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The battle for Thamesmead Residents are fighting to save the estate from Peabody

'As modernist as the buildings were, I believe he saw in them a dystopia.' (A Clockwork Orange)

'As modernist as the buildings were, I believe he saw in them a dystopia.' (A Clockwork Orange)


May 15, 2024   6 mins

Maybe the best-known fact about Thamesmead is that, in 1971, it provided the setting for one of the most memorable scenes of Stanley Kubrick‚Äôs film, A Clockwork Orange. Alex DeLarge (played by Malcolm McDowell) is shown walking along Binsey Walk and then suddenly attacking his fellow gang members. Southmere Lake and its Brutalist towers are the backdrop while the strains of Rossini‚Äôs overture La gazza ladra [The Thieving Magpie] play in the background. In 2022, speaking to Property Week, Kubrick‚Äôs American filmographer Alison Castle offered what is probably the most common contemporary understanding of that scene: ‚ÄúKubrick‚Äôs choice of Thamesmead showed a very prescient instinct for how this architecture was deeply misguided and even hostile, doomed to fail as a model for living. As modernist as the buildings were, I believe he saw in them a dystopia.‚ÄĚ

She was reiterating an all-too-common contempt for other Sixties estates. But John Grindrod, Britain‚Äôs foremost chronicler of post-war modernism, saw something very different in that scene: ‚ÄúThe town‚Äôs formal beauty, lakes and crisp white architecture were enhanced by his use of classical music to makes the scenes of sudden violence even more shocking and incongruous.‚ÄĚ In the early Seventies, Thamesmead still seemed futuristic, utopian even ‚ÄĒ ‚Äúthe town of tomorrow‚ÄĚ, as it was dubbed when the Greater London Council embarked upon the ‚ÄúWoolwich-Erith Project‚ÄĚ in 1966. The practical intention, in the Council‚Äôs words, was to ‚Äúcreate a reservoir of housing for decanting population from the hard-pressed inner area‚ÄĚ. In an era of mass slum clearance, the form of its early implementation was exhilarating.

These two senses of Thamesmead ‚ÄĒ coexisting interpretations of it as dystopian and utopian ‚ÄĒ are now in open warfare against each other. The social housing provider Peabody has unveiled a proposal to demolish the Lesnes Estate, an area of almost 600 homes located just to the south of Southmere Lake. However, residents are fighting to save the estate, protesting against both the loss of their own homes and the nature of their proposed replacement. Beyond this David-and-Goliath struggle, though, their conflict is a microcosm of a broader battle in British social housing: one which pits developers‚Äô ambitions to radically redevelop estates against both the interests of those who live in them and the model of communal living they symbolise.

Here, the chief protagonist ‚ÄĒ they certainly wouldn‚Äôt consider themselves the villain of the piece ‚ÄĒ is Peabody, one of our largest social housing providers and the organisation that was seen to be coming to the rescue of Thamesmead when it took over its management back in 2014. By then, the Thamesmead project was widely judged to have failed. Its population stood at 32,000, around half of the 60,000 originally planned. The new town seemed remote and forlorn; to some, most pejoratively, even a kind of giant ‚Äúsink estate‚ÄĚ inhabited by people housed from waiting lists lacking the choice or opportunity to live somewhere better.

This was a sad betrayal of the visionary planning that had inspired Thamesmead‚Äôs early construction. The difficult site prone to flooding was treated as a chance to create water features; Southmere Lake, for example, provided drainage as well as recreation. There was even talk of ‚Äúbeing able to travel by punt right across the site along four and a half miles of canals‚ÄĚ. The first-floor walkways, ‚Äústreets in the sky‚ÄĚ, and ground-floor garaging of the Lesnes Estate blocks in the first phase South Thamesmead‚Äôs development reflected this location too, but also the contemporary planning ideal that cars and people should be separated for what seemed obvious reasons of health and safety.

What still excites, however, is the form of the 1,500 homes built around Southmere Lake in this phase of construction. Four 13-storey towers line the southern edge of the lake adjacent to a (since demolished) ziggurat-style, half-mile long spinal block along Binsey Walk and Coralline Walk, forming a barrier between its eastern shore and the arterial A2401, all constructed in the gleaming white concrete panels of the Balency system of prefabrication. The artists’ impressions and early photographs of Thamesmead would surely turn the head of even the most hardened traditionalist. So, what went wrong?

The conventional explanation for Thameside‚Äôs failure is straightforward. The new town was isolated by the abandonment of projected transport connections to Greater London via an extension to the Jubilee Line and a new river crossing. The failure to provide facilities within the scheme was equally damaging: the first residents moved in 1968, the first school in the same year and the health centre two years later ‚ÄĒ but incredibly the first shops not till 1971. Momentum faltered and decline set in. In any case, later phases pursued a far more conventionally suburban pattern of design and construction though possibly one better fitted to popular tastes.

Thamesmead suffered a confused period of governance after Margaret Thatcher‚Äôs abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 until the promised revival of Peabody‚Äôs takeover in 2014. Its ‚Äúplan for Thamesmead [was] simple ‚ÄĒ to create an amazing place that people love to work in, to visit, and of course, call home‚ÄĚ. It‚Äôs hard to take issue with that ‚ÄĒ but how has it done? The most significant and positive change has been the arrival at Abbey Wood in 2022 of the Elizabeth Line, reducing the time taken to travel to central London to a mere 30 minutes. There‚Äôs also serious talk of a DLR connection from Beckton to Thamesmead itself. ‚ÄúThis southeast London estate is the buzzing next neighbourhood to be,‚ÄĚ Metro gushed in September 2023.

Since one of its oft-stated aims is ‚Äúthe creation of a more mixed community at South Thamesmead‚ÄĚ, this must have been music to the ear of Peabody. But, as always, the devil is in the detail and implementation. What does that ‚Äúmore mixed community‚ÄĚ look like in the context of plans to demolish the Lesnes Estate? It means the construction of 1,849 homes to replace the 596 to be cleared. It means directly the replacement of 411 social and ‚Äúaffordable‚ÄĚ rent homes with 368 of which 307 are to be let at ‚ÄúLondon Affordable Rent‚ÄĚ and just 61 (intended for existing residents who wish to remain) at social rent.

Peabody makes three principal claims to reflect its sensitivity to this issue. Firstly, that the floor space dedicated to affordable housing is greater in the new scheme than in the existing estate. Secondly, in a dubious stretching of the term ‚Äúaffordable‚ÄĚ, that it will additionally be providing 279 homes for shared ownership. For all this pleading, the officers of the Greater London Authority concluded that the scheme failed to comply with the London Plan and resulted ‚Äúin a loss of affordable housing when assessed on a per unit and per habitable room basis‚ÄĚ.

Thirdly, and most disingenuously, Peabody suggests that residents have approved the scheme. In March 2020, 70% of residents approved (in a ballot in which two-thirds voted) the following statement: ‚ÄúAre you in favour of Peabody‚Äôs proposal to include Lesnes Estate in their regeneration plans for South Thamesmead?‚ÄĚ The glossy leaflet advertising the vote urged residents to ‚ÄúPlease read‚ÄĚ and to ‚Äúnot throw away, your estate, your future‚ÄĚ. The words ‚Äúdemolish‚ÄĚ, or ‚Äúdemolition‚ÄĚ, were conspicuously absent, however.

“Most disingenuously, Peabody suggests that residents have approved the scheme.”

That this was not by any means a vote for the current proposals is made clear by the protests that have erupted in recent weeks. Many residents, particularly those who have already bought their houses, are up in arms, complaining about the loss of homes in which they have invested so much, and the inadequate compensation offered to enable them to purchase elsewhere. The words of Dolorosa Buhari, 69, summarise their anger: ‚ÄúMost of us here are retired and we have worked our lives to pay and to say ‚Äėthis is our home‚Äô, and then Peabody come in to tell us we cannot live here and they want to take our property, offering peanuts.‚ÄĚ

The protest has also drawn the support of a wide range of housing activists opposed to the form of council -state regeneration in recent years ‚ÄĒ a familiar tale of ‚Äúdensification‚ÄĚ in which developers build significantly more ‚Äúunits‚ÄĚ (I‚Äôll use the jargon for once) and yet contrive a net loss of social rent housing; in which profits accrued by the sale of homes for purchase or private rental all too frequently fail to benefit existing residents, let alone the 300,000 households on social housing waiting lists in London and the 170,000 (half of them children) living in temporary accommodation. Peabody will resent the banners proclaiming ‚ÄúHousing for Need not Greed‚ÄĚ but they resonate strongly for the many displaced by estate regeneration.

Finally, at a time of climate crisis, should we really demolishing buildings ‚ÄĒ with all the loss of embodied carbon entailed ‚ÄĒ that could be effectively retrofitted to meet current environmental standards? Peabody have referred to the ‚Äúpoor quality and dated appearance‚ÄĚ of the current estate but residents testify to its comfort and structural soundness.

If the climate crisis offers a new challenge, the need to house all our people well remains a persistent one. Thamesmead reflects part of the ambitious attempt to meet that challenge after 1945; one element of a national programme that built on average 126,000 social rent homes annually between 1945 and 1979 and which provided what Conservative prime minister Theresa May called, in a 2018 speech to the National Housing Federation, the ‚Äúbiggest collective leap in living standards in British history‚ÄĚ.

At Thamesmead, there were obvious and avoidable planning missteps that undermined its potential, but it has suffered equally from the perfect storm of circumstances that have undermined and marginalised social housing more broadly in recent decades. The statutory right to social housing given in 1977 to those in ‚Äúpriority need‚ÄĚ was a well-intentioned and progressive measure. However, in a subsequent era when social housing stock was sharply reduced by Right to Buy (well over 300,000 social rent homes have been lost in London alone) and the near cessation of new-builds, it has led to what sociologists call the ‚Äúresidualisation‚ÄĚ of social housing ‚ÄĒ the perception that it is, sometimes the belief that it should be, housing of last resort.

It has never been that to the millions who have benefitted from the decent, secure and affordable homes it has offered; it is not that now to the many in desperate housing need. We must build a new generation of social rent homes supported by direct public investment ‚ÄĒ expenditure that by every rational calculation saves far money in the long-term than it costs in the short-term. We need more homes and we need more social housing. The plans and protests at the Lesnes Estate illustrate precisely why the former should not be achieved at the expense of the latter.


John Boughton is the author of Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing and the blog Municipal Dreams.

MunicipalDreams

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Arthur G
Arthur G
10 days ago

Every government housing development in the West ends in a disaster, just like every other attempt at centrally planned economies. Communities need to be allowed to grow organically. Loosen zoning, build infrastructure, provide subsidies, but for God’s sake don’t let the Gov’t or some high-brow architects plan anything.

Alexander Thirkill
Alexander Thirkill
9 days ago
Reply to  Arthur G

Hmmmmn, there are lots of good public housing schemes. But then these were the ones people bought.

I used to live in an excellent maisonette in Wimbledon. Ex council. It was built to withstand nuclear attack.

Obviously the former tenant bought it for loose change and he retired to Ireland and our rent topped up his pension.

Mr O’Leary. We never met him. Absentee IRISH landlord!

The place was nice though, as was the whole road.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
9 days ago

There are several truisms that simply explain the failures of centrally planned social housing.

The architects and planners will never live in the units they design and therefore they safely apply more theory and less empericism to their grand plans. Quite literally these are academic projects and academia rarely survives contact with reality. Dehumanising architecture results.

Milton Friedman correctly observed that people spending other people’s money on behalf of someone else will care neither for cost nor quality. Shoddy built housing results.

And if you don’t own it, if you suffer no loss from abusing it, you won’t treat it very well at all. Neglect results.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
9 days ago

‘We’ don’t need more homes, the English populaton is gently declining. New social housing is entirely for the benefit of the 10 million foreign immigrants we have accrued over the last 20 years.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 days ago
Reply to  Anthony Roe

Grow up. We are children of immigrants, it’s just that recent immigrants tend to be more hard-working, more entrepreneurial, and more family orientated.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
9 days ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Both my grandfathers fought in the war, one thankfully still alive. They contributed the taxes and labour that built the social housing, hospitals and schools we used to enjoy. Both were driven to despair that their country, towns and streets were now filled with foreign tongues, clothes and manners. Prehaps they were too lazy, selfish and narrow-minded, i’ll ask.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 days ago
Reply to  Anthony Roe

I’m sure they were brave and hardworking men. And hopefully having seen foreign lands accepted that we are all human, and different languages, clothes, and manners are not important.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 days ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Is it extraordinary how so many progressive liberals simply do not see the culture matters enormously. We end up with the absurd contradictions of “decolonisation” while at the same time trying to impose western progressive values, such as for example the acceptance of homosexuality (by the way I’m a gay man) on our former colonies or Muslim States.

50% of British Muslims believe that gay sex should be illegal note not disapprove of homosexuality – that would be about 95% – but believe it should be made illegal.

Whichever way you look at it, and whatever view you take on the substantive issues, there is simply a huge difference between that and the views of the white population, even the supposedly “socially conservative” voters of the Red Wall seats.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 days ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

The demographic point made was absolutely correct. You repeat the absurd nonsense that Britain historically was a mass immigration society. It was not.

Also it’s undoubtedly true that many migrants work hard, but when we talk about the (vast) levels of net migration happening at the moment, only a minority are coming here to work; most are NOT workers. They bring their families with them who are mostly not working and entitled to all the benefits the state provides

Alexander Thirkill
Alexander Thirkill
9 days ago
Reply to  Anthony Roe

Well, people live longer and families more likely to divorce.

My own set up has my ex and kids in a house, me in a two bed flat and my partner by herself in a large 3 bed house. My Mum in a 4 bed house.

I expect a lot of migrant families and folk live with increased… Efficiency… Nay over-crowding

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 days ago

Social housing and social mobility are in direct conflict. I learnt with some surprise, a few years ago, that council house tenants have the right to pass their tenancy on to their children. So a new council house could easily be occupied by one family for, say, 80 years without any reassessment of whether the tenant needs taxpayer support for their housing needs.