|The iconic Byker Wall (source)|
The first is that I have happy memories of the estate. My sister was a landscape architect working on Byker with Ralph Erskine in the 1970s when the estate was redesigned and the synonymous wall was built. She lived on the estate as part of her work, and I went there a few times, often with my then girlfriend, of whom I also have happy memories, but those are for another time and place...
As an A-level geography student I remember being curious about - and then inspired by - the community-centric way in which Erskine and his team went about the design and redevelopment. I sat in community meetings, heard first-hand the debates about the design, the phasing and the costs. Over a period of a couple of years, I saw proud residents moving into new homes in a fresh community they had helped create.
I'm sure that the process had its moments, but it seemed to me to be a real partnership between the professionals and local people, both sharing the same objective and recognising the unique strengths that each partner brought to the table. Who knows, perhaps those days set the seed for the career choices I subsequently made and my continuing belief that strong partnerships between professionals and communities are vital, but oh so hard to get right.
The second memory is less sweet and that is of Byker's dream turning sour in the 1980s. As with other projects of its time (eg James Stirling's famous Southgate Estate in Runcorn) innovation in design and development proved not to be enough. Those new communities - whether in the New Towns that Southgate was part of, or in inner cities like Byker - needed innovative management as well. It’s a real lesson for innovators, who are notoriously less good at follow-through, that they must leave equally robust and innovative management arrangements if their exciting concepts and designs are to last beyond a generation.
This point really came home to me as I was in Urbis a few year's ago, looking at a Will Alsop concept of high-speed maglev trains flitting between giant living pods in Hull and Liverpool on elevated monorails, making a night out in either only a 15 minute train ride away - just imagine if National Express Trains had won that franchise! And there is relevance of this lesson for social housing today, where management regimes for tower blocks, walk-up flats and even sheltered schemes may have changed only slightly over 30 years, the nature of the residents and their expectations has changed dramatically.
The third thing is that Grant Shapps has claimed that the Byker transfer is a success for the Big Society. The solution proposed for Byker's endemic problems was demolition, yet residents opposed this. Shapps has applauded the efforts of tenants who "never took no for an answer", who campaigned for control of their neighbourhood and who have finally won that campaign getting government debt of over £40 million written off in the process. It’s a stock transfer, but "not as we know it Jim"; it's much smaller than most, in a tight geography; with training and job creation for local people as the means to delivering the much-needed improved homes. And won't that help stabilise the Community Trust's rental income? But Shapps is younger than me, so he certainly doesn’t remember, and may not even know, that the 1970's Byker was also an example of Big Society in action. What goes around, comes around...