It sounds like the marketing job from hell. A top public relations firm has been hired to give a good name to one of Britain's most notorious housing estates. The 7,500 residents of the Aylesbury Estate in south London are well aware that their home has become a byword for all that is worst about the concrete jungles built in haste during the 1960s housing boom.
They have hired Hill & Knowlton, one of the five biggest public relations firms in the world, to help them tell the outside world that a more attractive new estate is going to rise from the rubble of the old one. The firm has been awarded a year's contract to handle publicity and public relations for the Creation Trust, a charity run by residents to oversee developments as Southwark Council embarks on a £2.4bn redevelopment. Over the next 15 years, the estate will be bulldozed, and replaced with 5,000 new homes, a mix of housing association and private flats.
The Aylesbury Estate's problems began shortly before 1963, pretty much when it was designed. Urban planners were enthused then by the pioneering ideas of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. He adored ocean liners and held them up as the model for new housing estates.
Building large numbers of flats on top of one another around big open communal spaces worked well in places such as the Barbican, in the City, with its costly and beautifully crafted interiors. But every expense was spared when the Aylesbury Estate and its near neighbour, the (now-bulldozed) North Peckham estate, were built in a hurry in the rush to clear London's older slums. The South London Press described the result thus: "Drab impregnable concrete blocks accessed via dank passageways and tight stairwells that provide refuge for addicts and muggers [and] filthy curtains behind rotten window frames, showing little sign of life." The Daily Mail called the estate "Hell's waiting room". It has since become an emblem of urban decrepitude.
Asked about the hiring of Hill & Knowlton, the Creation Trust's chief executive, Steve Pearce, told the trade magazine PR Week: "Getting comms [communications] right is key to the success of the regeneration programme and critical to changing the lives of the residents on the estate."
On Boxing Day last year, a 20-year-old man was shot dead on the estate. His body lay in a communal garden, unreported to police, for 24 hours. Earlier this month, a woman jumped to her death after her tenth storey flat on the estate caught fire. Police are investigating the cause.
Late Simon: The needles and junkies got to me
In the early Eighties, I lived on the Kinglake Estate which is to the south of the Aylesbury Estate, bordering the Old Kent Road. The Aylesbury was very depressing; its particular problem was the arrangement of overhead walkways between blocks of flats, which provided quiet corners for mugging.
The Aylesbury was where the heavy drug dealing went on. When I was there, a lot of heroin was being dealt about the place; there were a lot of smackheads. Even Kinglake was so dilapidated that everyone was moving out. Only squatters were coming in. I left because the drug dealing shifted from the Aylesbury to Kinglake. On our block, it got so bad that I was constantly bumping into dealers at the wrong moment on the stairs and finding needles on the balcony.
The Aylesbury was a working-class estate where people were trapped through poverty: they fought with the reality of living on a hard estate, and suffered being branded because they lived there – a Catch-22 situation.