The Byker Estate, Newcastle, 1967 to the presentDecline and Recovery

The Byker estate in Newcastle, now a Grade II listed site, demonstrates how innovative design can help support community networks.

Key Points

  • Innovative design focused on preserving community networks
  • Inclusion of residents in the design process
  • Social decline exacerbated by disproportionately low service provision
  • Developing effective neighbourhood stewardship

Unfortunately the lack of stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community it received in the latter half of the 20th century contributed to the negative effects of social deprivation experienced by residents. Nevertheless significant attempts to turn the estate around made over the last 15 years have borne fruit and the estate is now under going a programme of refurbishment to restore its buildings to their original high quality.

The legacy of development in Newcastle

The decision to redevelop the Byker area of East Newcastle was made in 1967, at the end of a decade of house building by the City Council. In the west of the city, the council had even leased land from other boroughs to build new housing developments, demolishing some of the older housing sitting between the new estates and the city centre. Not all these new developments fared well, affected by the first waves of economic and industrial decline and populated by people dislocated from their previously existing communities.

Community focused design

Ralph Erskine was appointed as project architect for the estate, partly because of his interest in preserving the integrity of the community that already existed. His project office was situated amongst the existing housing and local residents were encouraged to talk to him about what they wanted. Evidence of this is still visible today; the biggest home on the estate was specifically designed for one family, which had been living in several houses in the same street but wanted the opportunity to live together. Erskine designed the new homes to fit around the existing pubs, schools and churches, to preserve the social infrastructureGlossary: refers to the range of activities, organisations and facilities supporting the formation, development and maintenance of social relationships in a community already in place.

Great consideration was given to community needs in the planning of Byker. Residents had never before had gardens but were keen for these to be a feature of their new homes. Each house on the estate was given its own garden but these were kept to a manageable size and other more public spaces were threaded through the housing to provide welcoming open spaces for residents to use communally. There are over 50 'hobby' rooms interspersed among the homes. The majority of these now stand empty, though one, known as the Chevron is used and managed by the 'Byker Forum', an umbrella groups of Tenant Residents Associations (TRAs) for community activities.

Moving in

The movement of residents into their new homes was phased to avoid people having to leave the area even temporarily, crucial to the preservation of the community's networks. Housing along Janet Street was the first to be built and this provided space for residents in each of the nine phases of construction to live in the area while their new homes were built.

Architectural quality

The level of consideration given to the detail of the project's architectural design was remarkable. The estate is a mixture of low-rise and high-rise terraced housing and apartment blocks, the highest point of which, the Byker wall, was specifically designed to shield the estate from the proposed (but never built) motorway running alongside its northern boundary. Each letterbox, garden gate and door number is not just a standard fitting but one specifically designed for the project. As a result Byker is hailed as one of the most significant pieces of architecture of its era in the UK. The minute detail of the design has, however, meant that attempts to refurbish it since it was listed in 2006 have been more complicated. A replacement window, for example, can not simply be a standard fitting but must comply with the original design features, meaning that it costs around four times as much as it otherwise would.

Creating a micro climate for Byker

The Byker estate, now almost 40 years old, was built to incorporate some of the environmental technologies which are only now becoming mainstream. A nearby incinerator was planned around the same time as the estate was being designed, and it was at Erskine's suggestion that this was built as a Combined Heat and PowerGlossary: Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is the simultaneous generation of usable heat and power (usually electricity) in a single process (CHP) plant. The plant still functions, and up to 2005, it ran on the rubbish collected from the homes on the estate. At present it uses natural gas, following health concerns over the burning of rubbish, but consideration is being given to the possibility of running it from bio fuels in the future.

The environmental benefits of the CHP plant have yet to be fully realised. At present it is not possible for residents to control the level of heating in their homes, and often leave windows open even in the dead of winter because their rooms are too hot. The refurbishment work already underway will rectify this, and allow people full control of the temperature of their homes.

Pipes delivering hot water from the CHP plant to the estate run under the ground throughout the area. This coupled with the shelter provided by the Byker wall has created a unique micro-climate. Erskine intended the estate to function as a nursery for the city's trees, and some species have been grown in Byker that would not normally survive at such northerly latitudes.

Decline in Byker, 1980 - 2000

The East of Newcastle, home to both Byker and Walker, was particularly affected by the economic problems and unemployment that followed the decline of the traditional industries in the area, particularly ship-building along the River Tyne. Byker fell victim to a range of problems associated with this deprivation. Over 10 per cent of the homes on the estate (200 units of a total 1,800) were vacant. Reported incidents of anti-social behaviour were three times the national average, though much of the intimidation and crime that was taking place went unreported to the police. Byker's name became associated with negative stereotypes of social housing.

A significant problem for Byker was that it did not receive the same level of service provision that other parts of the city did. Though not a large geographical area, the estate is home to a quarter of the city's green spaces, trees and hedges. In the late 1990s the estate was only receiving 10 per cent of the city's parks maintenance provision. The trees that had been intended for transplantation across the city were never moved and the area was overgrown, providing ample opportunity for people committing crime to hide.

Stabilising the community

Life on Byker began to change in the late 1990s. The estate had long had particularly strong TRAs, which also had their own umbrella group, the Byker forum. What changed in 1997 was the election of a particularly enthusiastic young councillorGlossary: A councillor is an elected member of a local authority who was able to galvanise his fellow councillorsGlossary: Councillors are elected members of a local authority and residents to encourage the city council to look at how Byker was managed.

The city's response was to create a Multi Agency Problem Solving Team (MAPS) in 2001, which drew up a strategic action plan for the neighbourhood, the initial focus of which was to stabilise some of the chronic problems affecting the community. The public agencies involved funded the initiatives that flowed from this by redirecting their own resources. Convincing some elements of the council to allocate their resources according to the workload associated with the estate rather than the number of homes was at times challenging, but eventually bore fruit. Crime and anti-social behaviour was tackled by fitting CCTV, and by encouraging residents to report incidents by providing them with discrete methods of contacting the police or housing officers. Empty homes were fitted with cameras to catch acts of burglary and vandalism. The estate also gained its first youth manager to coordinate activities for young people in the area.

The results of the multi-agency approach are that at present:

  • reported crime has fallen by 40 per cent
  • there are only 20 empty homes
  • demand for housing on the estate is growing
  • Byker is now home to 180 families of asylum seekers, who have settled well (this is seen by some in the city's ALMO as an indication that the culture of the estate has changed significantly)
Grade II listing

Discussion around the potential listing of the estate began in 2002. The city council was considering demolishing some of the empty and derelict homes. This provoked a backlash from some of the residents (a number of whom are high profile architects) aghast at the potential destruction of parts of Byker. Their proposal was to apply for the estate to be listed, ensuring that it could not be demolished. The city council was initially opposed to this suggestion, fearing that it would make any future refurbishment extremely challenging. However over time many council officers became more enthusiastic towards the idea of listing, seeing it as a way of ensuring that the estate would be protected into the long term. Byker was eventually granted Grade II listed status in 2006.

Refurbishing a masterpiece

Since 2004 the Byker estate has been managed by the Newcastle City Council ALMO, 'Your Homes Newcastle', along with approximately 30,000 other properties across the city. The ALMO is facing a formidable challenge in meeting the Decent Homes Standard by 2010. In early 2008 around 80 per cent of its housing did not yet meet the target, though significant funding was now in place for much of this work. Seen in this context it would be easy to argue that refurbishing the Byker estate does not make financial sense. As mentioned earlier, the intricate design of the housing means that each element of the buildings is significantly more expensive to replace than it would be for other homes. However, Byker is such an established part of local identity that many local residents and council employees are deeply committed to ensuring that it once again returns to the standard to which it was designed.

Since the estate was listed 'Your Homes Newcastle' has found heritage organisations to be strong allies, in raising funding and helping to produce a heritage protection agreement, which specifies how the estate will be refurbished and how it will be maintained in the longer term. This type of plan is unusual and will act as a pilot for other, potentially similar projects in the future.

In the longer term 'Your Homes Newcastle' is looking to invite developers to take part in the Byker Design Competition. The winning developer would then be able to build new homes on the now unused land to the south of the Byker estate. They would be able to profit from the sale of these homes, and also receive a proportion of the rental income from the original housing in return for maintaining the estate into the long term future.

Byker's highlights
  • The design of the Byker estate was particularly innovative for its time, and probably would still be considered so if it were built today. Erskine's deep commitment to preserving the community's structure and networks created a development that is considered to be an architectural masterpiece, demonstrating that social housing can be of the highest standards
  • The process of designing the estate incorporated the needs and wishes of local residents who were able to visit the design office when they wanted to and talk to the designers about their future homes
  • All the existing pubs, schools and churches were untouched, and the new housing that was built around them had specific provision for a number of community facilities and open public spaces
  • Since the turn of the century, the focused attention from a partnership of public agencies has significantly improved quality of life on the estate, only highlighting the need to manage new communities over the long term.
The challenges Byker has faced
  • The high design specifications of the buildings have made it very expensive to refurbish. Grade II listed status has both ensured that these specifications must be maintained, and opened up the possibilities of funding from heritage organisations to meet their high costs
  • The estate was particularly badly affected by the economic decline of the late 20th century. It did not receive the level of service delivery from public agencies that it required. It took action and pressure from committed residents, TRAs, local councillorsGlossary: Councillors are elected members of a local authority and council officers to change the situation.
Transferable lessons for new communities

Building new communities is an exciting process with the potential to create beautiful neighbourhoods that serve their communities. Lessons that can be drawn from the experience at Byker are:

New communities will be mixed and not formed entirely of social housing as Byker was. However Byker demonstrates that all housing, social, affordable and privately owned, can and should be designed to the highest architectural standards and that modern, innovative design that functions well can be much loved by residents.

Innovative design features, like the ability of Byker to nurture trees for the whole city of Newcastle can potentially provide character and meaning to a neighbourhood. However, such ideas will only work in the long-term if there is a stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community plan that will ensure they are used and promoted into the future.

Byker was badly affected by social decline, some elements of which could have been mitigated if the area had received more intensive management over the later decades of the 20th century. New settlements must be built with a strategy to ensure that this stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community will take place and will be funded in the future.

Potential areas for revenue generation need to be developed where possible. In the case of Byker, if the same project were repeated today, it would be possible to create a local energy company that could supply heating from the CHP plant to residents at a not-for-profitGlossary: refers to organisations or initiatives which invest their profits back into their charitable activities rate, or perhaps a social enterpriseGlossary: A social enterprise is a profit-making businesses set up to tackle a social or environmental need could maintain the parks and green spaces, generating money from the growing of trees. Every development will have its own idiosyncrasies which can form part of a future stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community plan.

To read more see: Your Homes Newcastle