Spa Green at 70 shows how ‘council housing can be the best quality’
PUBLISHED: 14:17 31 October 2018 | UPDATED: 14:25 16 November 2018
A Clerkenwell estate was created with “a vision that council housing can be of the best possible quality” – and its design could provide a blueprint for building homes beyond the borrowing cap.
Clement Atlee’s post-war government built Spa Green Estate, Britain’s first modernist social housing complex, for the working class people of Finsbury.
In 1938 a radical architectural collective, Tecton, was commissioned to create quality housing on a slum-land plot in Rosebery Avenue.
But it wasn’t 1946 that Labour’s housing and welfare chief Aneurin Bevan, who famously founded the NHS, laid the building’s first stone.
Speaking at the time, Mr Bevan praised Spa Green for its “many novel features”.
He added: “I wish it every encouragement.”
The Grade-II listed estate’s three blocks and 123 flats were designed by Berthold Lubetkin, a modernist architect who believed “nothing is too good for ordinary people”.
His portfolio of work also includes the Finsbury Health Centre and London Zoo penguin pool.
Spa Green was officially opened in 1949, and Princess Margaret marked the occasion by planting a plane tree on its grounds.
Thomas Cooper, who runs Spa Green’s Tenants Management Organisation, told the Gazette: “When the estate was built there was a lot of poverty, poor access to education and widespread health problems [like rickets and diptheria] in the area.
“These homes were for the poor of Finsbury – there was a desperate lack of quality housing in the borough.”
In order to secure the contract, Lubetkin and Tecton won a competition for the design of social housing.
But plans were stalled when the Second World War started, during which an estimated 11 per cent of Finsbury’s housing stock was decimated by Nazi bombs.
By 1945 there were some 4,500 people on the housing waiting list in the borough. Spa Green was one of the first post-war projects to rebuild the borough.
“I’m interested in what it [Spa Green] represents,” said Glyn Robbins, a housing campaigner who manages the Quaker Estate, off Old Street.
“Finsbury, as an area, was a pioneer of council house building in London and maybe even internationally, although there were other movements going on in Vienna and the States.
“But as far as London is concerned Finsbury was the beacon and Spa Green was jewel in the crown because of the design quality and finish.
“How many other council properties can you think of that have tiled walls?”
Glyn said social and shared facilities, such as drying rooms, used to be common on council estates. Spa Green also has domed aerofoil roofs, designed to create a suction effect which dried the original neighbours clothes. But due to health an safety hazards, that facility is no longer available.
“I think it was just that sense of the place being more than housing,” added Glyn. “It was about creating a pleasant environment. Lubetkin was an emigree form the Soviet Union who had this very ideological perspective in that he wanted to create the very best housing for working people.”
The social make-up of the estate changed after Margaret Thatcher introduced Right to Buy, allowing tenants to purchase their council homes, through the Housing Act 1980.
One third of Spa Green’s flats are privately owned today.
Mrs Thatcher also introduced the borrowing cap, inhibiting councils from taking out loans to finance home building.
But Theresa May signalled a willingness to lift the cap and “solve the housing crisis” in October.
Glyn said: “There’s all this stuff in the press at the moment about the government toeing towards allowing councils to build again. It’s not a done deal, but if you assume it’s going to happen, we don’t want to be building sh**.
“We want to be building things of the best possible quality. If we are going to start building again, we need to learn from it.”
Spa Green Estate, which was once described by the architectural scholar Sire Nikolaus Pevsner, as “the most innovative public housing” (of the time), is celebrating its 70th birthday this year.
The Gazette would like to hear from anyone who has lived at Spa Green since it was built. Contact Lucas on 020 7433 0121.