Gardening at Leigham Court

Leigham Court is a beautiful ‘modernist gem’ of a sheltered housing estate, sitting high up on a hill in Streatham and designed by celebrated Architect Kate Macintosh. This is from a Housing Activists press release on what is happening there:

Lambeth Council and Lambeth Living are planning to close the Leigham Court Sheltered Housing scheme. Senior residents have been informed that their homes will be demolished and the land sold off to pay for a mixture of extended care and private accommodation.

A recent Guardian article by Oliver Wainwright celebrating the architecture also includes some great quotes from residents and the reasons for the sell-off:

Over the last few months, the residents of 269 Leigham Court Road in Lambeth have come together to campaign against the “disposal” of their community, which the council plans to sell to fund the construction of “extra care” housing elsewhere in the borough.

“They call it ‘extra care’ because it’s more like being in hospital,” says Joyce James, 89. “We live here like a family; we don’t want to be separated from one another. And the buildings are spectacular – it would be like pulling down Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey. It’s criminal.”

The drastic cut-backs in the national budget have set Lambeth Council scrambling rather than fighting, or even just effectively holding the dented shield and preserving as much as possible until there is a political change. So they have started selling off homes and public assets to finance services, evicting long term tenants causing incalculable pain, destroying the remaining footholds of current community members in rapidly developing and gentrifying neighbourhoods, and losing land forever to speculation and private interests. The so-called ‘Short-Life’ housing cooperatives that are now decades old, Cressingham Gardens (and more here), the Guinness Trust Estate, and Myatt’s Field regeneration plans are all additional examples of how much social housing is at risk or already lost.

Perhaps this is because Labour’s position no longer seems to be much different on these issues, which is criminal, especially given the vision of both architects and the Labour government that built this housing in the first place. I realise writing this I need to do a lot more exploration of Blair and Brown’s housing legacy, and really read the new housing report being used by Labour to develop new policy.  But on Lambeth’s own website, you can see that after the Leigham Court tenants voted to remain council owned rather than be transferred to social landlords, the council pledged to find funds for the renovation and upkeep of the estate. That was 2007, so what happened?

Now with Leigham Court on the chopping block, they have stopped maintaining the grounds as they should — a tried and true tactic of running down an estate and then using its poor condition to serve as an excuse for getting rid of it. So we did this:

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I love the above picture showing how beautiful the garden once was, and should be — and kicking myself for not getting a good picture from this view. It is a little different now, and shameful that our elders should live in housing that is not cared for. The work we did on Saturday was not to take the place of gardeners and caretakers paid wages by the council — as they keep pushing for with their cooperative council ideas that replace jobs with volunteer work when our borough desperately needs good jobs.  It was to do basic maintenance for the interim well-being of Leigham Court’s residents, and show what needs to be done. Cold and wet work, but we went to it with a will. The biggest need was simply rubbish collection:

IMG_9814 IMG_9816 IMG_9817But we raked leaves and planted some bulbs as well:

IMG_9839 IMG_9833There were at least fifteen of us over the course of the morning along with local resident Valentine Walker, who can perfectly break down for you the council’s future plans, their reasoning, and the deadly conflict between community need and profit.

You can get a sense of how lovely an interior communal space exists here from this shot, taken from the main entrance through the doors to the gardeners collecting for the group photo, and into the covered patio running through the gardens:

IMG_9808There may be more gardening to come in Spring, hopefully not, hopefully the council will work to save Leigham Court rather than sell it off, or redevelop it with market rate housing. Walking there from Brixton Hill you get a feeling of just why this property is so valuable, especially given the view over South London from the other side of the road. Beautiful, even on a damp, grey, miserable day:

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I’ll be writing more about Leigham Court as I’m fascinated by this period of the mass building of social housing, this incredible commitment to creating a more just and integrated society, this utopian strain within architecture, building around people’s needs. This is, in fact, one of the key estates within this movement, with a fight on to get it listed by Docomomo.

Apart from the Guardian article, the architect has also recently spoken on Resonance FM about the work to save the estate, and Leigham Court features in a documentary called Utopia London (directed by Tom Cordell), which I bought immediately and is sitting on my shelf as yet unwatched — even though a majority of the estates it looks at seem to be in Lambeth. So after getting to that I will be returning to this estate in more architectural and utopian detail.

More articles on Leigham Court can be found on the websites for Save Leigham Court and the Lambeth Housing Activists.

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