Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky

A council estate of 10,000 people, the largest in Europe, faces demolition. But do the people really

We are standing on the sixth-floor balcony of Taplow, scanning Wendover for window boxes. "There's one," says John Charnock, a member of a tenants' association on the Aylesbury estate. His eyes are better attuned than mine - he so wants to see some reds and pinks among the grey. But I can only see prefab concrete and lacy nylon nets, running on and on, as far as the gilt emblems on Tower Bridge.

"Our tenants' association raised £800 for flower boxes, but nobody was interested . . . There's another," says John, excited by the sight of a second smudge of colour. This time, I see it in the top right-hand corner. Nearby, a young face and a pair of hands are pressed white against a window where the nets have been scooped up. John turns away. "That's it then; only two in the whole of Wendover. B&Q even did us a special deal on the boxes, but it made no difference. In the end, we had to give the flowers away." I say that I would like to talk to the window-box owners. Why do they bother on an estate scheduled for demolition?

The Aylesbury estate, in south-east London, the biggest council estate in Europe, is about to be reduced to a pile of rubble, and John Charnock is giving me a pre- demolition tour.

We move down to a deserted first-floor walkway, joined at one end by a car ramp that curls round and round in circles ending in a brick wall. "They closed that off because nobody used it," says John. He points to the blue boarded-up shop fronts. "And that was the pharmacy down there, and the mini-market. This was the dentist's, this the toy library, and this the launderette. And that's a church in there. Not many people know that."

"A church?" We are standing now in front of a black cupboard door, which is slung with a single heavy padlock.

"You have to be up early on Sundays to see them with their candles and robes," says John, who says he has seen a makeshift altar in there. "I always go off early fishing on a Sunday, so I see them. Ethiopians, I think.

"Problem is," he adds, revisiting the troublesome matter of the window boxes, "you'll never find the right flat. You can't tell from here which floor those window boxes are on because some flats you go down from a walkway to the living room and some you go up . . . If you live around here, you can't expect your next-door neighbour to be the person next door, do you see?"

No, I don't. But then, I haven't lived in the place for 30 years to get used to it.

Ten thousand people live on the 60 acres of the Aylesbury estate - the population of a small town. "Ten thousand souls", as Alf Langley, another Aylesbury old-timer, prefers to put it: "lost souls", all of them, because they are a people with nowhere to go. It was here to the Wendover block that Tony Blair came just after his election victory to make a pledge to remember the "forgotten" people of the inner cities.

The figures for the Aylesbury estate are staggering: a study in social exclusion. Overcrowding is three times the national average and unemployment four times; 51 per cent of children are on free school meals; women's deaths from heart disease are 20 per cent above the national average.

Under the government's "New Deal for Communities", the estate - assuming that a tenants' referendum gives the go-ahead - will be knocked down, starting next year. As flats tumble in phased demolitions, people will move off in numbers akin to a small refugee flow. A whole new housing estate, a whole new community, will be rebuilt on this prime land, just half a mile from the City of London. The proposals envisage not only new homes, but also an end to social exclusion: better health, better education, better security. Admirable ideals, all.

But 30 years ago, the planners who built the Aylesbury were equally ambitious. The estate was a classic product of its time, built when every council in the country competed to see which could most quickly amass the most modern homes for the most people. Like cutting hospital waiting-lists today, building the cheapest housing was the fashionable target of the Sixties. This was the era of prefab system building, tarmac walkways and high-rise. But what was remarkable about the Aylesbury - built for the poor of Southwark's bombed and overcrowded terraces and tenements - was its concept of a city in the sky: a cleaner, brighter, safer environment above the traffic and the crime, and also a world where people would like to share.

Memories are short when it comes to who dreamt up the concept. Rick Mather, now one of Britain's leading architects, who worked on the Aylesbury, says he doesn't recall who produced the master plan. Anyway, he says, it's all too "emotive" to discuss now.

Subsidies at the time favoured demolition rather than refurbishment, so traditional terraces and tenement blocks, which had been there since the 1830s, were razed to the ground. Traditional boundaries of community life - a front door on to a street, connecting to the rest of the city - were excised from memory.

On the cleared space, the planners shaped a self-sufficient enclave where 10,000 people could rub shoulders in a controlled environment, without their feet ever touching the ground, even to take their children to school. Artists' drawings were shown to the lucky new residents, who nodded at pictures of shops, schools, play areas, sports grounds, meeting halls, pubs and garages - everything you might need for a "community" - which were all to be bolted together by bridges and walkways. The Aylesbury had its own power station: "You can turn the heating as high as you like and still pay only £7 a week," laughs John Charnock. And its own launderettes: "You weren't allowed to hang washing on the balconies because you could take it to the launderette for free. Everyone was given their own two-hour slot. The dryers ran off the estate's heating system."

The planners packed people into the estate at an extraordinarily high density, with hundreds sharing a single walkway, a single rubbish chute. An intricate scissor system was used to arrange the living units inside the prefab packaging so that adjoining flats were rarely on the same level as each other, but they all shared a floor, a ceiling, a wall, a pipe, a drain with one neighbour or another.

Although most of the early residents were transferred directly from the old terraced houses, the aim was to get a "mixed" tenancy, so some were nurses and teachers. A colony of artists also took apartments to benefit from their light and space.

Memories of the old terraces are affectionate, but not sentimental. This was a community of boxing clubs and clubland street-theatre, where Michael Caine and others first cut their teeth. (Charlie Chaplin came from East Street.) "The houses weren't too bad," recalls Jean Bartlett, the chair of the Aylesbury Plus Community Forum. "Cramped, but you usually had family around you, and it was much more sociable."

"To get a council flat was to go up in the world," says Lynn Cherrill-Teesdale, who remembers rolling a snowball up and down the tiny streets from her mum's house near the Old Kent Road to her aunt's in Walworth Road.

"Oh, yes. There's no doubt about it. Coming to the new estate for most of us at that time was like Shangri-La," says Bert Till, for many years a caretaker here. The flats were spacious. "I remember my furniture was too small for my new flat," says Till. "It was dwarfed." Other early residents remember the size of the windows. "Seventeen feet across," says Alf Langley. "Having to find curtains for that: it was expensive."

The early problems were of a purely technical nature: the tarmac melted in the heat; the prefab concrete moved; the pipes leaked; the heating was erratic; the ill-considered overhangs attracted flocks of pigeons, whose droppings plastered the windows underneath.

Then people began to discover they liked their feet to touch the ground. So the estate's shops closed, as people headed to East Street market or the Walworth Road. The estate's youth and sports clubs were spurned, as young people sought amusement beyond their enclosure. On Sundays, more and more people began to head off the estate to the churches around the edge.

The tenants also found they had only a limited capacity to share. They were sharing garbage. "Would you like to live above here?" asks John Charnock, stopping beside a stinking, burned-out cubbyhole. "Want a mattress?" We step over the chewed-up foam. They were sharing noise. The architects had saved space by packing bedrooms in under walkways and garages under living rooms. "A nice lady called me one day because she was watching the Cup Final and couldn't hear herself speak for the chanting next door. But it wasn't coming from next door, but somewhere in front. Eventually, I found the right door and, when I went in, they were all down there on their knees, praying away at the hallelujah chorus or some such thing. They were using the place as a mosque."

But it was the crime that shattered the dreams. It was not simply the architect-designed walkways, or the spiralling ramps, or the dead spaces, or the dark corners, that encouraged villainy: it was the whole Aylesbury concept. Bert Till remembers youths running rings around the coppers, hopping from bridge to bridge and back again, while the beat officer stood helplessly below. Gangs and drugs spread in the Eighties, and the stigma of living on the estate intensified. Everybody who could moved off; the city in the sky became a sink estate. There is a missing middle generation on the Aylesbury: the majority are the old and the young. Today, 30 different languages are spoken, and 68 per cent of residents are from ethnic minorities. "I think my new neighbours are Russian, but I can't be sure. They were Kosovan before, I think," says Ailsa, a single mother from the toddlers' group.

Today, the Aylesbury is, in many ways, a morbid parody of a community. Entering under the arches of Wendover, you can see the cut grass, but you cannot smell it for the stench of urine. A used condom is stuck to the wire of the disused netball pitch. Everybody seems to be either indoors or off the estate. Anyone who has trodden the walkways, fire doors crashing behind them, will never forget the emptiness. Lynne Pacanowksi, a midwife, once got lost late at night and was cornered by a dog on the walkway. "I was delivering a teenager. Two weeks later, I was back again. This time, it was her mum who was having the baby."

"I think the most depressing thing," says Giles Goddard, the rector of St Peter's, Walworth, "is that nobody feels proud to come back to the Aylesbury. Everyone's heart sinks a bit." Perhaps that's what a sink estate is: a place that makes your heart sink, as it does when you see a Little Tikes climbing frame padlocked to a post in the toddler playground. "They'll take anything," says Ailsa.

But if it is all so bad, why do so many people here want a right to return after the rebuild? And why, as the date for the tenants' referendum approaches, are more and more people threatening to oppose the demolition itself?

Open the door of Beryl Grey's flat, and suddenly the emptiness of the outside fades and there are people everywhere: photographs of children; wedding anniversary cards from friends; pictures of home in Jamaica, of her daughter Luna, in her minister's robes; a photograph of Princess Diana. Beryl came here with Sidney, her husband, in 1971, and has made her home here, for better and for worse. "It is a lovely estate. Knocking it down is not my cup of tea at all." Three of her six girls were born here, and one of them, Beverley, died here. In 1974, at the age of five, Beverley fell from the walkway outside the flat.

"It happened right out there on the balcony. We think she was pushed. We could have moved away then, but we didn't. Beverley would be with me wherever I was, so it would do no good to move. Where would I go? I have my church, my bus stop. I am too old to start again."

The couple grew to love their flat, choosing the sunny turquoise paint and spending hours arranging the photographs. They watched their children grow up and move away, and Beryl has joined the Walworth Road Baptist Church, along with 60 other families from the Aylesbury. They learnt to deal with the problems of the estate in their own way. "Sid comes to meet me when I come back late from church.When I close the door, I am at home."

The polls and statistics may not reflect their confused hopes and fears, but there are many others on the estate who don't want to go and who detest those who characterise their home as an inner-city ghetto. Many say it is better than it was. "The toe-rags have grown up," says Bert Till. "I saw one the other day in here pushing a pram. I thought he had been put away. I said: 'What are you doing here?' He said he had a family now and had just been housed back on the estate. Would you believe it?"

There are others who simply like the flats: the artists on the eighth floor of Wendover; Olusegun Adepoju on the sixth floor who walks to his job as a catering executive in the City; others who just like the convenience - the "peace" to get on with their lives.

There are those such as John Charnock whose life will empty when there are no more campaigns against grime, broken heating, noise. He has lost some battles - the window boxes - but his tenants' association won the fight to put wire on the overhangs to deter the pigeons; to have signs by the rubbish in ten different languages; to bring the toddlers down to the ground floor. John's wife certainly doesn't want to leave. Her face is drawn and her eyes are full of suspicion. "She has had a heart attack over it all," says John, as he shows me the papier-mache flower decorations in their flat. "She runs flower-arranging courses here - it is her life."

Even Ailsa is not sure she wants her flat demolished. "The neighbours are not so bad. I sent them a Christmas card and I got one back. Where would they send me? Somewhere worse?" The youths with their coloured mobiles are not sure, either. "We want more to do, but we don't want to go. Not sending us to Peckham are they? It's rough up there."

Spirits have been broken on the Aylesbury estate. But others have held up. Community networks may be weak, but they exist; 13 per cent of residents go to church; only 3 per cent use government training schemes, but 49 per cent use the libraries. Very few take part in estate-run community groups, but 57 per cent watch each others' homes or look out for each other.

So some sort of community has been forged in this alien world. And nothing is bringing people of the Aylesbury estate together like the idea of leaving it.

The entire estate is now in the grip of mass neurosis. "Is our block coming down, John?" "Do you know where we are going yet, John?" But John doesn't know.

When the demolition plans were first laid last year, they had broad support from tenants. And who wouldn't demolish, having read the glossy brochures that were prepared under the terms of the New Deal for Communities? A "holistic", "tenant-led" strategy would transform the estate into a healthy, safe environment with green spaces, new homes, new healthy living and new opportunities for lifelong learning. "We are not just addressing the physical environment - we are addressing social inequalities, too," says Ben Wilson, the head of the South London Family Housing Association, which is working on the project with Southwark Council.

But, as time has passed, suspicion has grown, as have fears that, 30 years on, the same mistakes will be made. The brochures are short on detail - not even an "artist's drawing". Six months after the "delivery plan" was published, the tenants have not been told finally which blocks are to go and which might stay. They have not been told where they will be decanted to while the work is done. And they do not know if they will all have a right to return.

The Aylesbury project is hailed as a prototype in tenant-led democracy. One of the big selling points of the deal is that residents will decide their own futures. This is a cruel deception. The total cost of the project is expected to be £234m, of which £56m is to be met by the government. The only way of bridging the gap (Southwark council is hugely in debt and couldn't possibly raise the money alone) is to build private houses on the estate land - initially between 500 and 800 houses are proposed. That, the tenants suspect, explains why, although 70 per cent of the estate will be demolished, some of the unpopular high-rise blocks were initially earmarked for refurbishment. They will take up less valuable land than the more popular low-rise, which have flats with gardens.

And if a large number of houses are built for private sale, how many of the existing tenants will be able to return? The tenants have begun to see that the figures don't add up, and fear they are walking into a terrible trap. Before voting in January's referendum, they will demand to know exactly how many will be able to come back, and to what. But it looks as if they are between a rock and a hard place. If they reject the deal, they will see no change at all. If they accept it, they may send many of their own number into permanent exile. "Social cleansing, that's what it is," says Ailsa. "They want the land." Whatever the outcome, this supposedly tenant-led system will ensure that, if things go wrong next time, it will be the tenants themselves, not the architects or planners, who will be blamed.

In the end, the tenants may have little choice but to vote for demolition. But as the concrete, the rubbish chutes, the flower arrangements and the makeshift altars all come tumbling down, the tenants must know that, for some, there will be no going back. And in voting to demolish the Aylesbury, they must know, too, that they will be demolishing their own hard-won community - a community that, in extreme adversity, had finally begun to take root.

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky