Byker estate: Postcode NE6 2DJ
“Byker is a pioneering social housing development of European importance and influence. It has proved to be a successful estate with tenants, but in recent years a number of problems have developed that threaten the quality of life on the estate and may undermine its long-term sustainability. These problems are principally social, but issues of public and private space, building fabric, security and maintenance, also need to be addressed.” Newcastle Council report The Byker Way Forward Jan 2001 (no longer available online)
“English Heritage is delighted that the Byker Estate, one of the nation’s most important 20th century housing schemes, has been listed. The Estate’s groundbreaking design has been influential across Europe and has proved a pioneering model for its approach to public participation. Residents of the Estate and Newcastle City Council have long recognised the architectural value of Byker.” English Heritage statement in government press release Jan 2007.
In the mid-1960s Newcastle City Corporation took the decision to redevelop the Byker area of Newcastle upon Tyne. Originally Byker was a Victorian working-class area of densely-built terraces of Tyneside flats in grid-iron straight lines. You can get an impression of late Victorian Byker from the 1898 OS map which clearly shows the Shields Road, Raby Street and Headlam Street, which led down to the original Byker village. The 1944 OS map and 1970 air photo both show the dense carpet of streets that evolved.
- OS England and Wales: Durham Sheet III.SW, 1898; Durham Sheet III.SW 1944
- 1970 aerial view of Byker (TWAS) https://www.flickr.com/photos/twm_news/5158070222/
By the 1960s much of the housing needed major repair and upgrading. In 1953 Byker had nearly 1,200 dwellings considered unfit for human habitation (many lacked bathrooms), yet 80% of residents wanted to stay in Byker, a location on the eastern edge of the city centre close to industry on the riverside. Newcastle council aimed to clear the slums but keep the community. The appointment of Ralph Erskine as architect in 1969 was seen as an inspired choice and one sensitive to local needs. Erskine’s Plan of Intent was adopted by the Council in 1970. This recommended low-rise housing behind a curving line of flats and the retention of significant buildings such as schools, churches, pubs and the Shipley Baths.
The estate as built features a high-rise spine Wall of flats running along the contours which shields the estate from a major arterial road and the Metro line. The Wall also helps to create the estate’s own microclimate and balconies on the inside of the Wall allow residents to take advantage. Apart from the Wall, the housing within the estate is low-rise with particular attention paid to the planting scheme. Pedestrians get priority with car parking limited to the perimeters of the estate. Lots of contrasting colours and materials helped to make different neighbourhoods within the estate distinctive. Unusually the facilities included 64 hobby rooms to provide a variety of places where social activity could take place.
The development project was run as a “rolling programme” so local people could continue living in the area during the building work. The architects kept residents involved in the design process and it is thought the early success of Byker was as much to do with this as its innovative architecture.
- Anna Minton, University of East London, wrote an article on the Byker estate in the Guardian in May 2015, giving her personal view of the estate and evaluating its success as a social experiment. This is especially worth looking at for the photographs of old Byker. Byker Wall Guardian article 21st May 2015
Byker Lives online archive
A major initiative to mark 40 years of the Byker development is the formation of an online archive called Byker Lives. The material includes films, photographs, oral histories, maps and historical documents made up from contributions by current and former residents, groups and organisations. The timeline map shows how the built footprint of the Byker area has evolved and changed since the 1860s.
- Byker Lives http://bykerlives.com/archive/
- Timeline map http://bykerlives.com/map/
- Animated timeline video http://bykerlives.com/a-history-of-byker-by-roots-and-wings/
- BBC History in pictures: Inside Byker redevelopment
- Byker retrospective (Newcastle Chronicle Oct 2016)
The most famous part of the Byker redevelopment is the Byker Wall. Work on the wall started in 1971 and it is designed to cut down on traffic noise to improve the environment of Byker. The windows on the wall are the backs of the maisonettes and are small as they face north. Usually, the rooms that don’t require heating are situated at the back (such as bathrooms and kitchens).
The south facing walls of the maisonettes have balconies to catch the sun in the summer. Ground floor flats have gardens. These flats are usually given to families so that children have access to the gardens. Older people are also given ground floor flats to increase accessibility. The windows on the south face are much bigger to catch the maximum amount of light and heat and are the main living rooms.
In 2013 a £7m facelift of the wall was started by the trust who now own and manage the estate, which was completed in 2016.
Part of the overall redevelopment of the area included improved transport links with the city centre and beyond. Byker benefits from its own Metro station as well as improved road links. Originally, a motorway was planned, but this was scaled down to form a bypass.
Issues over time
Byker suffered the kinds of the social problems common to other inner-city urban housing areas, including juvenile crime and vandalism, during the 1990s. In parts of Byker turnover of tenancies was high and limits on the money available for maintenance and repairs led to further deterioration. Neighbourliness was gradually undermined as families moved away – particularly those in employment. Some shops and services were abandoned and boarded up. Open landscaping seemed to invite vandalism and youth crime including break-ins and muggings. In the mid-1990s it was estimated one in three of Byker’s adult inhabitants was unemployed.
“The estate was particularly badly affected by the economic decline of the late 20th century. It did not receive the level of service delivery from public agencies that it required.” Future Communities
Around 2000 the city council was proactive in trying to revitalise the area. The East End Pool and Library introduced high quality leisure facilities to the area and a large purpose-built Morrisons store opened at the end of the Shields Road in 2002, providing jobs for unemployed people (a stated aim of the development). In 2001 the council formed a Multi Agency Problem Solving team to draw up a plan for the neighbourhood. This looked at what needed to be done and argued for resources to do it.
In May 2003 the council’s budget included £1 million for security measures on the Byker estate including CCTV. New ways tenants could report crime were introduced. To improve neighbourhood management and reduce the fear of crime, the council introduced wardens in the Byker area including the Shields Road. The wardens scheme was later rolled out to other Newcastle residential estates. More recently, the community trust has, in partnership with the city council, set up a rapid response team to deal more quickly and efficiently with everyday issues such as fly-tipping, graffiti, dog fouling and littering.
Like many high streets, the Shields Road has had significant changes in building use as department stores, banks and shops have closed. What was once Parrish’s department store is now student digs and the Beavans department store building dating from 1910 has been converted into flats. There is also a proposal to turn the former Lloyds bank, a currently unused listed building dating from 1904, into flats.
- Neighbourhood wardens http://www.newcastle.gov.uk/environment/street-care-and-cleaning/neighbourhood-wardens
- Byker’s rapid response team http://www.bykercommunitytrust.org/blog/rapid-response-team-byker-community-trust-residents
- Homes planned for former bank http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/homes-planned-former-lloyds-bank-6934872
The demand for rented accommodation in Byker was depressed throughout the 1990s and up to 2003. There had been a general decline in demand to rent council housing across Newcastle upon Tyne city. In some parts of the Byker estate it has been suggested it may be possible to convert dwellings into family homes with defined gardens for which there is greater demand. It should be noted that house prices in Newcastle have been lower than many other British cities and there has been a good supply of rented housing in more upmarket areas such as Heaton and Jesmond where there has been considerable gentrification.
Like many other urban areas house prices increased rapidly in Newcastle between 2002 and 2006. Homes for first time buyers doubled in price. The council responded to the increased demand for affordable housing by proposing a mixture of schemes in its 2006 housing strategy document (2006-2021) including social rented and low cost ‘market’ housing (i.e. for sale). Demand for affordable rented accommodation has increased since 2006, although house prices declined sharply in 2007-8 and have been slow to recover. Figures for the year July 2012 to June 2013 show that prices of flats and terraced houses in Newcastle on average increased slightly, while those for larger houses fell (detached by over 16%) [BBC UK house prices].
Changes to the way housing benefits are operated have meant that some tenants have had to downsize to homes with fewer rooms as a result of the so called ‘bedroom tax’. New rules introduced in April 2013 have meant that a tenant who is paying rent for an under-occupied dwelling with ‘spare’ rooms doesn’t get benefit to cover all of the cost of the rent. The Byker Community Trust has been helping tenants facing difficulties to find smaller properties which has had the knock-on effect of making more of the three and four-bedroomed homes families seek available.
“These are properties in good repair and many of them have been fully refurbished over the last 10 years. They will also be newly decorated, providing a blank canvas for tenants to transform into homes.” Jill Hayley BCT press release 20 Feb 2014
University of Newcastle research paper (2006) Social Housing as Cultural Landscape: A case study of Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne http://www.ncl.ac.uk/unescolandscapes/files/PENDLEBURYJohn.pdf
Byker revisited Photograper and founder Amber member Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen returns to Byker which she originally documented in the 1970s. See her images here: http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/byker-revisited
“In Byker Revisited Sirkka invites the residents of the new Byker to imagine themselves in just one picture. Many are immigrants and asylum seekers from distant regions of the globe, who find themselves next door to a perplexing cultural diversity of local origin. Through her portraits, Sirkka draws together singular lives into a virtual community, interweaving it with the community that was lost in the name of progress.”
Newcastle council had a Home Office contract to provide advice, support and accommodation for people who applied asylum from 1999 to May 2011. Some asylum seekers would have been housed at Byker in that time. See this page on this site: Seeking asylum
There are proposals to build five specially designed bungalows for residents with autism and other specific learning disabilities at Birch View off Finsbury Avenue in Byker: Evening Chronicle June 2014
For recent developments see Byker: A way forward which includes information about the Bolam Coyne project, listing the estate in 2007, the formation of the community trust in 2012 and investment plans announced in 2013.