'How I learnt to love the council estate'

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With the price of a Victorian semi beyond him, the writer Peter Popham found himself reappraising his attitude to public housing – and suddenly, he liked what he saw.

Welcome to my new abode. It's a work in progress, I admit, but so far I'm rather pleased with it: two minutes from Regent's Park, five minutes from two central London tube stations, 10 minutes' walk from Soho...

The approach, I grant, does not inspire much confidence: the front door gives on to what my years in Italy make me want to call a piazzetta, a little piazza, but in fact is just a nondescript patch of paving, a trap for discarded crisp packets and puddles of rain. The front door itself, with its panes of reinforced glass, is the same as its neighbours and no different from all the other front doors for hundreds of yards around. Like the very large square windows, it leaves no room for doubt: I am now the owner, or rather the leaseholder, of a maisonette in a Modernist council block.

It was not a step I took lightly. Before being posted abroad for The Independent 15 years ago, first to Delhi then to Rome, my preferences in housing were the same as nearly every other middle-class Londoner of my generation: I looked forward some day to being able to buy a flat in, or better still the whole of, a Victorian terrace or a semi in one of the capital's numerous so-called "villages": Notting Hill if I got lucky (read "rich"), otherwise Kentish Town, Stockwell, Stoke Newington, Muswell Hill, etc, etc. That was the sort of house I was brought up in, and my first London home as an adult was a second-floor flat with a roof terrace in exactly that sort of property, in Canonbury; Betjeman country we used to tell each other, as consolation for the smashed windows of the cars parked on the street, and the long hike to the nearest station.

No one questioned the superiority of suburban living; we were Metrolanders by birth but also by avocation: Habitat furniture, sanded floors, period fireplaces and candelabras spotted in architectural salvage yards, terraces and small gardens on which we would have lavished the same loving care as our parents if we were not so damn busy; a handsome front door; the tedium of a 40-minute trip to work offset by the neighbourhood park we were determined to find charming, the Italian deli, the Turkish restaurant, the greasy spoon, the cavernous Victorian pub; all the ingredients of what we liked to think of as our village.

But years of living abroad had convinced me that villages were for country folk. If you chose London, I now believed you should get close enough in to enjoy it. And as I no longer had to worry about things like primary schools, my criteria were fairly simple: peace and quiet; a bit of open space at the back where I could tinker with the shrubs and park myself when the sun came out; the riches of London on the doorstep.

But how could I do that with London house prices on the up and up? With my budget I could just about afford a studio flat – they used to be called bedsits – in Marylebone if I moved fast. Otherwise, it was the outer darkness.

There was another possibility: just east of Regent's Park, there is a great swathe of council estates. In my restless surfing of Your Move and other housing websites, I spotted two flats for sale there, both priced much lower than the Victorian conversions I had been thinking about. I walked over idly to take a look at the outside, and walked straight back again. A council estate is a council estate, I reasoned. There was a stigma about it that the price discount only underlined. It didn't matter that it was two minutes from Regent's Park; it could be two minutes from Buckingham Palace and it would be just as unacceptable.

Fifteen years ago that would have been the end of it. But time passed and I thought about it some more. In the years I had been away two things had changed: one in me, and one in London.

For myself, I had got used to living in blocks of flats. In Delhi I had had the good luck to find a flat in the middle of the city, on the edge of what locals still call Lutyens' Delhi. Built towards the end of the Raj for British Army officers, it was the crumbling though still faintly magnificent home of equally crumbling Rajput aristocrats. There was no garden and only a narrow, noisy balcony, but in exchange India Gate was a short walk away, as were Khan Market, Delhi's best shopping centre, and Lodi Gardens, the city's nicest park. I grew used to the idea of counting my blessings.

Then I moved to Rome. In Italy, of course, nobody lives in houses except the villa-dwelling filthy rich: apartment life has been the norm since the heyday of the hill towns, back in the Middle Ages. So this was where my expectations really changed. My Italian friends had no thought of being under their own roof in some village-like enclave way out of town: the people we all envied were the couple who had a cramped-but-charming flat five or six floors (no lift) up an old tenement directly overlooking Campo dei Fiori, in the vibrant, noisy middle of Rome. Other people I knew had a flat next to the Roman Forum; an American friend, who had married a local and moved to Rome decades before, when property prices were still reasonable, had a view of the Colosseum. The point was, if the city offered something you craved, be that Roman ruins or the buzz of alleys lined with shops and galleries and artisan workshops or simply one or two good bookshops with excellent coffee round the corner, then the thing to do was to get as close to them as possible. Not to try to do so would be perverse. Because that's what a city is for.

But doing so in today's Rome wasn't easy: because of my son's schooling, because of sky-high inner-city rents, because every available garret seemed impossibly tight and/or located directly above a discotheque, I ended up plumping instead for the Roman equivalent of Dulwich or Hampstead Garden Suburb. A wise old bird called David Willey, who has been the BBC correspondent in Rome since the 1950s, told me with a sympathetic smile that I had made the classic mistake: in Rome, he said, you should either be right inside – at the time, he and his wife had a flat inside a medieval palace, two paces from Via del Corso – or right out in the country; anywhere inbetween and you had the worst of both worlds.

He was dead right. It was an error I had no desire to repeat. And while London's "villages" have more to offer than the outer reaches of Rome's traffic-clogged Via Cassia, where I ended up, the essential fact – that to really enjoy a city you need to be as close to it as you can get – applies equally to London.

But although the cost of housing was even more of a problem in London than in Rome, help was at hand. During my 15-year absence overseas the status of council housing had, I discovered, undergone a fundamental shift. The building that best symbolises that shift is Trellick Tower, the Brutalist behemoth near Portobello Road in west London, built by the Hungarian émigré Erno Goldfinger.

"The nightmare would start moments after entering the lobby," The Guardian's Rory Carroll wrote of the block's early years. "Stench of urine, beer and stale sweat would seep from the shadows, the lights would be smashed again and the corridor vandalised into gloom. Silence did not mean no one was there. Walk, and the broken bottles and syringes crunched underfoot. With luck, one of the tower's three lifts would be working. Fresh graffiti, used condoms and a passed-out vagrant might have been waiting inside when the doors parted..."

For a long time, Trellick Tower, 394ft of late-Modernist impudence, seemed to epitomise the corner into which modern architecture had backed itself, where the profession's own assessment of its achievements was inversely proportional to that of the hapless homeless condemned to live in them. Architects theorised breezily about "streets in the sky", about working-class communities rediscovering solidarity hundreds of feet up; the reality, as Carroll graphically described, was often fear, squalor, menace and dark danger. "One Christmas," he wrote of Trellick Tower, "vandals on the 12th floor opened the fire hydrant and unleashed thousands of gallons of water into the lifts… Grind up another three floors and you would be where a 27-year-old woman was dragged from the lift and raped..."

These arrogant architects got their comeuppance in the end. In 1967 the television producer Jill Craigie – the wife of Michael Foot – made a documentary called Who Are the Vandals? in which she skewered the architects who condemned the public to a living hell in blocks that were meant to be utopias. "They think they can do it all on paper without proper consultation," Craigie said subsequently. "…After the war architects betrayed their ethics. They had all these slogans… They used to say, k 'A town should be for a citizen what a country estate is for a rich man: a pleasant place to walk in.' Well, you can't say these tower blocks...make pleasant places to walk in, can you?"

It is as true today as it was 40 years ago, that 200ft up a tower block is no place to raise a family on a small income. It is also true that, in their determination to deliver the sort of population densities that local authorities demanded, architects persuaded themselves that this was not the case. Then came the disaster: in 1968, the year after Craigie's documentary, a gas explosion at a London block called Ronan Point caused a corner of the building to cascade down, floor by floor, like a vertical line of dominoes. The whizz-bang Industrialised Building (IB) techniques responsible went into the dog house, along with the tower block itself: "Almost overnight," Anne Power wrote in her book Estates on the Edge, "the high-rise programme was abolished after only 10 years."

Goldfinger's Trellick Tower managed to scrape through – it had been commissioned by the GLC two years before the Ronan Point explosion – but soon it was open season on the high-rise. Trellick Tower became "the tower of terror" or "Colditz in the sky". Other grand Modernist estates celebrated in the architecture journals, such as Park Hill in Sheffield, inspired by Le Corbusier, and the Byker estate in Newcastle – designed in close consultation with its intended residents – fell prey to the new mood. Liverpool's Everton Heights, built in 1966, was known to its residents as "The Piggeries" and within 12 years of its construction had been completely trashed. The age of social housing, begun with a fanfare as "homes for heroes" in 1919, was drawing to an ugly close.

It was Margaret Thatcher who delivered the coup de grâce. For Thatcher, as Alison Ravetz wrote in her study Council Housing and Culture, these projects "represented all that was profligate in public spending, an egregious intervention in the market and a featherbedding of the undeserving". The estates also, it was argued by the Conservatives, "contributed to unemployment by preventing tenants from moving in search of work… the status of the council tenant was a sort of serfdom". When an estate in Tottenham called Broadwater Farm, with its identical towers and three miles of "streets in the sky", erupted in a bloody riot in October 1985 following the death of a resident, the experiment was dead and buried.

Yet, while many of the attacks on council housing had some justice, there was also an issue of fashion. We are condemned, it seems, to hate the housing preferred by our immediate elders: the Modernist housing boom of the 1950s was fuelled by a loathing of Victorian architecture quite as apoplectic (and unreasonable) as that which descended on the work of the Modernists.

And much of the assault on Modernism was unreasonable. Often the architect was merely the fall guy for sloppy management by the council that ran the blocks. Even more profoundly, as Thatcher saw, the problems were caused by the tyrannies of the housing departments, so the "serfs" on the waiting list got what they were given – with the result that families with small children could find themselves trapped in tower blocks which they shared with drug addicts and hooligans. The misery was real; but when left-wingers such as Jill Craigie blamed the architects, it was a way of evading the real issue.

Tower blocks are not for everybody, but given a choice, some people love the grand views they provide, and do not pine for gardening duty. If the lifts work reliably, if the block is kept clean and decent, they can be fine places to live, as tens of millions of Italians can attest. So when, in 1986, the council changed its policy and started assigning flats in Trellick Tower only to people who wanted them, the block's rehabilitation got under way. The following year, one commentator reported that, while still "terrifying", the flats were now "fashionable". The block's ascent in the fashion stakes has continued unstoppably. And on a more modest scale, the same thing has been happening up and down the country, as young people desperate to get a foot on the housing ladder persuade themselves that the old stigma of council housing is outweighed by other factors: price above all, but not only that.

I admit it was the price that made me look again at that rather shabby maisonette offered for sale in Regent's Park Estate: it was a good 15 per cent cheaper than Victorian conversions of comparable size. Bought by its tenant a few years earlier, it had been furnished as cheaply as possible and let to students. But during repeated visits, I found things to admire that I had not expected. It was, for example, very well built: back in the late 1950s, the heyday of council estates, funding was not a problem, and none of the sort of short cuts favoured by speculative builders had been necessary. Constructed of brick and concrete, the sound-proofing was immaculate. The private 30ft garden faced south-west, enjoying sun all afternoon, and was bordered at the back by an allotment. As a result, the flat was remarkably quiet for central London.

Nor were these accidental virtues. Designed by an architect called Fred MacManus, largely forgotten today but the winner in his time of a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) medal and other awards, its lines were uncompromisingly modern and international, yet there was a lot about it that was distinctively British, too. It combined a handful of towers and slabs – none of them half as challenging as Goldfinger's – with maisonettes like mine, many with private gardens or terraces: mixed development, as it was called, "towers plus cottages" in the words of architectural historian Mark Swenarton: the orthodoxy of the time. It was set within a pedestrian precinct but was connected organically to the surrounding roads.

Curious to know more about the estate's genesis, I dug out a piece MacManus had written about it for the RIBA Journal in 1956, when it was still on the drawing board. I discovered that the spirit of John Nash, architect of the grand Regency terraces on Regent's Park 100 yards over to the west, haunts this council estate, too: it's almost a collaborative effort between the two men, linking hands across the intervening 140 years.

In his introduction, MacManus rather disingenuously presents the Nash legacy as a hindrance to his design. "The scope of the re-planning," he wrote, "was much restricted by the two large existing squares…" created by Nash, and around which Nash had built terraced housing for the servants who worked for the grandees on Regent's Park – ancestors of the working-class community that today shares the estate with Bangladeshis, Somalis, West Indians and the likes of me.

For "restricted", read "inspired": it was these squares, Munster Square and Clarence Gardens, all their old houses bombed or torn down but with their mature trees intact, that became the organising skeleton of the estate. "The layout is informal and planned in precinctual principle," MacManus wrote. "The buildings… are so disposed as to form a series of varied and linked places and squares." Today, the estate's kids practise wheelies in these squares, Bengali women in headscarves stop to chat, dogs are exercised, I pass through on my bike. Clarence Gardens is much the most splendid, essentially two linked squares each dominated by a massive plane tree – the bigger of them 150 years old, according to a woman I met there walking her Alsatian. It was indicated on an old map she had seen.

Because of its brilliant location and the humaneness of its architectural and architectonic qualities, MacManus's work on the Regent's Park Estate is ripe for revaluation, and it is happening in fits and starts, as appreciative buyers move in. In other council estates, however, the changes have been much more dramatic.

Half a mile to the south, near Russell Square in Bloomsbury, a low-rise, late-Modernist megastructure called the Brunswick Centre has already had a dramatic makeover. Designed by Patrick Hodgkinson and completed in 1972, it was taken over by Camden Council from the private developer who had commissioned it, and after years of neglect it came back to life in 2002 when a £22m restoration got under way. Today, its shopping centre is elegant and fashionable, boasting branches of Waitrose and Carluccio's as well as the Renoir cinema. The 442 housing units are still managed by Camden Council, but privately owned flats have changed hands recently for more than £500,000.

Flats in Trellick Tower are not far behind, with two- and three-bed flats for sale at between £400,000 and £500,000. Meanwhile, 160 miles to the north, in Sheffield, a developer called Urban Splash is hoping to repeat the trick with a huge estate called Park Hill, which in 2000 was controversially listed.

Completed in 1961, Park Hill had all the ills of the high-rises of the period, including massive scale and "streets in the sky", and after a brief period of popularity it sank into squalor and disrepair, becoming – like Trellick Tower – a symbol of all that was wrong with council housing. Urban Splash seized on it and persuaded the city to pay for an ambitious, costly and very decorative revamp. But the project, conceived before the crash, still has its critics. Some believe it will never break even, ending up as an albatross around the city's neck; others point out that in the end only one-third of the units will be "affordable", leading to a net loss of housing for the city's poor, at whom the project was targeted in the first place.

And that, of course, brings me to a point I have been skirting so far.

Who are these council estates for? The poor for whom they were built? Or anyone who can afford them? And when, as in the Brunswick or Trellick Tower, they mutate from being social housing into developments for profit, and the prices begin to climb, what are the consequences?

One predictable result is resentment. While I was doing some research for this piece on the phone in an internet café, an American woman sitting nearby buttonholed me. "I overheard you say you are writing about council estates," she said. Then she told me her tale.

She had bought a flat in a council block overlooking the canal at Little Venice, in west London, attracted, like me, by the low price. "It was a hideous experience," she said, "a nightmare. I was never accepted by the council tenants. I was betrayed by the council, who did nothing to stop the anti-social behaviour of the kids. The council was forced to implement the right-to-buy policy but it never liked it. The block committee was run by a psycho who hated me. People would bang on my door at three in the morning. I lost all my middle-class friends who didn't want to come round and see me, and who could blame them?" In the end, she bolted – selling quickly at a loss of £60,000. She now lives, she told me, in one rented room in a hostel.

So that's what the future may hold for me. Forewarned is forearmed. In the meantime, allow me to enjoy the architecture.

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