“Unlike the other high-rise estates of the postwar decades, the Barbican was built for well-off residents, rather than people on council waiting lists and those evicted by slum clearance schemes. Here, the combination of immensely high apartment blocks (at forty-three storeys, they were the tallest in Europe) and enjoyable and usable open space really seemed to work. The public spaces and linking walkways were well maintained … and the well-heeled residents were there because the wanted to be, not because there was nowhere else to put them. It was an estate, in short, on which even architects and town planners would have been prepared to live.”
Roy Porter, ‘A History of London’
The Barbican estate was originally conceived and built by the City of London as flats for people working in the City to rent, and as each block was built, the flats were let. All the original brochures whose front covers you will see under the individual houses on the ‘Blocks’ menu, were letting brochures not sales brochures.
The Golden Lane Estate, which was the City’s and Chamberlin Powell & Bon’s earlier housing project, was genuinely and unambiguously, a ‘Council estate’, built to house essential workers at subsidised rents.
The Barbican was never that. The Barbican estate was conceived as a business proposition for the City Corporation to be financed by the income from market-level rents. The flats were always let at commercial rents.
This what Chamberlin Powell and Bon said about the demographic which was being targeted:
“young professionals, likely to have a taste for Mediterranean holidays, French food and Scandinavian design.”
In the Housing Act 1980 Margaret Thatcher gave Council tenants the ‘right to buy’ their flats. In the Barbican, the tenants were not ‘Council tenants’ as we would normally understand the term. But the City was a council, and the people living in the Barbican were tenants of a council within the definition of the Housing Acts, and so the tenants suddenly discovered they were very pleased to be Council tenants because they could buy their flats at a hefty discount.
Many tenants exercised their Housing Act ‘right to buy’ and they were granted long leases. There was no point forcing people to go through the Housing Act procedures if terms could be agreed, so quite often the City agreed sales voluntarily.
The City had always been tempted to sell flats and the Housing Act ‘right to buy’ merely nudged them in a direction they were very happy to take. So, as flats became vacant, the City stopped re-letting them and instead sold them as vacant flats in the open market for the full price. There are few, if any, tenanted flats left now.
The City was always aiming at letting their flats to the middle and upper classes. So, there was already a resident population of middle-class City workers before flats began to change hands. But since they only rented, they had little interest in the long term running of the estate. This all began to change as flats were bought by tenants and then sold and sold again for increasingly substantial prices.
Now you have to be rich to afford to buy a Barbican flat. Flats are rarely bought with mortgage loans nowadays; most are bought for cash. Barbican flat owners are generally well-off. Many are retired. many are investors who let their flats. Buyers who are working, and use mortgage money to buy their flats, certainly have to be high earners to raise the necessary loans.
Under the pressure of well-off flat owners with expectations, the superficial appearance of the estate has changed considerably. In the 1980s, the estate was stark and bare. If you wonder why commentators and journalists of the last century always denigrated the Barbican estate as a dehumanised concrete jungle, imagine the estate without flowers, without reed beds in the lake, and without wooden plant holders on the podium, and you will understand. Now residents have a profusion of plants and flowers in their window boxes and resident volunteers have planted podium boxes and have completely transformed the Fann Street ‘Wild Garden’. This is all the result of the estate changing to reflect the tastes of the resident population.
We used to have ‘Crispins’, a totally down market ‘corner shop’. Now we have a shop which sells the weirdest luxury items as normal fare. Once there was a pub; now there is a restaurant. These reflect the population’s tastes. The car park attendants used to be mere caretakers; now they are concierges.