In defence of... Telford

The Southwater development, Telford. Image: Richard Law/Wikimedia Commons.

A little over 50 years ago, the British government decided to designate a “new town” in the rural county of Shropshire, taking in the smaller towns of Dawley, Oakengates, and Wellington. Thirty miles north west of Birmingham, it helped to deal with the increasing urban sprawl, and eased congestion, in the West Midlands. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went to school in Newport – another one of these towns which forms the borough of Telford & Wrekin. 

Telford is unusual amongst New Towns, in that it took in sizeable pre-existing settlements. As Labour councillor Concepta Cassar explains: “Although Telford is classed as a new town, it’s one built on the venerable shoulders of a number of far older towns that have as much, if not more, history and character as other towns and cities in the UK.”

“In the early days of Telford’s history in the 1960s, Telford was going to be called Dawley New Town. But Dawley itself goes back to the Domesday Book and is one of the oldest settlements in Shropshire.” In the end, it was named after the engineer Thomas Telford, hugely influential in developing the infrastructure of the county.

There’s been a lot of investment into Telford in recent years. As of summer 2019, the new “Fashion Quarter” is deep into development, with the likes of Next and New Look moving from their previous plots to larger builds. The showy Southwater area just outside the shopping centre, which opened in 2014, cost £250 million, and hosts the usual chain restaurants: Nando’s, Bella Italia, Zizzi. Asda moved from a large plot inside the centre to a standalone supermarket opposite the bus station. Think Birmingham’s attempts to move away from a concrete jungle landscape, but on a smaller scale.

There’s also been a new bus station to replace one that had long been looking exhausted. “Areas like the bus station are extremely important for residents across the borough,” explains Concepta, “Though I hope that in time we will see change at a national level that prioritises municipal control of bus services so that they can serve the public and not profit.”

But for all of this investment, the centre of Telford feels slightly uninspiring. Bleak consumerism – grandiose shopping quarters slap bang in the intersection of numerous small towns. Nearby Shrewsbury, Shropshire’s county town, has a rich history and picturesque town centre with pedestrianised shopping areas alongside a couple of indoor shopping centres. They might not have the sheer volume of shops that Telford can offer, but the experience feels more natural.

Cassar is full of praise for the town centre, highlighting the green spaces that still remain: “There are many fine achievements to celebrate in the centre of town,” she says, “including Telford Town Park which has received the International Green Flag Award for the fifth year running. This forms part of a vast network of green spaces and corridors which really bring home why it was referred to as a ‘forest town’ in the early days of the new town.”

Although not a ‘garden city’, this combination of urbanisation and green spaces can work well for residents who desire a mix of the two. For people who have lived in the area prior to the New Town being built, there’s been a definite transformation over time. For long-time resident Mick Balshaw, “Telford has changed to the point that if someone had been away for 20 or 30 years, they wouldn’t know the place.”

I ask him if he thinks there’s been a loss of character in the town, with local shops closing down as ASDA, Aldi and Lidl prevail, but he sees Telford as no different to anywhere else. “They have definitely lost out to the big boys, but it’s down to internet shopping, and who wants to walk down a rainy high street when you have an indoor shopping centre?”

Mick has lived in Lawley Village for nearly 60 years. One of the smaller towns that make up Telford, it’s had its own bit of redevelopment in recent years. With a large Morrisons supermarket in the centre of town, new build houses, and an eyecatching primary academy, it showcases the best of what Telford can offer. Likewise, Madeley, in the south of the town near the famous Ironbridge contains two secondary academies built in the last ten years, and a plethora of shops and eateries, from Aldi and Lidl to KFC and Tesco, though a few independent stores still stand strong. 

Telford is a polarised town with its fair share of issues. Earnings are lower than the national average, and a number of areas make the top 10 per cent most deprived in the country. Local MP Lucy Allan is a fervent Tory Brexiteer, and under her watch Telford is set to lose it’s A&E centre, meaning that residents will need to travel to Shrewsbury. 

It’s interesting to compare Telford to other new towns. Milton Keynes is considered something of a success story as far as new towns go, with its gridsquares and redways. It might also be without much character or antiquated charm – just ask any supporter of AFC Wimbledon for their thoughts – but economically speaking, it’s one of the most successful cities in the UK and perhaps the clear winner of the ‘new town’ project. It’s all well and good for a town like Telford to have glitzy shopping quarters, but when vital services are being closed down, you have to stop and think about what the residents would actually prefer. 

All these years later, in Boris’s Brexit Britain, can we say that Telford has been a success? “There is an awful lot of history of which to be proud in modern-day Telford,” says Cassar, and she’s not wrong. Despite the issues of deprivation which still lie in the town, there is a concerted effort to improve, and it seems that despite the occasional Lucy Allan-influenced flashback, it is gradually happening.

Or as Mick puts it: “I have lived in Telford for 59 years and can honestly say it’s is a better place to live now.”

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.