Sydney Cook had been appointed Holborn Borough Architect in 1947, as we saw in last week’s post, but the borough – densely built up and from 1949 securely back under Conservative control – gave him few opportunities to shine, so far as housing was concerned at least. This post looks at the smaller housing schemes that were possible before examining the later history of Holborn’s council housing in the London Borough of Camden created in 1965.
One rare opportunity for a larger housing development, however, did exist – on Red Lion Square which had been heavily bombed during the war. Plans for Culver and Brampton Houses – five and six storey blocks squeezed into the south-east corner of the square – were approved in 1952. The steel-frame construction was concealed by a light brick facing – now overpainted in an eye-catching lilac – with private and access balconies (to the rear) in a contrasting white. Existing frontage lines were retained: (1)
to retain the enclosure of the Square as an existing open space, but daylighting angles dictated the siting of Culverhouse which is set back from Princeton-street, and in order to preserve as great a sense of space as possible this block has been built upon ‘stilts’, leaving the basement area open.
Other infill schemes were fitted into smaller sites. The modest five-storey block at 37-39 Great Ormond Street, completed in 1952, made it into the pages of The Builder – just 10 flats in total (four one-bed and six bedsits) with a ‘small area to the rear laid out as a rock garden with terrace’. Winston House, a six-storey block on Endsleigh Street, followed in the later 1950s. (2)
Hyltons on Red Lion Street – a three-storey mixed commercial and residential development; a scaled-down version of the earlier Red Lion Square scheme – was completed in 1955 with Beaconsfield, a six-storey block adjacent, shortly after. Three ten- and twelve-storey blocks dotted around the small borough followed in the late 1950s and early 1960s – Langdon House in Hatton Garden and Laystall Court and Mullen Tower in Mount Pleasant. (3)
Beckley, a sixties’ scheme at the corner of Eagle Street and Dane Street south of Red Lion Square, was designed by John Green who followed Cook to Camden where he became his no. 2 (his ‘Mr Fix-it’) and Acting Director on his departure. (4)
All these small schemes squeezed into the interstices of Holborn’s dense urban fabric are a reminder of how council housing provided genuinely affordable accommodation for working-class people in central London in the past – and how much it is needed in the present.
In Frank Dobson’s affectionate remembrance of Cook (Dobson was leader of Camden Council from 1973 to 1975 and MP for Holborn and St Pancras from 1979 to 2015), these were ‘’small infill sites that both fitted the street scene and suited the tenants’: (5)
Then and when he later worked for Camden, his profound commitment to quality homes for all was combined with a quiet and apparently tentative demeanour.
There was no scope in Holborn for the extensive low-rise, high-density housing that Cook was to favour in Camden after 1965 but Cook, now aged 55, was appointed Borough Architect and the new borough provided him a fertile terrain for the architectural style and quality that became his hallmark. It was, for one thing, a comparatively wealthy borough – the third richest in London – due in part at least to the business rates paid in Holborn. It was also a politically ambitious and progressive borough which had identified council housing as a key priority. Of the 34 Labour councillors that formed the majority in the newly-elected council, none came from Holborn but – as others have commented – Holborn’s money, St Pancras’s radicalism and Hampstead’s brains provided a politically potent combination.
For a full understanding of Cook’s work in housing in Camden, read Mark Swenarton’s superb book (noted below in the sources) or read some of my earlier posts. In the remainder of this post I’ll concentrate on the afterlife of some of the earlier Holborn schemes. (6)
One early controversy arose through the rent rises imposed by the Conservative Government’s 1972 Housing Finance Act. Alf Barrett – the chair of the Tybalds Close Tenants Association, a former member of the Communist Party who had left the party to take up tenants’ activism – led a rent strike in 1975. (7)
Right to Buy and the near cessation of newbuild in the 1980s of course wrought its own damage. The central London locations and quality of Holborn’s council housing made it particularly vulnerable. A flat in 37-39 Great Ormond Street sold for £500,000 in 2015; another was available for rent when I visited – over 40 percent of Camden homes lost to Right to Buy are now privately let. (8)
Affordable housing has always been in short supply in London in particular and that created tensions in the 1980s. When in 1986 Camden Council moved to evict a resident of the Tybalds Estate who had failed to notify it of the death of his mother (his mother had been the legal tenant; he had moved back to the home after the break-up of his marriage), a major protest ensued; some 200 tenants disrupted a council meeting, chanting ‘Labour Out’ and singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. (9)
As that might suggest, at this time the question of council house allocations had become uneasily confused – in some eyes at least – with the rights of ethnic minority members to council homes as strictly needs-based allocations increasingly superseded local connection policies. That controversy was exacerbated by what some in the white working-class community saw as a council whose progressive policies on race favoured those in ethnic minorities. Alf Barrett complained:
All we hear is the amount of racism in the borough. The streets of Camden are not running with blood. You are placing ethnic minorities on a pedestal so that you can knock them down.
Barrett stood unsuccessfully as a ‘Tenants Rep’ [sic] in the local elections that followed on a platform that reflects the fraught housing politics of the time: (10)
The Government threaten to sell off whole estates to property developers and the Council have done nothing about it … The present council have taken away the right of people born in Holborn by saying ‘it doesn’t matter where you are born’. This is rubbish, and I intend to fight it … People must take their turn on the waiting list irrespective of where they come from.
A report by Council officers in 1987 accused tenants’ associations (TAs) of excluding ‘blacks, gays, lesbians and young people’ and specifically stated, no doubt with the previous years’ protest in mind, that ‘people purporting to represent the Tybalds Close estate were racist and sexist and these views were expressed in the council chamber’. The report drew its own rebuttal from a local councillor who condemned the blanket criticism: (11)
The possibility that TA members might have some positive contribution to make in the fight against racism and they may already be doing some serious anti-racist work seems not to have occurred to the authors of this report.
I – as a white male removed in time and place from the original controversies – am not going to adjudicate on the rights and wrongs here. The simple conclusion is that housing scarcity creates tensions that should be avoidable. Alf Barrett himself ran a local youth football club and campaigned to improve housing provision for young couples and the single homeless in the borough so is very far from the pantomime villain of the piece. His housing activism is commemorated in the naming of the Alf Barrett Playground on Old Gloucester Street close to the Tybalds Estate.
Later, these high emotions subsided and the concerns of Tybalds Estate residents came to revolve around more mundane problems (though real and significant to those affected) such as ‘dog nuisance’, vandalism and general upkeep. Unusually for the time perhaps, three full-time caretakers remained on the premises and the Council addressed some of the concerns at least by installing the first entryphone system in the Blemendsbury block. Others followed. (12)
More recent housing controversy has centred on the issue of regeneration. Modernisation and improvement of ageing council homes and estates after a long period of neglect is, of course, necessary and worthwhile. But the practice – all too often shaped by public-private partnerships and often involving the loss of social housing for homes at so-called affordable rent or private sale – has been highly contentious.
In Holborn, two contrasting estates were slated for regeneration: the Edwardian Bourne Estate and post-war Tybalds Estate. Planners noted that both were ‘in highly sought-after central London locations’, highly beneficial when it came to ‘funding the schemes through the sale of a small proportion of private sale units’.
Another shared characteristic was the aim, reflecting the current conventional wisdom that estates as such are somehow problematic: (13)
to reconnect the estates with surrounding areas and to respond more sensitively to their historic contexts, while maximising the amount of affordable housing.
The original plans for the Tybalds Estate proposed 93 new homes, 45 of which would have been council homes. The current plan, under consultation, projects 23 new homes, 17 of which will be council homes – a ‘mews’ scheme, one new block and some underbuild at Falcon. That detail is probably a little hard to decipher on the image below but it can be found online. (14)
On the Bourne Estate, 31 of the new flats form part of the Camden Collection described on the council’s marketing website as ‘an exciting selection of private sale and private rent developments in London, delivered by the London Borough of Camden’. Two-bedroom flats are on sale for £1.3 million; in return it’s been possible to fund 35 new council flats and 10 at ‘intermediate’ (below market) rents. (15)
I’ve severe misgivings about such public-private partnerships – this is a relatively benign example – but what does seem clear is that here ‘densification’ (the use of existing publicly-owned land, existent estates usually, to increase housing stock) has been applied with skill and sensitivity. At the Bourne Estate extension, opened in March 2018, where the new blocks of 75 homes were designed by architect Matthew Lloyd, the architectural commentator Oliver Wainwright writes that: (16)
the buildings exude a quality rarely found in developer-built flats – handsome proportions and crafted details mirroring the love and care that went into the surrounding estate, only brought up-to-date with bigger windows, higher ceilings and more generous spaces.
That bravura is not possible at the Tybalds Estate though the overall project as envisaged in 2013 has won awards for its master-planning and brings additional benefits of improved public realm and an increase in community space. Alex Ely, partner at mæ, has praised the council for ’their dedication to design, [building] on Camden’s excellent heritage from the Sydney Cook era’. (17)
It’s good to be writing about council housing as something other than heritage and a proud past. Camden has a 15-year Community Investment Programme planned to invest over £1 billion into schools, community facilities and some 3000 new homes, half at social and intermediate rent. It remains – even in these desperate times for local government – a relatively wealthy borough.
But it’s also obvious and necessary to draw the contrast with that past. In Holborn, council homes were built at scale even in the relative poverty of the Edwardian era and more so in the genuine austerity of the early post-Second World period. We understood then that such spending was not a cost but a value – a cost-effective, cost-saving investment in personal and community well-being. I’m grateful for the crumbs but the historical record shows what more could be achieved just as the present housing crisis shows how much more is needed.
(1) ‘Flats at Red Lion Square, Holborn, The Builder, July 8 1955
(2) ‘Flats at 37-39 Great Ormond Street, WC1’, The Builder, August 7 1953
(3) For details of the Holborn schemes, see the University of Edinburgh’s Tower Block website.
(4) Mark Swenarton, personal communication,
(5) Frank Dobson quoted in Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2017) – the definitive account of Cook’s later career in Camden.
(6) My posts ‘Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing’, ‘The Whittington Estate, Camden’ and successor posts, ‘The Branch Hill Estate, Camden’ and the ‘The Alexandra Road Estate, Camden’.
(7) See ‘Tenants’ Leader who made the Council Quake. Alf Barratt dies at 60’, Camden New Journal, 2 August 1990 (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: Fiche 75.1 Alf Barratt)
(8) Tom Copley, Right to Buy: Wrong for London The impact of Right to Buy on London’s social housing (London Assembly Labour, January 2019)
(9) See St Pancras Chronicle, 21 March 1986 (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.841 Fiche Tybalds Close Tenants Association)
(10) Leaflet for local elections May 8th (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.89 Ephemera File Tybalds Close Estate)
(11) ‘Tenants “Wrongly Accused” on Race’, Camden New Journal, ND but 1987 (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.69 Tybalds Close Estate.
(12) ‘Estate Agreement for Tybalds Close Estate, April 1991’ (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre: 60.69 TYB) and Camden Council Press Release, ‘Unique Security System Televise to Camden Tenants’, 14 December 1991
(13) Tom Lloyd, ‘Quality Streets’, Inside Housing, 6 June 2013
(14) Camden Council, ‘Tybalds Regeneration Programme – Information Page‘, 30 October 2019
(15) Oliver Wainwright, ‘Council housing: it’s back, it’s booming – and this time it’s beautiful’, The Guardian, 20 January 2019 and the Camden Collection website
(16) Oliver Wainwright, ‘Council housing: it’s back, it’s booming – and this time it’s beautiful’
(17) ‘Holborn estate regeneration plans triumph at London Architecture Awards’, architectsdatafile, 2 August 2013