Lime Legal

Magic in the mix

Published 20 October 2023

A model for successful mixed communities was created when a London mansion block was sold off 30 years ago. Rosalind Bayley describes how the experiment is still paying off. Photography by Josh Pulman

About 18 months ago, on one of the saddest days of my life, I heard a knock at the door. My downstairs neighbour, who speaks no English, had sent her daughter to say that her mother had cooked a meal for us. So Samia came up two flights of stairs with dishes of lamb and fish curry and yellow rice. It was an extraordinarily eloquent way for a woman who spoke a language I couldn’t understand to express concern for the grief I felt.

Since then the traffic has been two way. The Begums keep frozen chicken in our freezer and borrow our drill, while plates of delicious food are sent up at the slightest excuse. For me, these are the benefits of living in a mixed community. I get to know people I wouldn’t otherwise meet, the children have a glimpse of other lives and opportunities and we all benefit from pooling our skills and resources.

Lissenden Gardens is a five-storey, redbrick, mansion-block estate on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath. About half the residents are council tenants and the rest are a mixture of leaseholders and private tenants. Lissenden Gardens has worked as a mixed community for 30 years, and its unusual history provides some lessons for other mixed estates.

Parliament Hill Mansions, one of the blocks in Lissenden Gardens

As residents we are proud that Lissenden Gardens is so diverse in terms of age, class, nationality and life experience – and proud that we all get on. Bani Mendy, who grew up on the estate, believes the key is in the fact that people live in the same type of flat, regardless of status. ‘On other estates you might live in a dark, dingy flat and opposite you is a million pound house. That affects people a lot because it makes them feel inferior.’

The story of how these Edwardian mansion flats became a council estate helps explain why people feel so positively about the social mix. The estate was built at the turn of the 20th century and managed by the family who built it until the early 1970s. At that point, inner London’s housing was becoming polarised. Multiply occupied, privately rented houses were being emptied, often forcibly, and sold to middle-class people. Streets of Georgian and Victorian terrace houses were being taken over and the displaced working class tenants rehoused in council estates.

By 1972, when Lissenden Gardens was put on the market, the companies in search of quick profits had turned their attention to blocks of flats. The ‘flat breakers’ would buy blocks and sell the flats for owner occupation, ‘winkling’ out sitting tenants who couldn’t afford to buy. Lissenden Gardens was sold to a company that tenants feared would pull out all the stops to force them to leave.

The Lissenden Gardens residents campaigned to prevent the new owners selling the flats and to persuade Camden council to buy the estate. The newly formed tenants’ association came up with the idea of using mansion blocks to counter the city’s polarisation. Their idea was for mixed communities, long before they became currency in the housing world.

According to the Lissenden formula, as they called it, blocks of mansion flats would be bought by councils who would allow tenants to buy long leases, provided they sold them back to the council at district valuer’s prices if they wanted to leave. Vacant flats would be let to people on the waiting list.

Camden council was not ready for the formula, but Lissenden Gardens residents voted overwhelmingly for public ownership as it would give them security and make a contribution to improving the overcrowding and homelessness that blighted the area.

Incoming council tenants were scattered at random around the estate, and to this day there is no way of telling which flats are rented and which are leasehold. The community spirit engendered by the threat to residents’ homes carried over into a flowering of community activity, everything from an old-time musical troupe to estate-wide football pools and a babysitting circle.

Inevitably, the level of community activity has not remained at that level and there have been times when difficult families began to erode the quality of life. But each time this has threatened, the community has rallied.

In 2016, the centenary provided an excuse for a festival. And a few weeks ago, my history of the estate was launched at a tea party on our tennis court. With speeches from children, young people and others celebrating Lissenden Gardens, the book and the launch have played a part in extending the story of diversity and strengthening the estate’s community spirit.

When I started on the book I was curious why residents campaigned to become council tenants when they could have negotiated with the new landlords to buy their flats on favourable terms. I found that the decision had its roots in events long before the 1970s.

The estate was built by Alfred Armstrong, who was an entrepreneur not a professional builder. He married the daughter of E.J. Cave, a speculative developer who with his sons covered large tracts of Maida Vale, South and West Hampstead and other parts of London with flats and houses.

When Alfred built Lissenden Gardens, he employed the same architects as his father-in-law. The flats look similar from the front but a closer inspection shows differences. Alfred ignored the prevailing convention about the interior design of flats.

Obsessed with class and terrified of sex, the late Victorian and early Edwardian flat builders kept living rooms as separate from bedrooms, and the kitchen and maid’s room, as they could. Even when Cave built mansion blocks with a communal garden at the back, living rooms looked out at the road. Unlike his father-in-law, Alfred put sitting rooms at the front and dining rooms with balconies at the back so tenants could enjoy the sunshine and views.

Alfred publicised the flats on a giant signboard on the roof, visible from Hampstead Heath, which was not the way flats seeking a high-class clientele would normally have been advertised. Right from the start, residents were more interested in quality of life than in following social convention. People with similar values continue to have been drawn to the estate, while the later Armstrongs’ policy of charging low rents but doing few repairs led to an increasingly Bohemian population.

‘Incoming council tenants were scattered at random around the estate, and to this day there is no way of telling which flats are rented and which are leasehold’

So the estate’s history makes it less surprising that the residents in the 1970s took the line that they did. The building design also played a part in making it a cohesive community. Staircases make it easy for residents to get to know their neighbours, while the outside area is a meeting place for people, particularly dog owners, from other blocks. The location, next to Hampstead Heath, is an added bonus.

For me, the main lesson of Lissenden Gardens is that communities, like individuals, need a story to understand themselves. The value residents place on their surroundings depends on how they view what is going on around them. And people are more likely to get involved in action, and engage with neighbours, if they feel they are part of a community – and its continuing narrative.

Newly built developments, mixed or not, face an uphill struggle in the present climate. The dominant story about home ownership is the opportunity it provides to make money. People buying property are likely to fear that rented housing on the same estate will reduce their homes’ value. Building separate blocks of rented flats creates a difference that makes cohesion an almost unachievable goal.

In planning new developments, landlords should consider what the story of the place will be and how residents’ idealism and public spiritedness could be harnessed. Concern about the environment is widespread. A development that is environmentally innovative is likely to attract people with altruistic attitudes and a story could be built around that. With common purpose, the differences in tenure are less likely to become the narrative of the place.

The Lissenden Gardens story shows how the actions of the founder and later residents continue to influence the estate for the better. Landlords planning new developments must be aware that their motives and values will continue to shape the places they create long after they themselves have passed on.

Rosalind Bayley is a freelance writer. Her new book To Paradise By Way of Gospel Oak is available from Josh Pulman is a photographer. His work can be viewed at