AN EXPERIMENT IN URBANISM

«It all started on 22 February 1989. A slip was put through our doors saying they were going to demolish the estate — no warning, no explanation, no nothing.»

Runcorn’s infamous Southgate estate lies in its dry dock; monumental and silent, boarded up, with wood filling every porthole window. Demolition began on 1 August after fifteen of its predicted twenty-one years of service. Most residents have already been transferred to other estates. And although 310 families have opted to stay on, the residents’ campaign to save the estate has now been clearly lost and abandoned.

Demolition was decided upon in 1989 after Merseyside Improved Homes (MIH), a voluntary housing association, Inherited Southgate from the now-disbanded Development Corporation (DEVCO). A subsidy was awarded by the Department of the Environment (DoE) for 300 new houses to be built Southgate currently has 1,355 dwellings.

In the beginning, things were very different. «When they first started shipping people out here from Liverpool, you had to have two references,» says Tom Webb of the Residents’ Association. Angela Phillipson also remembers the hopeful days, when making a fresh start in Runcorn seemed a lucky break, «I’ve been on this estate for thirteen years and ft was lovely for the first four or five years, before it started going downhill.»

The estate was designed to be serviced by the district beating system, providing twenty-four hour heating and hot water, the cost of which was included in the rent. The system is acknowledged to have met contemporary standards of heating and insulation at the time of construction, but soon gave rise to severe problems, not least the huge financial output. In 1986 DEVCO installed pre-payment meters for each dwelling. Tony Smith, a local community worker, says; «The heating was terrible. Then they put in a ticket system so that residents had to go and buy their own heating each week, but it was too expensive. People started keeping windows shut, so damp and condensation started really badly. Now the tickets cost £4.25 for 200 watts, they last between thirty-six and forty-eight hours. Before the heating used to cost £7.50 for a whole week of twenty-four-hour heating. That was if you were on the dole. Otherwise it was about E9, and of course people started moaning if they were going out to work all day and had to pay more for heating they weren’t using.

«Also DEVCO wouldn’t even let you use an electric heater,» adds Tent Webb, «But the concrete’s jus too cold — it’s terrible insulation.»

Some of the flats are black throughout with mould and damp, but when Jackie Owen made constant complaints she found DEVCO uncooperative. «All the walls are black, and my baby’s clothes are completely mouldy. I spoke to DEVCO but they just told me to rub the walls down with raw bleach. Great!»

The tenants’ resentment of DEVCO’s management is blatant. «It is not unusual to wait five years for one repair to be done here.» says Tom Webb. Tony Smith recalls that, «It took them four-and-a-half years to come and fix my window catch, and when they eventually came, they said that my type of screws were no longer made.»

Could these complications alone have turned this estate from a two-reference-desirable into what Cheshire County Council has called the worst family-stress estate in the country? According to Tom Webb, «It all started when residents had problems with the heating and management; if anyone could afford to move off the estate, they did. Once it was half-empty, Liverpool Social Services started dumping people with any social problems here — ten to fifteen mites away from their families in Pier Head, If you’ve got problems, you need your family and friends around. They filled the ‘C’ Decks with single people. Probably only a minority had drug problems, but drug problems and prostitution did start.»

«There have been advantages and disadvantages to living here», says Tony Smith. «I don’t think the layout of the place is such a problem, it’s just the density — it’s too high for such a small area. And let’s be honest, most people just want a bog-ordinary house with a front door, a bit of a garden, and square windows. That’s just the way it is.» Others are less damning. «The design of the squares worked, but you’ve got to look after a place. Now the greenery has grown so high you can’t see your kids playing out there — it’s all tall bushes and broken glass.»

The porthole windows were liked by some but, as Tom Webb points out, «The catches are too high, My missus has to climb on to the kitchen sink to get to them — she’s only small. You get an eight-and-a-half-month pregnant woman and it’s just not on. It’s not a major problem, but these things add up.»

The fact that there is only one entrance and one exit is a major problem. «Its perfect for the police,» says Tom Webb, «but not the residents. But then the police have done nothing to improve their relations with this estate. They send the young ones to hang around the entrance and do their training.»

For those who have chosen to stay the pew houses now can’t come soon enough, although there is resentment at hew few are planned. MIH and their commissioned architects Wilkinson Hindle Halsall Lloyd Partnership (WHHL) are, responsible for their construction: following the success of WHHL’s Eldonian Village (winner of the 1983 RIGA Community Award Scheme and the Charles Douglas Home Award in 1987), and previous fruitful working relations with MIH, hopes are high.

The primary criterion for each stage of the project is a strong commitment to the residents. «These people have been prodded and poked about for years. The reason we get on so well with them is that it’s the first time someone has bothered to sit down and ask them what they want,» says David Wilkinson of WHHL. But he resists architectural criticism of the estate. «I think the quality of Southgate is exceptionally high; it’s the technical problems that were never addressed. I’d very much like to save one of Stirling’s squares if I could.» He does not, however, accept the idea of the architect as divine individual. «Such an arrogance we had, that we could solve all the social problems in the new utopia of post-war Britain -imposing our ideas onto people who then had to live with them,»

After demolition, residents will not be living on the majority of Southgate. The new houses are confined to the land at the entrance of the estate, where two large blocks (Falcon’s View and Kestrel’s View) stood, and the area of soon-to-be-gone «Legoland» plastic houses to the south. The vast area of concrete blocks and squares (now referred to as «Phase D») is to be retained by the landlord — still the Commission for Hew Towns (CNT) -for private housing, though the residents are concerned that housing may not remain a priority if bids are not forthcoming.

CNT’s approval also has to be sought for MIH’s plans. «But basically, their attitude is ‘do what you want with those 300 houses’,» says Wilkinson. «We also need authorization from Halton Borough Council, but their attitude is exactly the same.»

The new scheme consists of brick-built, pitched-roofed houses in Brookside-style closes — a far cry from the concrete blocks. «Whatever anyone says,» asserts Wilkinson, «people like to stand in front of their home and define their space, not which window is theirs.»

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