept’.
The successful Peckham Partnership bid secured £60m SRB funding to add to the £47m contributed by the Borough, £37m from other public sources and £79.6m from private sources. It committed almost £180m to housing, £12.1m to ‘health, culture and sport’, £10.8m to education and some £9.7m to ‘enterprise’. (9) This was, commendably, an holistic strategy, which recognised that the estates’ troubles were as embedded in hard social and economic realities as they were in any design characteristics.
I’ll focus on housing and here the plans were radical. The number of homes on the Five Estates as a whole would be reduced from 4532 to 3694. Some 1854 new homes would be built, 70 per cent with gardens. And tenure would be diversified, from 99 per cent council-rented to 60 per cent – in precise numbers from 4314 council-rented homes to 2154 council-rented, 915 housing association and 625 owner-occupied.
The numbers can be confusing but the thrust was clear. The big idea, in design terms, was to return to a more traditional streetscape and more suburban style of architecture. The stated aim of the Peckham Partnership was to ‘provide family houses and a neighbourhood environment which encourages study, work, leisure and healthy living’. The architect Will Alsop praised the new build’s ‘more traditional type of architecture with pitched roofs’ and a circulation around its buildings which felt ‘much safer and…more embracing’. (10)
To Pollard Thomas & Edwards, the previous renovations, which involved the removal of walkways and partial demolitions but had left the basic layout of North Peckham intact, had been inadequate: the ‘homes themselves were fine, it was the bits in between that were disastrous’. The new scheme, they claimed, would create a legible street pattern and a link between the shops and amenities of Peckham High Street and Burgess Park.
This was ‘back to the future’ with a vengeance, echoing all the tropes of the contemporary ‘defensible space’ movement which emphasised the ‘natural surveillance’ of the streets and the need to increase private space and reduce twilight zones of semi-public space.
The other big idea was mixed tenure and, more implicitly, social diversity. Estates were held to have failed as estates: owner occupiers would bring capital into the area – social capital, if you will, which might raise educational standards and overall aspirations and just plain capital (money, in other words) that would improve an area’s amenities and retail. The Five Estates weren’t then an obvious site of gentrification but the potential was thought to exist.
Let’s critique all this. Firstly, the always over-extended process of ‘regeneration’ disrupts the lives of those who are its subjects. As Anne Power observed of North Peckham, ‘whole children’s lives have been spent with the bulldozer’ –something which also sent the psychological ‘signal that the community is not good enough because they are knocking it down’. Mike Rahman, a tenants’ representative, stated the project had turned the area into a ‘war zone’. (11)
Secondly, the process was experienced as top-down, the much-vaunted ‘consultation’ a sham, certainly in its earlier stages when the original masterplan emerged without tenant input (some modifications followed). Besides, most tenants wanted to retain the council as landlord for the reasons touched on earlier and the promised ‘right of return’ was impossible to fulfil given that bedsits and one-bed flats were not replaced and given the overall reduction of council-rented homes. (12)
After ten years, the North Peckham and Camden Estates had been completely demolished, as had the older and more conventional tenement blocks of the Sumner Estate. Willowbrook had been largely and comprehensively refurbished in earlier phases of renovation. It is now self-managed by a Tenant Management Organisation. Gloucester Grove, though it retains its earlier and striking form, has also been completely refurbished.
Physically, Gloucester Grove is the one part of the Five Estates area to retain some of the built bravura of that earlier, now derided, phase of council house construction. What’s replaced the rest – save for the odd hold-out – is a generic mix of terraced, two-storey housing and medium-rise blocks of flats and maisonettes in the slightly tarty style now favoured.
It’s all pleasant enough in a low-key kind of way and – let’s be honest here – it almost certainly provides homes and an environment that are preferred by most of its residents. A Southwark survey in 2002 claimed 83 per cent of residents felt their quality of life had improved since moving. As someone who has defended the ‘pleasantness’ of the much criticised cottage estates, it doesn’t behove me to be too snooty about this later iteration.
What could be seen as the ‘official’ view is best expressed in this 2004 article in the trade press: (12)
After 10 years and £60m investment, five estates in Peckham, south London, have finally been transformed from pits of urban blight into shining examples of regeneration…Its trademark post-war high-rises were home to shocking levels of poverty and crime that were well above the national average. If you had told the residents that in a decade’s time, some houses in the area would be worth more than £300,000, they would have laughed you out of town.
Other than to question why the official measure of an area’s worth must always be the sale price of its property, there’s nothing much superficially to reject of this assessment. But I hope – if you’ve managed to read all of this extended analysis – you’ll see a more complex truth emerging.
For one, not all the estates were ‘blighted’ and none from the outset. What mattered most in their subsequent decline – more than any inherent architectural flaws – was the maelstrom of social (not design) disadvantage that shattered their community in the 1980s. If the estates ‘failed’, they failed because we failed them. The historical truth is that council estates succeeded as flourishing and, in their way, mixed communities when their residents had decent and secure employment. It’s that simple.
As that traditional economy declined and as, additionally, council housing became increasingly confined to the most precarious of the new precariat, it was inevitable that the ‘respectability’ of estate communities would be eroded. Their difficulties were a distillation of those suffered by those on the margins of the new economy. Design issues were triggered when these wider socio-economic factors come into play.
Most estates still provided good homes and good communities but, for some, by this point, ‘regeneration’ and the investment it released became a necessity. The problem is that regeneration is too often a top-down process and is always, more than is necessary, a disruptive one. It has also, almost uniformly, led to a loss of council housing and the diminution of tenants’ rights. The dependence on private capital to part-finance it makes this inevitable; the policy choice behind this isn’t and should be fought.
The irony of regeneration, here in the Five Estates and elsewhere, is that it seeks to reinvent architecturally a world that we lost through the political choices and economic dynamics accepted since the 1970s.
(1) Vikki Miller, ‘Peckham Rise’, Housing Today, 8 October 2004
(2) Dick Mortimer (coordinator of North Peckham Project) ‘Breaking the high-rise spiral of decline: one authority’s campaign of refurbishment’, Municipal Journal, 15 May 1987
(3) Alice Coleman, ‘Design Disadvantage in Southwark’, The Dulwich Society Journal, Summer 2008.
(4) ‘Walkways to go in five year plan’, Architects’ Journal, vol 187, no 3, January 20 1988
(5) Debra Isaac, ‘Rent Fears for the Tenants’, The Times, November 14 1988
(6) Luna Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’, PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, January 2013
(7) Graham Towers, Shelter in Not Enough. Transforming multi-storey housing (Policy Press, 2000)
(8) Matt Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’, Building Design, December 15 2000, pp16-19
(9) Peckham Partnership, A Bid for Single Regeneration Budget Funding (September 1994)
(10) Robert Booth, ‘Damiola: could better design have saved his life?’, Architects’ Journal, vol 212, December 7 2000
(11) Both quoted in Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’
(12) Discussed in Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City’
(13) Vikki Miller, ‘Peckham Rise’
Last week’s post looked at the diverse origins of Southwark’s so-called ‘Five Estates’ and the ideals which inspired them. This week, I’ll examine how those ideals failed or rather, perhaps, how they were betrayed by wider society. That also gives us a chance to assess some of the broader charges levelled against much of the mass housing of the period.
Already by 1987, an ex-local councillor was complaining how the snake-like design of the Gloucester Grove Estate amplified noise and – less a design flaw than a problem of upkeep – that towers and rubbish chutes at the end of each block were stinking and verminous. (1) A Times report of the same year reported of the same estate that ‘gangs of youths roam constantly. Within days of being repainted, the miles of corridors and elevated walkways are an eyesore of filthy graffiti’. (2)
In the 1994 bid for Single Regeneration funding, it was claimed £250,000 a year was being spent on repairing vandalised properties in the area. Some 42 per cent of residents of the Five Estates area as a whole reported that they felt unsafe. (3)
That proportion, though high, might seem low given the bid’s interest in accentuating the negative and the alarmist media portrayal of the estates. It’s maybe the more matter-of-fact assessment of one long-term resident which captures the reality better: (4)
It wasn’t all that bad once you lived on it, you knew your neighbours and you were basically fine if you were sensible…you don’t go around flashing your cash that’s for sure, but you were all right.
That, of course, was hardly a ringing endorsement and the truth of crime, and fear of crime, was real enough. Back in 1987 again, the police had recorded 70 muggings across the Five Estates area in one week. (5) The reality of crime, in its starkest form, became evident in November 2000 with the death of Damiola Taylor, a ten-year old Nigerian schoolboy whose family had recently moved to the UK – killed in an isolated stairwell of the North Peckham Estate.
The death occurred as the estate’s regeneration was already underway but it seemed to confirm the worst fears and strongest criticisms of those who blamed the estate’s design for its troubles.
That criticism had previously been most forcefully expressed by Alice Coleman. (6) Coleman began with a simple premise: ‘Even without the scientific details one has only to think how criminal youths abound in problem estates and are quite rare in roads of single-family houses’. But she was adamant too that her King’s College research team which surveyed Southwark’s multi-storey housing – its aim ‘to establish whether there were specific design features contributing to 21 types of crime and social breakdown’ – had provided a ‘scientific’ explanation.
Sixteen such features were identified, for example:
two or three storeys are harmless, but more are harmful. Up to four flats per corridor are harmless but more are harmful. If an entrance serves no more than six flats it is harmless but with over six it is harmful.
And so on…North Peckham achieved a 13.1 design disadvantage score on Coleman’s index.
There was a common sense truth to some of this. With 72 linked blocks in all, 92 vertical routes and 49 access points around the perimeter, the complaint of one resident that ‘you never know who’s prowling around because the walkways and the stairs are open to everybody’ seemed reasonable. (7) That article continued editorially:
These characteristics all contribute to a sense of anonymity due to intrusion by non-residents through each block, as well as providing escape routes for criminals. The walkways are faceless with a series of doors to upper and lower flats, and the doors frequently front directly on what is a public highway.
This was the defensible space thesis incarnate. It blamed both the nature of public housing – as neither literally or psychologically ‘owned’ by its residents – and its modern form – its spaces encouraged and facilitated crime – for the rise of anti-social behaviour.
Coleman’s sweeping analysis (we’ll critique it later) received more genuinely scientific backing in the 1994 study ‘space syntax’ study by Bill Hillier of the Bartlett School of Architecture. He concluded that North Peckham’s design ‘had literally generated a pathological pattern of space-use by creating lacunas in the system of natural movement’; spaces into which ‘kids were moving unsupervised and forming gangs’. (8)
Back in 1966, the ‘case for segregating people from traffic ‘had seemed ‘urgent’ and those walkways were praised for their cleanliness, safety and promotion of neighbourliness. (9) The irony that they had now become, as ‘space…structurally excluded from everyday patterns of use’, ‘terrifying’ (in Hillier’s words), is almost too much to bear. Damiola Taylor had been killed in just such a location, one suffering from what Hillier labelled ‘perpetual night syndrome’.
Alice Coleman discounted socio-economic explanations of council estate troubles as vigorously (to paraphrase Owen Hatherley) as she counted dog turds but her statement that problems of crime and anti-social behaviour were ‘rare in roads of single-family houses’ was simply empirically wrong. ‘Suburban’ estates such as Norris Green (Liverpool), Blackbird Leys (Oxford) and Meadow Well (North Shields) suffered similar troubles and worse. What connects these very different estates to Southwark’s is, of course, poverty.
Let’s begin with straightforward demographics. In Liddle Ward (since abolished but then basically comprising the Five Estates) in the 1990s, 28 per cent of the population was under 16 – a similar proportion had been held to explain the problems of Southwark’s Brandon Estate back in 1975. Fifty-seven per cent of these children lived in low-income households (the highest in London); 16 per cent of households were lone-parent (the third highest in London). (10)
At the same time, unemployment stood at 31 per cent (the highest in London) and reached, among 16 to 19 year-olds, a staggering 62 per cent. This had been a long-term problem. Unemployment had rocketed from 22 to 43 per cent in the early 1980s. A local Labour councillor, Mary Ellery, described the North Peckham Estate as ‘brilliant’ till then but: (11)
Unemployment knocked six kinds of shit out of people. Careers officers came into schools with the bad news when kids were fourteen, and from then on they knew there was no bloody point. All you need to know is how to write your name and how to go on the dole. If you’re forty-plus, you’re on the shit-heap.
To the local vicar, in this context, burglary, where you could make £200 a night (in contrast to the £40 or £50 a week that scarce, regular employment offered), was ‘the kind of work that’s seen to be viable’. Drugs also played their part in this alternative economy.
Race was a further complicating factor. Previously people from the ethnic minorities had frequently been excluded from council housing through residency rules. The primacy of needs-based assessment after 1977 and the fact that minority populations were often confined to the worst private rented accommodation saw this change in the eighties.
The Five Estates, then, had a population disproportionately drawn from the black and ethnic minorities – 57 per cent by 1991; in two local primary schools, around 60 per cent of children spoke English as a second language. That liberal vicar commented on the disempowerment of the estates’ minority population and the criminality of some of the community’s young people as a compensatory way ‘to seek power in other ways’. Of course, some longer-established locals saw these newcomers as the cause of their problems rather than as fellow victims and so another layer of tension was added to a toxic mix.
By the 1990s, the annual turnover of homes on the estates had reached between 20 to 25 per cent and it was claimed 70 per cent of residents wanted a transfer though usually they found no problem with their individual homes. As homes emptied, squatters moved in – generally transient and disinvested in the local community – with the Council and police seen as apathetic or powerless in dealing with the issue.
As the estates became hard to let and as the local council housing stock diminished through Right to Buy, new bona fide residents were disproportionately those re-housed as homeless or vulnerable. Many, it was said, came from the nearby Maudsley Hospital as longer-term patients were removed as part of the (misleadingly named) ‘care in the community’ programme.
Such a combination of problems – and they were found most often on council estates, not because council estates were awful places marked out by some foundational flaw of concept or design but rather because wider society dumped its problems on them – naturally demanded greater resources. They didn’t get them. In 1979, Southwark had a budget of £60m to maintain its 36,000 homes. By 1987, as Thatcherite cuts kicked in, its budget to manage 62,000 homes (more inherited from the GLC) stood at £28.5m. It would have required £90m just to maintain its 1979 level of spending. (12)
Despite this, and in a very changed world – which saw councils fighting against the odds to effect positive change in a context where they were seen as part of the problem rather than a means to solution – regeneration efforts began in the mid-1980s. Those will covered in next week’s post.
Special thanks to Russell Newell, who grew up in the area and took the photographs featured as a young photographer in the 1980s. Visit his 7 Bridges project for further evocative images of the estate and its African-Caribbean community in particular and to find out more about his larger body of work.
(1) Quoted in Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter (1987)
(2) ‘Culture Shock Strikes Home’, The Times, 14 July 1987
(3) Peckham Partnership, A Bid for Single Regeneration Budget Funding (September 1994)
(4) Rose (in her 60s) quoted in Luna Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’, PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, January 2013
(5) Joanna Coles, ‘Is There Life in Peckham?’, The Spectator, 3 July 1987
(6) The quotations which follow are drawn from Alice Coleman, ‘Design Disadvantage in Southwark’, The Dulwich Society Journal, Summer 2008.
(7) This quotation from Mrs Emminia Onua and the following are drawn from Southwark Sparrow, February 1987
(8) Quoted in Matt Weaver, ‘Dangerous Structures?’, Building Design, December 15 2000. You can see images of the North Peckham Estate and Bill Hillier explaining the application of space syntax theory to it in this fascinating video from a 1993 edition of Tomorrow’s World.
(9) Christine Rouse, ‘City Village for the Birds?’, South London Press, 6 December 1974
(10) These figures and the following taken from Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’
(11) This and the quotation from the Reverend Graham Derriman which follows are drawn from Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter
(12) Dick Mortimer (coordinator of North Peckham Project) ‘Breaking the high-rise spiral of decline: one authority’s campaign of refurbishment’, Municipal Journal, 15 May 1987
The ‘Five Estates’ were a figment of Southwark Council’s imagination. That’s not to say that the five estates – wedged between Peckham High Street and Burgess Park – didn’t exist but rather that they were artificially combined for a £60m bid for Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) funding in 1994. That bid required a single narrative of design failure and social breakdown and it succeeded – it secured the largest SRB award ever made. Some £260m and ten years later, one of the country’s most sweeping regeneration projects was complete. This post will examine the high hopes and ideals which inspired the estates’ initial construction.
The five estates had little to unify them save that loose geographical proximity. The Sumner Estate was the oldest – an LCC scheme from the 1930s comprising 13 blocks, all traditional brick-built four- to six-storey, walk-up and balcony-access tenements of their time. It was extended in the post-war period with nine new blocks designed along essentially similar lines though now with lift access and jazzed-up, white concrete-faced balconies as a nod to modernity. The older blocks had to wait to the mid-70s to get lifts and central heating.
The Willowbrook Estate between Sumner Road and the former Surrey Canal was anchored by the twelve-storey Tonbridge House, completed in 1963. The block’s striking acid-etched concrete cladding slabs designed by William Mitchell didn’t save it from later demolition. A series of tile-faced, four-storey maisonettes followed, still standing and largely unaltered but for their new pitched roofs.
The other three estates form more of a package, at least in the sense that they were all completed in the early-mid 1970s, all at relatively high density and all incorporating contemporary ideas around the separation of pedestrian and road traffic and use of aerial walkways. It was possible, they said, to walk from Burgess Park to Peckham Road without touching the ground
The Camden Estate (including the earlier Monkland House built in the 1950s) comprised 874 homes of traditional brick construction. The other two estates –Gloucester Grove and North Peckham – were more innovatory and, given their prominence in the arguments for regeneration, I’ll spend most time talking about those.
Gloucester Grove is the northernmost of the estates, fronting Burgess Park. It remains (substantially unaltered) the most striking architecturally, notable for its long, linked, snake-like construction – 1210 homes in 29 blocks in total, of brick-clad, heavy panel construction, between three and eight storeys in height joined by high, semi-circular, glass-tiled entrances containing stairways and lifts which provide a deliberately and eye-catchingly ‘modernist’ look to the estate as a whole.
North Peckham is the best documented and – the most notorious – it’s often taken to represent the Five Estates regeneration as a whole. It was the largest of the five – 65 five-storey blocks in all on a 40-acre site, comprising 1444 homes. Despite its traditional, load-bearing brick, crosswall construction, this was the most innovative of the designs – a large-scale realisation of the ‘streets in the sky’ concept fashionable when construction began in 1966.
The estate was made up of two types of block – residential and parking. In the latter, three lower floors provided lock-up garages for residents and parking spaces for visitors; at the second floor level a large platform contained ‘shops, pubs, laundries, and communal facilities such as halls and meeting rooms’.
This was linked to a wide pedestrian deck which, according to the celebratory account in the Southwark Civic News, joined ‘the whole scheme together, forming a network of ways containing housing, shops and other facilities and forming the service route for postman, milkman, dustman and other tradesmen’. Residents, it continued, could ‘walk freely along this two and half miles of deck away from the dirt, noise and danger of London traffic.’ (1)
Let’s forget hindsight for a moment and examine the good intentions here. There was the variety and mix of housing for a start – one to five bedroom maisonettes and flats, each with their own front door to the deck and the whole planned to serve a wide cross-section of the community. As the Civic News continued, praising the scheme’s ‘visionary planners’ led by Borough Architect FO Hayes:
Far from being the stereotype ‘Little Boxes’ the four basic types of homes will be put together in so many different ways that they will have individuality and variety.
And the ground on which the Estate stood (excepting service roads) was ‘to be used entirely as an amenity for residents [as] a series of interconnecting courts, designed to cater for different age groups and family activities’:
Some will be planted with grass, trees, and shrubs where families may sit out, alone or with their neighbours, on summer evenings; others will be paved and out of reach of windows, so that the younger members may play ball games and make a noise in safety.
It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And it had emerged with due deference to the community of the run-down streets it replaced. Hans Peter Trenton, who succeeded Hayes as Borough Architect in 1969 (he had earlier designed Southwark’s Aylesbury Estate), praised the ‘social coherence’ of the former terraced housing and described its ‘closely-knit social ties’ as ‘one of the foundation stones essential for the preservation of a civilised society’. (2) This thinking informed preparations for the new estate.
The new design emerged from ‘detailed sociological and technical surveys’, initiated by the Council, and executed by the construction company Bovis, ‘before a brick was laid’. (3) Trenton himself toured the old streets, talking to their residents and ‘explaining what was meant by such unheard of things as patios’.
If all this sounds like good PR or self-deceiving rhetoric, it’s worth pointing out that the finished estate earned widespread acclaim – to Lord Robens, it was a ‘European showpiece’. A hard-bitten journalist (or perhaps I’m lapsing into cliché there) for the Municipal Review touring the Estate in 1972, found his ‘enthusiasm steadily mounting’: (2)
There are no towers or soulless slabs at North Peckham, no bleak expanses of exposed concrete, no grassed areas with ‘keep off’ notices to apply a cosmetic touch to harridan features. Instead there is grass which is meant to be played on and trees everywhere. The authority’s adoption of low-rise, high-density – it was one of the first in the country to latch on to this – has been continued with a layout which disposes the buildings around a series of courtyards where children can play in safety…The courtyards and the soft contours of the buildings around them…convey a feeling of enclosure and intimacy rarely found in large projects of this kind.
This, he said, was an (apparently successful) ‘attempt to recreate the neighbourly atmosphere of old-established districts’ and he concluded almost lyrically:
the housewife can open the door to the tradesman much as she does in an ordinary street. The children can also run around unmolested by traffic, just as they used to do in the days of hop-scotch and the hoop…For once the idea that planning is for people has been infused with some meaning.
Residents’ views could be positive too. Tina recalls (4)
her flat was beautiful…split over five levels, huge, with a big patio at the top…rooms for all her children, and the kitchen was so big they had a sofa and a telly in it, her children could play there, so they could keep the living room spotless for when family and visitors came along.
‘Mrs Smith’ remembers moving in: ‘We really liked it. It was more like a holiday camp. It was very, very good’. (5)
I’ve spent some time on this pre-history, not to exonerate planners and councils but, at the very least, to acquit them of the charge of ill intent. It allows us too to examine ‘what went wrong’ without prejudgment because, if there was a honeymoon period, it seems to have been a relatively short one.
By 1977, the Peckham Society noted that the Estate was suffering ‘wear and tear’; the overall appearance of the Estate was ‘handsome’ but the ‘uniformity of the design and decoration’ (everything was cobalt blue apparently) left visitors, even residents, feeling disoriented. The vicar described an active community and the estate as ‘a place designed for neighbourliness and meeting’ but the walkways, according to the article, had become problematic – ‘used for a variety of games including primitive football, cricket and tennis with the result that windows in the public areas are frequently smashed’. Those promised play areas don’t seem to have materialised. (6)
But this is tame stuff compared to what came later, a trajectory summed up in one magazine headline as ‘a dream in the 60s, a reality in the 70s and a nightmare in the 80s’. The report went on to claim that North Peckham had been described by the European Economic Community as ‘the most depressed housing area in western Europe’. (7)
We’ll look at the truth of that next week. What had happened to North Peckham and the other estates to turn such high hopes into ashes and what was the new thinking that would transform what were now so unquestioningly seen as the catastrophic errors of a previous generation of planners?
(1) ‘Life at Deck Level’, Southwark Civic News, July 1968
(2) HF Wallis, ‘A Living Showpiece at North Peckham?’, Municipal Review, November 1972
(3) Christine Rouse, ‘City Village for the Birds?’, South London Press, 6 December 1974
(4) Quoted in Luna Glücksberg, ‘Wasting the Inner-City: Waste, Value and Anthropology on the Estates’, PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, January 2013
(5) Quoted in Robert Chesshyre, The Return of the Native Reporter (1987)
(6) Bob Smyth, ‘The North Peckham Estate: a Brief Guide’, Peckham Society Newsletter, February/March 1977
(7) Sky Magazine, March 1988
I’m delighted to feature another guest post this week, this by Rosamund West who is researching ‘London County Council housing schemes and public art, 1943-1965’ for a PhD at Kingston University. She’d be pleased to hear from anyone with an interest in her work – further information and contact details are given at the end of the post.
The London County Council’s post-war attitude to Londoners and the communities of London stems back to the 1943 County of London Plan. A rebuilding plan for London, written while the war was still being fought, and the outcome uncertain, the plan imagined the city improved. My research begins in 1943 with the County of London Plan and ends in 1965 with the demise of the London County Council and I am looking at how the London County Council expressed its intentions for London and Londoners through both architecture and the artworks installed within residential settings: (1)
To ignore or scrap these communities in favour of a new and theoretical sub-division of areas would be both academic and too drastic; the plan might look well on paper but it would not be London.
The post-war situation
After the Second World War, London faced a housing crisis that feels very familiar to us in 2016, though its cause may be different. There was a general sense that Londoners had endured the bombing and destruction of their homes and communities (as shown by the frontispiece image and quote from the Prime Minister below) and after the war they deserved something better. The solution was driven by optimism and a hope for the future, for a better standard of living for all: council housing was the answer. For the London County Council, re-housing Londoners ran conveniently alongside creating a new – and improved – London.
Lord Latham, the then leader of the LCC, describes in the 1943 County of London Plan the ambition to rebuild London: (2)
We can have the London we want; the London that people will come from the four corners of the world to see; if only we determine that we will have it; and that no weakness or indifference shall prevent it.
Winston Churchill, quoted in the Plan, had earlier expressed similar sentiments: (3)
Most painful is the number of small houses inhabited by working folk which has been destroyed…We will rebuild them, more to our credit than some of them were before. London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham may have much more to suffer, but they will rise from their ruins, more healthy and, I hope, more beautiful…In all my life I have never been treated with so much kindness as by the people who have suffered most.
The County of London Plan was commissioned by the LCC, written by Patrick Abercrombie and John Forshaw, and published in 1943. The plan is ambitious about the future of London. Emphasis is placed on the importance of communities within London, and communities are referred to throughout the plan. For the LCC, decent housing is central to a strong community: (4)
Housing is a matter which, whether considered as individual dwellings or in the broader, community sense, directly effects every citizen, young and old. A good house, with all the amenities necessary for a full and healthy life is a primary social need for everyone and must be the constant objective.
The LCC was proud of its role as a paternalistic municipal body that knew London and Londoners well, meeting the needs of the communities it served. LCC publications express pride in the post-war rehousing schemes. The LCC publication of 1951, The Youngest County expresses this pride in improving the lives of Londoners. We are told of an imaginary London family, ‘The Citizens’ living in their council block, ‘Everyman House’: (5)
As she gets the tea ready for her husband, two sons and two daughters who will soon be home from their Saturday afternoon shopping or football match, she thinks – for the hundredth time that day – of her delight in this new home…
…Mrs Citizen is one of many thousands of mothers who are at last, thanks to the efforts of the London County Council, able to make a real home for their families after years of discomfort in cramped or miserable quarters.
Communities are defined in the County of London Plan as ‘neighbourhood units’ of 6,000-10,000 people, based on the amount of children it took to fill a primary school. These communities were planned to be self-sufficient centres in their own right, ideally containing their ‘own schools, local shops, community buildings and smaller amenity open spaces’. (6) The communities of London were mapped and defined in the County of London Plan:
This map shows the existing community structures within London: where town halls were, where shopping centres were, and where community boundaries lay.
The LCC faced the immense task of re-housing Londoners, alongside improving their living conditions. For the LCC, this meant decreasing the population density by relocating people further out of London. The County of London Plan aimed to displace between 500,000 and 600,000 people. The ideal density was 136 persons per acre. 1938 figures of population density in London go as high as 436 persons per acre. To achieve 136 persons per acre in the Stepney/Poplar area, one of the Reconstruction Areas identified in 1943, a 42 per cent thinning of the population needed to occur. (7)
For those that remained, new structures and perhaps new neighbours faced them. The LCC used artworks in residential settings to create a link for people from the past to their new architectural setting, re-establishing the community. By using artists that responded to the history and culture of a specific community, the LCC were signalling a continuation of that community, still established in its native environment.
The above map shows the proposed neighbourhood units for the East End and South Bank areas of London, both areas that were identified as in need of reconstruction in the County of London Plan. The map shows the neighbourhood units that would become the Lansbury Estate in Poplar and the Silwood Estate in Rotherhithe. Industrial areas are identified as areas coloured black, and the proximity of both of these estates to the docks and the river is clear: (8)
In need of radical reform are the depressed residential areas, particularly of the East End and other industrial boroughs, where there are large areas of dreary and monotonous streets. The invincible cheerfulness and neighbourliness of the Londoner makes the best of these areas…
…there is much to be learnt from the urban co-operation and sturdy individualism of these London communities, typical examples of which are the eastern boroughs. To try to remedy their obvious defects by a rigid formula of reconstruction which ignored their natural grouping would be to shirk the problem of meeting some of the essential human requirements.
The Lansbury Estate, Poplar
The Stepney/Poplar Reconstruction Area was identified early on by the LCC, and is explained in the County of London Plan. The area was divided up into 11 neighbourhood units, and the Lansbury Estate site was neighbourhood number 9. The Lansbury Estate was featured as the Live Architecture Exhibition in the Festival of Britain, and so would act as a showpiece community for the LCC in its rebuilding of London.
The LCC were keen to bind this new landscape to the local community. The first residents were Mr and Mrs Snoddy, Poplar people, who were rehoused from their older Victorian home. Many of the residents of the Lansbury Estate were local Poplar people. The LCC further tied the area to the people of Poplar by inviting Poplar and Stepney Borough Councils to pick a name for the new estate. The chosen name was in honour of Labour politician George Lansbury, a figure of great significance to the people of Poplar. (9)
As part of its patronage of the arts programme, the LCC, in consultation with the Arts Council, installed The Dockers by Sydney Harpley in 1962. It was located on the edge of the Lansbury Estate in Trinity Gardens next to the Trinity Methodist church, East India Dock Road, which had been completed in 1951.
The proximity of the docks to the Lansbury Estate clearly informed the subject matter for this sculpture. Many of the people housed on the Lansbury Estate were employed either in the docks, or in the many associated industries reliant on the docks. At the time of planning, London was still a major port. The demise of the docks and subsequent collapse of industry in London, particularly focussed on the East End and river communities, was not yet known. As the County of London Plan explained in 1943: (10)
London is a great industrial town as well as a capital city and a governmental and administrative centre.
The sculpture references the industrial culture of this part of London as well as suggesting a camaraderie between the figures. The two dockers bear a heavy load between them, their figures merging with their shared load and with each other. A depiction entirely fitting for an industry supported by a close-knit community where traditionally sons had often followed fathers into the docks.
With the demise of industry on the river, a sculpture for a community familiar with the docks quickly lost its relevance. Sydney Harpley’s sculpture was badly vandalised until only the legs of the dockers remained. Today, only the plinth remains.
Silwood Estate, Rotherhithe
This image from the County of London Plan depicts the area of Rotherhithe, which would become the Silwood Estate, as a perfect example of a site that could be developed at the ideal 136 persons per acre. (11) Within this neighbourhood unit, or community, was planned a school, a nursery school, shops and businesses, and a community centre. As with the Lansbury Estate, the LCC used its patronage of the arts programme to install an artwork on this estate. Whereas the sculpture at the Lansbury Estate referenced the local industry, the sculpture chosen for the Silwood Estate referenced the location of the site.
Neighbourly Encounter by Uli Nimptsch was installed on the Silwood Estate in 1964. The Silwood Estate straddled the borders of the Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey and Deptford. The fence represented the boundary between the two boroughs and the two figures the neighbourliness that existed between the two communities (12). The piece further references the area with the artist’s use of two local children as the models, David Grist and his sister Doreen. Sadly, as with The Dockers, Neighbourly Encounter is missing.
The London County Council, in its enthusiastic tackling of the post-war housing crisis, put emphasis on communities and Londoners. By also installing artworks in residential settings, the LCC was introducing art into the environment of normal working people. Perhaps patriarchal and over-bearing to us today, the LCC wanted to be seen as a caring municipal body that re-housed Londoners, and re-housed them well. Installing artworks within housing schemes went above and beyond the basic urgent need for shelter. By selecting artists and artworks that referenced the local history or culture of an area, the LCC was investing in the less tangible, emotional crux of what community means and what makes that community thrive.
(1) Abercrombie, P. & Forshaw, J. H. County of London Plan, (Macmillan & Co, 1943), p.8
(2) County of London Plan,iii
(3) Churchill, 8 October 1940: County of London Plan, frontispiece
(4) County of London Plan, p74
(5) London County Council, The Youngest County. A Description of London as a County and its Public Services, (London, 1951), p.166
(6) County of London Plan, p101
(7) County of London Plan, p83
(8) County of London Plan, p4
(9) ‘The Lansbury Estate: Introduction and the Festival of Britain exhibition’, in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse (London, 1994), pp. 212-223. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp212-223
(10) County of London Plan, p84
(11) County of London Plan, p81
(12) Reverse of LCC photograph, LMA/4218/01/046
This bonus post – the final post relating to Open House London on the 18-19 September – offers a whistle-stop tour of some of the other municipal buildings featured, some grand, some more humble. We’ll begin with municipal seats of government: in chronological order, the town halls which manifested the civic pride of local government in its heyday.
It’s appropriate then to begin with the oldest and one of the most impressive of these, the City of London Guildhall and its present Grand Hall, begun in 1411 – the third largest surviving medieval hall in the country. Externally, it’s probably the 1788 grand entrance by George Dance the Younger in – with apologies to contemporary sensibilities – what’s been called Hindoostani Gothic that is most eye-catching. The adjacent Guildhall Library and Art Gallery are also open to view – great facilities along with others provided by the City but as the Corporation is hardly a triumph of democracy we’ll move on.
At the other end of the scale what is now the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow is a modest affair. It started life in the mid-18th century as a workhouse but included a room set aside for meetings of the local vestry. It was later adapted as a police station before becoming a very fine local museum in 1930. If you can’t make Open House, do visit it and Walthamstow Village at another time.
Shoreditch Town Hall, on the other hand, almost matches the Guildhall in its civic pretensions – chutzpah indeed for a building, designed by the impressively named Caesar Augustus Long and opened in 1866 as the headquarters of a mere vestry, the modest form of local government which preceded the Metropolitan Boroughs established in the capital in 1900. Shoreditch, however, was far from modest – it was one of the most ambitious and innovative such bodies in London, taking particular pride in its path-breaking municipal electricity undertaking. The Vestry and later Borough’s motto ‘More Light, More Power’ had more than metaphorical meaning. You might recognise the figure of ‘Progress’ enshrined in the Town Hall tower too.
After a long period of decline the Town Hall was reopened in 2005 and is now a thriving community venue operated by the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust. Look out for a full programme of events celebrating the building’s 150th anniversary later this year.
Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881, is a humbler building despite the Italian palazzo styling adopted by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston. It also started life as a Vestry Hall but one intended nevertheless as ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’. It went on to serve as offices for Stepney Metropolitan Borough Council – while its great hall hosted balls and concerts and even early ‘cinematograph’ shows. It was well known to Clement Attlee, mayor of Stepney in 1919 and later the district’s MP. It’s been run by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust as a community venue since 2004.
Battersea Town Hall, begun in 1892 – an ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ design by Edward Mountford – has had a similarly chequered history, most notably surviving a disastrous fire in 2015. Fortunately, repairs and improvements have re-established the Battersea Arts Centre – in business again – as a wonderful local resource. Its local government heritage survives, however – a worthy memorial to the time when Battersea’s radical politics earned it the title, the ‘Municipal Mecca’. (The Latchmere Estate, a fifteen minute walk to the north and the subject of my very first post, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour in 1903.)
Richmond, a municipal borough founded in 1890 in the County of Surrey, was a more conservative body although it can boast (since its incorporation in Greater London in 1965) the first council housing built in the capital. Richmond Old Town Hall, also designed in Elizabethan Renaissance style by WJ Ancell, was opened in 1893 and now houses (since the creation of the London Borough of Richmond) a museum, gallery and local studies archives amongst other things.
Finsbury Town Hall was opened in 1895, another Vestry Hall at that time, designed by C Evans Vaughan in ‘free Flemish Renaissance’ style according to Pevsner. Look out for the Art Nouveau entrance canopy and internal fittings too. It’s a beautiful building making good use of a tricky site, subsequently home to one of the most radical of London’s Metropolitan Borough Councils. If you visit, take time to look at Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre five minutes to the south and the Spa Green Estate just to the north though neither feature in the Open House programme. The headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board, opened in 1920 just across the road, do, however.
Back to Finsbury Town Hall, it’s been the home of the Urdang Academy – a school of dance and musical theatre – since 2006 and, in its words, ‘an inspiring and fitting environment in which to train’. The Town Hall is still a local registry office for weddings and, for that reason, close to my heart and that of the woman who puts the ‘dreams’ into ‘municipal’.
Croydon, created a County Borough within Surrey in 1889, didn’t amalgamate with London until 1965 but the Town Hall, to plans by local architect Charles Henman, was opened in 1896 to provide ‘Municipal Offices, Courts, a Police Station, Library and many other public purposes’. The Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower complex retains some local government functions – the Mayor’s Parlour and committee rooms – but also offers a museum, gallery, library and cinema.
The first ‘free Classical’ phase of Redbridge Town Hall, by architect Ben Woollard, was opened in 1901 for Ilford Urban District Council. A new central library was built in the 1927 extension for the newly created Municipal Borough and further office space in the 1933 extension, contributing to the eclectic Renaissance of the overall ensemble. Since 1965 it’s served as the headquarters of the London Borough of Redbridge. The Council Chamber is one of the finest in London.
A visit to the Tottenham Green Conservation Area gives you an opportunity view a whole slew of historically significant buildings. With my municipal hat on, I’ll draw your attention to Tottenham Town Hall (HQ of Tottenham Urban District Council from 1904 to 1965) and the other examples of local government endeavour and service adjacent – the public baths next door (now just the façade remaining but, as the Bernie Grants Art Centre supported by Haringey Council, still serving a progressive purpose), the fire station (now an enterprise centre), and technical college (built by Middlesex County Council). Passing the new Marcus Garvie Library, you’ll come across Tottenham’s former public library built in 1896 just up the road. It’s as fine an ensemble of civic purpose and social betterment as you could find in the country.
And without doubt, Woolwich Town Hall, an elaborate Baroque design by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, is one of the most impressive town halls in the capital. Queen Victoria presides over the main stairway of the building’s staggeringly impressive central lobby but the building was opened, following Labour’s capture of the Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903 by local MP and dockers’ leader Will Crooks. That take-over by one of the largest and most active Labour organisations in the country (don’t neglect the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society here) heralded a proud era of reform to raise the health and living standards of the local working class.
Another fine example of Baroque revival is Deptford Town Hall, designed by the noted team HV Lanchester, JA Steward and EA Rickards and completed in 1907. Its exterior sculptures capture local pride in the area’s naval heritage. The guided tours focus on more controversial times – the Town Hall’s role as a court for trying conscientious objectors during the First World War.
Moving to the immediate pre-war period, the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster – originally housing, amongst other things, the offices of Middlesex County Council – was an unusual building for its time, designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in free Gothic style. It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.
The interwar era featured a new wave and new style of municipal architecture. Probably the most notable example, Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End, doesn’t feature in Open House this year but, now a local arts centre, can be viewed at other times.
Opened one year later in 1936, Romford Town Hall (now serving the London Borough of Havering) is a less elaborate building, designed by Herbert R Collins and Antoine Englebert O Geens in an architectural competition stressing the need for strict economy. It remains, however, a very fine example of the new International Moderne style in vogue at the time. Though its steel-framed construction is hidden here by brickwork and stone, rather than the white cement often favoured, this was a consciously forward-looking, more democratic architecture shedding the detritus of the past.
Walthamstow Town Hall (now belonging to the Borough of Waltham Forest) probably has the best setting of any town hall in London – a grand civic complex fronted by sweeping lawns and a grand central pool and fountain. The Town Hall itself was commissioned by the new Borough of Walthamstow created in 1929 and designed by Phillip Hepworth in a stripped down classical style with Art Deco touches owing something to Scandinavian contemporaries.
Begun in 1937 and completed in wartime, these straitened circumstances led to some economising in fixtures and fittings but it remains an impressive building. Walk round the back to see five figures by Irish sculptor John Francis Kavanagh, inspired by local hero William Morris, and note the Borough Coat of Arms mosaic at the entrance (and elsewhere) with its motto taken Morris – ‘Fellowship is Life’. You’ll see this inscribed on the pediment of the Assembly Hall, contemporaneous, to the right. The Magistrates’ Courts to the left weren’t built until the 1970s.
All these buildings, in different ways, reflect perhaps the proudest and most progressive era of local government – seen most practically in the health centres, washhouses and baths and housing which I’ve written of elsewhere but manifested too in administrative headquarters intended to represent and mobilise a civic patriotism.
Some of that shine had rubbed off by the 1970s – an era of civic centres in which function outweighed form in terms of design. Harrow Civic Centre, despite a distinguished architectural pedigree – it was designed by Eric Broughton, the winner of an architectural competition judged by a panel including Sir Basil Spence and Sir Hugh Casson – is no exception in this respect. Opened in 1973, it’s essentially a Brutalist, checkerboarded concrete box built around a large central courtyard.
Now it’s due for demolition. According to Chief Executive, Michael Lockwood:
45 years ago, Harrow Council built this Civic Centre because local government was growing and workers needed a building to match. Today, with the cuts faced by every Council, local government is changing all around the country.
It’s proposed to relocate, in his words, ‘a smaller and more agile organisation’, in three new centres. Presentations on the regeneration scheme will be presented in the Council Chamber during Open House.
All that could stand as an epitaph for local government but the new Brent Civic Centre, opened in 2013 near Wembley Stadium lets us end on a positive note. Brent chose a different path; the centre unites Brent’s civic, public and administrative functions under a single roof – in the words of its designers Hopkins Architects, ‘a new hub and heart for the community where residents can meet, shop and eat’. The latter, of course, is another reflection of changed times and priorities and an ethos in which public service is at best complemented by commercial imperatives and, at worst, subordinated to them.
I haven’t seen it but it looks, to be fair, a rather stunning building and, since it houses a community hall and library as well as a civic chamber and offices for the 2000 employees who keep the borough’s services going, let’s celebrate it as a worthy update to the civic heritage this post records.
I could add much, much more. I’m conscious that I’ve not included the many schools which feature in Open House, nor the libraries, old and new. Those endeavours reflect the cultural ambitions and achievements of municipalism but I’ll conclude with a brief mention of examples of more prosaic but vital functions.
Two example of Hackney public baths feature, firstly the small but beautifully formed bath and washhouse on Shacklewell Road now the Bath House Children’s Community Centre, designed by Borough Architect Percival Holt in what’s described as Modernist Classical style, opened in 1931. It’s been converted as the name implies.
Four years later, Holt designed a grander Art Deco scheme in Hackney Wick. The former Gainsborough Road Baths are now the Cre8 Centre, a busy cultural and event space.
These provided slipper baths and laundries. Finsbury was again more ambitious. The Ironmonger Row Baths, designed by specialist architect AW Cross and opened in 1931, included those, two pools and then – unheard of luxury for working men and women – Turkish baths.
The Council believed ‘facilities for healthy recreation and personal cleanliness…essential for the health and well-being of our people’. The words speak to the best of service to community which local government has embodied.
Part One of our look at council housing featured in Open House London on the weekend of 17-18 September left us in the East End in Bethnal Green where a progressive Labour council had commissioned Denys Lasdun, one of the leading architects of the day, to design high-quality housing for its working people.
Moving westwards, we’ll begin this week’s post in another radical Labour stronghold and with the architect who probably brought the greatest political commitment to that task. Berthold Lubetkin famously declared – in relation to his celebrated design for the Finsbury Health Centre – that ‘nothing [was] too good for ordinary people’. His Spa Green Estate nearby, completed in 1949 and described by the Survey of London, not prone to hyperbole, as ‘heroic’ and by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time, also reflected that ideal.
Neither of these appear in Open House but two of Lubetkin’s schemes for the Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council – one of the most progressive in the capital – are featured. Bevin Court was opened in 1954; the Cold War having put paid to plans to name the building after Lenin (who had once lived on it site). Its innovative seven-story Y-shape capitalised on its site and ensured none of the flats faced north but, visually, its crowning glory is its central staircase. Visit to see that and the newly restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.
A few minutes’ walk to the north, you can also visit Lubetkin’s Priory Green Estate, completed three years later. It’s a much larger estate – 288 homes in seven large blocks but with similar attention paid to lay-out and landscaping and more striking, sculptural staircases. The Estate was transferred from Islington Borough Council, Finsbury’s successor after 1965, to Peabody in 1999 and, having fallen on hard times, has since been renovated with the aid of a £2m Heritage Lottery grant.
Our final example of Lubetkin’s work takes us back to Bethnal Green. The Cranbrook Estate was built between 1955 and 1966. With 529 homes in total – arranged in a geometric ensemble of six tower and five medium-rise blocks artfully diminishing in scale to the single-storey terrace of old people’s bungalows on the Roman Road – it is one and half times the size of le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. Lutbetkin’s biographer, John Allen, rightly describes it as a ‘stupendous tour de force’ and only detracts from that compliment by seeming to lament the ‘domestic intricacies of municipal housing’ which lie behind it. I’ll take those – as Lubetkin would – as, in fact, its crowning achievement.
Dawson’s Heights, in East Dulwich, literally crowns its dramatic hill-top setting, so much so that English Heritage (in a listing proposal rejected by the Secretary of State) was moved to almost lyrical praise of the scheme’s ‘striking and original massing’ and its ‘evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’. The Estate, two large ziggurat-style blocks designed to offer views and sunlight to each of their 296 flats, was built between 1968 and 1972 – an in-house design for Southwark Borough Council by Kate Macintosh then aged just 26. She’s alive and kicking and still a doughty defender of social housing and its social purpose.
Another estate which capitalises on its superb setting is the World’s End Estate, completed in 1977, set on the banks of the Thames across London in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms it comprises seven 18 to 21-storey tower blocks, joined in a figure of eight by nine four-storey walkway blocks but the whole, clad in warm-red brick, possesses a romantic, castellated appearance, providing great views within and without.
All this might seem a world away from the Gascoigne Estate in Barking, a sprawling 1960s estate with seventeen tower blocks, housing some 4000 people. It’s been a troubled and unpopular estate in recent years whose design and history might stand as representative of many much-criticised estates built in an era of mass rehousing when scale sometimes outpaced finesse. For all that, it’s been a home to many and it’s good to see – as a major regeneration scheme takes off – that history of community celebrated in the Open Estate Living Museum that features in this year’s Open House programme. I’m looking forward to finding out more.
If the Gascoigne Estate – demonised and stereotyped like so many so-called ‘problem estates’ – might be taken by some to represent the worst of a flawed era of public housing, two London boroughs – learning from mistakes made elsewhere – built some of this country’s finest council housing. The typically high-density but low- to medium-rise developments built after the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in 1968 represent the best of what public housing might have achieved in the longer-term had it been supported.
As Chief Architect for the new (post-65) Borough of Lambeth, Ted Hollamby had concluded that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’. Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments. They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’. His vision can be seen enacted in two very fine council estates on show during Open House.
Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973, is a stepped development designed to make best use of its attractive site but it reflects Lambeth and Hollamby’s signature style in its intimacy and human scale. It’s worked; it’s a well-loved estate with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, as part of Lambeth’s commendable pledge to build 1000 new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact, the threat of demolition.
All these council estates – like homes everywhere – require upkeep and maintenance (and too many have fallen prey to poor maintenance over the years) but ‘regeneration’ in this context means the destruction of good homes and the wiping out of existing communities. One driver of this madness is ‘densification’ – an ugly term to describe the ugly reality that many of our politicians and planners believe working-class homes must be built at greater density. The other is money or the lack of it – the pressure to sell council real estate and build private housing for sale in order to raise capital for social housing at best or so-called ‘affordable’ housing at worst.
The lunatic logic of this should be plain to all but those with a naïve faith or vested interest in the unfettered market – the very market which failed ordinary people in years past and fails us now.
The plans to wreak this havoc on Cressingham Gardens, one of Lambeth’s finest estates – described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’ – have already been approved, its residents still fighting valiantly a rearguard action. It’s a beautiful estate nestling on the edge of Brockwell Park which manages superbly, in Hollamby’s words again, to ‘create a sense of smallness inside the bigness…and to get the kind of atmosphere in which people did not feel all herded together’. It’s worth a visit and its residents deserve our support.
Across the capital, another progressive borough, Camden – under the enlightened leadership of Borough Architect Sydney Cook – had also developed its own striking house style. This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, another young architect then in his mid-twenties.
It’s a larger, grander scheme than those of Lambeth – in signature Camden style, six parallel linear stepped-section blocks of light pre-cast concrete construction and dark-stained timber. It was designed to be a ‘form of housing…which related more closely to the existing urban fabric than the slab and tower blocks, and which brought more dwellings close to the ground’. Each home had its own front door and a walk through the front door of 8 Stoneleigh Terrace during Open House will allow you to glimpse the innovative interior design of the housing too, chiefly the work of Ken Adie of the Council’s Department of Technical Services.
When you leave take time to visit a later stage of the Highgate New Town scheme along Dartmouth Park Hill, marking a turn away from the estate conception to streetscape and more in keeping with local vernacular form but still housing of the highest order. Finally, a view of the Chester-Balmore Scheme, built to Passivhaus standards to ensure the highest levels of sustainability, at the corner of Raydon Street and Chester Road opposite the Whittington Estate, will show you the very latest advances in social housing.
Aside from Cook, Camden’s superb council housing of this era is chiefly associated with Neave Brown, the only living architect to have had all his UK work officially listed. This year’s Open House features, the Dunboyne Road (formerly Fleet Road) Estate (no. 36 to be precise), designed by Brown in 1966 and finally completed in 1977. Its three white, stepped parallel blocks and now mature gardens provide a striking ensemble, noted by English Heritage in their 2010 Grade II listing for its ‘strong modernist aesthetic’ and a ‘simple, bold overall composition’ belying the scheme’s complexity and sophistication.
The other Brown scheme in Open House is generally judged one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, the Alexandra Road Estate, listed Grade II* in 1993. It’s better seen than described but, in its scale and confidence, it marks (in the words of modernist architect John Winter), ‘a magical moment for English housing’. Make sure to visit the recently renovated Alexandra Road Park and Tenants’ Hall (also featured in Open House), both integral to the design and original conception of the estate.
Alexandra Road was completed in 1979 – the year in which such high ambition would be consigned to the graveyard of history. It’s a sad irony that some of the very best of our council housing was built just as its near-century long story of practical idealism and shared social purpose was drawing to a close.
I hadn’t intended this tour of some of London’s finest council estates to be so elegiac but the contemporary picture of social housing’s marginalisation and market-driven ‘regeneration’ creates a poignant counterpoint to the energy and aspirations of previous generations. If you visit any of the estates on show during Open House London, my plea to you is to think of them not as monuments to a bygone era but as beacons of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.
The residents of Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens both have active campaigns fighting to preserve their homes and communities. See Save Central Hill and Save Cressingham Gardens to find out more and lend your support.
SHOUT (Social Housing under Threat) has its own website and is actively campaigning to defend social housing and promote it as the best and necessary solution to our housing crisis.