7.2 Housing


Underlying Principles

The principles of strong neighbourhood and accessibility underlie the overall structure of housing in Runcorn. Its form is essentially a series of residential communities surrounding a park, linked by a rapid transport route and arranged so that the majority of people live within easy walking distance of a bus stop and community facilities.

As part of its objective of achieving unity between all the elements of the town, the Master Plan proposed a planned balance between public and private transport. Runcorn was indeed one of the first new towns to explore such a principle, which resulted from the desire to make all parts of the town accessible from one another and to create close knit residential communities with a strong sense of identity and belonging.

The arrangement of the public transport system and the facilities which have been developed for the non-car using sector of the population have had a profound impact on the location, size, layout and the density of housing areas.

Location and Size

The principle underlying the public transport system was that the majority of people would live within 5 minutes walking distance or 458 metres (500 yards) of a bus stop on a route reserved exclusively for buses.

Thus evolved the characteristic 'figure of eight' bus-only route with residential areas arranged in a linear form on either side.

The new residential areas were to be located on the higher undulating ground to the east of the existing built up area and planned around a central park.

Because of the extent of the town, local centres were proposed for each residential area which would cater for the everyday shopping, social and community needs of the population. The size of these communities in terms of population was subsequently determined by two main factors, the requirement to live within easy walking distance of the local centre and bus stop and by the economic provision of a range of social facilities.

In studying the relationship between social and commercial facilities and population, the Plan concluded that the economic provision of these facilities, which could include shops, social clubs, churches and pubs, in a central location, would allow a community of some 8,000 to be within easy walking distance. Secondary schools and clinics would serve two communities of 16,000.

Residential communities were further sub-divided into four neighbourhood units of 2,000 housed in a variety of residential groups.

Population and Housing Targets

In common with many other new towns, it was the need to rehouse people living in poor housing conditions which was the major driving force behind the decision to create Runcorn New Town. In this case, the main source of immigration was the decaying rows of back to back houses and inter-war Council estates in parts of North Merseyside. The population of Merseyside was expanding at that time and there was a desperate need for a housing programme which could rehouse the incoming population as quickly as possible.

The initial target population of 70,000 by 1979, suggested by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, was anticipated to rise to 100,000 by the end of the Century. There was an existing population of between 27,000 and 30,000 and the immigrant population was therefore likely to be in the order of 40,000 to 45,000.

Assumptions about the characteristics and the anticipated composition of the incoming population allowed initial predictions to be made about the number of households, their type and distribution throughout the period of immigration. This in turn, enabled an accommodation schedule to be developed showing the number and types of dwelling required in the early building programme.

With an average household size of 3.5 projected for 1975, there was a need to house 11,500 households. This was translated into a housing requirement of some 12,000 dwellings.

A variety of dwelling types was proposed to cater for a range of households and household sizes, although it was anticipated that the greatest demand during the period of immigration would be for family dwellings. These, previous experience had shown, would come from an incoming population dominated by skilled workers in the 20 to 49 age group. Over 50% of dwellings in this category would be for 3/4 persons and a further 20% for families with 5 or more.

New town populations by their very nature display different characteristics to those of mature towns, showing large numbers of families with young children in the early years of immigration and consequently fewer teenagers and elderly people.

Densities and Tenure

In order to accommodate the 8,000 population which would live within easy walking distance of the local centres, and without compromising the high environmental standards which the Plan envisaged, an average density of 163 persons per hectare (66 persons per acre) was required. This average covered considerable variation from 198 persons per hectare (80 persons per acre) around local centres to 124 per hectare (50 per acre) elsewhere.

High population density was also necessary to achieve the population and housing targets set by the Master Plan and to leave sufficient space for the development of housing to cater for natural expansion, after the initial rapid build up of population.

The considerable land requirements of the transport and open space systems were further factors contributing to the high densities in housing areas.

The Development Corporation embarked upon a building programme aimed at providing some 12,000 dwellings by 1979. This would comprise, broadly, 9,000 for rent and 3,000 for development by the private sector.

Although most of the housing in the early years would be for rent, there would be small pockets of private housing. As the town became established and the demand for private houses grew it was anticipated that half of the houses in the new town would be privately owned by the end of the Century.

By 1989, some 4,000 private dwellings had been completed on a number of Development Corporation sites, the largest of which was in the Beechwood area of the town where over 1,500 houses were built.

Most of the current private house building activity is concentrated in the Sandymoor area to the north east of the new town. (picture) By 1990, there was a remaining capacity for over 1,500 dwellings on Sandymoor sites.

Development Progress

House construction commenced in 1966 at Halton Brook in close proximity to the new town centre. (picture) Consent to build was given in advance of approval of the Master Plan in view of the great urgency of the housing situation in Liverpool.

From Halton Brook it gradually developed in a ring to the north and west of the town centre progressing eastward and further away as the programme gained in momentum.

The emphasis was very much on speed of construction and there was considerable reliance in the early years on non-traditional and system building techniques.

Construction at Halton Brook was quickly followed by development at The Brow, begun during 1967. The first house at Castlefields was completed in 1970, Halton Lodge and Palace Fields in 1971, Southgate in 1973, Brookvale in 1974, Murdishaw in 1975, Windmill Hill in 1978, Ellesmere Street in 1980 and Norton Cross in 1986.

Construction in the rented sector was rapid, reaching a peak during 1974 when some 1300 houses were built. The rented housing programme was finally complete by 1981.

Although the development of private housing proceeded at a steady pace it did not make any major progress until the early 1970s, by which time an urban environment was becoming more evident. By the end of 1974, 746 houses had been completed and a further 172 were under construction.

A considerable degree of freedom was given to private housebuilders in order to ensure the highest possible rates of development. Perhaps as a consequence most of the earlier private housing tends to be unremarkable in terms of design and layout. One notable exception is the marina village at Preston Brook.

Despite the progress noted above, it was apparent by the early 1970s that the population and housing targets set for 1979 were not likely to be met and that a number of basic assumptions on which the original housing programme was made had proved inaccurate. The original estimate of the existing population had been too high, a revised occupancy rate reduced the original 1975 prediction form 3.5 to 3.14. There was a smaller net amount of suitable building land than had originally been shown on the Master Plan and it was concluded that the average density of 163 persons per hectare (66 persons per acre) was too high for the good environment that was sought. It was finally determined that the immigrant population by 1979 was more likely be in the order of 37,000 than the original target of 40,000 to 45,000.

There were also indications by the early 1970s that although the population of Merseyside did not appear to be growing, there was an increased demand for housing due to smaller family size and increased household formation.

All this pointed to the need for more houses and more land if original population and housing targets were to be realised. There would, additionally, be a further demand for housing after 1979 when the needs of second generation families and the nominees from new industry and commerce would become more apparent.

Infrastructure facilities, most notably the Busway, Expressway and Shopping City, had been designed for an eventual population target of 100,00, and there was also concern that these would not operate at maximum efficiency without the higher population levels originally envisaged.

The effect of the Second Amendment to the Master Plan was to revise the Development Corporation's programme of rented dwellings upwards from 9,000 to 10,500 and the private sector contribution downwards from 3,000 to 2,000.

As the remaining housing land at Murdishaw and Windmill Hill was not considered sufficient to accommodate this increase in the housing programme, additional residential land was sought. It was eventually made available in the north eastern sector of the town by the release of a large area of land formerly designated for industrial use. This provided capacity for a further 2,500 dwellings. The decision to allocate distribution by tenure was to be left until such times as development was ready to proceed.

By 1989 and the dissolution of Warrington and Runcorn Development Corporation, some 10,506 houses had been built for rent by the Development Corporation, 370 by Housing Associations(7) and 4,023 by private developers.

Housing Areas

Halton Brook was the first of the residential communities, begun in 1966. (picture) Each group of 10 houses was to have its own play space for toddlers and pedestrian ways converge on a large central open space, adjacent to which are shops and other social facilities. (picture) The initial contract was for 468 dwellings of rationalised traditional construction developed by the Midland Housing Consortium. These were selected for the purpose of producing housing quickly in advance of the Corporation evolving its own designs. The estate was built to a net residential density of 158 persons per hectare (64 persons per acre).

The estate was designed on the basis of a segregated layout by the Corporation's Chief Architect and Planner, Fred Lloyd Roche. Halton Brook is an example of a typical segregated layout of the Radburn(8) type. (picture)

The Local Centre was completed between 1968 and 1969 and the two primary schools between 1967 and 1970.

Halton Brow has probably attracted more interest and admiration than any other residential area in the new town. In many ways it represents a landmark in the design of housing estates which inspired not only other housing schemes but also new guidance on the design and layout of residential roads. (picture)

The brief upon which Development Corporation staff worked was for 350 houses to be built by traditional methods paying particular attention to landscape. Construction began in 1967.

The houses, built to Parker Morris standards(9), are of traditional construction of load bearing brickwork with mono pitch roofs of concrete slates. The estate comprises family houses and small bungalows for the elderly. Colours were designed to blend with the nearby village of Halton and the sandstone outcrop of Halton Rock. Net residential density was 170 persons per hectare (69 persons per acre).

The Brow was designed for people rather than cars, echoing the principles of the Dutch Woonerf(10), which does not seek to exclude cars from residential areas but ranks their needs subordinate to those of the pedestrian.

Houses are grouped in small courtyards and culs-de-sac and served by estate roads which are kept deliberately narrow and curved in order to reduce vehicle speed. Unlike many other residential developments, the road system does not dominate The Brow. Earth mounding, generous tree and shrub planting and winding paths all combine to create a residential environment which is full of interest and character. (picture) The profuse planting and rich deep red finish of the brickwork exude a warmth and add to the pleasant ambience of the development.

In its road design and landscape treatment, The Brow is an example of a concerted team effort, where all elements of the design were given equal consideration and, for the first time in Runcorn, the landscape section was established as a key member of the design group.

Some of the design team, writing later about their experiences, stressed the team commitment to getting every element of the design right. Mike Jenks, an architect on the scheme commented that, "where sensitive innovations occur, it seems to bear a close relationship to a continuous building programme and thus continuity of experience of both design and problems of housing management and a degree of specialisation - without this, retrograde schemes such as Southgate in Runcorn are likely to appear".

The primary school was completed in 1968 and the Local Centre in 1970.

Castlefields was by far the largest of the new town's developments comprising some 2,240 dwellings for a population of 8,400. It was at one time the largest industrialised building scheme in Europe, costing over £8 million. (picture)

Three basic types of accommodation were offered, namely, deck dwellings for smaller families, luxury 3 bedroom bungalows and, for larger families, 3, 4 or 5 bedroom, all constructed to Parker Morris standards.

Various promotional leaflets proclaimed Castlefields to be a new approach to the design of housing estates and offered the chance of a modern home with central heating and attractive fittings.

Arranged in a sweeping curve to take advantage of the natural slope of the hill, the deck access flats, with views out to the River Mersey to the north, were described in the promotional literature as 'streets in the sky'. (picture)

In proximity to the local centre, the decks were designed to provide a continuous covered route between home, shop and bus stop. Open spaces and play areas, linked by an extensive footpath network, break up an otherwise dense concentration of white/grey concrete. ()

Most of the flats are constructed of large panels of precast concrete, finished with white marble chippings. These panels, together with the internal walls and flat roofs of the houses, were factory made in an attempt to make house building quicker and cheaper.

By 1972, work had begun on the Palace Fields development which was eventually to house some 6,250 people.

An existing linear wood was developed by supplementary earth shaping and planting to form a central greenway which is the most prominent feature of the development. It is perhaps this feature and the incorporation of the former agricultural buildings of Hallwood Farm into the local centre which determined the predominantly traditional style and finish of the housing.

The houses in the first phase are laid out to Radburn principles, with informal groups of houses, accessed by cul-de-sac from the main estate road. (picture) A traditional atmosphere is fostered by the use of brown facing brick and low pitched concrete slate roofs. (picture)

The local centre, located fairly centrally, is arguably the most interesting and pleasant to be undertaken in Runcorn. Forming a long, low development which reflects the nearby barn, the shopping development incorporates studio flats above the shops and a sheltered housing complex nearby.

In the late 1960s, the Development Corporation commissioned the late Sir James Stirling, an architect of international repute, to design the Southgate estate. Located beside and linked to Shopping City, it was intended to be the Corporation`s most prestigious development, a 'flagship' which the Development Corporation`s General Manager thought "could very well set a new standard in housing design in this country".

The design comprised an estate of 1,100 deck access flats and maisonettes in five storey blocks finished in plain concrete (picture) and 255 timber framed two and three storey terraced blocks clad in bright orange and turquoise coloured plastic panels. The dwellings were flat roofed and were built using non-traditional materials and system building(11) techniques. (picture) The flats were constructed between 1969 and 1975 and the terraced houses between 1975 and 1977.

The layout of Southgate was intended to reflect the Georgian squares of Bath and Edinburgh. The porthole windows of the terraced houses echoed the 'maritime' origins of the majority of occupants who would come from Merseyside.

Just over 20 years after initial construction began the decision to demolish the estate was taken and, by 1993, the site was cleared.

Southgate demonstrated many of the design features of public housing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A catalogue of problems quickly developed to a point where, by the early 1980s, almost 30% of the estate stood empty at any one time. Houses became difficult to let, many tenants wanted to move out and the only ones who moved in were often those who had no choice about where they wanted to live.

Vandalism and graffiti were rife. The crime rate was alarming and for many residents the experience of life on Southgate became a nightmare. Its hostile, bleak and forbidding atmosphere earned it the reputation of the worst estate in Cheshire for crime, drugs and social deprivation. By the time Merseyside Improved Homes Housing Association took over the management of the estate for the Commission for the New Towns in 1989, it was only half full with many people living in appalling conditions.

Why the estate should have failed so miserably can be attributed to a number of different factors. The need to deliver a large population adjacent to the town centre led to a density which, at 289 persons per hectare (117 to the acre), was probably too high. The appearance and 'feel' of the estate was never liked.

The deck access flats were particularly unpopular and quickly became known as 'Concrete City'. The terraced houses, with their porthole windows, became known locally as the 'washing machines' and their brightly coloured plastic cladding earned them the nickname, both locally and nationally, of 'Legoland'. (picture)

Constructional and technical faults began to emerge. To these were added condensation problems once difficulties with the district heating(12) system became apparent and the price of oil began to rise. The heating system has in fact been cited as the biggest mistake in a catalogue of disasters surrounding the demise of the estate. The cost of deriving heat from the system led directly to rent increases and in turn to problems of lettability.

The sums of money being spent on an estate with a limited life expectancy, and which was always going to be unsatisfactory, eventually proved to be excessive and the decision to demolish was made.

Whilst James Stirling`s design clearly did not work, he was working to a very specific brief. In a statement made at the time of the decision to demolish in 1989, he said,

"Many of the large public housing estates of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies originated with a planning brief of very specific and comprehensive requirements, drawn up by local government officials and their planning advisers. These were given to architects as conclusive and essential criteria for their design proposals. They determined almost every aspect of the housing and were by far the largest contribution to the eventual appearance and environment of the estates."

Whatever the reasons behind the failure of Southgate, it is clear that the planning brief and the architect`s response to it must take a large share of the blame.

It was undoubtedly the bad experience of Southgate with its unconventional design which influenced the traditional design of Hallwood Park, the estate which has replaced Southgate.

By the time Merseyside Improved Homes took over management of Southgate for the Commission for the New Towns in 1989, the decision to re-develop the estate had been made. What emerged from the close spirit of co-operation which existed between the tenants and Merseyside Improved Homes is an award winning and highly prestigious estate on which some 554 new homes will eventually be built.

The emphasis is very much on the traditional with tried and tested techniques. Working closely with the architects, residents have contributed to the design and internal layout of the houses as well as to the external environment. (picture)

Traditional building methods are being used and the conventional layout consists of low-rise, one and two storey, semi-detached properties with front and rear gardens. (picture)

Whilst the transformation of the estate has been an enormous success, the 554 new homes are only a small proportion of the original 1,300 which Southgate once contained.

When Southgate was demolished, Runcorn lost 12% of its rented stock. There is therefore an urgent and continuing need to provide more socially rented housing.

One of the more novel private housing developments in Runcorn is located at Preston Brook opposite the marina, created on the Bridgewater Canal as part of the leisure facilities associated with the new town. (picture)

Built in a small group by Whelmar Homes during the 1970s, the houses are arranged around triangular open spaces and angled in such a way as to allow as many people as possible a view of the Canal. (picture)

Considerable variety exists within the development from small terraced groups to two and three storey houses linked by small projections and recesses. (picture) The informal and intimate groupings give a decidedly 'Mediterranean' feel to the development whilst the waterside connections are emphasised by the generous use of bargeboarding.

Design

It was envisaged that topography and other physical constraints would lead to residential areas of varied character, most of which would fall within the proposed community structure. Whilst the overall form of residential communities was designed to encourage social interaction and a sense of identity and belonging, so important for incomers into a brand new community, family privacy and the requirement for private open space was also emphasised.

The Master Plan recommended the grouping of houses in the form of culs-de-sac, courtyards or squares, each containing 30 to 60 houses of different types. This arrangement encouraged greater social interaction within each residential group and a sense of separate identity.

The broad locational aspects of the new residential areas were determined by topography, proximity to public transport and local centres and in the grouping of the residential areas around the town park and these were the background to residential design.

A plethora of architects, planners, landscape architects and road engineers were to apply their own detailed interpretation to the brief set by Arthur Ling. The opportunity to experiment with new layouts and methods of construction has led to the creation of a rich and varied residential landscape in which the response of a great many designers has contributed to a number of housing communities, each with its own particular style and identity.

In terms of dwelling type, the Master Plan recognised that a variety of styles including high rise and deck access flats may be necessary to achieve the required densities, particularly around the local centres and in those communities closest to the town centre. Flats could also be considered on sloping sites to permit as many people as possible to benefit from views. Elsewhere, bungalows, two-storey houses, maisonettes and low rise flats would provide the variety necessary to cater for all needs and choices, although high-rise blocks were discounted.

In putting the 'flesh' onto the structural framework created by Arthur Ling, the Development Corporation determined from the outset that Runcorn should develop a style and vernacular of its own. By encouraging a high standard of amenity and a distinctive character in the residential areas, it felt that the worst effects of monotonous urban housing would be avoided.

The undulating landscape, the requirements of the structural framework of the Plan, the existing features of individual sites and the changes in ideas which occurred through the passage of time, were all to influence the distinctive character of the residential areas.

It was the undulating landscape and the requirements of the transport and open space network which were to encourage a more compact form of development. At Halton Brow the layout and materials used were designed to blend in with existing housing and the sandstone outcrop of Halton Rock. At Murdishaw, adjacent to the Bridgewater Canal and substantial areas of woodland, the houses were part clad in stained timber. At Southgate, in close proximity to the megastructure of Shopping City, the opportunity for a more expressionistic and unconventional style of architecture was to be exploited.

It is possible to see how the principles embodied in the Master Plan were implemented and the contrasts in layouts and styles which reflect sometimes widely differing views of what constitutes the ideal residential development.

Access and Circulation

In terms of vehicular and pedestrian movement and its implications for design, road connections between the communities were designed to discourage cross-town movements and the needs of the pedestrian were given priority. Of particular note was the desire to protect major pedestrian routes from the weather. This, it was suggested, could be achieved either as an integrated part of the housing structure or as separate covered ways.

The pedestrian friendly nature of residential areas also favoured grouped garages and car parks, detached from dwellings. In avoiding a road dominated design, a safer and more environmentally friendly layout was created around the dwellings which needed only a single access.

Current Situation and Future

The 1980s witnessed a number of changes which were to impact on the rented housing stock.

Major changes were brought about by Right to Buy(13) provisions, under which a considerable number of Development Corporation houses were sold, by changes in management, as Housing Associations took over from the Development Corporation, and in the loss of over 1,300 houses due to the demolition of the Southgate Estate.

After what became a lengthy and at times acrimonious debate, the Borough Council finally announced in 1987 that it was unable to accept the new town rented stock. Following further negotiations between the Housing Corporation and the newly formed Runcorn New Town Residents Federation, comprising a number of residents' and tenants' groups, management of the Development Corporation's housing stock was eventually transferred to a group of six Housing Associations which were active on Merseyside and which collectively became known as the Runcorn Housing Association Group or Runhag.

Runhag, as well as managing the remaining stock, also carries out improvements and new build schemes. By 1990, some 6,900 houses had been successfully transferred to the group.

By the time of transfer of the stock, many of the new town houses were showing signs of deterioration and decay. Some of the early housing which had been built using untried techniques was not wearing well and a considerable number of improvement schemes have been initiated.

It is a commonly held view that Runhag works better with tenants than did the former Development Corporation which, as landlord, was frequently regarded as distant and un-supportive. Close co-operation with tenants' groups and residents' associations has allowed an exchange of ideas about improvements to the existing stock and the design of new housing.

This was particularly evident in the spirit of mutual co-operation which accompanied the development of a new estate at Hallwood Park on the site of the former Southgate estate.

Despite the best endeavours of the Master Plan, the Development Corporation and its successors, there are considerable housing problems facing the new town.

To the problems of improvement are added the difficulties of housing second generation new town dwellers. House waiting lists remain long and the limited new-build programme is entirely insufficient to meet demand. There are pronounced affordability problems for large sections of the community and increased homelessness.

With large numbers of unemployed, a bulge in the number of residents of household formation age, a high proportion of single parents and high rates of ill health, the Borough Council has an acute housing shortage.

With 68% of tenants in Halton receiving Housing Benefit, there is a great reliance on socially rented housing.

The Council's future strategy includes proposals to increase the supply of socially rented properties, to provide greater choice in the private sector through shared ownership and low cost schemes and to cater more for special needs through new build and schemes which will adapt the existing stock where possible.