THE MOZART ESTATE sits at the heart of Queen’s Park ward in Westminster. The area is home to 11,355 people, squeezed into a couple of square kilometres of high-density accommodation. Squat blocks of social housing sit tongue-in-groove with terraced private houses. The ward is cut off to the south by the Harrow Road – this stretch of it a shabby but lively strip, bustling with independent traders. To the north is its slightly more affluent double, Queen’s Park of Brent, where there are middle-class pubs and restaurants around the tube station.
There’s no obvious demarcation between the two areas. Westminster’s Queen’s Park isn’t particularly shabby. Brent’s Queen’s Park isn’t exactly opulent. The fact that a single name serves two different governmental areas is barely remarked by locals: it’s all just Queen’s Park. But there is in fact a significant divide. Brent’s Queen’s Park ranks a little below average on deprivation measures. Westminster’s sits in the most deprived quintile. Out of the 625 wards on the Greater London Authority’s wellbeing index, it ranks 624th. It has a ‘very high’ rate of psychosis (over 25 episodes per 1,000 of the population) and the third highest number of people on the Westminster Learning Disability Partnership caseload.
Over the past few years it has also generated a series of increasingly troubling headlines. In October 2010, police investigated what appeared to be a gang-related kidnapping: a 13-year-old boy claimed he was bundled into a car, held for 24 hours and beaten with a handgun. In mid-January last year, after learning of a 12-year-old boy who was attacked with a bottle, the City of Westminster warned that teenage stabbings and violent assaults had reached crisis levels. In September 2011, a man fired a shotgun into a group of people on John Fearon Walk. Three young women were injured. One of them, an 18-year-old, was hit in the neck by the pellets while holding her 11-month-old son.
One image from 2007 sticks with me: a boy in Clapham, shot dead in a bedroom that shared a wall with an upmarket gastropub.
Clearly something is going wrong. And yet the question of just what that might be has been asked throughout the history of the Mozart estate. The place wasn’t really on my radar until the shooting on John Fearon Walk. I had recently finished a book on gang culture. I knew that the gang problem can throw wild gradations of social wellbeing into sharp relief. One image from 2007 sticks with me: a boy in Clapham, shot dead in a bedroom that shared a wall with an upmarket gastropub. All the same, I imagined that the greater general affluence in this part of West London would reduce the severity of the issue. Apparently it didn’t.
The more I researched, the more the Mozart seemed to point to something profound about Britain’s whole approach to housing and social policy since the 1960s. Throughout its history the estate has been a test bed for ideas about what makes a community. Indeed, I started following events in the ward just in time to see the latest initiative take shape: a scheme, untried in London, to devolve responsibility for the quality of life in Queen’s Park to the residents themselves.
The Mozart estate was built in the mid-‘70s. Down came the Victorian terraces of Mozart Street and Lancefield Street. Up went tower blocks connected by overhead walkways in the high modernist style (‘Folk-build is dead in England’, as a slogan of the time had it). Before it had even been finished, tenants were asking to move out. There was a dampness problem, and persistent reports of what would now be called anti-social behaviour: vandalism and petty crime. In her 1985 book Utopia on Trial, the geographer Alice Coleman used the Mozart as a central case study in her argument that bad housing leads to bad behaviour. She described ‘a plague of flats’ that ‘build anti-social people’. She and her team surveyed more than 100,000 flats across Britain, checking the quantities of litter, graffiti, urine and faeces in their surroundings and noting the numbers of children in care. The statistics varied with the design of the estates. On these measures, she judged the Mozart to be one of the worst in the country. Her solution: the whole place needed to be rebuilt.
Westminster Council agreed and set out a two-year building plan. It was, in fact, the first test of Coleman’s principles, which were subsequently applied to estates in several other cities as part of what was ominously called the Design Improvement Controlled Experiment. The first objective was to reduce the number of places where people could hide. The Mozart’s large blocks of flats were divided up into smaller groups, each with their own stairway. The high-rise walkways came down. Bungalows replaced garages, clearing the sightlines towards the entrances and deterring prowlers from approaching the flats. Ground-floor maisonettes gained small private gardens in place of the nondescript communal areas where undesirables gathered.
On these measures, she judged the Mozart to be one of the worst in the country. Her solution: the whole place needed to be rebuilt.
The work was never quite finished. This year an 88-year-old Coleman told The New Statesman that Westminster ‘mucked [me] about’ and the job was ‘very much botched.’ But the media were impressed. The Independent enthused about ‘gnomes and hanging baskets of flowers’ adorning the gardens of ‘recently transformed homes’. The Times called the Mozart Estate a ‘beacon of hope’. ‘One of the reasons the Mozart is improving,’ its report concluded, ‘is that the people moving into the estate have more civic pride than the old residents who had had years and years of no one caring about them and being gradually ground down.’
In a sense the papers were right: crime and anti-social behaviour did fall, and it probably was because the estate had been rebuilt. But the design may not have been the decisive factor. The most disruptive families were shifted off the estate while it was being renovated. Once the work was over they came back, and their children had grown into teenagers. The violence of 2010 alone shows how far short Westminster Council came from solving the problem of crime. If it wasn’t the buildings, what was it?
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