Thursday, 15 June 2017

Why ever did we stop worrying about high rise?

A version of this post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Back in the 1829, a strange rumour spread through the London poor that those in workhouses were being fed on the bodies of the dead.

They called it ‘nattomy soup’.

It was a measure of how much the poor felt themselves to be surplus to economic requirements, how much they felt the new utilitarian administrative classes were actively working for their demise.

I was reminded of this when I heard some of the emerging anger of the residents of Grenfell Tower. Nobody melted anyone down deliberately, but there does appear to have been an emerging disdain for the poor from every level of government.

When I began work as a journalist in 1981, the issue of high rise flats were still a hot political issue. The Ronan Point disaster in 1968 had cast a long shadow and anything which smacked of high rise, new or old, was news. Ronan Point and its companion towers were blown up by Newham Council in the 1986s, even before they had been paid for. The waste of high rise flats has been staggering.

I was only ten when Ronan Point collapsed. The immediate cause was a gas explosion. But I remember tracking down the report into the collapse, when I was writing about inner cities twenty years afterwards, and found that the joints in what was a giant system built tower had been packed by the contractors with fluff, newspaper and cigarette ends.

We should probably not jump to any conclusions about the Grenfell Tower fire this week, because we don’t know why it began. But Ronan Point proved the basic problem: the high rise flats were often built by technocrats for the poor. And the technocratic system, though it is based on figures and rigorous numbers, is as careless about poor people’s housing as old-fashioned profiteers. Put the two together, and you can expect problems.

As policy-makers recognised after Ronan Point, but appear now to have forgotten, high rise towers are not good for communities or families. As Simon Jenkins puts it in the Evening Standard after the fire, they are “gated anti-communities”. There are no next-door neighbours in the original sense. Nowhere to play.

So why did they ever get built? Partly because of the politician’s housing numbers game in the early 1960s, when Harold Wilson briefly adopted a 500,000 starts a year target (you might notice that the numbers game was going at full throttle during the general election).

But partly also because of a tacit alliance between shire Tories and inner city socialists, who colluded with each other to make sure the poor stayed put in the inner cities.

That alliance has long since broken down – it was about keeping majorities intact – partly because Labour lost their inner city majorities anyway. But it has been replaced by an intellectual alliance between the technocrats, the architectural establishment and the green lobby.

All of them have been promoting the old idea of high-density, high-rise living for getting on for two decades now. The problem is, because most families don’t want it, that the resulting towers become ghettos for the poor.

The parallel approach is to allow the most wasteful, destructive and dehumanising towers to be built as offices – in days when offices are losing their usefulness. This was the policy pursued by Ken and Boris as London mayors (though Boris promised to reverse it when he was first elected).

Behind this is an argument about densities and even Simon Jenkins baulks at changing his mind on this. Because there is an alternative to high densities, which is to make our cities greener and more humane – to promote concrete depression and mental ill-health a little less than they currently do.

That means fewer people, more gardens, more devolution of power so that the entire population no longer needs to squeeze into the south east. It means a new generation of garden cities designed to provide liveable space for families – with a patch of green and emphatically not twenty storeys up…

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2 comments:

Joe Otten said...

Good points David, but I'm not so sure density is the issue. You can get luxury flats in high density, and they don't seem to have the same problems. Obviously they are built by developers for sale for profit, rather than by technocrats. Those developers will make a loss if the flats are horrible. Hooray for the profit motive!

I sense here in Sheffield a determination to keep some medium and high rise going out of an appreciation for the good socialist motive behind the original social experiment. This is putting political symbolism before people's lives, but then it is political symbolism that motivates many politicians.

Conall Boyle said...

"That means fewer people"

Careful now! People might think you are becoming a Malthusian eugenicist!

[as the Panglossians like to label anyone pointing out the bleeding obvious]