How poor maintenance of London's social housing created the conditions for its demolition

By Charlie Clemoes

In housing, maintenance is more important than design: if this were more often acknowledged, then the lifespan of many social houses could be drastically extended.

But instead, their inadequacy and rapid dilapidation is typically blamed on poor design – either due to modernist architecture’s excessive social engineering, or due to the overreach of post-war local and national governments, racing to build more houses at an ever decreasing cost. To this way of thinking, post-war social housing was an unmitigated mistake and given the chance it should be replaced with something better.

The importance of maintenance could not be clearer in the case of a pair of estates in South London, both built in the 1970s under the oversight of Lambeth council’s chief architect, the late Ted Hollamby were both highly praised upon their completion, particularly for the Scandinavian-influenced humanist architecture prevalent in the design. In the past few years, both have been under threat of demolition.

On its website, Lambeth council makes the reasonable claim that the estates need to be regenerated because the houses are in such a state of disrepair. But this raises the question of how these housing developments fall so rapidly into this state in the first place.

A view of the Central Hill estate. Image: Charlie Clemoes. 

It could be that those originally praising the estates were wrong and they were not built to last. But it could also be due to poor maintenance, which created the conditions for the demolition threat.

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More than enough has been said to support the former argument: the narrative of the utopian modernist block turned sink estate is seared into popular imagination to the point where evidence is no longer required to prove it. But to support the opposing argument, there is also plenty of evidence that the estates were indeed well designed. There is evidence, too, that they have not been properly maintained.

To build both estates, Hollamby drew upon a wide array of building expertise. Notwithstanding the array of architectural talent working on both projects, he also assembled a highly skilled construction team. The structural engineer, Ted Happold, later went on to work on the Sydney Opera House and set up a firm which worked on the Pompidou Centre. Meanwhile, Cressingham Gardens’ beautiful curved brickwork required the services of a master bricklayer, who was also employed in the construction of the staircase in Hampton Court Palace.

But it doesn’t take an architectural historian to notice the high design standards Hollamby kept to: you only need to walk around the estates.

With the benefit of a bright, early-autumn weekend, it was difficult to avoid marvelling at such a thoughtful design. Both estates demonstrate a style of building that hardly features in London any more. The overall feel is more countryside than city: there is space, conspicuous quiet, and numerous passageways are completely denied to the car, so that residents are able to traverse each estate free of the impatient demands of the motorist.

There is also an intimate engagement with local topography. In Central Hill, the hillside is used to shield the estate from the noise of the road above, and both estates are barely perceptible from a distance, being so well ensconced in the landscape.

In Cressingham Gardens, front doors face each other, kitchens face the passageways and the flats are in close proximity, all the better for neighbours to talk to one another and feel more connected to the wider estate.

Despite the high density, flats are also very spacious and both estates still manage to host bountiful green space. Most of these trees are older than the estates themselves – the homes were built around them. And the estates also leverage the surrounding parks to great effect: Central Hill falls within a green corridor stretching from Dulwich Common to Norwood Park via Crystal Palace, Cressingham Gardens opens out onto Brockwell Park.

This concern for greenery has proved to be one of the major areas of antagonism in Central Hill. Originally ivy grew out of raised beds planted along every passageway covering many of the estate’s walls, offering a cheap way of greening otherwise plain light-grey buildings. Several years ago the council approached the residents asking to cut this ivy back, on the assumption that it risked damaging the building’s structural integrity. Not wishing to create unnecessary conflict, the residents obliged, unaware that the ivy would be entirely removed. Any ivy that remains has had to be fought for.

Central Hill again. Image: Charlie Clemoes. 

It is hard not to see this as a wilful erosion of Central Hill’s aesthetic value. And this feels all the more apparent in the case of waste disposal on the estate, which had gotten so bad when I visited that there was a massive pile of rubbish right at the estate’s entrance. It’s not the kind of thing that you associate with an inner London borough.

But this is only the most evident problem among a catalogue of minor maintenance problems with both of the estates. Paving stones are in need of replacement and visibly unsafe, especially for older residents. None of the outside detailing looks like it has been replaced since the estates were finished. The zinc roofs of Cressingham Gardens are leaking in various places and the guttering needs to be replaced. An independent report has also noted the effect of poor tree maintenance on many non-structural and drainage problems. Together these oversights amount to a basic neglect.

So why have the estates not been properly maintained? There is an argument that their innovative design makes maintenance more difficult, requiring specialist skills and unusual materials. But this doesn’t take into account the litany of common, solvable issues mentioned above. 

In fact, the reasons are much more complicated and long-term, and they reveal how political the issue of maintenance can be.

Protesters at Cressingham Gardens. Image: Charlie Clemoes.

Estate under-maintenance is intimately linked to wider disinvestment of inner city areas throughout the 1970s and ’80s and the creeping return of development from the 1990s onwards. Throughout this time, those who remained in inner city social housing were first forgotten and then, as investment increased, deemed to be an obstacle. In the first case councils had no money to maintain their social housing stock; in the second, they had no desire to.  Adding further fuel to the decline of London’s social housing was the relative economic hardship of its occupants, who have often had neither the means nor the time to take maintenance into their own hands.

But hope remains when residents can collectively organise to redress the balance. While the fight to save these two estates is ongoing, recent news has emerged that Cressingham Gardens may be saved from demolition due to a High Court ruling that the council acted unlawfully in the consultation process. At the centre of this was the removal of three options available to residents which offered the possibility of refurbishment, leaving only the options of full or part demolition remaining.

This ruling could not have been achieved without an organised residents’ campaign, pursuing a collective legal case against demolition and accompanying this with a vocal public awareness campaign. At the centre of the argument was an appeal to the financial sense of refurbishment and maintenance – helped along by several revealing FOI requests on the risible sums spent on maintenance over the years.

All this offers hope that the equally energetic campaign to save Central Hill may be able to reverse Lambeth Council’s seemingly single-minded desire for demolition. Perhaps there’s hope, too, that similar campaigns can also arrest social housing’s all too rapid transition from construction to demolition by way of under-maintenance.

Charlie Clemoes has an in urban studies from UCL and is on the editorial staff of Failed Architecture. He tweets as @clemvp.

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