London’s Boroughs at 50

Tony Travers. Biteback Publishing. £19.99

This is a fascinating but thoroughly depressing book. It traces the progress of London’s Government since the 32 London boroughs came into existence in 1965. Travers manages to pack in an absorbing amount of detail into fewer than 400 pages. After explaining the background of the reorganisation, the guts of the book is a chapter on each borough. Travers then concludes that – in administrative terms – the reforms have worked, citing their very survival over this long period as a vindication.

The poignancy of this volume is all the greater in that Travers did not set out to depress us. A fair-minded academic, he seeks to provide a comprehensive account. While he doesn’t exclude references to the many municipal disasters, he does his best to give councils the benefit of any doubt he can think of. The scope is wide: what names to give the boroughs, the ebb and flow of council election results, various road schemes that never happened.

lillingtonYet the dominant theme the stands out is all the building that has taken place. Those physical monuments are the important legacy. This is where the gloom overwhelms. Travers does his best. The Council estates were built with “good intentions”. This or that block is “relatively” good (“World’s End has worn relatively well..”, etc). There are no photographs in the book but in the age of Google images that is no protection for the guilty. Even the estates Travers praises turn out to be pretty awful – certainly in comparison to the Victorian terraces they replaced.

Let us take Pimlico where I grew up. Travers says:

“The modernist Churchill Gardens estate in south Pimlico was already completed by 1965, but another large development was undertaken at Lillington Gardens by the predecessor and new City of Westminster councils between 1961 and 1971. It avoided high-rise buildings and made extensive use of brick rather than concrete, in a style dubbed the ‘new vernacular’. Lillington Gardens was a signal that the slabs-and concrete era was coming to an end and that more accessible architecture was making a comeback. The estate and its surrounds are now part of a conservation area, further evidence of its success.”

churchill-gdns-01I grew up opposite Churchill Gardens (right), and Lillington Gardens (above left) is across the road from where I went to school. The latter is better than the former. But I wouldn’t want to live in either in terms of living with their architecture – neither would Travers, neither would you. Of course they sell for a lot now because people want to live in Pimlico – but that is a different point.

Before 1965 there had, as noted with the Churchill Gardens example, already been ugly buildings allowed. Nor should we suggest that the boroughs alone are to blame for what has happened since they came into being. For example, the Greater London Council  had its own architects department and provided some dreadful housing.  However, the question is whether the creation of the boroughs made matters worse. Previously, local government had operated development in a piecemeal fashion. There was organic change.  It was from the bottom up rather than top down. The boroughs were small enough to retain civic pride and local identity.

Then came the imposition of that bureaucratic abstraction of Greater London. Often places that emphatically did not regard themselves as party of London was forced into line, due to some supposed “need” to be subordinate to some grand London-wide scheme.  The situation was made worse by the decision to opt for just 32 boroughs rather than 51 as proposed by Sir Edwin Herbert.

Thus we had a forced marriage of West Ham (formed in 1889) and East Ham (formed in 1915) to become “Newham” (an invented name with no historical validity). Before the merger that was a marked difference in housing policy:

“West Ham built many towers. When Newham was created in 1965, West Ham’s borough architect and planning officer were appointed to the new authority. The architect, T. E. North, wanted to extend system-built high-rise blocks across the new borough.”

By contrast East Ham’s housing committee chairman said:

“I’m speaking on behalf of the people of East Ham when I say we don’t want that kind of thing here [system building at high density]. I’ve fought this idea for many years and I would cry it from the rooftops if an attempt was made to make East Ham’s development similar to West Ham’s.”

East Ham councillors denounced West Ham’s housing as ‘a mass of pigeon holes’ and ‘a series of Dartmoor prisons’. But, of course, East Ham was no longer in control of its own destiny.

broadwater1The tragic consequences of West Ham’s housing policy came three years later:

“On 16 May 1968, Ronan Point, a 23-storey system-built tower in Canning Town, partially collapsed after a gas explosion on the eighteenth floor. Four people were killed and seventeen injured when the corner of the building collapsed, like dominoes, from top to bottom. The building had been completed just two months previously. Experts believed the accident was one for which no designer could have made allowances. Newham had followed official advice in constructing the tower, and was found not responsible for the disaster.”

There were many more disasters to come. For instance:

“Within two years of Haringey’s creation and at the time of the struggle over roads, work was started on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, on land previously used for allotments. The design was inspired by Le Corbusier and consisted of twelve interconnected buildings each named after a Second World War aerodrome. There were two large towers, Northolt and Kenley, and a ziggurat-shaped one, Tangmere. Designed by the borough’s own architect, Broadwater Farm was to become one of the most notorious housing estates in Britain.”

kensingtontownhallI wonder if councillors across the capital would have greater will to resist the concrete tide if they had been making the decisions from their old town halls. But the mergers of boroughs gave the impetus to vacate or ruin many of these fine old buildings:

“Some of the new councils added an annex to an existing town hall or civic centre, as at Ealing, Enfield, Greenwich, Hammersmith, Haringey, Havering, Kingston and Lewisham. Where such a bolt-on proved difficult, the decision was taken to create a modern complex, as in Bexley, Bromley, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Sutton. Croydon and Westminster bought conveniently located speculative office blocks. According to Michael Hebbert, two-thirds of the boroughs located the seat of local government in their dominant town centres.”

In 1982 the Conservative council leader in Kensington and Chelsea ordered the “demolition of the old Kensington Town Hall, which featured an Italianate façade, hours before it was to be listed and thus protected”. Instead they have an awful building in Hornton Street (right) – diplomatically referred to by Travers as “of its time” and “architecturally striking”.

TabernerhouseTaberner House, “a brutalist tower completed in 1967, became the administrative headquarters of the post-1965 London Borough of Croydon”.  (Left – now demolished but due to be replaced with something equally awful.) Enfield civic centre became the administrative hub of the council in 1971. In 1972, work began on an eleven-storey tower to house Enfield offices. Edmonton Town Hall, an imposing Victorian Gothic edifice, was demolished in 1989.

Some welcome respite from the misery came with the chapter on Richmond-on-Thames:

“Of all the post-1965 boroughs, Richmond is perhaps the one that has changed least since its inception. Its powerful and articulate residents have ensured councillors have preserved the feel and atmosphere of the area. There has been little change in the physical appearance of the area, with effective development control.”

That is the borough where Quinlan Terry can find planners to accept his work (such as Richmond Riverside, right). Those who complain that in resisting high-rise, Richmond residents are selfish nimbys failing to provide much needed new housing, should note that Travers adds “the growth in population since the 1960s has been slightly above the London average.”

richmond-riversideSo how did all go so wrong? Money was part of the explanation. The system was rigged:

“Different central government policies towards the rehabilitation of old houses and also towards the subsidy of particular kinds of new flats would have avoided many of the problems that were to emerge from the 1970s onwards. Ironically, the middle classes were using their own resources to resuscitate derelict and sub-standard housing in Islington, Camden and Lambeth and thus bring it back to life. If Whitehall had offered a different subsidy regime to the boroughs and the GLC, London would have been saved from many of the horrors that subsequently befell council housing and its residents.”

But then why was it loaded in that way? The apologists for the high rises offer the false choice that the alternative was to continue to allow people to live in slums with outside lavatories, peeling wallpaper, and leaking rooves. The truth is that renovation would have been a cheaper, as well as a better alternative.

Also why have our politicians persisted in this folly after such an abundance of evidence. Here is a story from Hackney:

“Mapledene Road in Dalston similarly had to fight off council efforts to knock it down and replace it with modernist blocks. It survived to become highly desirable, and was, during the 1980s, the home of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Such stories could have been told of this time all over London and, indeed,in Manchester or Glasgow. The New Deal for Communities programme was still operating in this way during the 2000s. But Hackney’s combination of new social housing and, in the 1980s and 1990s, poor management proved a damaging combination.”

So having been a beneficiary of successful resistance to this policy, Blair spent billions on the NDC policy to impose it on the rest of us.

Then there is the story from Lambeth. After the 1968 council election victory, Cllr John Major, the Conservative Housing committee Chairman, was a tower block enthusiast – he later changed his view.

Why has Boris Johnson made London’s skyline so much worse? When it comes to his own home, or going to a dinner party, or writing a Telegraph column, he backs traditional architecture. But not when he makes decisions from his office in City Hall.

While Travers talks about the “good intentions” of the modernist planners with their “utopian” ideals he ignores that just as they were willing to use dishonest arguments to get their way, they were also happy to overcome any democratic barriers. That is because they were spurred on by Marxist ideology. The “march through the institutions” very much included architecture and planning. Thus Corbusier is the dominant figure in the changing appearance of London. Sometimes Conservatives would be elected in borough council elections, sometimes Labour councillors would have a majority. But a dead French architect who collaborated with the Vichy regime would always win.

This is to explain rather than excuse the terrible betrayal of councillors over the decades. It was not inevitable. There were all these pressures but different decisions could have been made.

Have you ever sat on the tube opposite a otherwise pretty girl who has ruined her appearance by putting a ring in her nose? (Or potentially handsome young chap, for that matter?) Why do they engage in this senseless act of self-mutilation? But then you arrive at your stop, go for a walk, and find that our municipal leaders have done the same to the communities they are supposed to represent.

Travers is right to acknowledge an important anniversary. The volume with which he marks it is a tour de force. But I fear I can’t join him in regarding it as a source of celebration.

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