This summer the Nottingham skyline changed forever as the first of the five iconic Lenton towers was demolished, beginning the end of the towers’ 40 year reign over our student ghetto.
For many of us the towers are an ominous symbol of Nottingham’s criminal activity but what is it really like for those living there?
“I live in the sky. Moving will break my heart”. Josephine Clarke is 72 years old, and has lived in Newgate tower for 34 years.
Before retiring Josephine was the caretaker of the blocks. She has seen two people commit suicide, one while she was cleaning the window of her mother’s flat a few floors below.
Harry Hatten, retired block warden and resident of Newgate for 41 years, also described this sinister feature of the view.
“I’ve seen four people fall from these towers. One there, one there… One landed next to that lamp post”. He pointed to a grassy area below, where he sees a woman put flowers out for her son after he committed suicide from the blocks two years ago.
As warden for the blocks for twelve years, Harry also found four residents passed away in their flats. He recounted where and how they died: slumped in bed, on the toilet, face down on a stained carpet.
“The estates have been left to rot”
Tower blocks like these shot up all over the country as result of the political rhetoric surrounding the ‘numbers game’; challenges by politicians in both parties pushing for a fast solution to the housing crisis in the 1950s and 1960s.
Blocks were built without prototypes and often without supervised construction, but the failure of these blocks, and many like them all over the UK, is not only a product of poorly conceived design.
Tim Verlaan, part of the Dutch-based group ‘Failed Architecture’, said the neglect these houses have suffered is because of a “complex relationship between design and politics.
“I’d rather live in a caravan in a field than the other blocks… they’re filled with prostitutes, asylum seekers, drug dealers and alcoholics”.
“Since the 1980s, the estates have been left to rot. In the 1980s a growing middle class wanted areas with gardens, and flats became less desirable. Increasingly towers like these became associated with social deprivation”.
However Newgate was still unlike the image of lurking ex-cons and dirty syringes that have mired the blocks’ reputation. Josephine commented: “My favourite thing about living here is the security”.
“I feel safe here. I know when I go on holiday that my flat is safe. The intercom system is secure, and the flats are private”. Although she also said she wouldn’t go out at night in the blocks, in 34 years of living in the flats she has never been mugged or threatened, and she doesn’t know anyone who has either.
“The other blocks are filled with prostitutes”.
However both Harry and Josephine said that the neighbouring blocks have a very different atmosphere: “I’d rather live in a caravan in a field than the other blocks… they’re filled with prostitutes, asylum seekers, drug dealers and alcoholics”.
Beware the drug dealers
In Digby Court the entrance smelled of urine and the well-kept carpet of Newgate was replaced by sticky lino. In place of flowers, which had lined the corridors at Newgate, were leaflets offering help with debt.
Six foot five Big Dan opened his flat door wielding a dirty teaspoon, gazing absently through reddened eyes. He was making tea. As if it wasn’t already clear from the smell, Dan said: “I’m on my seventh spliff of the day.”
“I live for my weed… And I don’t smoke that rubbish student stuff”.
Like Harry and Josephine, Dan said his favourite thing is the view. “It’s God damn gorgeous. At night I light myself a joint and count the planes as they take off from East Midlands Airport before I go to sleep”.
What about the block’s reputation among students for harbouring criminals and drug dealers? “Sure there are some people who take drugs, but its very private here. I don’t know anyone who takes hard drugs – just weed. I don’t lock my door 24/7, its secure here. I don’t usually let anyone in unless they’ve come through the intercom”.
He said he probably smokes more than the average resident in the tower, “but I live for my weed… And I don’t smoke that rubbish student stuff”.
He said that Newgate tower has only been maintained because it’s filled with elderly residents, rather than people on benefits or rehabilitants. Unlike Newgate, Digby isn’t supplied with gas.
“Ten alcoholics live in the one next door”.
“The worst thing about living here is the cost. It is so bloody cold from October until May. I can only afford to turn on half the heaters in my flat. I sit in my room in a coat and gloves”.
Big Dan shows us the makeshift insulation he’s put together around the window frame with gaffa tape and blue tac.
And what about the other residents on the corridor? “Don’t go to the one two doors down- the smell of weed will kill you. Everyone knows there’s a farm in there… There’s a family above me, but they’re young and have lots of kids; they probably won’t answer… Ten alcoholics live in the one next door, they probably won’t answer either… ”.
On the beat
Police Constable Robert Phillips is the beat manager for the New Lenton area. He has worked as a police officer in Lenton for ten years, and said he has had “pretty mixed experiences.
“I have met all types of people, from close knit typical families who go to work, send their children to school and keep themselves to themselves, to single lonely people who often call police for various reasons which all boil down to one thing… needing someone to talk to.
“Of course, there are also those that live in the blocks, just as anywhere else, that would be considered anti-social and come to police notice for many different reasons. These unfortunately are the people that many students will only see and on occasion interact with in some way”.
The police have had to attend 256 incidents at Willoughby Court.
A Freedom of Information request submitted to the Nottinghamshire Police department by Impact revealed the number of recorded incidents in the blocks since 2005. As expected Newgate Court has seen very few incidents since 2005; just 45. The difference between the other blocks is huge. The police have had to attend 256 incidents at Willoughby Court and 247 at Lenton Court since 2009. Before 2009, there were no reported incidents in either of the blocks.
Constable Phillips commented: “An incident could be as simple as someone calling police to report a burst water pipe, suspicious smell from a flat (possibly to report drug cultivation or not seeing a neighbour for a while), music being played too loudly or a dog barking”.
A dumping ground for the disadvantaged
Back in the 70s, anyone who wanted to live in the tower had to submit two references. Paul MacMahon, a Masters student in architecture at Nottingham Trent University, said that after the references system was abolished, “the authorities seemed to use [the tower blocks] as a dumping ground for those of a significantly less advantaged socio-economic background”.
Nottingham City Homes (NCH), who now manage the property, told us that it would cost more to maintain the blocks in the long term, than it would to demolish them and build new homes.
“It’s as though the unemployed are being pushed into districts which are placed further and further away from the city centre”.
Tim Verlaan from Failed Architecture said that the new plans will not solve the problem: “The area has been gentrified, especially given the high number of students in the area. But what will happen to the people in towers? They will be scattered around Nottingham, and the community will be dispersed. People will have to watch their own houses get torn down.
“From a market perspective I can understand, but from a social viewpoint it is very sad”.
Paul MacMahon added: “The issues surrounding mental health, social disruptions, medium and long-term unemployment etc have not been solved [by the new development].
“When you analyse a map of the city you will find that there are many areas of low social-economic background all cocooned and contained. It’s as though the unemployed are being pushed into districts which are placed further and further away from the city centre”.
“It feels as though many of the problems are being brushed under the carpet”.
Unlike in other parts of Europe, Verlaan has noticed that in the UK people seem to relish in the destruction of tower blocks as a failed symbol of modernity.
“The residents don’t really have a voice, from what we understood little attention was paid to their primary concerns. It feels as though many of the problems are being brushed under the carpet until they eventually resurface once more”.
In place of the towers will be a set of low-rise accommodation. The residents of the blocks could choose where they wanted to move, and Nottingham City Homes covered the costs of all the moving while also providing residents with over £4,700 to help with the change.
It All Falls Down
The first few floors of Digby Court are now no longer home to Big Dan but are instead filled with scaffolding, forgotten graffiti and the occasional dusty condom wrapper.
“Residents in the blocks did not always clear their flats before moving out. One demolition expert said: “One room had been entirely converted into an aviary… another had syringes everywhere”.
In one flat a fridge lay open, filling the room with the smell of rotting meat.
A workman on the demolition site said one resident had stuck details of every day that he lived in the block all over one of the walls: “It was a diary all over the room; every day was documented. It was sad.
“We all had a little read, took it down, and started to take the room apart”.
Additional reporting: Oscar Williams
Images Ben Tynegate and Emily Tripp
See the Lenton Tower Blocks in pictures here.
Update following request from Nottingham City Homes:
The damage to the doors (pictured above) resulted from police training exercises following the decommissioning of the blocks, not while the blocks were inhabited.
The following statement has been issued to Impact on request of Nottingham City Homes:
Cllr Alex Ball, Nottingham City Council’s Executive Assistant with responsibility for housing and regeneration, said: “The Lenton flats have been iconic on the Nottingham skyline for decades, and have been home to many families and individuals over the years.
“It is important for us to demolish the Lenton flats, as they are no longer fit for purpose. It would cost more to maintain them in the future than it will to take them down and build brand new efficient and sustainable homes in their place.
“We began consultation with the local community on the future of this site over two years ago, before a decision had even been made to go ahead. It was important to us to understand the views and concerns of local people from the offset, so we were able to mitigate where possible.
“Nottingham City Homes is also in touch with all those tenants directly affected through its dedicated Relocation Support Team. This team provides a huge amount of support, advice and guidance throughout the whole process. From the first notice of demolition, to bidding for new homes, organising removals and even being present on moving day itself, they are there every step of the way.
“I find it disappointing that the flats and their tenants are viewed in such a negative way by some local students. I hope that this is perhaps the voices of a few and not a generalisation.
“As the area goes through its regeneration over the coming years, we will do our best to work with tenants, residents, the University and local community groups to build more positive community relations”.