It’s no surprise concrete estates never worked

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Broadwater Farm riot which claimed the death of a policeman, Keith Blakelock, who was stabbed to death by the crowd. While that memory lives on in the public’s imagination, today, the estate has been completely transformed and attracts visitors from around the world – even as far afield as Russia and China – for a completely different reason: it is seen as a model for the way that such estates can be rescued and turned around.

The widespread interest arises from the fact that the mistakes made in throwing up concrete estates like Broadwater Farm in non-traditional architectural styles were replicated across Europe. It was seen as a way not only of clearing slums but also of providing modern housing for large numbers of social deprived people on the cheap. The fashion spread rapidly throughout the Continent, leaving a disastrous legacy.

Everywhere such estates were built, problems emerged rapidly. The whole concept was flawed. Huge numbers of poor people were dumped on estates that were mostly managed remotely from distant council offices, with no local presence. The value of having a strong local presence, including dedicated caretakers and cleaners, was not recognised and services to residents were run down.

And, of course, the built form exacerbated the problem. Large numbers of people were expected to live, literally, on top of each other in a style of housing that was completely different from conventional street property. It only took one troublesome family or a small group of youths to disrupt the lives of quite literally hundreds of other people. And the remoteness of the management meant small problems could quickly grow into big ones.

At first when the estate was completed in the early 1970s, it was very popular with the early residents. The flats were spacious and the central heating was a welcome innovation for tenants who, like some of those I met during the recording of a recent radio programme*, had not even had a bath in their old houses, let alone warmth at the flick of a switch.

But the failings quickly became apparent. The concrete walkways turned the estate into a rabbit warren, allowing criminals to roam around at will. The environment deteriorated and it soon turned into a hard to let ghetto. However, the estate had started to turn around by the time of the riot. Haringey had begun to devolve the management to the estate, acceding to the demands of the strong residents association. Black local youths had helped created a lunch club for serving the mostly white pensioners which at the time was regarded as highly unusual. Lady Diana was even a visitor, as some of today’s residents remember.

Then came the riot which was a major setback for the community. It was, in fact, largely a battle between black youths, many of whom did not live on the estate, and the local police. It was not really about local housing conditions but, rather, was the result of a botched raid by police who were seeking a local youth during which his mother died of a heart attack.

However, those details have been forgotten in the subsequent history and the estate’s notoriety lives on but it now a completely unmerited reputation. The Farm, as everyone calls it, is an inspirational place, as highlighted by the colourful four storey high mural of a waterfall that dominates the southern entrance.

There has, of course, been much physical change. In the wake of the riot, £33m was spent on removing the walkways, breaking up the connections between the blocks so that people had to use the ground floor to walk round the estate, and other improvements such as brightening up the estate by painting each block a different colour.

But physical change would not be enough to make such a transformation. All the management of the estate is now provided locally by a team led by Paul Dennehy, who had been in the job for a decade which has helped create a stable environment. Probably the most important innovation was the concierge scheme. Every block has an entry system which is protected by a concierge, sometimes remotely from a neighbouring building. Residents pay up to £10 per week extra for the service but it is undoubtedly a good investment. Burglary is virtually unknown and residents feel secure in their own homes.

None of this is rocket science. The mistakes of the post war period when these estates were conceived and built seem so glaring as to be almost laughable. The architects and councillors never stopped to consider the way that people live when they created these concrete jungles. Moreover, local authorities underestimated the importance of basic amenities like local management and janitorial services.

Of course, the precise solutions adopted on the Farm might not work on all estates. Some are too far gone to be rescued, others do not have the same strong community that has always characterised the Farm, despite its ethnic diversity.

However, it is possible to avoid the fundamental mistake, the notion that such estates are a cheap way of providing mass housing. The fundamental lesson from the experience of Broadwater Farm and many others is that the only way to rescue them is to spend money and keep on spending money. It is cheaper than the alternative of allowing them to decay and, ultimately, be demolished, but sometimes it may be difficult to persuade cash strapped housing departments and RSLs of that fact.

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