20 years later at Broadwater Farm

Broadwater Farm is a remarkable place. As you approach it from the south along a street of conventional terrace houses, the first thing you see is a huge mural of a bucolic scene with a huge waterfall at its centre. The blocks on the estate, which has over 1000 flats, are painted in pastel colours and protected by well designed entrance lobbies with a concierge.

Can this be the same place that I saw 20 years ago in the aftermath of the terrible riot that was sparked by the death of a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, during a police raid and resulted in the killing of a policeman, Keith Blakelock?

The transformation is quite astonishing. Architecturally, there have been big changes. The estate had been built on the principles established by Le Corbusier, with walkways in the sky that were designed to separate the people from the traffic. But they also left the ground floor level entirely vulnerable and the estate quickly became rife with drug dealers while escaping burglars made good use of all the different passageways. It was a classic case of the spaces that Alice Coleman defined as indefensible.

After the riots, the Tory government made the estate one of its priorities, pouring £33m into demolishing the walkways and a series of other structural improvements.

But the estate needed more than physical changes. For the recent BBC R4 programme which I presented, Down the Farm, I brought a former resident, Zenga Longmore who had not seen the estate for 25 years and she noticed that the atmosphere was completely different: ‘People are much friendlier, they say hello.’

Probably the single most important factor in changing the feel of the place was to get in a local management team on the estate. Previously the estate had been remotely managed by Haringey from an office a couple of miles away. No wonder rent arrears built up and now they are the lowest in the borough.

Installing a concierge system, which actually costs the residents up to £10 per week each, was another major development which cut burglary to virtually zero.

And most important, was ensuring that the community was involved and that the views of local residents were listened to. The estate has been blessed, too, by a series of strong individuals who have made an important difference by devoting their lives to improving the estate, notably Clasford Stirling, a long time youth worker who runs countless soccer teams and other activities for young people. The experienced housing manager, Paul Dennehy, also goes well beyond the remit of his job, by turning up in the evenings and weekends for meetings and social events which, he says, is an essential part of getting the community to trust him.

None of what happened on the Farm is rocket science. Experts like Professor Anne Power of the London School of Economics, have analysed the great disaster of system-built housing in great detail and the solutions are straightforward. Broadwater Farm, as she says on the programme, is a ‘model of success’ because Haringey Council and the local management team have a clear strategy that has been carried through.

Not every estate can be as successful as the Farm which has certain inherent advantages: it is the right size to have amenities such as a doctor’s surgery and a community centre, and it is a self-contained area where a feeling of community can be developed. But the basic approach can be copied in countless places across the UK.

However, it cannot be done on the cheap. Indeed, it is one of the ironies that these system built estates were conceived as cheap housing for the masses but the only way of ensuring their long term survival is to spend significant sums of money, both capital and revenue.

And perhaps Broadwater Farm needs one more change – its name. Some of the tenants complained that there is still a stigma about putting the estate’s name down on a job application form. After all, the estate bears little resemblance, physical or social, to the place where the infamous riot took place. So a new name, twenty years on, would represent a final break with its ghastly past.

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