The Heygate Estate is located in the South London borough of Southwark. It stretches from Walworth Road to New Kent Road and at one time was home to 1,200 families, having been completed in 1974 as part a major regeneration project that was started in the 1960s.
In the 1930s, the site was occupied by suburban streets lined with Victorian tenement houses, but after substantial damaged sustained as a result of German bombing during the Second World War, the area was littered with bombsites and many of the families who had been living there found themselves without suitable housing. Some years later, the council commissioned a review of residences on the site and came to the conclusion that rather than attempt housing-repairs, the best solution would be to demolish and rebuild.
The report into housing conditions recommended that the demolition take place with the following remark:
“demolish these antiquated tenements, and put in their place homes where the people of Southwark can be both healthy and happy”
Many of the residents contested the compulsory purchase of their homes, despite what had been identified in the report as ‘ever-worsening conditions’. Many of the residents of the streets earmarked for demolition saw their homes a large capital investment and were therefore reluctant to accept the offer that had been made by the council. Despite reservations by many local people, and huge cost to the council, the planned build of the Heygate estate went ahead.
Upon completion in 1974, the Heygate, along with neighbouring estates such as the Aylesbury, was seen to represent a new era, a hope for the future. It aimed to provide clean and safe housing and the chance to rebuild a sense of community between the residents. For many, it was the first time they had had access to indoor washing facilities as well as mod cons such as central heating.
The Heygate did not just make promises of in terms of physical living conditions, the aim was to provide for all areas of the new residents lives. The estate laid claim to play areas for children as well as outdoor garden space and an NHS doctor had a surgery on site. It was this holistic vision for the lives of those living on the Heygate that seemed to indicate its inclusive, utopian aspirations.
Come the 1990s, the estate had begun to run into problems. High levels of crime and anti-social activity were being reported, with the press labeling the nearby Aylesbury as a ‘Mugger’s paradise’. It has been cynically suggested that the label of problem estate only came about after the site had been identified as a lucrative site for redevelopment and that through the council allowing crime dramas and films about youth culture and violence to use it as a filming location, it gained an unfair reputation as a hot spot of illegal activity.
In 1998, the council employed a consultancy firm to carry out a survey of the estate and explore different options for refurbishment and regeneration. The report confirmed that the buildings were structurally sound, and provided estimated costs for several different levels of repair/refurbishment Among these options were ‘Maintenance & Repair’ at an estimated cost of £7.2m and ‘Complete demolition’ at £8.5m.
What the report failed to mention and account for was that the cost of the decanting the estate prior to its demolition. Estimates have put this so far at over £35m. It has cost over £25m alone to buy out the existing leaseholders, despite them being forced to accept what many see as outrageously low valuations for their homes (as low as £32,000 for a 1 Bedroom flat.)
In March 2002 regeneration plans collapse after the council failed to come to an agreement with their ‘preferred development partner’ Southwark Land Regeneration. Since 2007 the council has been in discussion with Lend Lease and a Regeneration agreement was signed off in 2010. There has been discussion with the residents, but many feel that their opinion has not been listened to and any consultations have been a formality. If we look at the disputes currently taking place between Southwark Council and the last remaining residents of the Heygate estate, and those that went on when the site was cleared to make way for the Heygate, there is an unnerving sense of déjà vu.
It is this pattern, the identification of problems within the space and the attempts to solve them, not by any investment in the social relations that already exist within the space but by trying to artificially install an identity on the area by means of architectural intervention that makes this site of particular interest to us and indicates why it formed the geographical and theoretical starting point of the NEOgate project.
Demolition of estate began earlier this year and is earmaked for completion in 2015.