Byker estate: Postcode NE6 2DJ

Where is it?  Bing map|| Geograph grid ref NZ2764  || Ward profile || StreetCheck

byker wall
Byker Wall
  • The Grade II listed Byker Estate in Newcastle upon Tyne was awarded ‘The Great Neighbourhood’ Award at the Academy of Urbanism Awards 2018 [Nov 2017]

 “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)

Byker housing
Inside Byker Wall (2002)

“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 (no longer available)

History

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.

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 set out to clear ‘the slums’ but keep the community; refurbishment was not seriously considered.  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 of it.  Apart from the Wall, the housing within the estate is low-rise with planted areas.  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 for social activity.

The development project was run as a “rolling programme” so local people could continue living in the area during the building work (although this created its own difficulties for residents). The architects had an office on site and aimed to keep residents involved in the design process; it is said the early success of Byker was as much to do with this as its innovative architecture, although some argue existing residents were not in reality a top priority for the city council.  (See further reading at the foot of this page.)

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 Wall north face, Long Headlam (Feb 2014)
Byker Wall north face, Long Headlam (Feb 2014)

The Wall

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 refurbishment of the wall was started by the Byker Community Trust (BCT) housing association who now own and manage the estate.  See Byker: A way forward

Byker Wall south face (February 2014)
Byker Wall south face (Feb 2014)
Pedestrian paths and planting inside the estate
Pedestrian paths and planting inside the estate (2002)

Transport links

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.

Byker Metro station (Feb 2014)
Byker Metro station (Feb 2014)
Byker bypass (February 2014)
Byker bypass (Feb 2014)

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 taken this over and has a response team to deal quickly and efficiently with environmental issues (which can include fly-tipping, graffiti, dog fouling and littering as well as cutting the grass).

Byker continues to experience social and environmental issues.  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, the Beavans department store building dating from 1910 has been converted into flats and a former bank is also to be converted.

In 2017 retail property specialist Harper Dennis Hobbs ranked 1,000 shopping centres in the UK and decided Byker’s Shields Road was ‘the least vital’.  A rise in the number of pawnbrokers and betting shops has been blamed locally on Government austerity measures which have impacted on the least well off in society.  Anti-social behaviour and problems with drunkenness and drug-use have affected local businesses.  However, locals responded with Byker Old Town ‘Big Clean Up’ where people from the business community joined forces with local residents, groups, organisations and the council to  improve the upkeep of the environment.  Byker Old Town Community Partnership aims to make a real difference to this part of the city with weekly volunteering sessions and is seeking funding to develop this part of Byker.

Shield's Road, Byker's high street (Feb 2014)
Shields Road: Byker’s high street (Feb 2014)
East End Pool and Library (Feb 2014)
East End Pool and Library (Feb 2014)

Further reading

University of Newcastle research paper (2006) Social Housing as Cultural Landscape: A case study of Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne (UNESCO conference paper), now located at http://studylib.net/doc/8244291/social-housing-as-cultural-landscape–a-case-study-of-byker

Byker revisited Photographer 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.”

For critiques of the success of the design of the Byker estate see these authors:

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

Page last checked 18th March 2018. Updated 29th April 2018.
  • For recent developments see Byker: A way forward which includes more information about the Bolam Coyne project, listing the estate in 2007, the formation of the community trust in 2012 and investment plans and the renewed popularity of Byker.

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