The Hightown flats (Napier Square and Gatefield) were completed by Wrexham Borough Council in 1970. They were built on the site of 19th century terraced houses including Napier St, Nelson St, Trafalgar Rd and several other streets, which had been scheduled for demolition in 1966 as part of the Council’s slum clearance programme. The new flats lasted 40 years, just half the lifetime of the houses they replaced. Faced with a massive bill for repair and improvement, Wrexham County Borough Council demolished the flats in 2011. The site was redeveloped, in partnership with Wales and West Housing Association, for new traditionally built social housing.
The building of Hightown Flats using new methods of construction can be traced back to national housing policy, set and amended by successive post war governments.
In 1954 Harold McMillan, the Housing Minister, announced a mass drive for slum clearance, which fell largely on the shoulders of local authorities. Urban populations were growing and council waiting lists were increasing. Councils had to build and build quickly. They had powers to compulsorily purchase land for slum clearance and redevelopment.
From 1956 the Government housing subsidy payable to local authorities to build council houses required all new council housing (unless financed by borrowing on the open market) to be reserved for two designated groups, the elderly and those displaced by slum clearance. Subsidies also paid more the higher Councils built. Flats above 6 storeys received 2.3 times the subsidy of low rise dwellings therefore, there was a financial incentive for councils to build higher.
The housing subsidy rules drove Councils, including Wrexham, to step up their slum clearance programmes. Slum clearance had started in the 1930’s but had been stalled because of the war. It was a blanket national policy; probably more suited to clearing the large number of slums in cities, such as Manchester and Liverpool, rather than for provincial towns like Wrexham, although the Wrexham area did also have its share of poor housing. However, in order to receive housing subsidy, Wrexham had to find slums to demolish. Many of the older parts of Wrexham town, such as Rhosddu, Penybryn, Fairfield, Smithfield, Tuttle St and several other streets saw widespread demolition. Some residents who lived in Hightown said that the houses were well built, they were only about 70 years old and could easily have been improved. However, the idea of improving existing houses and preserving communities, rather than demolition, wouldn’t happen until the 1969 Housing Act came into force. This Act introduced grants to improve and extend the life of existing houses and amended the definition of slum housing. It was a policy that came too late for Hightown and many of the other older parts of Town.
In 1963, a Conservative Government White Paper pledged to build 350,000 new homes a year. Labour’s 1964 election manifesto promised 400,000; two years later it was promising 500,000 by 1970. The White Paper stated that local authorities would, “have to step up their output of houses both by rationalisation of traditional building methods and by making use of industrial systems”
The Conservative Government expected 25% of local authority housing to be constructed using new industrialised methods, a proportion raised by the succeeding Labour Government to 40%.
Concrete had become a reliable and easy to use material for construction. Building parts were precast in factories before being transported to the site for relatively quick and simple assembly. The building of flats was facilitated by the introduction of tower cranes. The rapid construction of these new types of dwellings relied on large scale contractors establishing factories across the country that made concrete frames and panels, either to their own system or ones based on European designs. By 1965, 163 developers were producing 138 different large panel systems (LPS) for housing.
In September 1965 Wrexham Borough Council’s Standing Sub-Committee received a report of a meeting between the Chairman of the Council, Council Officers and Technical Officers of the Welsh Office on the redevelopment and financial aspects of the Hightown site. The Town Clerk reported that Government housing subsidies available to local authorities were expected to change and that the Council might like to consider its proposals for the redevelopment of the site. The Borough Surveyor was instructed to prepare proposals.
In June 1966 the Borough Surveyor reported on the preliminary proposals for the redevelopment of the site by “industrialised building methods.” He submitted a draft layout plan which had been prepared by Concrete Ltd of Cheshire, which included blocks of four storey Maisonettes and a 9-storey block of flats, giving 191 units.
The proposal was referred to the Council’s Sub-Committee for detailed consideration. Following consideration and visits to other schemes, the proposals were revised. The 9-storey block was rejected. The premium payment for flats above 6 storeys had recently been abolished by the Government. Tower blocks had also fallen out of favour after the partial collapse, following a gas explosion, of the 22-storey Ronan Point in East London in 1968.
Of the new “industrial building methods” one of the most common types of “large panel systems” was the Bison Wall-Frame method used by Concrete Ltd. This type was selected for the Hightown Flats. Here all the walls were load bearing; the walls and panels were 21 feet long; the panels were bolted-rather than cemented together. A two-bedroom flat could be completed from just 21 precast components. The construction method was likened by some to building with a pack of cards.
There would be 191 flats and maisonettes in the complex, in five blocks of 5 storey flats, one block of 4 storey flats, one block of 3 storey flats, five blocks of 2 storey houses (26 in number) and 1 block of bungalows (5 in number).
There would also be six detached stair/refuse chute blocks; which gave access to the elevated walkways and pedestrian bridges. The bungalows were constructed traditionally.
The contract for the construction of the Hightown development was signed in June 1969. The Main Contractor was Thysssen (Great Britain) Ltd and the pre-cast concrete wall and floor panels were cast by Concrete (Northern) Ltd of Winsford, Cheshire, in July 1969. The flats were completed in 1970.
Even before the Hightown flats were completed, in 1969 the National Building Agency, a government sponsored advisory body was reporting severe structural defects in Bison flats.
Later, problems started occurring across the country. In Hillingdon London, a large piece of concrete cladding fell off a high-rise block. In Kidderminster, an entire cladding panel fell off from 11 storeys up. Elsewhere councils were reporting that chunks of concrete regularly fell off, so they had to put up protective canopies and nets around the tower blocks, for safety reasons.
By 1974, 31,000 high rise and 23,000 low rise flats had been built using the Bison Wall Frame System.
In 1984 the Minister for Housing and Construction announced a programme of investigations by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) of dwellings constructed from large panel systems – not just Bison systems.
They investigated the possibility of collapse, as a result of explosion or fire. There were issues relating to weathertightness of flat roofs, which could cause corrosion of reinforcement, quite apart from rain penetration and its impact on conditions and comfort inside the flat. There was concern about the possibility of spread of smoke or fire, through gaps in joints between flats. The other areas of concern related to the inside of the dwelling. Ventilation, insulation and heating systems were investigated, to limit the problems of condensation and mould growth. In many cases shoddy workmanship made matters worse.
The BRE found that buildings built between 1969-72, in the aftermath of the Ronan Point collapse, (when Hightown was built,) were better constructed, with fewer deviations from the intended design. They suggested that supervision of construction waned in later years. No buildings were found that caused concern for the safety of people, nor were there any reports of buildings collapsing, although falling debris was likely to be an increasing hazard, unless inspected and prevented. Fortunately there were never any incidents in Wrexham.
So, why were these buildings, using these new methods, ever built? In 1984 the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) was keen to blame central government, for what John Boughton, who writes about council housing, calls the “system-building debacle.”
The AMA claimed that Councils who co-operated were “rewarded” in terms of larger financial allocations and speedier approvals.
There was the hard sell by building contractors, who lobbied local authorities heavily, to buy their pre-cast building kits.
Councils, with good intentions, and under pressure to finish the job of slum clearance needed to build quickly and on a large scale. These “off the shelf schemes” offered a quick and easy method to achieve this. Unfortunately quantity rather than quality seemed to be the most important factor.
The new building methods were seen as modern and innovative, by council leaders, architects and planners alike. Councils, wanting to apply the “white heat” of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s technological revolution to their towns and cities, with its spirit of optimism, bought these schemes en masse.
Shortages of skilled labour added to the pressures to use new construction methods and materials.
By 2008 Wrexham County Borough Council was faced with the challenge of improving all of its housing stock and bringing it up to the Welsh Housing Quality Standard. At that time it was unclear how this would be financed. However, it was clear that a decision needed to be made regarding the major investment that would be required to bring the Hightown flats up to modern standards.
Structural engineers and building surveyors examined the complex and determined that significant work would be required; including strengthening of the blocks, works to the interior of the flats, such as fire stopping between dwellings, rewiring, new heating, new kitchens and bathrooms. Work would also be required to the exterior walkways, bridges, lifts and stairwells and roofs. The full cost of the works was estimated at £17.5 million. This worked out at about £90,000 a flat.
Re-letting of vacant properties was suspended in mid 2008, as inspections identified that significant further expenditure was required, prior to re-letting the properties as they came empty. It was considered that no further work should be undertaken, until the results of all the surveys were known and a comprehensive solution could be determined. Two of the flats and eleven houses were in private ownership.
By April 2009, only 113 of the flats and maisonettes were still tenanted.
Following the structural surveys of the flats, a number of options were put forward by the Council – ranging from do nothing, to strengthening and full improvement work, to demolition.
To help decide on the future of the flats, in the summer of2009, the Council undertook a survey of residents views on the various options.
The survey, undertaken by “Partners in Change” achieved a very high response rate (91%) and this gave a great deal of validity to the findings.
Of the residents who remained, the estate was characterised by a high number of single person households – just over half. The next group were families with dependent children. There were a fairly high number of children – 44 and relatively low numbers of pensioners. The bulk of the residents were in the 31-64 age group.
There was a high level of economic inactivity. Just over a third had at least one member of the household in employment. 7 out of 10 households did not have a vehicle.
About half the residents had lived there for more than 11 years. Just under a third of those had lived there more than 21 years.
Most people liked their flats, but there was dissatisfaction with their state of repair and concerns about heating, dampness and condensation. A significant majority thought that the area was kept clean and well-maintained but there was dissatisfaction with the state of communal areas and the appearance of the estate.
Around two-thirds of the respondents liked living in the area and thought that people get on well together as a community. Its location near the town centre was seen as convenient.
Nuisance and anti-social behaviour were seen as the main problems – teenagers hanging around (63% of respondents), vandalism and graffiti (62%). Drugs and drunkenness were also seen as a problem.
The work of the council in keeping the estate well maintained was appreciated by many residents.
When asked about the options for the future of the estate, very few of the respondents said that doing nothing or repairs only were good approaches to adopt. 7 out of 10 backed demolition, which was the most popular option amongst the majority of residents. There was a minority of 25 residents who favoured retention and they were concerned with the thought of having to move. On the other hand, many of those who favoured demolition felt that the flats had reached the end of their life and that further investment would not be money well spent.
There was a strong connection amongst the residents to the immediate local area. A large majority had family connections to Hightown or nearby. Nearly half of the respondents said they were either unhappy or very unhappy about moving away from the area. Nearly all the respondents said that it would be important to build new homes for rent on the site for people who want to stay.
At the meeting of the Council’s Executive Board in November 2009 Councillors recommended the demolition of the flats and bungalows and the redevelopment of the site for social housing, for rent. The traditional houses, many of which had been sold under the right to buy were retained. Tenants were given the option of returning to the new dwellings that were built on the site.
Manchester based KDC Demolition Contractors were awarded the contract and began demolition in January 2011. This was completed by June 2011 and the cleared site was handed back to the Council.
KDC Contractors gained a Green Apple environmental award for the demolition work. It was awarded to the Council by The Green Organisation, an independent group that highlights good practice and care for the environment.
The Council wanted the scheme to be an example of recycling, reuse and low carbon emissions. Once the demolition was completed, the materials were separated and concrete crushed. In total, 97% of all demolition waste was recycled, including 13,100 tonnes of concrete, 280 tonnes of metal, 10 tonnes of UPVC and 45 tonnes of timber. Much of the crushed concrete went on pre-work for the new Wrexham Industrial Estate link road.
Wales & West Housing, in partnership with Wrexham County Borough Council, The Welsh Government and Betsi Cadwaladar University Health Board, led to the development of 147 energy efficient homes, along with a community resource centre and medical centre. Anwyl construction were the building contractors.
The £16.9m affordable housing development in Hightown & Rivulet Road was awarded Best Affordable Housing Scheme at the 2016 Housing Excellence Awards.
The following photos were taken in late 2009 and during 2010, after the decision was made to demolish the flats and when tenants were moving out.
Housing Committee Minutes Wrexham Borough Council. North East Wales archives Ruthin.
Executive Board Reports and Minutes. Wrexham County Borough Council. Nov 2009.
Social Affairs, Health and Housing Committee Reports. WCBC. Various
Business News Wales –Wrexham Development wins Housing Excellence Award 17 May 2016.
Hansard- the official report of parliamentary debates.
Prefabs-A social and architectural history. Blanchet and Zhuravlyova Historic England 2018.
Municipal Dreams. The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. John Boughton Verso 2019.
Estates. An intimate history Lynsey Hanley. Granta 2007.
Written by Fred Czulowski . August 2021.
You can see many more photographs of the demolition here.