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Lenton Flats from This Is England and Control Scheduled for Demolition

24 September 14 words: Mark Patterson
photos: Rob Antill

Once a shining hope for the post-war housing crisis, and the backdrop for films such as This Is England, Control and Weekend, the Lenton Flats were slated for demolition three years ago. By late 2015 they will be but a memory. We look into why they outlasted similar housing projects and why the five tower blocks are the subject of Rubber Goat Films’ latest documentary.

Where do you start to tell the story of the Lenton tower blocks? Is it with the woman who will miss the views? Is it with the former caretaker who found a tenant decomposing in his flat? The old man who packed his belongings into boxes and then walked out without them? Or the faeces left in the bath? Nottingham director Sam Derby-Cooper currently has the task of moulding such stories and vignettes into a compelling narrative for a forthcoming documentary about the life and demolition of the five concrete tower blocks which have been part of the Lenton skyline since the late sixties. He and his production team at Rubber Goat Films, based at Broadway, hope to have the hour-long film Flat: The Story of the Lenton Tower Blocks completed before the end of the year.

The film follows tenants over two years as they talk about their lives in the flats and their feelings about relocation as Nottingham City Homes’ contractors take down the towers floor-by-floor. By November next year Sam’s stunning bird’s-eye view of the top of the towers, filmed using a flying mini-camera, will be impossible to replicate as the last of the towers will be gone, replaced by low-level flats, houses and independent living blocks. The demolition perhaps marks the end of Nottingham’s true tower block construction-era, which seems now to have been a cruel social experiment into human stress mechanisms. There are still sixties tower blocks in Clifton (occupied) and Sneinton (empty, plans to refurbish), but others of that era including Hyson Green, Basford and Balloon Wood have long gone. Lenton flats will soon also disappear, although Sam’s film will at least offer an indelible record of their passing and the lives of their tenants.

He’s been here before, having made a documentary about the Hyson Green flats that was commissioned by the Partnership Council. That film was, though, necessarily ‘rose-tinted’ and Sam says he was not able to include the most controversial material told to him by former tenants when the camera was switched off. This included stories of sexual abuse against young runaways living in the flats’ garages. “It was difficult to get the ‘warts ‘n’ all’ out of the interviewees as I think the Partnership Council liked the idea it was all reminiscing and rose-tinted,” says Sam. “But, the number of times you turn the camera off, and [the former tenants] said something shocking, especially about the garages and the abuse that went on down there, and the homeless kids that stayed down there, and a lot of sexual assaults that took place... and we got to talk about that. [But] there’s a lot of people still living in the area who don’t really want to talk about it.” Such allegations have not been heard about the Lenton flats. Yet with the new film being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Sam says he has more freedom to tell a rounded story. As he says, “It seems pointless making a film about something that is half-truth.” Even so, while he has already accrued many hours of footage, he has struggled to find a powerful story arc for Lenton.

Expecting a tale of angry tenants fighting the powers-that-be over their forced relocation? It ain’t happening, and he wonders why. “For all those who have moved, there’s nobody who’s unhappy,” he says. “I think that’s the thing that’s difficult about the film; it’s an exploration and there’s a sense that you want everyone to be up in arms. As a filmmaker you want that drama. But it’s like, ‘you go and sit with these people in their flats and talk to them.’ And you know what? It’s the last thing they want to think about. They just want to get into their new space and carry on.”

He adds, “There was one old guy who’d been there since the sixties and his answers were ‘hmm’ and ‘I’m sure some people will be angry.’ All he wanted to do was read me his poems. You don’t get that working class unity and I struggle to put my finger on what that is. I don’t know if it’s they don’t know who to blame... Because they blame the students and they blame the Polish and they blame this and this, but I think Government is so blurred now they don’t even know what side to pick. It’s really sad to see.” However, with tenant interviews, stories from the flat demolition team, comments from Nottingham City Homes and an overview of the social policies which lay behind the tower-blocks, Sam seems to be building up a compelling and visually elegant portrait of real people’s lives; a community which, like the towers themselves, will soon become history.

Former county chief archivist Chris Weir remembers when the tower blocks were new and dramatically changing the look of Nottingham’s urban landscape. Although the Hyson Green flats were completed in 1965, the first that made an impression on him was Balloon Wood in Wollaton Vale, a complex of 23 grey concrete blocks which was finished by 1970. “That was a large complex where the walks between the different blocks were given beautiful Derbyshire names like Tansley Walk, but the reality was very different,” says Chris. “But there was a playground and a very popular pub, The Gondolier, nearby.”

The five tower blocks in Lenton were built in 1967 while seventeen blocks in Basford followed in 1971. In Nottingham, as elsewhere in Britain, the new council complexes replaced areas of slum housing and were a response to a national housing shortage. “People were keen to get a flat because they had hot water and indoor toilets,” says Chris. “If you’re presented with this wonderful new building, with an indoor toilet, and you’ve got friends around you, you would want to apply to be a tenant. So at first they were considered highly desirable. When you look at the oral history accounts of these block you find comments like, ‘it was absolute paradise. We didn’t believe how lucky we were.’” But the optimism was short-lived as structural defects in the towers soon showed themselves in the form of flaking plaster, mould and leaks that required constant repair.

More seriously, the Lego-like construction technique, whereby tower blocks were assembled from preformed concrete panels bolted together on site, was revealed to be potentially life-threatening. In 1968 one side of the 22-storey Ronan Point tower in East London collapsed like a pack of cards after a gas explosion in a flat blew out a load-bearing wall. Four tenants were killed. The block used a similar construction method to that of Basford and Hyson Green. Although the Ronan Point tragedy led to reform of building regulations, proof that the Nottingham flats were barely adequate for the purposes of human shelter is revealed in the fact of their brief existence: Balloon Wood was demolished in 1984 after just thirteen years; Basford flats came down in 1985, after just fourteen years; most of the Hyson Green flats, located where Asda now stands, came down in 1987. While the Lenton flats lasted nearly fifty years, they were known to have structural failings such as poor insulation and the city council says that it would cost them more to maintain them in the long-term than to demolish them and build new homes.

In Adam Curtis’s 1984 documentary film Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster, Gordon Stobbs, assistant chief architect for Nottingham City Council between 1964 and 1974, stated that two tower block schemes worth £6m were passed by the city planning committee in “about two minutes flat.” He added, “It’s ingrained in my memory that these two schemes were disposed of so quickly by committee.” He said the speed of the decision was a reflection of the mood of the times, which was ‘get it built as quickly as possible: then think.’ Hand in hand with the structural problems, complexes developed reputations for crime which made some tenants want to get out as soon as possible.

Some of Nottingham’s concrete blocks also developed a reputation as dumping grounds for ‘difficult families,’ a matter that was bluntly addressed by Nottingham’s former housing director Arthur Oscroft when he said, “It is the people who tend to be more desperate for housing who go into high-rise flats because they are more readily available and perhaps people who are under-privileged have got lower standards.” This comment from a less guarded era was quoted in former MP Alan Simpson’s detailed analysis of Nottingham’s housing policies, Stacking the Decks, published in 1981. The book also made the point that the grey concrete used to build the complexes didn’t exactly enhance their appeal. As one architect said, “Concrete is a fine material for a place like Brasilia where it sparkles in the sun. But it can be pretty miserable in Basford on a wet November day....” And, “There’s no doubt about it, concrete as we used it brings out the savagery in kids.” The crime and ‘problem flats’ stigma has also attached itself to the Lenton flats, a matter which was explicitly addressed last year by an article published in the University of Nottingham student magazine Impact headlined Suicide, Drug Abuse and OAPs: Life and Death inside the Lenton Towers.

The flats have also been associated with a high number of tenants with mental health problems. This claim was recently made by a Dunkirk & Lenton ward councillor at the preview of the Lenton flats film at Nottingham Contemporary. Asked how such a situation came about, she said that it was because the flats were near the QMC and because high-rise flats cause mental illness. But this was condemned as simplistic at the event. Sam Derby-Cooper agrees. "It’s mainly single men about forty to fifty who seem to struggle in that environment. Living on your own for that amount of time, in a place where you may not see someone for an inordinate amount of time... Humans need contact... I don’t think it helps people who have underlying issues. The QMC hasn’t got anything to do with it."

Nevertheless, Sam can see how the £5,000 compensation paid to each Lenton flats tenant to help them rehouse could cause problems for vulnerable people. “This is a real bone of contention because there are certain people who mix in circles where, if you mention you’ve got five grand in the bank, then they’ll all be round,” he says. “So it’s a tricky one. You wouldn’t give someone with a heroin addiction this much money; at the same time you can’t not give it to them because they’re an adult. There’s a load of catch-22 problems.” Although, socially and architecturally, we have moved on from the brutal concrete blocks of the past, Chris Weir believes high-rise living will always be part of the city. “I don’t think that high-rises will never not be a part of architecture of Nottingham because space will always be at a premium in a flourishing modern city. Even if we don’t get massive tower blocks we’ll still get high-rises. You only have to look at Canal Street and the concrete flats there. If you look at Huntingdon Street it’s become a canyon of high-rise for student accommodation and other buildings.”

Flat: The Story of the Lenton Tower Blocks is due for release later in the year.

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