The Barbican estate was originally conceived and built by the City of London as flats for City workers to rent, and as each house 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.
But everything changed in the 1980s when 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. The flats were all let at commercial rents. But the City was a local authority 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.
Also 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 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. But Barbican tenants were not necessarily wealthy either. 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. For well over five years, flats have rarely been bought with mortgage loans; most are bought for cash. Buyers who are working, and use mortgage money to buy their flats, certainly have to be high earners to raise the necessary loans.
A clear sign of the increasing ‘gentrification’ of the estate has been the ever-increasing profusion of flower displays. 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 completely transformed the Fann Street ‘Wild Garden’.
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 City, through the Barbican Estate Office, have bowed before these winds of change. The car park attendants used to be mere caretakers; now they are more like concierges.
The Barbican Estate has become thoroughly bourgeois (which, being thoroughly bourgeois myself, I am very happy about).