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A history of council housing in 10 buildings

From the first ever council estate in Shoreditch, to Ernő Goldfinger's privatised masterpiece, these buildings represent one of the most important struggles of our times – the drive for decent housing for all. 

Verso Books21 May 2019

A history of council housing in 10 buildings

Traversing the nation, Municipal Dreams offers an architectural tour of some of the best and most remarkable of our housing estates. To celebrate the release of this book in paperback, we look at ten of the most significant buildings in the history of UK council housing.

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is out now.

1. The Boundary Estate, Bethnal Green

This is the Boundary Estate, Britain’s first council estate, opened in 1900. It remains a small working-class redoubt but around 40 per cent of its homes were purchased under Right to Buy and most of those later sold on. The defences of this little island of social housing have been breached, firstly by gentrification and, more recently, by corporate money. New battle- lines are drawn out along Calvert Avenue, between the surviving old-fashioned corner shops and community laundry on the one hand and the boutique coffee shops, organic grocery and artisan workshops on the other.

Once the area was a place the wealthier classes avoided. Boundary Passage, a narrow walkway leading off the High Street to the rear of the estate, gives just a hint of something more dangerous. In the nineteenth century it led to the Old Nichol, the most notorious of London’s slum quarters. In 1863, the Illustrated London News had described the area as nothing ‘but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth and poverty’. Later, even Charles Booth, who sought to bring detached statistical rigour to his charting of Victorian social conditions, delineated it as of the ‘lowest class; vicious, semi-criminal’.

It’s accomplished work, Grade II listed in fact, and good- quality housing. If you walk down nearby Brick Lane, you’ll see one of the two-bed flats advertised for rent. It’s expensive – £2,145 a month – but then, as the agent says, it’s so ‘perfect for a professional looking to be close to the City’.

2. Barville Close, Honor Oak Estate, Lewisham

Any housing history worth its name should pay as much attention to the tenement blocks that predominate in inner London and feature prominently in the council housing stock of our other large cities as it does to the various schemes judged in some way ‘iconic’. That said, these four-, usually five-, sometimes six- (where maisonettes formed the top two floors) storey blocks are, by definition, unremarkable. The five- storey norm was judged the maximum possible for housewives carrying shopping or managing children or their menfolk carrying coal. Most were balcony-access – that is, homes were reached along a shared balcony, usually to the rear, itself approached by a single shared, ‘walk-up’ staircase. In general, the desire to build cheaply at affordable rents and at scale precluded grander architectural designs.

The Honor Oak Estate in Lewisham can be taken as representative. The estate today, subject to a plethora of improving initiatives in recent years, looks good. Its refurbished neo- Georgian-style blocks are set among well-maintained green open spaces with new children’s play areas – decent housing showing little sign of its troubled origins and later turbulence.

When construction began in 1932, it was, first and foremost, a slum clearance estate, built to house 725 households displaced by slum clearance and 378 moved through overcrowding. Len White, a member of a Pacifist Service Unit drafted to the estate in 1941, characterised (not unkindly but with an outsider’s middle-class perspective) the tenants, having ‘lived narrow and circumscribed lives in their old environment’, as ‘deeply conservative and ill-fitted to adapt themselves to new conditions’, conditions made more difficult by the estate’s isolated location and lack of facilities.

The new tenants were also predominantly low paid and often casually employed. How could council house rents be made affordable to those whom local government now had a duty to rehouse? The solution of the LCC was to reduce standards. One block of so-called ‘Modified Type A’ flats had baths placed in their kitchen. Four blocks of the ‘Modified Type B’ flats shared bathrooms. The latter were around one-fifth cheaper to build, with rents reduced to match. As such, they represented, the LCC felt, ‘a successful endeavour to provide suitable hygienic accommodation for the poorer classes at a substantially lower rent than that charged for accommodation of the “normal type”’.

This ‘success’, turning back the clock forty years, was not widely celebrated, and one of the first actions of the incoming Labour administration in 1934 (the party would retain its control of the LCC until its abolition in 1965) was to abandon such penny-pinching. Conversely, the new administration understood that, if multi-storey accommodation was a necessary response to inner-city circumstances (as its own policy group had concluded), it needed to be made more attractive and more desirable to its potential tenants.

3. The Lawn, Harlow

If you visit Harlow your abiding impression might well be of its suburban ordinariness, yet Frederick Gibberd – Harlow’s master planner and by now a preeminent figure in the British architectural and planning Establishment – had in fact commissioned a number of leading modernist architects to develop some of the New Town’s housing schemes. He had also designed – and inserted against some opposition – Britain’s first residential high-rise block, The Lawn, in 1951. It’s a teeny ten- storey point block that actually nestles comfortably into its wooded suburban setting – a meek harbinger of the tumultuous and controversial phase that was to come.

In these far more jaded times, the failure of the more utopian hopes surrounding the New Towns will seem unsurprising, although many would applaud precisely that modest humanism – an apparent contrast to the monumentalism of some now- castigated 1960s schemes – which characterised most of their planning and design.

For the new Conservative government that took office in 1951 the dream died early. It halted the New Town programme and sought, in its place, to expand existing smaller towns through partnerships (with Treasury support) between ‘importing’ and ‘exporting’ local authorities. In the event, progress was slow – such partnerships were never easy – and further population growth forced the creation of a second generation of New Towns in the 1960s. The current plodding progress of the latest iteration of the idea (the new so-called ‘garden cities’ of which Ebbsfleet is the most notable example), dependent on commercial dynamics and private finance, might make us nostalgic for an era when the state – or, as we might express it more benignly, wider society through the instrument of the state – assumed direct responsibility for housing its people decently.

4. Mayfair Crescent, Mackworth Estate, Derby

Not every new estate got the star treatment – in fact, as council housing grew exponentially in the post-war period, most didn’t – but Derby Borough Council clearly felt that the Mackworth Estate, formally opened in 1959 but planned from 1948, was something special. In its way it was, capturing as it did so many of the dreams of the new era of public housing inaugurated by Labour’s landslide victory in 1945.

The Mackworth Estate was to be developed ‘as a residential neighbourhood in full accordance with contemporary town planning principles’. Its layout provided ‘from the outset not only for dwellings but for schools, local shops, churches, and other buildings and, of course, recreational and ornamental open spaces’; not only meeting ‘the day-to-day needs of the residents, the adults and the children [but] incidentally providing occasions for stimulating community life and feeling’.1 This focus on ‘neighbourhoods’, the infrastructure that supported them and ‘community’ – which commentators thought lacking on the pre-war estates perceived as bland and ill-resourced – was key to the planners’ vision after 1945.

The estate comprises of churches, a main shopping centre, a secondary school. There were two new primary schools too, built in the eastern and western halves of the estate and envisaged as the focal points of two separate neighbourhoods.

The rest of Mackworth is an irregular streetscape of curving roads and crescents, a few cul-de-sacs and pedestrian footways, and lots and lots of houses. There is some variety here: some are pebble-dashed, white- and cream-rendered, but most are red brick, generally semi-detached or in short terraces, all in a range of the unornamented, rectangular forms favoured in this era. It’s pleasant – neat and generally well cared for, over-whelmingly residential and, truth be told, with no great buzz of community despite all those good intentions.

When the estate’s main shopping centre was opened, rather belatedly, in 1959, over 2,900 homes were occupied, serving a population of around 10,000. The majority of the council homes – 1,642 – were three-bed family houses but, with bungalows for the elderly and a larger number of two-bed options, there was a nod too to the newly fashionable idea of ‘mixed development’. There was another, sometimes neglected, aspect to this mixed development in its broadest sense. Over 200 homes were built for private sale and nearly 300 for private leasehold. The early post-war expectation was that council estates would contain a greater social mix too, seen here in the provision for the better off who might choose to buy but reflected as well in council homes built for ‘general needs’, for a range of the population. Some councils also built larger council homes for middle-class rental, though Labour Derby didn’t.

Mackworth was completed in the ‘never had it so good’ era of Macmillan, but it was begun in an era of genuine austerity when Britain somehow managed to build the Welfare State we’re currently dismantling.

5. Alton West, Wandsworth

The plans for Alton East (part of the Alton Estate in Roehampton, London) were first approved in October 1951 and claimed as a triumph for ‘the Swedish boys’. American commentator G.E. Kidder Smith called it ‘probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world’.

The estate, 744 homes in all, is a mix of low-rise, red-brick, two-storey terraces and four-storey maisonettes with ten eleven-storey point blocks clad in cream-coloured brick, on its fringes, ‘scattered over the bosky slope which had been covered by large Victorian gardens’ in Pevsner’s bucolic description. The new housing was set irregularly on the foot- print of the Victorian villas it replaced, preserving mature trees and giving the estate today the surprisingly verdant aspect it retains. Pevsner commended it all for its ‘picturesque informality’, an echo of the Scandinavian schemes that Alton East’s progenitors admired.

Alton West, the second, larger phase of the scheme, was agreed in September 1953 and designed along very different lines. Here another group of LCC architects sought a more consciously monumental and uncompromisingly modernist aesthetic designed to make dramatic use of its parkland setting.

Low-rise homes feature here too, most strikingly the groups of bungalows for elderly residents in Minstead Gardens. But it is the estate’s fifteen eleven-storey point blocks and the five ten- storey slab blocks which dominate; the latter ranged along the hill above Danebury Avenue providing its most iconic image. The model here was Le Corbusier’s famous Unité d’habitation complex in Marseille, completed in 1952 and the ethos – pitted against the ‘soft’ New Humanism of Alton East – was a ‘hard’ Brutalism. That term, Brutalism, is controversial and difficult to define. In one reading it derives from Le Corbusier’s own use of exposed concrete béton-brut in constructing his Marseille scheme, but it owes as much to the connotations of ‘toughness and primitivism’ proclaimed by the style’s foremost early advocate Reyner Banham. There was a certain conscious monumentalism to Brutalism but, if it was statement architecture, it spoke for the moment to an architecture of social purpose and was ‘widely seen as the architectural style of the Welfare State – a cheap way of building quickly, on a large scale, for housing, hospitals, comprehensive schools, and massive university expansion’.

In popular terms, ‘Brutalism’ has now become a more encompassing descriptor – a term applied to ‘any large concrete-y building from the 1960s or ’70s’ by some and, to its critics, something more pejoratively descriptive. As such, it will take its place in the demonology of council housing. Nevertheless, Alton West and the best architect-designed estates bearing the label often provided very fine housing indeed.

6. Keeling House, Bethnal Green, London

Keeling House, a tower block opened in 1959 and designed by Denys Lasdun for Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council, offers another image of Brutalism. Its sixteen-storey height and form – white reinforced concrete with Portland stone finish cladding – made it stand out among the surrounding stock brick terraces and some initially thought it ugly and intrusive. It’s a starkly beautiful building which seems today to sit comfortably in the local streetscape. Now it’s sold off, privately owned. In January 2017 one of its two-bed penthouse flats went on the market at £875,000. Architects now occupy almost half of its sixty-seven flats. That’s a tribute to its aesthetics and current architectural cachet but Lasdun himself, although also the designer of the National Theatre, was designing for the working class; the people who, in his words, ‘came from little terraced houses or something with backyards’. While he was considering the designs he ‘used to lunch with them and try and understand a bit more about what mattered to them’.

What mattered apparently was community and street life so, in Keeling House, Lasdun provided maisonettes as a modern version of the two-up, two-down and tried to stand those Victorian terraces on their end. His innovative ‘cluster block’ design (comprising a central, free-standing tower with lifts and services and separate towers containing accommodation which ‘clustered’ around it) offered common service areas on each floor – a place to dry clothes (before the era of tumble dryers) and meet and chat.

Whatever the block’s later difficulties, it simply was not, as one local councillor described it, a ‘monument to the stack-em-high principle of working-class housing’. Great thought had gone into the design of Keeling House and huge care taken to both provide good-quality homes – all a vast improvement on the squalid terraces from which their residents had come – and safeguard community. It was declared an ‘architecturally outstanding example of 1950s public housing’ and became Keeling’s unlikely saviour when, in 1993, he Grade II listed it, the first tower block to be so protected.

7. Whittington Estate, Camden, London

An outstanding example of Camden’s brilliant closing flourish in housing can be found at the Whittington Estate designed by Peter Tábori. At the time, Tábori was in his mid-twenties, yet his Regent Street Polytechnic diploma project had so impressed Sydney Cook that the latter commissioned him to design the first phase of the council’s redevelopment of Highgate New Town. This was an area of nineteenth-century terraced housing, multi-occupied from the outset and with a troubled reputation. As 75 per cent of the homes lacked a bathroom, it was a natural target for the slum clearance drive of the 1960s.

Tábori’s design – six parallel, stepped terraces, staggered and divided to make best use of their sloping site, interspersed with green open space – followed signature Camden style in form and construction. The homes, similarly, each had their own individually accessed front door and kitchens were placed to overlook walkways and allow supervision of children.

Construction began in 1972 and the estate was scheduled for completion in 1974. In the event, a not uncommon combination of construction problems and contractor failures delayed completion till 1979 and the finished estate – at £9 million – cost twice as much to build as projected. These problems were significant in the decision that the second phase of the redevelopment should take a very different form but perhaps of greater influence were the criticisms emerging of council estates as such.

The architect and designer Su Rogers’ assessment of the Whittington Estate in 1973 was an early example of what would become conventional wisdom:

It is difficult not to question the policy of building housing ‘estates’, ‘areas’, ‘schemes’ isolating one use from the more natural and spontaneous surrounding areas . . . I wonder how long it will be before the next generation will be appalled by the enormous acreage, albeit low-rise, of housing developments, self-contained within themselves with standard pedestrian decks, coloured front doors, toddler play areas, estate supermarkets and community centres which are the utopias of the local authorities.

In its questioning of the very post-war correctives intended to counter those earlier criticisms and directed against an imaginatively designed and relatively intimate estate such as the Whittington, there is evidence of a broader assault against not merely the form of council estates but the concept.

8. Byker Wall, Newcastle

In the early 1960s, 17,000 people lived in the Byker area of Newcastle – a densely packed district of terraced housing, backyards and alleys, outside toilets and coal sheds. Byker’s residents agreed they needed rehousing – they weren’t that nostalgic for the closeknit terraces – but they wanted to be rehoused where they lived and with their neighbours. It was a sign of the times that Newcastle City Council agreed with them and, as a signal of its good intent, appointed Ralph Erskine to oversee the project.

The Byker estate, which opened in 1982, remains a marvel: 200 acres, 1,800 homes, a population of 9,50. Its most iconic component, the famous Byker Wall, is a 1.5-mile-long block of 620 maisonettes, rising and falling from three storeys to twelve, built to form a perimeter barrier to North Sea winds and the noise and pollution of adjacent major roads. Despite its rather forbidding exterior, there’s nothing Brutalist about the Byker Wall. On the lee side, its textured and coloured facades of brick, wood and plastic, balconies and planters, provide warmth and variety. And it shelters an extensive area of high-density, low-level housing, richly landscaped and subdivided into distinctive sections with a mix of small private gardens and larger communal spaces.

Did Byker live happily ever after? Some criticised Erskine’s alleged tendency to over-detail his designs, and poor build quality has led to costly and ongoing refurbishment. But what affected the estate most powerfully was the decline of Newcastle’s traditional shipbuilding economy in the 1980s. The increasing residualisation of social housing as a minimally maintained social net meant that estates such as Byker became home for many of those failed by society.

9. Broadwalk, Pendleton, Salford

In 2008, 93 per cent of Pendleton’s housing stock was still council-owned. The ‘target position’ of local government was to fashion ‘a mixed tenure residential area’ out of existing council housing. Four years later, the PFI charged with implementing this plan was finally established.

The PFI – Private Finance Initiative – was another scheme inherited from the Conservatives that took off under New Labour from 1997. For a government desperate to advertise its fiscal prudence and committed to meeting previously announced Conservative public spending targets, it must have seemed a good wheeze. Under PFI, private consortia were commissioned to finance, design and often manage major capital projects – typically schools and hospitals but, in some fifty cases, council estate regeneration, covering around 28,000 homes. For their efforts, the consortia received annual payments, usually over a contract period of around thirty years, from the authorities concerned – local councils in the case of housing – paying for services rendered and effectively leasing back privately owned public assets. It kept large-scale capital expenditure off the books, replacing those bigger sums with far smaller annual payments, though the latter would in the end cost far more than any direct upfront payment. If there lay the financial logic of the scheme, such as it was, critics on the left also saw ‘a neoliberal agenda designed to open up the provision and management of public services to the private sector’.

Given the long delays to the Pendleton programme, the results are at best a work in progress. Pendleton is another area – though parts of it have undoubtedly been changed for the better through the various improvement initiatives of recent years – currently blighted by regeneration, with large swathes of cleared land and so far relatively little redevelopment. All this, for PFI, is very much par for the course. It’s reckoned that the overall programme has created a £210 billion debt (of which £4.3 billion relates to housing) to be paid back over thirty years. The programme remains one of the more inglorious legacies of the New Labour governments.

10. Balfron Tower, Poplar, London

In the early 2000s at Poplar’s Balfron Tower – Ernő Goldfinger’s lowering masterpiece (Grade II listed in 1996) – residents were offered new homes on the estate if they moved out to allow some flats in the tower block to be sold off to the private sector. By 2010, the rules of the game changed and it was determined that all of the block’s flats would have to be decanted. It became swiftly clear that the tower as a whole was to be sold into private ownership. In the meantime property guardians and artists in residence were moved in. Various more or less well-meaning arts events and happenings were organised in the now vacated homes of East End residents. Critics accused Poplar Harca – the housing association set up by Tower Hamlets council to regenerate the area ­– of ‘artwashing’, a public relations strategy in which corporations use arts activities to distract from their essentially commercial agenda. The reality that could not be disguised was that homes built for working class Londoners were being marketed to hip and affluent incomers at a time when Tower Hamlets had 23,500 households on its social housing waiting list and some 1,500 households, officially homeless, living in temporary accommodation.

Poplar Harca reckoned it would cost £137,000 to refurbish each of Balfron’s flats, an expensive job made more expensive by the block’s listed status. It could point too to a positive record in carrying out improvements elsewhere, in building new homes and developing other community resources. Regarded, with some reason, as one of the ‘good guy’ housing associations, its reputation has been tarnished by the sell-off of Balfron. The building has become iconic for all the wrong reasons: an example of council housing seemingly judged too good for the poorer local citizens for whom it was originally built.

To many, the loss of Balfron is a symbol of the malignancy of our current social housing actors and providers. At the very least, it is an indictment of a contemporary system of housing finance which minimises public investment and betrays the shared social vision and purpose which formerly inspired it.

– this is an edited excerpt from Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, out now in paperback. See all our financialization of housing reading here.

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Traversing the nation, Municipal Dreams offers an architectural tour of some of the best and most remarkable of our housing estates, and in doing so offers an engrossing social history of housing in Britain. John Broughton’s account includes extraordinary planners and architects who wished to elevate working men and women through design. The politicians who shaped their work and the competing ideologies that have promoted state housing and condemned it. The economics that have always constrained our housing ideals. As well as the crisis wrought by Right to Buy, and the evolving controversies around regeneration. Boughton shows how the loss of the dream of good housing for all is a danger for the whole of society—as was seen in the fire in Grenfell Tower.

Municipal Dreams
Traversing the nation, Municipal Dreams offers an architectural tour of some of the best and most remarkable of our housing estates, and in doing so offers an engrossing social history of housing i...

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