A Flats Requiem

Park Hill General view
Park Hill General view
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Perhaps nothing has divided opinion more in Sheffield than the building of the high-rise Park Hill flats as well as the later Grade II listing of the complex.

Looking at much of the published information on the flats I believe no one can offer an objective view of their construction other than those responsible for easing the acute post-war housing problems – the City councillors and the chief architect and his staff.

Condemned properties in Park Hill area pre WWII

Peter Tuffrey collection

Condemned properties in Park Hill area pre WWII Peter Tuffrey collection

Former Deputy Labour leader Roy, now Lord, Hattersley, a Sheffield councillor in the 1950s, defended the reason to build the flats. Also before Park Hill was listed, he added that it was up to Sheffield people to decide if they wanted to keep the complex.

In the early 1920s Sheffield Corporation tasked Patrick Abercrombie with devising a development plan for the zoning of the city, communications (road network and transport), population, housing, open spaces and parkland. Abercrombie’s report is enlightening and Sheffield’s way forward was assisted by new legislation, particularly the Housing Act of 1930, which encouraged local authorities to get to grips with slum clearance.

In a heavy industrial area like Sheffield, where housing had been laid out on an ad hoc basis, clustered round the various steel and manufacturing firms, the corporation made plans to improve workers’ living conditions.

From the mid to the late 1930s, the corporation imposed compulsory purchase orders for slum properties and a proportion of these was in the area later to accommodate Park 
Hill.

Children waiting for Hugh Gaitskell

Peter Tuffrey collection

Children waiting for Hugh Gaitskell Peter Tuffrey collection

Having seen flats built in several European countries, the corporation planned to build their own in the Park Hill area once it was cleared. But the outbreak of the Second World War thwarted plans and they were further affected by the severe loss of life and damage to properties during December 1940 when the city suffered intense aerial bombardment.

Early in 1953, John Womersley was appointed chief architect, and events moved apace. The contract for Part One of the Park Hill scheme was awarded to the city’s Public Works Department rather than a private firm.

On April 25 1959, Alderman Charles W. Gascoigne, leader of Sheffield Corporation, laid the foundation stone to mark the beginning of the scheme.

The official opening of the 995 Park Hill flats was performed on June 16, 1961 by Labour Party and Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell. He commended the courage, enterprise and determination of the corporation in tackling the problem of redevelopment in the city using the multi-storey principle to provide accommodation for people who were so much in need of homes.

Dempseys store in Park Hill shopping precinct June  1961

Peter Tuffrey collection

Dempseys store in Park Hill shopping precinct June 1961 Peter Tuffrey collection

The city had not been content merely with providing accommodation but had tried to give the amenities which allowed the people who were re-housed a full life under the difficult situations which arose after the war, he said.

Coun Harold Lambert, chairman of the housing development committee, said Sheffield had often been spoken of as a ‘dirty picture in a golden frame’ but the corporation felt it their duty to alter the picture so that it could be more worthy of the frame surrounding it.

He argued that the need for multi-storey housing development was obvious, for there was not enough land within the city to permit of the old-type two-storey development for housing purposes.

On November 13, 1963, Sheffield Corporation architect John Womersley was presented with the Royal Institute of British Architects’ bronze medal and diploma for the best architectural design in South Yorkshire during the previous three years for his work on Park Hill.

Hugh Gaitskell at Park Hill

Peter Tuffrey collection

Hugh Gaitskell at Park Hill Peter Tuffrey collection

There have been frequent suggestions that Womersley and his staff were following some brutalist philosophy when designing Park Hill. I have not found any newspaper reference to Womersley even mentioning the term. I tend to believe he and his staff were asked to devise workable ideas within the straitjacket of postwar building restrictions and a tight budget.

It has also been suggested that Womersley and his staff designed housing that they would not live in themselves. I find this irrelevant. He was doing his job as city architect and won accolades at the time. Also, the first residents in Park Hill heaped praise on their new surroundings.

So, what went wrong over the following three decades? That is a burning question. Quite simply, within Park Hill, the living conditions became quite appalling and the violence horrific. One bad mistake was eventually highlighted: housing people with young families in high-rise blocks of flats. This is quite a revelation when one considers the whole idea of the flats – street decks in the sky, etc – was meant to mimic, albeit with mod cons, the neighbourly streets they replaced.

Surprising to many people in September 1996 was news that Sheffield councillors were backing a call to save Park Hill for the nation as an architectural gem. They agreed, despite warnings of multi-million pound costs, to save the entire area from demolition. English Heritage singled the flats out as an example of striking postwar building and wanted them to have Grade II listing – ranking them with some of Britain’s most important buildings.

On January 5, 2007 it was announced that a £146m deal for the redevelopment of Park Hill had been signed by national regeneration agency English Partnerships, Sheffield City Council and Urban Splash, a British firm which regenerates decaying industrial warehouses, mills, Victorian terrace houses and other buildings.

Urban Splash has put an enormous effort into Park Hill’s renovation. The new colourful exterior at least exudes a more friendly air.

Kitchen in Park Hill flats

Peter Tuffrey collection

Kitchen in Park Hill flats Peter Tuffrey collection

Park Hill wall plaque Sheffield

Peter Tuffrey collection

Park Hill wall plaque Sheffield Peter Tuffrey collection

Peter Tuffrey collection

Park Hill architect John Womersley

Peter Tuffrey collection Park Hill architect John Womersley