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Living It Up: the tower block story

12 February to 14 June 2005

This exhibition has now closed

View of Liver Building from Ellison Tower, Everton
© Photography by Guy Woodland

Visitors could gain a new perspective on high-rise living during this former exhibition.

Tower blocks are one of the most controversial housing schemes of the last century. While many blocks have been demolished, others have fostered a powerful community of tenants, who have fought to have them retained and refurbished.

Since 1993 the Liverpool Housing Action Trust (HAT) have worked with the residents of 5337 properties in 67 tower blocks on an ambitious twelve-year project to improve the environmental, housing and social conditions of their areas. This is their story.

‘Living It Up’ was illustrated with a series of striking photographs, including views of the city centre from tower blocks that have since been demolished.

Visitors to the exhibition were invited to ‘experience’ high-rise living for themselves in a reconstruction of a living room from a flat. The room contained many original objects from Sheil Park, including a sofa, the intercom, a fireplace and signs from the lift.

Visitors could also find out more about tenants’ activism and involvement with the HAT by exploring a typical tenant representative’s office.

Tenantspin is a community-led internet TC channel co-managed by high-rise tenants, HAT and the Foundation for Arts and Creative Technologies (FACT). As part of their fourth birthday celebrations they presented a series of webcast discussions about Liverpool’s tower blocks to compliment the Living It Up exhibition.


Old photo of 4 storey brick tenement housing

St Martin's Cottages 

Liverpool was the first city in Europe to provide council or social housing. The first scheme was St Martin’s Cottages, a series of tenements consisting of 146 flats and maisonettes completed in 1869. Tenants paid a typical rent of 5s-3d per week. 

House building was paid for through local taxes known as rates. Between 1918 and 1939 39,000 houses and flats were built in Liverpool. 

However thousands of families were not lucky enough to move into new homes. By 1933 nearly 30,000 people were still living in condemned courts and cellars. People still remember the terraced houses in the Vauxhall and Everton areas of the city. Built by private landlords they were overcrowded, badly maintained and unhygienic. Those who lived in them remember good neighbours and a special sense of community. 

"There was a tremendous community spirit, a clanishness in all the little streets….this was a neighbourhood to remember"
Terry Cooke on Scotland Road, Vauxhall

High hopes

The 1950s and 1960s was the era of slum clearance. Building high rise tower blocks was one solution to the problem of providing a better standard of living for those living in densely populated urban areas. In Liverpool, communities in the city centre were forced out to new housing estates on the outskirts of the city. This is a sharp contrast to today's marketing of City Living. 

In 1956 Coronation Court was the first tower block to be built in Liverpool, seven miles from the city centre. The standard of accommodation, which included indoor bathrooms and central heating, was new to the many residents who moved there from Scotland Road. 

"I will never forget listening to people talking about it. They were saying how smart it was. Imagine living there they said. I thought to myself, I do, and I love it."
Olga Bayley, one of the first residents of Coronation Court.


Coronation Court © Liverpool Housing Action Trust

Tenants get active

Smiling elderly lady

Marjorie Gallimore MBE, Liverpool HAT tenant board member © Liverpool HAT

The 1960s saw the rise of organised tenant groups. Management of new housing estates became faceless and it was hard to get repairs done. Tenants started to feel ignored. It was time to challenge the rules, regulations and corporate nature of housing. At a local level tenant groups sprang up across the city. 

"At the first meeting we got a hundred people, it turned out that everyone on the estate had a complaint against the Council."
Marjorie Gallimore OBE, who moved to Hartsbourne Heights, Childwall in 1962

In 1968 a mass meeting of 2500 tenants voted not to pay an unfair increase in rent charges. Five months later they had secured a standard increase for all resulting in 30,000 tenants paying lower rents. This was the first big victory for tenant activists in Liverpool. 

The experience of trade unionism had found a new opening in council house politics and helped shape the future of tenant activism.

Down and out

The 1970s and 1980s was a period of economic decline. Urban areas suffered hard as traditional industries collapsed. Council housing was affected too asfunding was cut and housing became run down. In Liverpool unemployment was high. People left the city to find work. Those who remained saw their housing estates worsen as poor management and lack of funds for repairs took hold. 

Social problems grew as people became cut off from society. Drugs offered some an easy way out. The associated crime and vandalism made many areas less than desirable to live in. 

Many of the Liverpool tower blocks became badly run down. Some had no front doors creating a security problem. Young people would use the lifts as their playground. They had nowhere else to go. Leaking windows and faulty heating made life unbearable for many tenants. 

"Well druggies were in, we didn't have CCTV and anyone could come in and out of the flats..."
Vera Cook former resident of Winterburn Heights

Voting for change

The 1988 Housing Act offered a choice. It supported the possibility of a Housing Action Trust (HAT) for Liverpool. Moneywould begiven to the trust to spend rather than the council. 

The tenant movement in Liverpool saw this as a threat. They wanted to remain united in their cause to improve living conditions. But a choice had to be made and across the city houses were in desperate need of repair. The Liverpool High Rise Tenants Group (HRTG) explored the option of a HAT and decided it was the only way to improve their homes.

"The council hadn't got the money to do anything with these flats, I had to go to the Housing Committee and ask them could we have a vote."
Marjorie Gallimore OBE, chair of Liverpool High Rise Tenants Group, 1992

In 1993 a ballot was held in each of the 71 tower blocks. A majority decision to leave council control was needed from each block. 67 tower blocks and 83% of tenants voted YES. 

In October 1993 the Liverpool Housing Action Trust was formed. 

Elevated hazy view of the city, framed by two high rise flats

View towards London Road from Seacombe Tower, Everton © Photography by Guy Woodland

Liverpool Housing Action Trust

Collapsing tower blocks with smoke from explosions at base

Demolition of Storington tower blocks © Liverpool HAT

The aim of a Housing Action Trust (HAT) is to work with tenants to improve the environmental, housing and social conditions of their areas. In total six Housing Action Trusts were set up across the country. All in areas of great need in Hull, Birmingham, Liverpool and three in London. 

The Liverpool HAT is the largest with 5,332 properties in 67 tower blocks. It was given twelve years and £260m of government money to create sustainable housing and communities and bring in private finance.

In 1996 a study by the HAT estimated that it would cost £299 million to refurbish the city’s tower blocks. This led to a major consultation exercise with tenants in all blocks to look at the best options. The result was a decision to demolish 54 blocks and build new homes on their footprints for the tenants, plus to retain and refurbish 13 tower blocks. 

New homes, new communities

After demolition, new build and refurbishment Liverpool HAT has transferred a number of homes to its Housing Association partners who will manage them into the future. 

Many of the tenants are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s.The HAT’s community services team has enabled them to be actively involved in their communities. 

"It's quite a community, everyone knows each other now, it's a totally different life altogether... and that's thanks to the HAT."
Vera Cook Ash Grange

View from tower block showing the block's shadow falling across rows of terraced housing

View from Rockview, Everton © Photography by Guy Woodland