By Professor Alice Coleman

Crime in Southwark, as elsewhere, is increasing in frequency and also becoming more vicious. Putting more policemen on watch is a limited solution. It does not prevent children from becoming criminals although it may prevent them from offending where police eyes are on them and send them to break the law somewhere else. Mostly it catches them after they have committed mayhem and then milks the taxpayer to keep them expensively in prison. Their lives are ruined and their victims suffer grievously. Yet it was research in Southwark that showed how to prevent child criminalisation in the first place.

Psychologists know that character is largely formed in a child’s first five years and they blame parents for delinquent children. But it is impossible to reform millions of parents, and there is a better alternative. The home is not only people but also a place and we now know a great deal about how building design can influence human behaviour. Even without the scientific details one has only to think how criminal youths abound in problem estates and are quite rare in roads of single-family houses.

My research team was based in King’s College and surveyed all the blocks of flats and maisonettes in Southwark, approximately 2,300. Our aim was to establish whether there were specific design features contributing to 21 types of crime and social breakdown. We found 16 such features, plus another 12 in single-family houses and ten more in aspects of the general environment. Our statistics showed just which “values” of each feature were harmful and which were harmless. For example, two or three storeys are harmless, but more are harmful. Up to four flats per corridor are harmless but more are harmful. If an entrance serves no more than six flats it is harmless but with over six it is harmful. All 16 of these features forced families to share the same building and grounds, whereas single-family houses give households their own control and well designed ones are not merely harmless but actively beneficial.

I counted the number of harmful features, from 0 to 16 in each block and 0 to 12 in each house and termed the total the disadvantagement score for the building concerned. In my book, Utopia on Trial, I advanced two solutions. The first was to build no more flats, as we already more than enough people who truly wanted them, and only houses of the right sort can constructively assist the raising of well-balanced children. The other solution was to modify existing blocks in ways that would bring their harmful designs down to harmless levels, to decrease their disadvantagement scores and reduce their deleterious effect.

The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, read the book and created a £50 million fund for my team to redesign misery estates in different parts of the country. This work virtually eliminated their social problems, much faster than I had expected.

Naturally, I wanted to improve Southwark estates and, supported by the Borough’s then Chief Housing Officer, consulted the tenants of North Peckham, which the Scotland Yard commissioner had told me was one of the worst estates in London. Its design was very bad indeed but surprisingly easy to modify well. The tenants were enthusiastic, the Council agreeable and the Thatcher grant meant it would have cost Southwark nothing. Could anything possibly go wrong? Alas! An election let in extreme elements and the new Council refused to allow design modification.

A few small improvements did creep in. One of my team lived on the Brandon Estate and persuaded the tenants to use a small fund to fence in one of the blocks. The result was magical. Ground-floor tenants who had boarded up their windows and lived in artificial light to avoid the high risk of being burgled, felt safe enough to take the boards down and let daylight in. This was the result of improving a very important feature: spatial organisation. The four types of spatial organisation are:

1. Private space, inside the dwelling

2. Semi-private space – enclosed front and back gardens. This can be seen by outsiders but not entered except for business with the occupiers. The fences and gates train children not to trespass on other people’s property.

3. Public space – roads, pavements, parks etc.

4. Semi-public space. This is the only undesirable kind as it confuses private and public. It consists of shared parts of buildings and also grounds which are shared by more than one household. It is at its worst where estate grounds are shared by different blocks and also open for non-residents to take short cuts across them.

Ideally there should be no semi-public space but that would mean demolishing all blocks, and since that is not possible, semi-public space should be restricted to each block separately. That is what happened for one just one block on the Brandon Estate, with such a marked improvement, even though that block still had several other defects in need of re-design.

The tenants of the Gloucester Grove Estate invited me to give a talk on the design disadvantagement findings, which later led them to provide enclosed front gardens to some of their ground-floor flats. The occupiers had been tremendously harassed by raucous and destructive children sitting on their doorsteps, but once the gardens were installed these hordes merely passed by outside the fences and gates twelve feet away.

After the last local election I was taken by a Councillor to meet the Chief Housing Officer to see how my redesign principles could be applied to the borough. I carefully explained the scientific findings and also how the research had been confirmed in several dozen other countries, showing that the influence of buildings is a basic aspect of human nature. I wanted his co-operation for redesigning an area at the Elephant and Castle which Ken Livingstone had ordered Southwark to demolish and rebuild. By that time I had improved 84 blocks and built 234 new houses, and knew it would be easy to delineate a crime-free area from scratch on a demolition site. My only fee would be two copies of the map and a ream of A4 paper.

The housing officer said that he would wait until he found something suitable for me. He ignored the fact that I had already told him the Elephant and Castle area would be suitable and he made sure he never found anything else. That area has now been largely rebuilt with big blocks that are far more socially disintegrating than those that were demolished, and also far more expensive than necessary. Blocks are more expensive than houses because they have to contain extras such as corridors, lifts and communal entrances and landings.

In the past decade the national ratio of flats to house has been increasing and last year no less than half the total consisted of flats. It is not that some Ministers do not know why this fosters more crime, as they have had copies of Utopia on Trial and profess understanding. But the big decision makers just ignore it. One constantly sees the occasional Victorian house in Southwark being torn down for replacement by a small block of flats. None of these is immensely harmless in itself but their cumulative effect is a steady deterioration of the social structure.

My local Residents’ Association asked me to make design improvement recommendations for Giles Coppice and as there was no funding for structural change I listed only what the householders could achieve inexpensively, such as removing bushes or lower branches that enabled intruders to break in without being seen. Our improved ability to see each other seemed to be a factor in enhancing out community spirit and when it was proposed to convert an adjoining house into eleven flats there was a concerted effort to oppose it. This was successful but unfortunately Borough planners do not seem to have digested the design disadvantagement explanation in our brief, so planning permission for flats continues.

Perhaps the saddest thing is the fate of the North Peckham Estate. It has now been partly rebuilt, at far greater expense than my plan would have involved and the principles of crime-reduction through design improvement completely ignored. The individual blocks are slightly better than the old ones but the most powerful factor, spatial organisation, is appallingly worse. Layouts should be intelligible on the ground but here they are very confused.

I feel sure that if I had been allowed to make the North Peckham Estate as safe as the areas I improved elsewhere, the Damiola Taylor tragedy would have been most unlikely. Research that has been thoroughly proven in practice is still being baulked in London and crime continues to multiply.