Outsiders in London


London’s Housing Estates & the Changing Face of social Housing

Over the centuries, as cities expanded and developed, large conurbations have nearly always become stratified, with the rich and powerful residing in grand houses (often styled ‘palaces’) in the most imposing or desirable quarters, houses with impressive facades and substantial private gardens, either close to the centre, or well out in the leafiest, most salubrious suburbs.   The professional and trading middle classes would characteristically occupy comfortable but less grand abodes, a little further out from the centre, in quarters that would reflect the aspirational nature of the inhabitants and where homes might be rented or owned outright.   The rest, and that is almost without exception the vast majority of the citizenry, had to live in overcrowded, rented dwellings of substandard quality that, through poverty and neglect, often decayed into what we now describe as slums.   Millions of dwellings lacked any convenient hot water supply (in some cases, any water supply at all) had no bathroom, and had only shared access to a WC, a facility that was usually outside.   Assisted by the professionals and the tradesmen, the ruling classes governed life in the city, managing and financing its development, while those in the professions and in trades attended to essential services, retail, commerce and manufacturing.   But most of the work in the cities was done by ordinary working men and women (and working children too) who lived on the margins, in often overcrowded, unhealthy, unsafe and often desperate quarters of the cities.   Dickens describes the squalid conditions of Victorian London better than most.  

Like much of the rest of England, London experienced a major housing boom during the Victorian period (1837-1901) with nearly a five-fold increase in the housing stock between 1801 and 1911 (described by some as a ‘housing revolution’) over which time the nation’s population almost quadrupled - it rose from around 9 million to 36 million.   And, while there was a glut of houses for the better off, the low-paid and the poor continued to be inadequately housed.   This was largely due to the fact that until the beginning of the twentieth century, around 90% of all houses were rented from private landlords.   Most land in the capital belonged to a relatively small number of very wealthy individuals, mostly aristocrats, upon whose great estates dense, jerry-built housing was thrown up speculatively by developers in order to maximise their own profits and to generate for their patrons, the rich freeholders, huge returns in rents from the poor.   

Despite this extraordinary boom, that both created and reflected the prosperity of the plutocrats and the bourgeoisie, it is not perhaps surprising that the unabated, dreadful living conditions of the majority of Londoners were not only a source of human misery but also of ill health and disease.   It was not a difficult task to take a map of Victorian London and place a finger on those quarters where pestilence was endemic:  here for anyone to discern were the wellsprings of typhoid, of cholera, of smallpox and scarlet fever.   Today, Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey is a riverside haven of highly-prized residences, yet it had been in Victorian times London’s long-established ‘capital of cholera’, a loathsome place where the quality of life had hardly changed since the Great Fire of 1666 (from which it unfortunately escaped).   Literally thousands of poor Londoners perished in slums such as those to be found in various parts of London’s South bank and East End, where the pursuit of profit by rapacious landlords was ever the overriding consideration.   Of course, the rich and powerful could not ignore entirely the plight of the poor;  after all, they did live in the same city and diseases spawned in the slums of south and east London were no respecters of boundaries, with the Thames and its tributaries dispersing both pollution and stench far more equitably than a landlord’s prosperity, to the extent that even the highest echelons of society, closeted in their palaces and grand houses, began to murmur that ‘something must be done’.

It took George Peabody, an American banker, philanthropist, and lover of London, to set up a charitable trust and, through his Model Dwelling Company and the Peabody Donation Fund, to build, in 1864, his first housing block in Commercial Street, Spitalfields   His generous gifts of an enlightened imagination and the necessary funds were designed to "ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis, and to promote their comfort and happiness".   One wonders how many of today’s bankers are captivated by such laudable and altruistic purposes.   Peabody housing estates were later established in other parts of London, with buildings that were solidly constructed, that had running water, indoor WC’s, and with communal bathing and laundry facilities.   While certain standards of behaviour were expected of tenants, the difference it made to the lives of hundreds of Londoners could not be ignored.   Indeed, from its inception right up to the present day, the Peabody Trust has offered decent homes to thousands of Londoners who would otherwise have struggled to find anywhere acceptable to live.

East London witnessed the first public housing project in the world.   In an area where over 6,000 individuals lived in the most dreadful conditions, and where infant mortality was such that a quarter of all children would fail to survive their first year of life, the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London County Council began major reconstruction works, building several blocks of ‘social housing’.   This initiative, designed to alleviate misery and ill-health, spurred many local councils to embark on similar construction schemes early in the 20th century.

When the First World War broke out and Britain had to mobilise its young men for the front, the lamentable physical condition of many urban recruits became immediately apparent, with young men supposedly in their prime being deemed unfit for active service;  this was noted with alarm by the authorities.   The real impact of chronic deprivation was staring everyone in the face and diverting the gaze proved difficult.   Many of these enfeebled young men would never return from the muddy battlefields of France and Belgium but to those who did return, the nation felt an obligation to offer some hope for a better future and a better life.   A campaign known as, Homes Fit for Heroes was born in 1919 and the Housing Act which followed compelled local councils to start local initiatives of building homes and blocks of social housing.   Of course, a powerful resistance to this new compassionate dispensation was always hovering in the wings, for the provision of affordable housing, paid for out of the public purse, was an affront to those rentier classes who profited from private rents, and for many, the very idea of spending taxpayers’ money on the provision of subsidised, affordable homes was neither seen as acceptable nor socially desirable.

While a goodly number of slums were cleared, and hundreds of low-paid, hard-working Londoners moved into their first ever home with basic sanitary facilities, and some modest comfort too, demand perennially outstripped supply and the shortage of social housing continued right up to World War II.   

From 1939 to 1945, London’s housing stock suffered extensive destruction at the hands of German bombers and primitive guided missiles.   Many areas of London were badly hit and East London, with its proximity to the strategically important docklands, was in many parts devastated.   This tragic destruction and loss of life later offered the town planners an opportunity for the major remodelling of the East End.   In 1943, Patrick Abercrombie came forward with his quite visionary County of London Plan, comprising proposals to reconstruct the capital, with a new balance between housing, industrial development and open space.   Again, there was major opposition but despite the desperate state of the British economy and the high level of post-war debt, Clement Attlee’s pioneering Labour Government endorsed Abercrombie’s recommendations - they were seen as an essential solution to London’s growing population, a means of replacing housing lost during the war, and further progress towards clearing London’s Victorian slums.   By the 1960s, over half a million new dwellings had been built, many of them flats in tower blocks.   This was also a unique period in British history:  the so-called post-war consensus engendered, amongst the public and all the mainstream political parties, a period of widespread support for collectivism and a ‘welfare state’.   It established the concept of the ‘mixed economy’ - private enterprise operating in tandem with the nationalisation of certain large industries and utilities - created the National Health Service, and gave birth to the modern Welfare State, with care to be provided ‘from cradle to grave’. 

For post-war architects and town planners, this period provided a unique opportunity to try out new ideas about urban living, ideas largely developed in continental Europe and seen by some sceptics as proffering an unattainable ‘urban utopia’.   While most people might dream of their own little house with a garden, building land in London was generally in limited supply so the new, modern homes were to be stacked on top of each other, creating what became known as ‘tower blocks’.  Of course, the concept of high-rise buildings (or skyscrapers) was not new and it had generally worked well in Chicago, in New York, and in some cities in post-war Europe.   The London authorities built a number of prominent tower blocks as homes for ordinary, working people, such as Erno Goldfinger’s 27-storey Balfron Tower, in Poplar, which opened in 1967, and its slightly taller ‘twin’, the 31-storey Trellick Tower, opened five years later, in 1972.   Both of these tower blocks came to be seen as egregious examples of the ‘Brutalist’ style in domestic architecture.  

Many other blocks and estates were built across London, often carrying into effect some of the leading architectural and planning theory of the time, though not always executed with adequate resourcing.   In this short article, it is only feasible to mention a few:  the Manor House Estate, part of the Woodberry Down development in North London, built in 1940’s;  the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, completed in 1974;  and the 1960’s Stockwell Park Estate in Brixton.   All these estates provided homes for thousands of London families, most of whom had previously lived in substandard accommodation.   The flats were not luxurious, some of them exhibited genuine design faults, and some residents did not take very well to living high above ground level, but generally speaking,  most tenants were delighted and saw their new homes as a major improvement in the quality of their lives.   But this is not to say that these estates were without problems.   The economic turmoils experienced by the UK in the 1970’s led to growing levels of unemployment and while the newly-built, affordable housing remained within the reach of hard-pressed families, economic inequality and poverty were increasingly present. 

What made things worse was the fact that local councils, perennially faced with financial constraints, were forced to economise on the maintenance of structures where consistent, high-level maintenance was essential.   Over a relatively short period of time after completion, some estates began to look neglected and unloved;  empty flats were used to house problem families and this resulted in the increased flight of the original residents.   Innovative, architect-designed elevated walkways which, in the case of Stockwell Park, had provided residents with the facility to walk right into the centre of Brixton without their feet touching the ground, walkways that had looked so convenient and attractive on the original plans, proved in practice to serve as almost ideal escape routes for the area’s roaming criminal gangs;  as the estate decayed, using these walkways grew into a major security hazard for everyone who lived there.   Some estates came to be increasingly inhabited only by black tenants, accelerating what is sometimes referred to as ‘white flight’ and, given the higher levels of unemployment and social disadvantage suffered by black workers, over a period of 30 years these estates came to be seen as ghettoes of multiple deprivation.  

Balfron Tower in Poplar, home to a largely white population of East Londoners, had a number of well-finished, good-quality flats empty for months simply because no tenants could be encouraged to move into them.   Of course, while some concerns were justified and there were genuine problems, especially with the adequate maintenance of tower blocks and high-rise housing estates, any wholesale declaration of them as being unsuitable for human habitation is absurd.   Flats in the Barbican Estate in the City of London, built in the sixties and seventies, also in the concrete, Le Corbusier-inspired ‘Brutalist Style’, quickly became highly desirable residences and have long been much sought after.   Indeed, some of the most expensive flats in London are now located in modern tower-blocks and they are very attractive to residents who can afford the substantial maintenance costs needed to maintain the pristine condition of these high-value properties. 

Elected in 1979, Margaret Thatcher and key members of her Cabinet introduced to the UK the doctrines of the influential economist, Fredeich Hayek, and one might argue that it was at this point when the post-war consensus began to be dismantled.   The same economic roadmap seems to have been embraced by all major political parties and the process of taking the ‘welfare state’ apart has continued to this day, when it is almost complete.   In current political jargon, the process is often described as deconstructing ‘Big Government’ and thus removing the need for high taxation;  economic market forces are seen as the only effective way of delivering public services at a lower, more acceptable cost;  and the Welfare State, once seen as caring for all from ‘cradle to grave’, is henceforth to be reserved only for those facing destitution.  

A large part of the state’s assets have been sold off and nearly all previously nationalised companies and utilities have now been privatised or re-privatised.   In the sphere of publicly-owned housing stock, the provision of social housing is, in the current mode of thinking, perceived as an almost wilful distortion of the market and if such housing is to be provided, it should be done via a subsidy to the rents of private landlords.

Local authorities up and down the country, that had continued to expand their housing stock following the Second World War, were now to be denied capital spending approval for the building of new ‘council houses’ (despite continuing rises in population and the numbers of the homeless).   Through Thatcher’s ingenious and populist ‘Right to Buy’, they were also forced to sell their existing stock of homes and flats to the existing tenants, sometimes at great discounts, thus reducing available social housing and creating estates that were a theoretically desirable mixture of privately-owned and rented accommodation, but which often led to an increase in social tensions.   In more recent times, cash-strapped councils have been encouraged, if not effectively forced, to unload all their remaining housing stock on to housing associations or via various public/private partnership arrangements.   And, faced with ever-increasing maintenance costs and ever-decreasing levels of subsidy, these innovative structures have frequently been obliged to seek partnerships with major private developers, leading ultimately to a diminution in the availability of social housing. 

In the meantime, the ban on local authority house building and the failure of the private sector to build sufficient new homes have gradually created an acute shortage of dwellings (particularly in the south-east) hugely increased the value of existing properties (especially in London) and led to greatly increased private rents.   While this process has opened up attractive financial opportunities for property developers, and increased profit levels, it has done little to reverse the diminishing supply of affordable housing.   While the rhetoric of creating homes for the needy has been often in the mouths of politicians, only one powerful engine has been permitted by government to drive the expansion of the housing stock and that is the pursuit of profit and, given that property developers are businesses and not charities, it is unsurprising that they have been less than keen to provide more than the minimum of unprofitable social housing except where this is an express condition of planning permissions.

Many of the old estates of the sixties and seventies occupied what are now seen as generous areas of land conveniently located for travel to central London or the City, but in order to be redeveloped profitably, this land had first to be cleared of all the existing buildings and the tenants/homeowners who occupied them.   The Heygate Estate in London’s Elephant and Castle is a splendid example of what is euphemistically referred to as a ‘regeneration’ zone.   This estate was originally home to more than 3,000 people, living in 1,200 homes.   There is no doubt that the estate was badly neglected, for maintenance tends to decrease as financial constraints on housing grow, and so pressure built up to involve a private developer partner in what was seen as a necessary, major redevelopment project.  

An extraordinary and well-documented array of pressures, levers and incentives was deployed to clear the estate of its existing occupants.   Resistance from some long-established Heygate residents was fierce and prolonged but in the end proved futile.  Some residents were promised new homes on the site following redevelopment but this now looks increasingly unlikely.   The estate is currently being demolished and the new homes, clad in glass and steel, are beginning to rise from their new foundations.   There are to be 2,535 new dwellings on the site of the previous 1200 homes but only 79 (barely 3%) of these will be ‘social rented’, though it has been alleged by some that the final number will in fact be only 9.   The first phase of 284 homes will be priced between £350,000  and £1.1 million and there will be no discount for former residents.  

Even with the best will in the world, which may or may not be present, the provision of such discounts presents the developers with a genuine dilemma:  they need to maximise the profit for the development’s investors and they need to avoid any impairment to the value of the property for the new owner-occupiers, so every effort has to be made to separate any ‘social tenants’ from the new homeowners who might live next door to them.   A candid report by council officers suggested that the developers had baulked at providing social units on the rebuilt estate as, in their view, this would demand the creation of a second lobby and lift in order to separate the two types of resident;  in their view: "Not doing so would have significant implications for the values of the private residential properties.”   As one commentator recently concluded:  “The Heygate Estate occupied a large site next to a major transport interchange in an inner London borough, and its residents had the temerity to remain poor while the land they lived on became more valuable.   When people talk about the ‘social cleansing’ of London, this is it.”

This story mirrors almost exactly what has happened at Woodberry Down in North London and Brixton’s Stockwell Park Estate is to experience the same sort of ‘socio-economic makeover’ quite soon.   The re-developers of Balfron Tower in Poplar have aimed even higher;  it is to be transformed into an exclusive, luxury tower-block.   Its impeccable architectural pedigree and the fact that it is now a listed building will no doubt make it even more desirable, with dwellings that will overlook the Isle of Dogs which, after the pre-eminence of the City of London, is now the second most significant financial centre in the UK, and possibly Europe.   All of these makeover developments of former public housing are effectively being turned into gated communities, keeping them apart from the local riffraff and undeserving poor.

Meanwhile, the inequality between rich and poor continues to grow:  Britain’s richest 1% have accumulated wealth equivalent to the assets of the poorest 55% of the population put together;  or, to put it another way, the 100 wealthiest people in the UK have as much money as the poorest 18 million Brits, who make up 30% of population.   London has become a huge magnet for overseas property investors;  in some cases, entire new developments have been purchased and then left empty - in 2012, only 27% of new homes in central London went to UK residents.   The effect of this has been to force Londoners to contend with the most expensive housing in Europe;  those who work in moderately or poorly paid jobs can no longer afford the rising rents buoyed up by the escalating price of property while, as we have seen, available social housing is diminishing rapidly, with every estate that is ‘regenerated’ destroying yet more of the invaluable and seemingly irreplaceable social housing stock.

Despite frequent reassurances from our politicians, it is clear that before too long there will be no publicly-owned social housing remaining in London.   Increasingly, the capital will have few places left to live for anyone who is poor.   No-one may admit to it, but what is effectively a policy of social cleansing is now in full swing and the forsaken seaside resorts of Britain should certainly ready themselves for a tsunami of people who are being driven from the capital - poor people, dysfunctional people, people who have fallen through an increasingly dilapidated social security net, people who feel that their only chance of survival is through crime.   The great London housing estates that provided decent homes for those too poor to purchase or to rent from private landlords will all be gone.   We are now in danger of returning to Victorian housing conditions for the working poor and the unemployed - an Englishman's home might well be his castle but, unfortunately, the poor Londoner seems no longer even to merit the most basic, affordable accommodation in the capital.   The long-term cost of this policy to our society may prove to be higher than the gratifyingly large figures that now appear on developers’ financial spreadsheets.

Page updated 1st July 2014

The purpose of these notes is, in the spirit of education, to provide the reader with some additional information about specific topics covered in the sitters’ interviews and to draw together statistical, sociological and other relevant data which could not easily be incorporated into the records of the interviews themselves.

The notes are largely constructed from widely-available published materials on the topic in question and every effort has been made to exclude material which could be seen as spurious or contentious.   Of course, though care has been taken to draw only from bona fide sources, it cannot be claimed that these notes are authoritative;  for those who are already expert or who wish to delve further into a specific subject, cross-referencing with other reliable references is recommended.

While no material has been consciously included that might be deemed sexist, racist or offensive in some other way to a particular minority group or to individuals adhering to a particular religious creed or moral code, it is hardly to be expected that everyone will agree with every observation and conclusion.