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13 November 2014
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The faded dream - Thamesmead today.


Thamesmead is only 25 minutes from the city of London. Forty years ago the first residents moved in with hopes of living a better life. But today that dream has turned into a living nightmare.

Thamesmead is a sprawling new town funded by the GLC in the 1960s to house the capital's growing population.

When it was first built, it was hailed as the town of the future.

It was supposed to be like living in the country with green spaces, a nature reserve and a lake close to homes.

Its original architecture won awards but 40 years later its lustre has faded and the dream has turned sour.

After decades of broken promises residents are ready for a change.

Early days

In its early days Thamesmead was such an exclusive estate that potential tenants had to be vetted to see if they were suitable to live there.

"Almost immediately there was water penetration..."

Terry Gooch

Terry Gooch was the first person to move in with his wife and three children in July 1968.

It was a really special occasion and a time he remembers well:

"The GLC approached us when we lived in Peckham and they said they were looking for people to start this new town which was called Thamesmead…

"They then came back, having checked our credentials... and said we were the ideal couple to actually come down here."

But it didn't take long for the town's dream accommodation to go wrong.

Grand designs

Thamesmead had been built on an eleven hundred acre marshland site, formerly used by the Woolwich armoury.

The marshland and its proximity to the Thames dominated its design.

The danger of flooding meant all habitable rooms had to be built at first floor level.

Thamesmead in its early days

The dream - streets in the sky.

Architects embraced this challenge and in Southmere designed innovative, futuristic housing that won awards and attracted thousands of tourists.

Thamesmead's interconnecting walkways and elevated living were seen as very futuristic in their design.

But the elevated walkways built for protection, became a threat.

Alison Breese from Gallions Housing Association says, "The mile upon mile of walkways did mean that we had all this void space on the ground floor...

"What happened was that you then dislocated people from living in the street - there was no surveillance of the street.

"When people came out of their cars, they were walking into 'no man's land'. Over the years it became a place where people felt uncomfortable where it was dark, where sometimes vandalism occurred."

Fading dream

Other parts of the grand design didn't work either.

The idea was to create a balanced community with a mixture of ages and social classes, a bit of social engineering but it didn't succeed.

There were other issues - spiralling costs led to a scaling down of the original masterplan.

The promises of a shopping centre built around a marina, a train station and even a bridge across the Thames were scrapped.

Thamesmead c/o Getty Images

Futuristic vision - Thamesmead.

Residents began to see their dream fading away.

Throughout the late '70s, it was used as a sink estate by all the councils around.

Problem families from across the capital were dumped onto the estate so the original tenants that were able to, moved out.

Southmere quickly went downhill, empty properties were vandalised and families that couldn't move out felt trapped.

Ted Claridge was a local councillor at that time and remembers that people " came here with high hopes".

"The promises that were made to the original people that eventually there would be homes for them, their children and their grandchildren, that was never achieved.

"There were going be jobs - those jobs never materialised."

A brighter future?

After years of suffering anti-social behaviour and crime the locals now want a new deal which means knocking a lot of this down and giving them a more friendly environment to live in.

Thamesmead in 1970s

Brutalism or a brighter future?

The new vision for Thamesmead will take the focus away from the architecture and put the spotlight back on the residents of the town.

Intimidating walkways and garage spaces will be replaced low rise apartments surrounding a green oasis.

Alison Breese says it's crucial that residents are involved in the new plans:

"We need make sure that they're participating in that vision that is is their vision... we've learnt from the previous architecture that buildings alone don't necessarily solve social problems."

Community pride restored

A couple of miles down the road to West Thamesmead there has been successful work to ensure that community pride is restored.

It's already turning the area around.

West Thamesmead

Brighter future - West Thamesmead.

Joan Chilton and Dawn Smith fought to keep their dream alive when their peaceful lives were threatened by anti-social behaviour three years ago.

Dawn recalls the problems: "There was things going on like mortgage fraud and rubbish problems in the area, fly tipping and... there was a brothel."

They helped set up a residents association to tackle the problems in their community and it has galvanised people to come together.

Today there's renewed community spirit and many of the problems have gone away.

Thamesmead at the crossroads

The big question is - could an injection of community pride help turn around the fortunes of Old Thamesmead?

Thamesmead is at a crossroads once more.

In order for it to survive, regeneration and community spirit need to work hand in hand.

If it does, Thamesmead could finally become the 21st Century town it always promised to be.

For residents it's what they been waiting for since the 1960s...

last updated: 09/10/2008 at 09:48
created: 08/10/2008

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