Just south of London’s financial district, on the other side of the Thames River stands the Heygate estate, a mammoth public housing block that once housed over 3,000 people. Completed in 1974, the estate was designed by Tim Tinker in classic brutalist style (read: concrete concrete concrete), with elevated walkways connecting four gargantuan tower blocks overlooking maisonettes with gardens. The estates were conceived to best suit the needs of many different kinds of people: ground floor flats and maisonettes were for families and elderly people, singles lived in the apartments. Many trees were planted and communal green space link the homes throughout. At the time, the majority of England lived in social housing and the estates were very popular with the vibrant and diverse community housed there.
When Margaret Thatcher came into power, the home-ownership dream swept the nation, and public housing stopped being built and maintained. As time passed, the estate suffered an image problem, when the media and the government began stigmatizing social housing blocks and tenants. Council estate communities everywhere became labelled as criminal; dilapidated buildings in need of repairs became responsible for ‘anti-social behavior’ and needed to be destroyed. In a mere 30 years, the estate went from being considered a modern housing utopia to a ‘sink estate’. The story of the Heygate is in many ways the story of public housing in the UK.
Seeing an opportunity to clean up the area and offload its debt, Southwark Council has selected developers Lend Lease to pursue a £1.5 billion regeneration scheme, made up primarily of luxury flats for sale, and no social rented homes.
Today, nearly all of the estate’s 1,300 homes are boarded up and set for demolition.
A couple friends of mine live in one of the few remaining inhabited homes. It’s a surreal experience visiting them, drinking tea in the garden, surrounded by colossal sealed off buildings, the estate completely deserted.
The Heygate is secluded from traffic and surrounding streets, so it’s very peaceful. Large trees line the alleys and dominate the courtyards, their leaves changing with the seasons. Over the past few years, current and past residents and neighbors have created a community garden. There’s a pond and before the foxes got wise to them, there used to be chickens too.
Map by Rebecca Davies
It’s a beautiful place, really. Calm, green, peaceful, and seeing so many homes boarded up, is devastating.
The Council started evicting residents in 2006, smashing up toilets, removing pipes, and sealing off the homes with big metal panels to ensure no one would return. Policemen with dogs patrol regularly during the day and throughout the night. One part of the estate has already been demolished, another is gated off; the rest lies waiting. Such violent acts have been justified to clear out the area of “undesirables” and regenerate the area for a more affluent class. This is trickle-down redevelopment and it’s increasingly how working class and poor areas are dealt with in UK cities: destroy the homes, replace the community.
The demolition of the Heygate estate marks not only the death of a vibrant community, but of the post-war ideal of building homes for everyone. It symbolizes the displacement of working class people out of desirable inner-city areas, the rise of the home-ownership society and the stigmatization (and thus necessary destruction) of social rented housing and its occupants.
Here is a moving short film by David Reeve (at mystreetfilms.com) about Doreen, one of the residents in the Heygate. She talks about her neighbors and the Council’s attempt to “introduce a better class of people” to the neighborhood.
Many are still fighting the demolition and are exploring sustainable and community-driven alternatives to the redevelopment scheme. For more information, visit my friends at Better Elephant and Southwark Notes and support their campaign!
You can also listen to this great piece co-produced by a friend, Chris Wood and Stephanie Hegarty for NTS Radio in London, here.