“Claymore is a social housing estate with a troubled history. It represents a concentration of highly disadvantaged people and experiences high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.”

This bleak assessment of Claymore in south-western Sydney, home to 3,300 of the poorest people in the country, was conveyed in a consultant’s report last year to the NSW Government agency, Landcom.

At first sight this seems an excessively tough appraisal. Claymore sits in a green, undulating pocket of land hedged in by the M5 freeway and railway line, separating it from Campbelltown. The overwhelming impression is one of open space, big sky and wide, winding streets which all named after prominent Australian artists. After school the streets are full of children walking, running, scootering and biking home.

Venture further though and you’re struck by the number of abandoned, burnt-out houses and many more which have been boarded up to prevent vandals breaking in and burning them down. The shopping centre is shabby with many other shops shuttered. The youth centre sits in parkland riddled with broken glass and rubbish. It’s been closed for years despite this suburb having the biggest proportion of children in the nation. There are plans to re-open it next month.

“Claymore represents an exceptionally high concentration of disadvantage, low unemployment, low school retention rates and a high proportion of income from Centrelink benefits.”

So how and why did this public housing estate, built with $40 million and great enthusiasm just 35 years ago, descend into such squalor that demolition is considered to be the solution?

The main factors seem to be planning and people. The planners adopted a style of development from the USA called the Radburn model, clumping together multi-storey, attached houses, built back-to-front, in which tenants live facing each other, exacerbating social tensions. As for the people, it soon became clear it was far from ideal to have a suburb in which 96 per cent of residents were so poor that they needed to rent public housing.

As early as 1980, the ABC’s television current affairs program Nationwide reported significant problems at Claymore. One resident said, “You know when it comes to designing all these programs, no one’s put any thought into it. I mean what’s happening now is that they’re placing people in the Housing Commission areas and they’re all from low economic earning groups, so therefore they can’t afford much.”

Another complained, “In Claymore there’s one shop to service the area and to get to the shop you have to walk through the liquor department, which is disgusting. I was horrified the first time I went over there to see all these children having to sort through flagons of wine to buy mum the paper. That’s just utterly ridiculous in a place like that the first thing they provide is a liquor store. It’s just what we don’t need.”

Today, the drive-through bottle shop remains one of the few businesses doing well in Claymore.

By 1982 the NSW Labor member for Campbelltown Michael Knight said, “The Housing Commission dumped its tenants in nice homes in isolated communities that lacked services of the sort that every Australian expects.”

By the late 1980s the “nice” houses were already becoming rundown and being vandalised. Maintenance, or the lack of it, was a slow-burning local issue. One long-time resident told Four Corners that the suburb really started deteriorating during the 1990s.

Two years ago, the then Federal Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek came to Claymore with her NSW Labor Government counterpart, Frank Terenzini, for a television picture opportunity, announcing a grand plan to re-develop the suburb and a number of other public housing areas throughout the State. “‘We know a lot more about urban design today than when these estates were built,’ she declared.”

Then last year, the report commissioned by Landcom NSW, which is charged with opening up areas for low cost housing, was released.

“The project will involve demolition in stages of all except approximately 140 social housing dwellings and 28 privately owned dwellings, and subdivision to provide over 1,320 new dwelling lots, with approximately 70% of the eventual total being sold to private buyers at affordable prices.”

It seemed to be the classic win-win scenario. The State Government, with seed money from Canberra, could erase from the landscape one of the great planning disasters of the late 1970s. It could knock down Claymore, a ghetto entrenching disadvantage in generations of children, but it could fund its re-birth, at least in part, by selling off most of the estate for private housing. Claymore would re-emerge bigger and with a radically different social mix.

Like many grand plans making it happen has proved rather difficult and with just 99 houses bulldozed in the last year the Claymore Urban Renewal Project has stalled. The NSW Department of Finance sketched the problem for Four Corners:

“This project was announced by the previous government without Budget provision and is still under review. Any rebuilding or development of the site will deliver a mix of social, affordable and private housing. This is consistent with the Government’s policy of addressing the serious disadvantage and anti-social behaviour often associated with social housing by reducing its concentration. To date, work on the site has cost around $12 million. Work associated with stages 3 to 5 is estimated to cost $94 million. If the construction of additional housing is included the total cost will be around $232 million over the first seven years.”

Given the financial pressures which have already caused the NSW Government to sack public servants and announce politically sensitive cuts to private education, there doesn’t seem much prospect of the Claymore Urban Renewal Project progressing very quickly.

Claymore may have been built in just four years in the 1970s, but rebuilding in stages was always going to take much longer. Today, 2026 is the projected completion date, marked on the latest version of the re-development map.

When asked why there are so many burnt-out and boarded-up buildings in Claymore the Finance department advised: “It might not be economically viable to undertake repairs to houses that are badly damaged or have reached the end of their economic life, where there are long-term redevelopment plans. In such cases the houses may be boarded up or demolished, pending future works.”

In the meantime the people of Claymore must live with the uncertainty of what happens next. Frustration and anger are building in the community. Housing NSW holds regular meetings with a committee of residents but we’re told that some details provided at those meetings are regarded as so “confidential” that precinct representatives can’t even tell their neighbours.

When Four Corners tried to attend a recent meeting, we were asked to leave.

Written by Greg Wilesmith, Four Corners producer.


Watch the Four Corners report “Growing Up Poor” online here.