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Sheffield's Park Hill: Estate expectations

Built by optimistic post-war planners, Sheffield's Park Hill became an urban eyesore. Is there hope for these modernist flats in the 21st century?

No visitor to Sheffield can have failed to notice them. Perched high on the rise overlooking Sheffield station, Park Hill flats have been variously described as a fortress, a prison block and by almost everyone as a blot on the landscape. And yet, 50 years ago tomorrow on 16 June 1961, it all seemed so different as Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Opposition, arrived in Sheffield to open the newly built Park Hill council estate. The first residents had already moved in but a new batch was about to arrive as Gaitskell unveiled a plaque to commemorate the occasion. Alongside him, Roy Hattersley, chairman of the Public Works Committee beamed. It was Hattersley's public works department that had won the contract to build the flats with the lowest offer and had successfully completed the task at £100,000 below their bidding price.

It began, as so often these things do, with good intention and genuine optimism. But, as ever, things never quite turned out as expected. Fifty years on however there is renewed optimism though whether it will again evaporate in the years ahead is only a guess.

Labour leader Gaitskell however sounded a note of caution. '"I agree there are dangers in multistorey developments. Sometimes, I must admit, blocks built up high remind me of nothing but barracks. Those no doubt are better than nothing but not especially pleasant to live in or look at. But may I say how well you in Sheffield have avoided these dangers." He added that the people of Sheffield should be proud of the new development.

In December 1940 two nights of German bombing had wrought devastation on Sheffield, destroying many of the Victorian terraced streets of the city centre. The bombing left the city with a major homelessness headache, further exacerbated after the war as what remained of its Victorian housing was by then unfit for habitation. Land was also in short supply as much of it was green belt, so that by the late 1940s the two had combined to create an acute housing shortage. In a desperate bid to solve the problem the council sent a party of dignitaries to look at housing projects in Europe. They returned full of enthusiasm for the modernist dreams they had seen.

The inspiration for the architects, Jack Lynn, Ivor Smith and the visionary city architect Lewis Womersley, was based on the concept of French architect Le Corbusier, whose "streets in the sky" were the current fad in France. The idea was to replace the slums with ultra-modern flats and facilities, creating the same communities that flourished in the back-to-back houses of the pre-war city centre.

By the late 1950s work had begun on the development of four blocks ranging from four storeys to 13 storeys that would provide a total of 996 dwellings. The first residents moved into the flats in November 1959 though it would be a further 18 months before they were to be officially opened. By then phase one had been completed and a second phase had been agreed that would add two three-storey terraces providing another 152 dwellings to the scheme. Further to the north there would also be four blocks of between five and 19 storeys, containing 1,160 dwellings. This latter development became known as the Hyde Park Estate.

Park Hill consisted of one, two, three and four-bedroom flats that would house almost 3,000 people. It was to be a town within a town with shops, a doctor's surgery, dentist, clinic, nursery, school, four pubs and a police station. The access area outside the flats would be 10ft-wide, providing the communal area where children could play and families socialise. There was also a residents' association with a club for young mothers on a Wednesday afternoon, a ladies club in the evening, tombola on Thursday and a youth club on Friday. A survey conducted by the housing department a year after the flats had been officially opened was overwhelmingly positive. Most residents said that they felt "better off" in the flats and talked about the magnificent views over the city. Meanwhile, awards were heaped on the designers.

Grenville Squires was caretaker at Park Hill for 24 years and lived in the flats. "When you moved in you were not a stranger for very long," he says. "On a summer's evening people would sit outside their flat nattering until 10, then at 11 we collected all the rubbish from the landings. It was a nice place to live. I was called 'Mr Park Hill' because I had taken care of so many, changing light bulbs, moving furniture and keeping an eye on the elderly."

So what went wrong? By the 1970s problems were accumulating. An army of cockroaches had invaded the estate and a spate of sex attacks had led to headlines in the papers. By the 1980s, as unemployment soared, social problems began to multiply. There were burnt-out cars, boarded-up pubs, rubbish, graffiti and as one resident put it, "a nasty smell about the area". The council was accused of housing "problem families" on the estate. Many of the older residents had also died taking with them the traditions and spirit of the pre-war communities.

The older residents, who would chat and gossip on the walkways, had instead taken to locking their doors. The cost of refurbishing the flats and the cost of maintenance was also getting out of hand as an impoverished council battled to keep on top of Park Hill's escalating problems. And then came drugs. Many described it as a no-go area at night. Whether true or not barely matters. What was crucial is that this was how it was perceived.

Squires says "lots of people came to Sheffield, saw Park Hill and called it ugly. It was condemned because it was not pleasing to the eye and consequently the people who lived there were condemned as well. It was never as bad as people made it out to be."

Park Hill however, became an eyesore, looming over the city as a constant reminder of broken dreams. Some likened it to a prison block. One by one families were moved out. Gaitskell, it seemed, may have been right.

As the problems mounted the council decided to demolish one of the blocks on the nearby Hyde Park estate, but demolishing Park Hill was not an option as by then it had been listed as a grade-two star building making it the largest listed property in Europe, and protecting it from demolition. So, instead of pulling it down the council looked for a developer to take it off their hands.

That's when Urban Splash stepped in, purchasing Park Hill for the nominal sum of £1. The idea was to turn the nightmare back into a dream, creating affordable housing for a range of people. Mark Latham, the development manager, however rejects any idea that Park Hill will become a yuppie paradise. The aim, he says, "is to rebuild the communities. There will be shops, a nursery, bars and restaurants." And in order to offset the concrete brutalism that marred the original design there is glass everywhere, a new open entrance area and commercial outlets as well as landscaping.

Work is well in hand and by September a sales office will have opened on site with the intention that buyers can move in by June next year. Dwellings will be by purchase, part ownership or rent so that there will be a mix of occupants. Urban Splash insists that rents will be in line with the city council's recommendations while buyers will be able to purchase whole or part stakes in the properties so that Park Hill is affordable to all.

As the latest economic cutbacks begin to bite, Urban Splash will be keeping its fingers crossed that a new set of social problems does not once more destroy the Park Hill dream.