“A crying shame”: How Basildon’s housing ills expose a nationwide crisis
Brooke House is a 49-metre-tall eyesore on the Essex skyline. Built in 1962, the tower block resembles an East London high-rise—fitting of the settler town’s history as a destination for people escaping the capital.
Today, Brooke House is a symbol of Basildon’s entrenched housing crisis. The building was recently deemed “uninhabitable” by residents and local councillors alike. Tenants say that frequent power cuts have left them without water or electricity for hours on end, risking a hazardous situation if there was a fire. The power outage meant lifts were out of action and water could not be pumped around the building. One long-term resident describes how the unreliability of basic amenities in the complex is a “tragedy waiting to happen.”
Basildon is at the sharp end of a nationwide problem. According to the National Housing Federation, 8.5 million people had some form of “unmet” housing need at the end of 2021. An estimated two million children are living in “overcrowded, unaffordable and unsuitable homes.” Housebuilding is not meeting the demand of those in need of an affordable home.
The town is expected to see the highest shortage of homes across the county of Essex by 2041, as rents and house prices rocket. However, figures from the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities reveal that over 600 homes were empty in Basildon in 2021—up from 516 the previous year. Meanwhile, an estimated 673 children lived in temporary accommodation across the borough in 2020. A year before, this figure was 462.
Brooke House has become emblematic of the problem, a resident in the tower block tells me. She has made repeated calls to the council because she believes Brooke House is in dire need of repair and redecoration. She says that for the “last two years there has been no meetings and little communication” with residents over future plans for the block, or whether their decades-long call for redecoration will be heeded. She pointed me in the direction of Brooke House Residents Facebook page where numerous posts express disapproval with the Tory council’s treatment of the building since they won a majority in the borough in 2021.
When I put the residents’ claims to Basildon council, Conservative councillor Andrew Schrader, Cabinet member for Housing and Estate Renewal, says: “Brooke House is an iconic feature of Basildon Town Centre and we regularly engage with residents to understand their needs and identify opportunities to make improvements. Unlike other blocks it is not cladded and has sprinkler systems in every property and bin stores which were installed in 2015.”
The tower block wasn’t always a symbol of decline. Christine Townley, a retired engineer and Basildon resident who lived in Brooke House from 1978 to 1981, recalls that the tower’s prime location was once a pull-factor for residents. “Living in Brooke House was a phenomenon in the sense that it was in the town centre and you had all those shops” she says—and the view of the sunset from her fifth-floor window was “phenomenal.”
Townley is outraged by the scandal surrounding Brooke House today—and appalled that such an iconic building which helped “the town be a town centre” has become comparable to Grenfell. She says that the disastrous event in London shone a light on how the 1950s boom of brutalist architecture has been reduced to a tragic depiction of housing inequality and dangerous living conditions. The steady demise of the town’s formerly buzzing centre is “a crying shame” for long-term residents like herself.
Councillor Schrader says: “We accept that it [Brooke House] is in need of a refurbishment which is why we have committed to a multi-million Safe and Sound Estates Programme to help create clean and safe neighbourhoods and recently agreed a series of significant works to create a new lobby, redecorate communal areas and improve accessibility throughout Brooke House. Residents of Brooke House have been widely consulted on these works to ensure they meet the needs of the community. We continue to engage with residents as improvement works begin.”
The decline in the quality of housing has been a dominant issue in local politics for many years. It even led to the emergence of a new protest party, Basildon Community Residents Party (BCRP), in 2021. The BCRP formed in response to a “masterplan” proposed by the council, led at the time by Labour councillor Gavin Callaghan, which involved the building of four new high-rise blocks in the city centre. The BCRP considered this to be a proposal for “ghetto” of upwards expansion instead of the “traditional social housing and low-level flats” that the town needed.
In the local elections in 2021, the BCRP stood against Labour and the Tories. The incumbent Labour Party suffered a major defeat because, although the BCRP failed to gain any seats, their influence helped split the Labour vote, opening the field for the Tories to win a majority. But the election of the Basildon Conservatives did nothing to keep high-rise blocks of out of the town. Conservative councillors approved the building of two 11-storey towers consisting of 242 homes in August last year, and in April the national Planning Inspectorate granted permission for four new tower blocks to be built in the town centre, making the much-criticised masterplan, which had been backed by Callaghan, a reality. Basildon council has no coherent plan to tackle the lack of affordable homes without making the unpopular choice to build upwards.
It is ironic that the Essex town built in the late 1940s to alleviate overcrowding in east London now faces a housing crisis of its own. Councillors in Basildon are still avoiding the problem of decaying Brooke House, once the pinnacle of affordable housing, in their quest to build new blocks across the borough. The Grade II-listed building is in a state of disrepair, while the number of people stuck on housing waiting lists is soaring. Basildon is not unique: the story of Brooke House is replicated across the country, with more and more families stuck in temporary accommodation as social housing estates are left in disrepair. As housing associations, council leaders and national government ministers continue to snub residents’ cries, it is time to build a grassroots, nationwide housing revolution to hold them to account.
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