How to create a town from scratch
further education college. Existing housing stock – high and low-rise, towers and terraces, urban and suburban – will be improved, and its parks, lakes and canals will be landscaped. The biggest element is a proposed £4billion new town centre, complete with shops, offices, houses and a DLR station. By 2050, the population will have more than doubled to 100,000.
“It’s two different worlds: the world of the new, and the world of sensitive change,” says Lewis. “And all the bits and pieces in between.” It is, he accepts, a huge challenge for a company used to working on relatively small self-contained projects but which “scooped up” Thamesmead in 2013 after acquiring Gallions, the housing association that previously managed the estate.
Estate regeneration is a divisive subject but so far there’s little sense of organised opposition, other than a group of private landlords unhappy with a compulsory purchase order that’s been placed on their properties. According to Bexley’s Labour councillor Danny Hackett, most residents simply want Peabody to attend to the sort of details Gallions overlooked – new windows, leaks, troublesome neighbours.
Lewis quotes an 80 per cent positive response following two years of consultation, and says that when social tenants whose homes were being demolished were told they could move to any Peabody estate in London, all but two chose to remain in Thamesmead rather than move to Covent Garden or Pimlico.
That suggests people still feel good about Thamesmead, which was built by the Greater London Council (GLC) in a spirit of dynamic optimism. These were new homes for a new era, planned and built by the public sector on marshland between Plumstead and the Thames.
The dramatic first phase was a unique mix of concrete and water, with towers and low-rise terraces surrounding ornamental lakes. Early residents loved their new neighbourhood, with its modern architecture, well-fitted properties and access to river and marsh.
It was only as the estate expanded, the GLC was disbanded and social housing became regarded as homes of last resort, that neglect and decline set in. Thamesmead became indivisible from its role as the backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, as a hard-to-reach place of dystopian ultraviolence. Even in today’s pro-Brutalist age it is easily overlooked: nothing in Thamesmead has been listed.
That inaccessibility should be solved by the opening of the Crossrail station at Abbey Wood and a promised DLR extension. For Peabody, this is more than just building homes: the housing association provides skills training for residents and builds much-needed communal spaces. It will be a long-term process, with the first development of 525 homes completing in around 2021.
That new housing will overlook Thamesmead’s Southmere lake, which was intended to be an international yacht marina but currently houses a small flock of geese. The estate is remarkably wild: there are horses and 30,000 trees.
The buildings grouped round the lake demonstrate the different shades Thamesmead has to offer. There are concrete towers, which Peabody will showcase as heritage buildings. A squat terrace of vacant properties will be rebuilt with shops on the ground floor, while the striking angular boathouse will become artist studios, a crèche and café to draw life to the lake. The eastern aspect is completely open; beyond lies a huge common, populated by wildflowers and ponies, and past that is the Thames.
Peabody wants to create better access to the river that gives Thamesmead its name. The town is currently defined by a curious lack of interest in the river – Lewis points out that houses near the Thames don’t even have windows overlooking it. wants to create circular pedestrian routes and attractions around the river to pull people back and forth.
Peabody’s biggest plans are reserved for north-west Thamesmead, the proposed location of the new DLR station. Here lies badly used land; drive-by retail and over a mile of undeveloped waterfront. “We have done block planning for 11,500 homes and a further million square feet of non-residential use,” says Lewis. “That will create a new neigh- bourhood, predicated on the DLR coming over from Gallions Reach. If City Hall delivers the DLR, we can create a new neighbourhood which will provide a massive boost to London’s housing needs and create the town centre Thamesmead deserves.”
Although Thamesmead is partnering with commercial developers – one new block of 1,500 homes near Plumstead is being built with Berkeley Homes, which will leave Peabody to run the 550 affordable houses – Lewis emphasises that Peabody doesn’t need to observe short-time financial targets.
“We can be patient investors,” he says. “Our first phase would not make sense to a commercial developer, because we are providing a new library and community centre. Some phases are cost-neutral, while others are loss leaders and some provide a return – we can look at it in the entirety.”
Lewis previously worked at Letchworth Garden City and notes parallels with that utopian garden city movement. Thamesmead is blessed with 185 acres of green space, five lakes, four miles of canals and three miles of riverside. Lewis feels all this can be better exploited, both for the benefit of residents and to raise funds for further investment. “What gives this place its identity and uniqueness is the green and blue spaces,” he says. “People love the space, the clean air, the sense of tranquillity.”
Peabody, the trust founded by a Victorian philanthropist in 1862, is a curiously appropriate partner for a housing estate birthed in an ethos of post-war idealism. Both were rooted in the belief that something radical needed to be done to correct glaring deficiencies in London housing. Lewis’s challenge is to ensure that the values of both Peabody and Thamesmead remain relevant in the 21st century, when rather different principles dominate.
“If you go back to when George Peabody founded us, it was about providing people with decent homes and a sense of purpose. That is still the thread that runs right through what we are doing,” says Lewis. “That’s why the first phase of 525 homes is being directly developed by ourselves, so that we stay in control. It’s our statement piece and everybody is watching.”
Peabody’s plan for the new Thamesmead, main; below, the estate in 1984
The clock tower in the town centre
A Clockwork Orange, below; Goldcrest Close, Thamesmead, below left