Last week’s post left Speke, in the 1960s, a thriving community. It would be easy now to focus on its decline and later troubles, to lapse into the language of ‘failure’ that has been affixed so readily to it and other council estates with its implication of some Original Sin, some fatal flaw of conception and planning but, in fact, the Estate has been a good home to many people over time.
The McCartney family were early residents. Paul spent his early years in 72 Western Avenue and then at 12 Ardwick Road in Speke. The Harrisons lived in a tiny terraced house with outside toilet in Wavertree until, in 1950, they and George moved to a brand new council house at 25 Upton Green, Speke. (You can read more about the childhood homes of the Beatles in an earlier blog post.)
Their success story could hardly be typical but plenty of others look back to these years fondly. You’ll find many of these recollections on the community forums but I’ll begin with one example – from ‘Gillian’ who thought she had better write something or else risk collapsing in ‘floods of sentimental tears’: (1)
My family moved to Speke 1950; from what they had moved from this was luxury. My sister Agnes told me about everything being new, hot running water, toilets inside, the only downside to this paradise was for a while was it was a building site, very, very muddy. In time things changed but it was very much a community, groups and activities were formed. OK, there wasn’t enough schools but other arrangements were made.
She remembers spending time at what passed for the local beach on the Mersey shoreline at Oglet. She recalls her own childhood home, a small block of flats ‘with their three floors of landings and stairs [which] had been brushed and scrubbed and neatly finished off with whiter than white edges and front doorsteps’.
Another correspondent, resident in Speke for over forty years describes it as ‘a great place to live in the 60s and some of the early 70s’. But, in a common refrain, he’d ‘seen it change over the years’: (2)
It used to be a lovely place to live…
I lived by the Park when I was younger and it was a lovely park. There were bowling greens, tennis courts, the lads could play football.
It was a good area for employment when I was younger…
You won’t miss the elegiac tone in those comments, something more than a typical nostalgia for younger days. Those comments contain their own codas: ‘a lovely place to live…Yes, about ten or fifteen years ago’; ‘a good area for employment…and now there is nothing’.
Speke did suffer from the outset from its location some seven miles from the city centre. The 45-minute bus ride wasn’t too much of an issue so long as the Estate was, as planned, relatively ‘self-contained’ and economically self-sufficient but that isolation – that sense of ‘an enclave surrounded entirely by the barrier of roads, fields, the airport runway and the River Mersey’ later proved a problem.
The major problem, though, was the collapse of a once vibrant local economy. Between 1978 and 1985, Liverpool as a whole lost 40,000 jobs but Speke was particularly hard hit. British Leyland had opened its Speke Number Two Plant in 1970. Industrial relations were poor and the TR7 unsuccessful. The closure of the plant and 3000 redundancies were announced in 1978. Dunlop announced the closure of its Speke factory with the loss of 2400 jobs in 1979.
Eddie Loyden, the local Labour MP, estimated 8000 jobs lost in his constituency in two years: (3)
If one recalls the dream of the post-war period that Merseyside would develop alternative industries to deal with the decline in the docks, in transport and in warehousing, upon which the city had depended for so long, one can see the serious problem on Merseyside.
Loyden would lose his seat to the Conservatives in 1979 and the first attempt to revive Speke’s fortunes was signature Thatcherism – the creation of the Speke Enterprise Zone in 1981. Enterprise Zones offered tax breaks and infrastructure incentives to private companies to relocate to areas of high unemployment.
In Speke, however, the (more or less) free market failed to work its magic – not a single company opened in the Speke Airport Enterprise Zone. As one later observer noted: (4)
Even with the tax incentives nobody wanted to come here – the place still looked awful, still felt awful, still performed really poorly…The area was extremely unwell, almost terminally ill, and the [Enterprise Zone] was like a couple of paracetamol.
The creation of the Merseyside Development Corporation in 1981 was a small boost but, in Speke, nothing much happened until the formation of the Speke Garston Development Corporation in 1996, a joint initiative between the North West Development Agency and Liverpool City Council benefiting from some £14m government funding. (5)
Economic regeneration efforts have continued. Liverpool Vision – an economic development company (the first Urban Regeneration Company established in England) – was established in 1999 and from 2008 has funded the redevelopment of Speke’s district centre. The arrival of Morrisons, Iceland and TK Maxx, alongside smaller retailers, mark the retail successes now taken as an essential marker of economic well-being.
Overall, it’s reckoned that 20,000 jobs have been created locally by the late 2000s though many of these were in the new biopharmaceutical and biomanufacturing sectors – skilled employment in an area where, only a few years earlier, 43 per cent of people had classified themselves as unskilled. (6) The success of Jaguar Land Rover’s Halewood plant just across Speke Boulevard, with its workforce of around 4200, is a welcome boost to more traditional working-class employment in the area – a further £130m extension was announced in January this year. (7) Printing firms Prinovis and Communisis are also providing good jobs to local people. (8)
In reality, none of this is easy. It’s true that earlier and more direct interventions by the local and national state created substantial employment in Speke’s early years (boosted by the war and post-war prosperity) into the 1970s. But, despite the vigorous efforts of the local labour movement to retain jobs, globalisation (abetted by neoliberalism) has taken its toll on this generation of industry and has created an unemployed working class ill-fitted to the new high-tech industries. Call centres – aided by the perceived friendliness of the Scouse accent – sprang up in Speke in the 1990s and, no doubt, more zero-hours, unskilled jobs have been created since. (9)
Meanwhile, an estate which had once catered for a disproportionately (and relatively) affluent Liverpool working-class – those in work who could be reliably expected to pay above-average council rents – was now one of the poorest areas of the city, indeed of the country. In 2000 it was the judged the second most deprived ward in England; only Benchill in Wythenshawe fared worse. In 2002, average household income was £5000 below the city average. Those statistics reflected the high unemployment in Speke (in 2001 over 8 per cent of the ‘economically active’ were unemployed compared to the national average of 3.4 per cent) and the high level of sickness and disability (almost 17 per cent; over three times the national average).
This was an indication of both the economic tsunami which had befallen Speke in particular and the more general transition of council housing since the 1970s to housing for the least well-off of our society. In Speke itself around 46 per cent of homes remained social rented but that term denotes another shift – from ‘Corpy’ houses to housing association, largely the result of a large-scale voluntary transfer of stock from the Council to South Liverpool Housing in 1999.
Urban regeneration (as opposed to economic) has affected Speke too. As the population fell and unsightly voids rose, some housing was ‘tinned up’ and then demolished (which added its own sense of blight for a period) in the late 1980s, some unpopular maisonette blocks were ‘top-downed’, and some new housing built. The scheme announced by South Liverpool Homes in 2012 offers a cameo of this new world – 110 ‘residential units’ in all: 66 for ‘affordable rent’, 16 for shared ownership and 28 for private sale. (10) In this case, it is perhaps not so far from the founding vision of Speke as a township ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’.
The difficulties of social engineering through housing design and tenure are well illustrated by the story of the Dymchurch Estate, built earlier on the western edge of Speke to accommodate predominantly older people. The Estate’s closed court, Radburn-style layout proved unpopular and its homes were increasingly allocated to young and transient single people: ‘the flats became notorious for drug abuse and giro drops’. (11)
For a time Dymchurch was judged locally to the worst part of Speke (the Liverpool Housing Trust has led later regeneration efforts) but the Estate’s residents had become to a more generalised stigmatisation – the taxi-drivers who would refuse to drive to the area were typically the most visible element of this. Paddy Ashdown, then Liberal Democrat leader, visited in 1998 (presumably he didn’t need a taxi) and likened Speke to Sarajevo, then in the throes of civil war.
That was a gross caricature as one resident commented: (12)
Speke is not Sarajevo; Speke is quite a nice estate. The only problem is that you have people, who come flying in here, there and everywhere who actually don’t live on the estate, nor can they see the potential of what is going to happen over the next few years.
And indeed much has happened since then. I won’t privilege my own flying visit over the knowledge and experience of local residents who I invite to add their own impressions but the Estate looked fine to me, its housing in good nick, not visibly depressed and with very little evidence of vandalism and anti-social behaviour and certainly none out of the ordinary. New schools, a new library, a revived shopping centre look to have lifted the Estate and, of course, it continues to offer decent homes to many.
The story of Speke continues. The story to date is, unavoidably perhaps, of high ambition only partially or perhaps briefly fulfilled – a reminder that we need an economy that works for people as much as those people need good, affordable housing.
(1) This quote from 2012 and the following from 2014 are from the Speke Guestbook.
(2) The following quotes are drawn from David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’ in Ronaldo Munck (ed), Reinventing the City?: Liverpool in Comparative Perspective (2003)
(3) Eddie Loyden, House of Commons Debate, Dunlop Plant, Speke (Closure), 26 March 1979
(4) Rob Monaghan (Liverpool Vison) quoted in London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Enterprise Zones: Only One Piece of the Economic Regeneration Puzzle (July 2012)
(5) Thomas Ellerton, Exploring the impact of New Labour urban regeneration policy at the local scale: the implications of an approach to ‘joining-up’ on the coordination of urban regeneration, University of Sheffield PhD thesis (April 2014)
(6) Pavan Mehta, The Impact of Urban Regeneration on Local Housing Markets – A Case Study of Liverpool (ND)
(7) Alistair Houghton, ‘Jaguar Land Rover Extending Halewood in £130m Investment‘, Liverpool Echo, 30 January 2017
(8) My thanks to Kenn Taylor whose comment above pointed me to this positive detail.
(9) Linda Grant, ‘Calm Yourself Down’, The Guardian, 10 July 1999
(10) Homes and Communities Agency, Speke Regeneration Liverpool (November 2013)
(11) Liverpool Housing Trust quoted in David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’
(12) Quoted in David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’