Around the country tower blocks are being knocked down. Few lament their passing – certainly Conservatives should not. It is no coincidence that the father of the tower block was Le Corbusier – a champion of Socialism and brutalism whose drab, souless architecture was so influential in the Soviet Union. The Socialist roots of modernist architecture are strong. Yet when the tower blocks went up there was a widespread welcom for them.
Now those of any political persuasion willing to defend them is shrinking. There are still supporters of modernist architecture around – but within this is a faction which will now only defend low rise concrete slabs rather than the high rise variety.
But I was still a bit taken a back by a claim from the Create Streets group that 0% of people want to live in tower blocks. 0% did seem on the low side. But here is the poll for Ipsos MORI, commissioned by CABE – who are actually champions of tower blocks and must have been a bit disheartened by the findings.
Those being surveyed were shown pictures of different sorts of housing and asked which one they would most like to live in. The bungalow came in at 30%, the village house at 29%, the Victorian terrace at 16%, the modern semi detached house 14%, 1930s semi detached was at 6%. The council tower block was at 0%. It also came it at 84% for the option that respondents would "least like to live in."
The good news is that lots of tower blocks being knocked down in redevelopment schemes. The bad news is that often the plan is to replace them with new tower blocks. "The difficulty was not the tower blocks per se," declare the snake oil salesmen. "The trouble was those dolts in the 1960s and 1970s built all these low quality tower blocks. But now the planners/architects/politicians we have now we be able to come up with good tower blocks unlike those the planners/architects/politicians gave us before."
The more sceptical might have doubts about this proposition but assume there isn't any room to replace the tower blocks with anything else. Yes the new ones will fall down in another 50 years. But it is just like getting a new car — you reach a point where paying for repairs costs so much it is cheaper to get a new one.
Yet high density housing does not require high rise. There is higher density in a square of mansion blocks. Building tower blocks is a choice not an inevitability.
Nicholas Boys Smith, on of the authors of the recent Policy Exchange/Create Streets report has written on this site about how tower blocks produce worse outcomes in terms of crime, health and happiness. "Oh well," might come a bigoted retort, "that's just the poor/immigrants/urbanites for you, what do you expect?" The evidence suggests otherwise.
When Sommer (1987) compared crime rates in two student dormitories in California full of presumably middle-class students, the high rise dormitory was the site of more crime than a nearby low-rise dormitory.
There is some progress of a sort. In Bexley, for example, seven tower blocks are coming down to be replaced by houses and low rise flats. What is proposed is ugly – but a lot better than what is exists.
Blackpool's five tower blocks are going this year to be replaced by bland housing – the same is happening in Leeds. Nondescript modern housing. The sort of thing you can see anywhere. You can't tell whether such houses are private or council so the dreary stigma of the tower block is lifted. I used to live in such a house in the Surrey Docks and was perfectly content but it wasn't beautiful. It didn't lift the spirits to live in it.
Brent are getting rid of some tower blocks in south Kilburn and replacing them with buildings that are ugly – but low rise less ugly than what went before.The same in Enfield and in Edinburgh and Bromley.
On the other hand Hackney Council seem to think more tower blocks are the way forward.
I would like to see tower blocks replaced with attractive housing – rather than bland or ugly housing. I would like a neo- classical option included in a choice of designs put forward. That would mean the novel idea of consultation becoming genuine, rather than just telling residents this is our proposed design take it or leave it.
It is still welcome to see tower blocks coming down and not being replaced with new tower blocks. This is a trend which Conservatives – nationally and locally – should be looking to promote. Millions of us live in tower blocks. All the evidence is that overwhelmingly we would rather not. If we are expecting people to put up with the disruption of being "decanted", into temporary housing while a redevelopment takes place, then they should have something better than a shiny new replacement tower block as the end destination.