Barnet’s Dollis Valley Estate, completed in 1970, is an estate of two halves. Its southern section comprises two-storey housing opening onto the green open space that fringes the Dollis Brook. Its larger, northern section, on higher ground towards Chipping Barnet, is made up of predominantly five-storey blocks of flats and maisonettes. This part of the estate is now subject to a major scheme of regeneration and, typically, it’s one that increases the number of housing units whilst overseeing a net loss of social rent homes.
But we’ll begin the story by looking at a time when councils were ambitious to increase council housing. In fact, the area’s very first council homes had been built in 1911 by Barnet Urban District Council on Mays Lane. It was the council’s sewage works, just to the south, that on closure decades later, supplied the site of the new council estate developed by the new and much expanded London Borough of Barnet after 1965.
This new Barnet (formed of the Urban District Councils of Barnet, East Barnet and Friern Barnet and Finchley and Hendon Borough Councils) was firmly under Conservative control – the 2022 local elections were the first to return a Labour majority – but the council pursued an energetic housing programme reflecting not only the political priorities of the time but Barnet’s position as an expanding London borough. The fullest illustration of the latter was seen in the large Grahame Park Estate developed in conjunction with the Greater London Council in the 1970s.
The Dollis Valley Estate was a wholly Barnet scheme but one that, in housing terms, leant heavily on the contractors promoting the system-built forms heavily promoted in the 1960s. Borough Architect Bernard Bancroft devised the layout which was purposefully designed to exploit and enhance existing landscape features. The first element of this was the reclamation and landscaping of brownfield land next to Dollis Brook, forming new public open space and walks (the Dollis Valley Greenwalk and London Loop both traverse the area).
The lower part of the estate, adjoining this open space, comprised 192 three-bed, two storey houses laid out in a way that fully capitalised, particularly at the southern edge, on their green surrounds. As Barnet Civic News, the council’s newsletter, explained: (1)
The layout has also been designed to give a high degree of segregation of the vehicle from the pedestrian, all dwellings being accessible from footpaths laid out in areas of landscaped open space. Unlike most housing estates, the footpaths do not adjoin the roads.
In other words, a semi-Radburn arrangement in which homes looked out to green open space with vehicles confined to rear service roads. The concept took its name from Radburn in New Jersey which had been designed as ‘a town for the motor age’ in 1920s America. The Dollis Valley Estate reflected 1960s British affluence and new planning guidelines that required ‘car parking for every family with an additional 10% for casual visitors’. To this end, the estate – 613 homes in all – provided parking for 670 cars, most in garages, some under the five-storey blocks, and some in ‘motor courts’ between the five-storey blocks. (Underground parking, beloved of 1960s’ planners, generally proved problematic in the longer term; the ‘motor courts’ were and look just like car parks.)
The bulk of the estate rose to the north, mostly in those five-storey blocks which (alongside some lower blocks) contained a mix of two- and three-bed maisonettes and one-bed flats. The estate also featured around 30 warden-assisted ‘aged persons’ flatlets’ and a block of six shops. The Civic News thought, in a nod perhaps to growing disquiet over high-rise housing, ‘one of the more interesting features of the development is that out of the total number of dwellings, 423 will have their own front door at ground level’.
This ‘mixed development’ was typical of post-war estates but another feature of the Dollis Valley Estate reflected the new priorities of the mass housing drive of the 1960s when central government heavily promoted system building as a means of building council housing at scale more quickly and efficiently; in 1964, the incoming Labour government proposed that 40 percent of local authority output should use such methods. Councils were incentivised to fall into line and, for the moment, system building retained its cachet as a modern, technological means of tackling a universally acknowledged housing crisis.
Barnet, in line with other local authority members of the London Housing Group, West Area consortium, adopted the Camus system. The Civic News provided a fulsome description: (2)
The Camus system of industrialized building, which originated in France and is now being used all over Europe, relies on constructing dwellings with the least number of Components. These Components are mainly pre-cast concrete and will be manufactured in a factory at Brimsdown in Enfield. All Components will be brought to the site in a finished state and assembled to form the completed buildings. Such items as windows will be pre-painted and pre-glazed and all electrical services will be cast in during manufacture … Components will be brought on the site only when they are needed and ready to be hoisted by crane into their final positions.
The News made clear that the ‘ultimate advantage’ of the system, ‘other than saving in manpower and factory-built components of greater accuracy and better finish’, was ‘the speed in the erection and completion’ – it was reckoned that new homes would be completed at the rate of eleven per week.
In numerical terms, this seems to have been accurate. A ‘Council Housing Progress Report’ in March 1969 stated the Borough’s existing contracts and new tenders would provide 1326 new homes by mid-1970, many of these in Dollis Valley due for completion that year. (3)
By December 1971, the Council’s inherited and augmented council housing stock totalled 15,907. Such was the borough’s relatively healthy housing situation that it agreed to rehouse 200 households nominated by the Greater London Council – an agreement marking, according to Barnet’s Medical Officer of Health, ‘the Council’s desire to make a significant contribution to the housing problems of the more hard-pressed Inner London Boroughs’. (4)
Without, I think, rose-hued hindsight, this seems a time of optimism and progress. And yet by the early 2000s, Barnet Council looked at its larger council estates less as achievement, more as failure. This was an ideologically right-wing Conservative council in the throes of outsourcing all its services to a supposedly more efficient and cost-effective private sector (that didn’t go too well) but, in all honesty, the analysis it applied to council housing was echoed by other London councils too.
In its policy document, Housing Strategy, 2010-2015, the Council stated: (5)
Our estate regeneration schemes will see the dismantling of our largest mono-tenure council estates which have proved to be unpopular and limiting in terms of opportunities for residents living on them. These failing post-war estates, Grahame Park, West Hendon, Stonegrove/Spur Road and Dollis Valley, will be replaced by mixed tenure estates with new social housing, but also opportunities for entry-level and market home ownership.
Much here mirrored the criticisms of council estates that were widespread. There was the claim, originating in the New Right politics of the 1980s, that council housing promoted not security for its residents but a limiting dependency. The belief that mixed tenure and ‘mixed community’ (estates were, of course, already mixed communities) – often, more crudely, just a desire to import middle-class residents – would ‘lift’ estates. And there was an assumption that the problems that some estates undoubtedly faced lay in the form of the estates themselves rather than the damage done to them and their residents by wider economic circumstance.
In its Dollis Valley Estate Vision Statement published in 2005, the Council had been more explicit: (6)
Why regeneration? The Estate has been declining for many years, and it has been considered important that the regeneration proposals should not be only limited to the physical regeneration of the area. Consultation with residents and stakeholders has identified a number of key issues that need to be addressed: • the poor quality of the built environment • the isolation of the area from the surrounding neighbourhood • single vehicle access and poor transport links • economic deprivation and social exclusion • low educational achievement and attainment • run down local shops • fear of crime.
There are various issues here but, in my opinion, the latter few relate far more to the policy choices made around council housing since the later 1970s than anything specific to the Dollis Valley Estate. Right to buy and severe limitations on newbuild reduced council housing stock and, combined with a legislative priority given understandably to those in greatest need in a wider context of working-class unemployment or precarious and low-paid employment, led to council estates increasingly housing a poorer or more disadvantaged population – residualisation was the sociological term applied.
In general, to the best of my knowledge, the much-vaunted Camus system stood up reasonably well but, of course, there was some inevitable obsolescence. More specifically, as concerns over the structural soundness and safety of various large panel systems of prefabrication surfaced once more, an investigation into the robustness of the Dollis Valley blocks found a number of causes for concern. It concluded bluntly that ‘the 5-storey blocks and the 3-storey blocks are considered to be inadequately robust and fail all of the assessment criterion’ (sic). (7)
In reality, this condemnation and verdict that the blocks were beyond economic repair provided a cover for decisions already made. Regeneration, in its typical modern form, was already underway. And it included some positive benefits – an enhanced bus service; new, more sustainable homes (built to EcoHomes Standard, Code Level 4, and to Lifetime Homes Standards); some employment and training opportunities for local people; and improved landscaping that – addressing apparent problems – adhered to ‘Secure by Design guidelines’.
The consortium overseeing the scheme – development company Countryside Properties (now just Countryside), the London Borough of Barnet, and L & Q (formally a housing association but better understood currently as a property developer) – also headlined the 631 new homes to be built.
The Greater London Authority (GLA), granted some planning oversight over such schemes, was more honest in its accounting. The proposals entailed: (8)
the demolition of the existing 363 dwellings [the three- and five-storey blocks], all of which are social rented, i.e. affordable, and their replacement with 250 affordable (comprising 230 rented and 20 intermediate rented) units, representing 40% of present affordable housing. Another 381 homes would be available for sale on the open market. In this instance, therefore, there would be a net loss of 113 affordable units on the Dollis Valley Estate.
The GLA was not minded to intervene, however, taking the view that ‘the prevailing circumstances of the site and the existing and on-stream housing supply present a compelling case for the creation of a more mixed and balanced community with supporting social facilities’.
In this context, Alison Brooks Architects, who have provided, in their words, the ‘transformational masterplan’ for the regenerated estate, have sought to reconnect: (9)
the estate into the wider Barnet neighbourhood with a clear network of streets and garden squares. A predominant character of two and three-storey terraced houses with private gardens, shared communal gardens, a community centre, nursery and tree-lined avenues offers a contemporary reinterpretation of the archetypal London Garden Suburb.
It’s both a backward-looking and very contemporary vision of how housing should be. It will, understandably, appeal to many. At a simple level, it reflects the fact that if money is invested in the form and appearance of an estate, it should come out looking better; all the more so, when the estate in question has suffered (more or less) managed decline.
The most controversial omission – at a time when something over 300,000 households in London are on social housing waiting lists – is not to at least replace in full the social rent homes lost through demolition. This is a choice created by a financial regime predicated on public-private partnership and cross-subsidy – developers require profits, social housing must apparently depend on those profits rather than direct public investment. The marginalisation of social housing is, therefore, both cause and effect. As our story shows, it wasn’t always this way.
My thanks to Barnet Libraries Local Studies and Archives for making the copies of Barnet Civic News available.
(1) Barnet Civic News, August/September 1967
(2) Barnet Civic News, August/September 1967. The capitalised ‘Components’ appear in the original.
(3) Barnet Civic News, June/July 1969
(4) Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, 1971
(5) Quoted in Paul Watt, Estate Regeneration and Its Discontents: Public Housing, Place and Inequality in London (Policy Press, Bristol, 2021)
(6) London Borough of Barnet, Dollis Valley Estate Vision Statement, February 2005
(7) Ridge and Partners, Dollis Valley Structural Robustness Assessment Report Barnet Homes, January 2019
(8) GLA planning report D&P/2954b/02 10 July 2013 Dollis Valley Estate in the London Borough of Barnet planning application no. B/00354/13
(9) Arcello, Dollis Valley Estate Regeneration (2013)