To the eyes of any visiting alien, the Heygate Estate in London’s Elephant and Castle could be mistaken for an ancient ruin on a par with Pompeii – a crumbling monument to a deceased civilisation. In some respects that’s exactly what it is, for few councils would countenance social housing on such a spectacular scale in 2015; the difference between the Heygate Estate and the locations that were once prime ports of call on the Grand Tour, however, is that this sprawling concrete citadel was only completed forty years ago. And it’s already on its way out.
Slum clearance and what should supersede the slums was one of the defining policies that characterised the governments of both colours in the thirty years after the end of the Second World War; but there had been some ambitious experiments in this area even before Neville Chamberlain’s grave announcement to the nation in September 1939. The Quarry Hill flats complex in Leeds was a brave Modernist solution to the cheap, basic and insanitary housing that had sprung-up in mid-nineteenth century Northern and Midlands towns to accommodate the influx of country folk into the thriving new industries. In the early 30s, Leeds City Council devised what was then the largest social housing scheme in Europe to provide the industrial workforce with decent living conditions. Quarry Hill flats were akin to a town-within-a-town, boasting state-of-the-art innovations such as a refuse disposal system and electric lighting as well as shops and a community laundry. For the first couple of decades of its existence, Quarry Hill was viewed as a shining example of what could be done to alleviate the slum problem.
The effects of air-raids on the industrial heartlands of Britain gave an urgent impetus to the housing crisis after 1945, prompting the state to turn to visionary architects who were scholars of the Le Corbusier school of production-line homes that spanned the era from Modernism to Brutalism. A series of towers rising above the old terraced mazes looked wonderfully futuristic on paper, but could also be built quickly and cheaply. Thus began a concerted and initially well-meaning project to provide those who either couldn’t afford to buy their own home or had made do with temporary prefab accommodation since the Blitz with comfortable and modern council housing that would seem virtually palatial in comparison to the rat and bug-infested hovels many had been raised in.
The first wave of widespread demolition in the 1950s was undertaken by a Conservative Government and seemed to chime with Harold MacMillan’s ‘You’ve Never Had it So Good’ mantra; it was largely deemed to be a success, even though the notion that tower-blocks could house more people than the streets they replaced proved to be a fallacy, in that planning regulations specified strict space between each respective tower and therefore actually required more land than the old terraced back-to-backs used up. Nevertheless, the ambitions of the project knew no bounds, sometimes even encompassing an entire ‘New Town’ such as Cumbernauld, created as a population overspill for Glasgow. When Harold Wilson’s Labour administration came to power in 1964, the redevelopment of Britain’s cities received another shot in the arm. The demolition accelerated as the growth of the motorways necessitated further inroads into working-class communities, as did the increase of consumerism that gave birth to new shopping precincts in city centres. As a consequence, the urban landscape underwent its most dramatic metamorphosis since the Industrial Revolution.
Even though the partial collapse of a tower-block at Ronan Point in Newham, East London, in 1968 first raised questions as to the quality of this instant solution to the slum problem, redevelopment continued apace across the country, leading to monumental housing schemes on the Quarry Hill model such as Sheffield’s Kelvin Flats, Nottingham’s Hyson Green, Hunslet Grange in Leeds, and London’s Ferrier Estate, Aylesbury Estate, Thamesmead Estate (famously used by Stanley Kubrick as a Dystopian backdrop in ‘A Clockwork Orange’) and the aforementioned Heygate Estate. Although virtually all the slums had been cleared away by this point, the architects and the local councils had become dizzy on the desire to make their cities resemble Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, leading many sound and solid Victorian and Edwardian houses and public buildings to unnecessarily disappear beneath the wrecking-ball merely because they were deemed old-fashioned and were labelled ‘slums’ even when they were far from it. The motivation behind the ongoing demolitions also came into question when bribery and corruption between builders and councillors eventually emerged into the public eye, most infamously in the case of John Poulson, a scandal that cost Reginald Maudling his job as Home Secretary in 1972.
It wasn’t until the deficiencies in the design of the new concrete estates became apparent as the 1970s progressed – primarily the damp arising from poor-quality cheap materials used in the building process and the potential for juvenile vandalism with so many dark corners to loiter in – that the concept really ran out of steam. Community amenities such as shops, cinemas, sports centres and recreational grounds had either been closed or hadn’t even been included in the original plans, and public transport facilities were often poor for those estates distanced from city centres, generating an Alcatraz-like feeling of detachment. Despite the pleas of residents, maintenance of the buildings was allowed to lapse as the country’s economic decline rendered the great social housing project an expensive and unsustainable operation. Yet the warning signs had been there from the off. The passionately articulate architectural critic Ian Nairn railed against the frenzied mania for bulldozing anything built in the previous century – particularly when grandiose Gothic churches were swept away with the communities they once served. But the damage had already been done.
The mistake made early in this project was to have far-reaching ramifications for the sense of solidarity that had been fostered in the depths of the Luftwaffe bombardment. Rather than ensuring the tight-knit communities remained intact by re-housing families and neighbours along the same lines, these communities were scattered by redevelopment and any sense of togetherness dissipated. This in turn gave rise to the fracture of any common consensus shared by the disorientated residents, something that the isolating design of the estates, where contact between neighbours could be minimal, exacerbated. Councils viewing such estates as a convenient dumping ground for antisocial and disruptive ‘problem families’ didn’t help either, contributing to the bad reputation they rapidly acquired. There was a distinct feeling that the people had been abandoned to their collective fate.
Quarry Hill flats, the granddaddy of the brave new world, was allowed to slide into neglect from the 1960s onwards and by the mid-1970s had been served with a death sentence. It finally disappeared as a Leeds landmark in 1978, spending a decade as waste-ground before eventually being superseded by both the Northern HQ of the DHSS and the Leeds Playhouse. Had the complex been renovated and restored rather than removed, it could have provided a private company with ‘luxury housing’ for upwardly mobile young professionals on an unimaginable scale. But the same fate awaited all of the similarly ambitious social housing schemes that followed Quarry Hill – Kelvin Flats, Hyson Green, Hunslet Grange and Heygate, the latter of which will shortly join the Ferrier and Aylesbury Estates by vanishing from the London landscape.
With the exception of Thamesmead, it’s increasingly difficult to find any traces of this era of social housing in Britain, especially since the decades from the 1980s onwards have seen the wilful erasure of all evidence; the 1960s has become the Architectural Decade That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Yes, mistakes were made, mistakes that inadvertently shattered the illusion of the working-class as a definable social demographic; but the intentions in the beginning were honourable ones of a kind that are all-but impossible to imagine now. The thought that social housing could be rated so highly as to inspire projects on such a mammoth scale is hard to comprehend today. Our elected representatives once cared enough to try and improve our lot? Mind-boggling. Only private housing for the ‘Young Professional’ will provoke building projects of any magnitude these days. And that in itself in not only a damning indictment of how priorities have altered in the last thirty years, but a dispiriting example of how so-called Broken Britain became a social ailment without a discernible antidote.