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It is not true that everyone supported the construction of municipal tower blocks, failing to understand what a disaster they would prove.

At the start of George Orwell’s novel,1984, are these words:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features.

Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and a present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine, and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

There is no doubt that socialism provides the ideological heritage for tower blocks. (A subject I have written about for Standpoint magazine.) But politically, the Conservatives must share the blame with Labour. The tower block is a legacy from the era of consensus politics.  It was a piece of Conservative legislation, the Housing Subsidies Act of 1956, which was especially damaging. This provided a bigger subsidy – per flat – the higher the building.

The Housing and Local Government Minister, Duncan Sandys, said in the Second Reading Debate:

Hitherto, all flats have been subsidised at the same rate regardless of the height of the building. Since construction, in practice, costs more as you go higher, the result has been that flats in low blocks have been more heavily subsidised in relation to costs than flats in high blocks. Apart from being inequitable, this has unintentionally influenced local authorities to concentrate on building blocks of three, four and five storeys, which, I believe, many hon. Members will agree are most monotonous.

This wasn’t even particularly controversial. Most MPs were more interested in other parts of the bill.

However, the following exchange confirmed the significance:

Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham): I understood the Minister to say—and it is very important to get this clear—that the new subsidy for flats is so arranged as to meet the extra costs as a result of their being built higher. Is it not a fact that under the proposed arrangement there will be less subsidy for flats up to nine storeys high, and that the additional and, as it were, profitable subsidy does not begin to apply until the flats reach to ten or eleven storeys? Is that the policy of the Government?

Mr. Sandys: I do not want to go into great detail about this now, though not because I do not know what the basis of the subsidy is. However, since the hon. Member does press me upon it, and as he has been the Chairman of the Housing Committee of the London County Council, I will say in general terms what the basis of the new subsidy is. We find that it is the tendency of many authorities not to put lifts in blocks of flats up to a certain level—I think it is four storeys. We have, therefore, made an allowance for that. In a high proportion of blocks of five storeys they do put in lifts. There is, therefore, a jump in the scale of the subsidy on this account.

For reasons of building construction the cost of a building of six storeys goes up considerably, because then steel framing has to be used for the building. That is the reason for the special jump in the scale of subsidy applied to six storey buildings. Above that, though one cannot be precise about it, the cost goes up more or less progressively as additional storeys are added to a building. 

For many years Conservative leaders have acknowledged this was a terrible mistake.

Margaret Thatcher told the 1987 Conservative Party Conference:

“Too often, the planners cut the heart out of our cities. They swept aside the familiar city centres that had grown up over the centuries. They replaced them with a wedge of tower blocks and linking expressways, interspersed with token patches of grass and a few windswept piazzas, where pedestrians fear to tread.

The planners didn’t think: “Are we breaking the pattern of people’s lives. Are we cutting them off from their friends, their neighbours?”

They didn’t wonder: “Are we uprooting whole communities?”

They didn’t ask “Can children still play safely in the street?”

They didn’t consider any of these things. Nor did they consult the police about how to design an estate in which people could walk safe from muggers and vandals. They simply set the municipal bulldozer to work.

What folly, what incredible folly.

And the people who didn’t fit into this urban utopia? They dispatched them to outlying estates without a pub or corner shop or anywhere to go.

Oh! the schemes won a number of architectural awards. But they were a nightmare for the people. They snuffed out any spark of local enterprise. And they made people entirely dependent on the local authorities and the services they chose to provide.”

In an interview the previous year she said:

“If you are kind of trapped because you are in, perhaps a very large tall tower block, and do not forget they are a post-war phenomenon and we still do not know what that psychology has done to people. Those tall tower blocks. I think they are responsible quite a lot. The same people living on the ground floor in streets like that. If only we had said: “Right, we will turn houses into one and do them up” and kept the societies together.

“You see, when you ran along a street and the children went out to play, there was the sort of authority from the kitchen window: “Don’t you do that! Now you just stop that!” There was a visible authority which ordinary families themselves would exercise. Go up into a tower block and they cannot—it has gone—and what you have done in a tower block is have whole areas without visible authority, the natural visible authority which parents exercise. How did we get into this? Now, what I am saying is there are some people who are trapped in there. Yes, they are vandalised. There is a capacity to vandalise lifts that was never there along the streets.”

Yet while Lady Thatcher identified the problem she did not manage to solve it. Some tower blocks were demolished during the 1980s but some new ones were built.

When Sir John Major was Prime Minister in 1995 he said:

As we look ahead, I believe one of the major challenges we still face is the continuing legacy of large scale, sub-standard public housing estates – some in inner cities, some outside. For the problem they present is not only in the quality of housing itself, but in the associated poverty of opportunity in communities that have given up hope.

Many were built as solutions to inner city problems; ironically they have now become major contributors to the problem. There they stand – grey, sullen, concrete wastelands, set apart from the rest of the community, robbing people of ambition, of self-respect. Monuments to the failed history of socialist planning – too many lives have been wrecked by growing up in such demoralising surroundings.

The Labour Party hit back at the time by pointing out that when Sir John was Chairman of Lambeth Council’s Housing Committee in 1968 he took a different view and backed the construction of the brutalist Stockwell Park Estate and Southwyck House.

Sir John should be forgiven for his mistakes on the Lambeth Council Housing Committee half a century ago. Ken Livingstone was around just after him and was also pro tower blocks. All very consensual on the Lambeth Council Committee in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The difference is that Mr Livingstone, unlike Sir John, seemed unable – even decades later – to spot that this approach had been a disaster.

What matters is what we will do now to rescue those still trapped in tower blocks. Sir John reminded us of their plight last week in his speech to the Press Gallery lunch. According the the English Housing Survey there are 432,000 “purpose built high rise” council flats in England alone. Most of the people in them would like the chance to live somewhere else.

During the Thatcher and Major years, our cities – and the lives of far too many people – continued to be blighted by this architecture. And today, we still have new tower blocks being built.

Redeveloping estates that replace these monstrosities with terraced streets filled with traditional housing and mansion blocks is economically viable.  It should be an important priority for a Conservative Government.

Saying sorry is not enough.

32 comments for: Both Conservatives and Labour share the blame for tower blocks

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