Robert Clayton is a freelance photographer based in London. In 1990 whilst studying for a photography degree under acclaimed photographer Nick Hedges, Rob undertook a social photography project – capturing the residents and life on the Lion Farm Estate in Oldbury, West Midlands.
Oldbury sits on the eastern fringe of the Black Country, a traditional working class town with historical industrial links to nearby mining towns around the Midlands. Before de-industrialisation the majority of its residents worked long arduous hours in the mines and numerous factories that made up the landscape of the region.
When the Lion Farm estate was built after the slum clearances of the sixties, it was seen as modern and progessive upgrade for its newly rehoused residents. The demolished ‘two up-two down’ terraced housing all came with an outdoor toilets – having a toilet inside their property was seen as a luxury. However, like many large estates during the Thatcher led government, Lion Farm became plagued by neglect, crime and lack of maintenance. The estate was eventually earmarked for destruction by Sandwell Council.
Over twenty years since Rob’s photos were taken his images remain very poignant – the need for affordable and quality social housing is still a greater necessity than ever. The right to buy scheme in the 1980s saw huge stocks of social housing sold off at a fraction of the market value, adding significantly to the crisis and demand for housing that we see today.
When Rob started his series he wanted to capture the reality of everyday life for residents on the estate. He explains in an interview with PhotoMonitor
Rob “I wanted to photograph in a very accurate manner an environment that a lot of people have to endure in their daily lives. So the playgrounds for example were hardly used and why should they be? One element of them was old sewer pipes (I believe left over from the days of construction) that were set into cement and deemed a suitable apparatus for children to play on/in – a cheap and nasty add on. Jonathan Meades in his accompanying essay in the books refers to this in that he questions the lack of maintenance afforded to such estates once they were built. They were Utopian in that they helped solve a real housing and public health crisis in the UK (look at Nick Hedges work Make Life Worth Living) and this is to be applauded, but then councils tended to walk away and neglect their upkeep.”
“Today, in areas that are desperate for public/social housing, these tower blocks are real assets with big waiting lists to acquire one. This is despite the long term neglect they have suffered. Most of the blocks in my work were demolished which I think was a real shame. So the playgrounds – why? Is this good enough – of course not! I was glad where I grew up my local play park was better than this and I wanted to expose this. Did anyone responsible for this genuinely believe this was good? Would they design this for their children?”
“A time capsule which emphasised ordinariness”
“There was nothing special about Lion Farm Estate. It could have existed in more or less any British conurbation which was on the cusp of losing its raison d’être. What is special is Clayton’s humane rendering of it as a time capsule which emphasised ordinariness. This was how it was for millions of people in the early 1990s.”
“This was Britain between Thatcherism and, well, the smiley neo-Thatcherism of New Labour. A new political consensus was in place, an insidious consensus which blithely disregarded the sort of people who lived on such estates, the invisible people, the little people who had not the wherewithal to exercise their precious right to buy. Again Clayton leaves us to reach such conclusions. He has a broad and important socio-political point to make. It is all the more potent for being made so quietly.”