In the winter of 1963/64 I was working as a trainee civil engineer for Braithwaite’s, the company that excavated the foundations for the now infamous Red Road housing scheme in Glasgow. The flats were soon to become the tallest in Europe at the time, 6 point blocks at 28 storeys and 2 slab blocks at 31 storeys each. The new estate was located on the north-eastern edge of the city, on what I remember as an isolated windswept hill, which after we arrived was soon knee-deep in construction equipment, generators, portable lighting equipment, welding and oxy-acetylene cables, discharged diesel oil, slurry and occasional drifts of snow. I can be precise about the dates because I kept a dairy charting my increasing disillusionment with work and life in general. There’s a German saying that translates as: ‘Sometimes in life you realise you are on the wrong ship’.
In March 1964 I gave in my notice and applied to go to teachers’ training college. Nevertheless, I did leave feeling a certain pride in contributing to one of the most ambitious public housing experiments ever to have been attempted. Today I simply feel guilty.
The Red Road development came to symbolise the failure of high-rise public housing, all eight tower blocks being finally demolished by 2015, though most were vacated long before then. Yet it remains an exception to what historian John Boughton rightly says was a century of successful public housing provision for what was, at its peak, the majority of people in the UK. For every Red Road scheme there were thousands of other housing programmes that provided millions of people for the first time ever with homes of a quality and affordability that exceeded their wildest imaginings.
As many will know, Boughton has for the past four years produced an illustrated blog called Municipal Dreams, a labour of love already regarded as providing the definitive history of public housing in the UK. He has now written a book to accompany and extend the underlying argument, which, while lacking the beautiful photographs and exquisite architectural drawings and plans detailed on the blog, makes up for it with a clear-sighted assessment how so often municipal housing got so much right. And could do again.
It has been fashionable to blame the planners and architects when council estates developed social problems. Yet public housing embodied higher standards of space, construction quality, and landscaping than that provided in the private sector. What the planners and architects couldn’t foresee of course were the enormous economic and demographic changes that swept Britain in the 1970s onwards, as industry collapsed, jobs disappeared, local authority maintenance budgets were reduced, caretakers and housing officers disappeared, and the buildings were left to look after themselves. The Right to Buy took a swathe out of the housing stock that was never replaced. Even so, Boughton is adamant that: ‘I’ve probably seen more council estates (many of them no longer ‘council’ of course) than most people in recent years and the vast majority of them look good: well-maintained, attractively landscaped, overwhelmingly – unless my experience is unrepresentative or Panglossian – quiet and respectable. In a word, decent.’
It was also de rigueur to blame Labour councils for espousing the cause of high-rise, system-building, when it was principally Conservative governments – a lot of whose party funds came directly or indirectly from the big construction companies – that got so excited about the quick-fix (and much cheaper) construction methods beginning to become available, as Patrick Dunleavy described in his classic book, The Politics of Mass Housing, 1945 – 1975: A Study of Corporate Power and Influence in the Welfare State, published in 1981.
Boughton treads a delicate path through the labyrinthine world of 20th century housing policy, with its high turnover of ministers, incoherent policies, cynical election promises, about-turns, quangos and acronyms, cronyism and corruption. The provision of public housing should be a relatively simple idea to understand, and indeed the principle was for a while shared by all parties in local government. But that was when local authorities possessed serious political and economic muscle along with a ‘one nation’ ethos of civic responsibility.
It still remains a mystery as to why council housing attracts so much opprobrium, as if it were the devil’s work. Its very existence, understandably excoriated by the right (other than for a short period following both world wars when ‘homes for heroes’ was a sentiment none dare dispute), has also been too often misrepresented in the popular imagination often by writers and film-makers who should know better (sorry, J.G.Ballard). Books such as Tony Parker’s elegiac oral history of the residents of a high-rise block in south London, The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of its Inhabitants, remain rare. Of Parker’s book, Ronald Blythe wrote at the time that it was ‘the book which must be read before another word is written or spoken about the problems of the high rise estate…’ Too few people took that advice. Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s fine 2015 film Estate: A Reverie also redressed the stigmatisation in unsentimental but heartfelt ways.
Tragically, it took the Grenfell Tower catastrophe to make the public and the politicians aware of just how precious and caring the milieu of a public housing estate could, at its best, be. This was particularly the case for people coming from exceptionally difficult life circumstances. The residents of Grenfell Tower made it into a community of a rare kind before it was reduced to a funeral pyre. It remains to be seen whether the lost ethos of a civic ‘duty of care’ can be recovered anew.
Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is published by Verso