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Becontree: How Europe’s largest council estate coped with the pandemic

Rachael Burford
·4-min read
<p>The Becontree accounts for almost half of Barking and Dagenham’s population</p> ( Jim Stephenson)

The Becontree accounts for almost half of Barking and Dagenham’s population

( Jim Stephenson)

The design of Europe’s largest council estate, which was built in aftermath of the Spanish flu pandemic, may have protected people living in the “Covid triangle”.

More than 100,000 people live on the Becontree, in Dagenham, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

During the height of the second wave of coronavirus, Barking and Dagenham consistently recorded the highest infection rates in the country and the council estate, where an estimated 70 per cent of households live in deprivation, was singled out as a particular hotspot.

The borough has seen 531 coronavirus-related deaths up to March 5 and more than 23,000 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

However, while infection rates have been high, deaths have been lower than other boroughs in the triangle and surrounding areas. Redbridge has recorded 843 Covid-related deaths, Newham 762 and Havering 897.

Butcher Lee Hawkins, 56, has worked on the estate for four decades.LDRS
Butcher Lee Hawkins, 56, has worked on the estate for four decades.LDRS

The Becontree accounts for almost half of Barking and Dagenham’s population, yet it has seen fewer Covid-related fatalities, according to ONS data, with 107 up until February 1.

Council leader Darren Rodwell said many residents caught the virus while working in key jobs.

But the estate’s low rise design, with its large open spaces and individual council homes, meant vulnerable older residents and those shielding were able to isolate more easily and were less exposed to the virus.

A community network – BD CAN- has also been delivering food and supplies to the most vulnerable, minimising the time they have to spend outdoors.

The estate was built 100 years agoBarking and Dagenham Council
The estate was built 100 years agoBarking and Dagenham Council

Mr Rodwell, who lives on the estate, said: “The Becontree is an amazing place with a huge community spirit. It was developed during the Spanish Flu pandemic and the [design] has shown its worth. We have a lot of open space which has been good for people’s mental health, we are not as crowded in and we help each other.

“The people who live on Becontree are good working class Dagenham residents who have those key worker jobs.

“Cases exploded during the second wave because they had no choice but to travel into those hotspots on public transport. Many had to go to work because they couldn’t afford not to.”

At the time it was built Becontree was the most ambitious public housing project in the world and was sold as “homes for heroes”, with the families of soldiers returning from the First World War granted priority.

Most were relocated from the slums of the East End, where Spanish Flu had ripped through the overcrowded accommodation.

LDRS
LDRS

But the Becontree offered residents gardens, indoor toilets, proper bathrooms and dozens of open public spaces for the very first time.

It is low rise, unlike most of the social housing in neighbouring boroughs, where Covid has been able to sweep through tower blocks.

Butcher Lee Hawkins, 56, has worked on the estate for four decades.

He said: “Infections were high and people did struggle. But it’s because we’re good working class people. You’re not in a car, you’re on a bus going to work. We don’t have the money of the Londoners but there is still a big community spirit here. We help each other out.”

Jim Stephenson
Jim Stephenson

The borough is now throwing itself into economic recovery, the council said.

Before the pandemic it was classed as one of the poorest areas in London and almost half of children live in poverty.

In March 2020 the borough had 14,000 families on Universal Credit. Today it is nearly 40,000, while some 16,800 residents remain furloughed as businesses began the slow reopening on April 12.

Ilajn Cicek, who runs the Royal Fish Bar on the estate, said: “You can see people are struggling more. People who used to come in three times a week come in once a month now. People have less money. We all hope it gets better soon.”

Bill Jennings, 72, grew up on the estate and sits on the centenary committee. He said the estate has not been good at celebrating its achievements.

Ilajn CicekLDRS
Ilajn CicekLDRS

Many of the women who fought for equal pay at the Dagenham’s Ford plant lived there, while Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey, comedian and actor Dudley Moore, singer Sandie Shaw and former footballers Terry Venables and Jimmy Greaves are among those who grew up there.

Mr Jennings said: “We will be getting plaques up to showcase the amazing people who lived here and what they achieved.

There are new playgrounds coming to Parsloes Park and a celebration of its history and the people the Becontree has produced.”

Barking and Dagenham council leader Darren RodwellBarking and Dagenham council
Barking and Dagenham council leader Darren RodwellBarking and Dagenham council

Mr Rodwell added that the borough is seeing large amounts of investment with a Hollywood-style film studios being built and one of Europe’s largest data centres now in the borough.

Two thirds of the homes on the Becontree are no longer under council control having been purchased under Right to Buy and many are rented out by private landlords.

“I’ve been saying it for years, London is moving east,” Mr Rodwell said. “Yes, we do need to revaluated our housing stock and there will be some tough times ahead. But there is huge investment coming into this borough and we have a community that cares about its future.”

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