Billybanks – a 1960s experiment for modern social housing

Over the years a lot of negative things have been said about the large ex-council estate called Billybanks that stood in Penarth. In it’s final years it had even been called the ugliest eyesore in Wales. By then it wasn’t a pretty place, being empty for 9 years or so it became a magnet for thieves and vandals… and nature. Places like Billybanks, fuelled an image of council housing estates as one of concrete jungles where living conditions were bad, even though they were originally created to ensure there was good quality affordable housing for low income households.

One of the first designs for Billybanks.

Back in the early 1960s the development of Billybanks was undertaken by Percy Thomas & Sons architects to the high ‘Parker Morris’ standards of the time, with the start of the first blocks being built on a patch of land at Harbour View Road in 1966. The Parker Morris’ report on housing standards, in public housing, concluded that the quality of social housing needed to be improved to match the rise in living standards. Among the standards were flushing toilets, minimum floor areas and heating systems. The report, titled ‘Homes for Today and Tomorrow’ was considered something of a benchmark for housing space standards in Britain. All of the buildings at Billybanks were built with brick cross-walls, concrete floors between the flats, views overlooking Cardiff bay. There were places to congregate and for children to play. The design was neat, clean and modern, with areas of greenary and trees, not associated with council estates of the time.

In total there were sixteen blocks with accommodation for about 600 people. They were made up of four-storey terraces consisting of flats and some two-storey masionettes, providing space for a variety of different sized families. The housing blocks were arranged in five large units along Harbour View Road, overlooking the bay, plus one detached 4-storey block with six similar blocks arranged at right angles leading down to Chichester Road. The upper storeys were reached by external stairs creating individual front doors and each of the blocks came with landscaped courtyards. The six blocks leading down to Chichester Road were also linked to car-ports and garages under the basements. To the south of Chichester Road were built 16 separate maisonettes for elderly people. Further blocks to the east, ‘Prince Charles Court’ and ‘Royal Close’ were built during the early 1970s.

So what went wrong? During the 1990s the buildings started to become run down and supposedly uneconomic to upgrade. In 1998, after years of neglect, a decision was taken by the Vale of Glamorgan Council to redevelop the whole site. But this was not to address the housing needs of people on council waiting lists, the last thing on the minds of the property developers would have been to re-house tenants on council rental rates – not when the land, prime real estate for the area with incredible views of Cardiff, was so valuable. Surely the choice to demolish Billybanks can’t have been driven by the costs of refurbishment and maintenance, not when the eviction, demolition and redevelopment would have cost many times more? A classic case of depopulation to make room for profit. Plans were drawn up to build a range of luxury expensive flats and by 2002 most of the buildings lay empty, except for a few who’s occupants had bought under the ‘right to buy’ housing act of 1980. Fighting eviction, the last remaining occupants moved out in 2011 and this Harbour View Road site was finally demolished.

What started as part of the 1960s experiment for new and modern social housing on a large scale, ended like so many other council estates as a ghetto for the dumping of problem families.

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