Posted by: Jules Birch07/06/2012
Have we really learned our lessons from our post-war housing mistakes or are we still making some of the same ones?
That was the question running through my mind after watching the brilliant and sometimes heart-rending first episode of The Secret History of Our Streets last night. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you really should make time to catch it on iPlayer if you missed it.
The series looks at the history of six different areas starting from the moment that Charles Booth produced his famous poverty maps of London in the late 19th century (the LSE has more information on them here). The first episode looked at changes in the streets around Deptford High Street in south London in the first half of the 20th century followed by the grand schemes of the post-war era.
We heard how the London Plan earmarked the working class streets of south and east London for slum clearance, with many people moved to the new towns and estates around and outside the capital and most of the terraces replaced by new estates. For more on Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the man with the plan, and the connection with David Cameron, see my other blog here.
We felt the impact on the close-knit Price family, who had lived in the area for several generations but saw their homes wrongly condemned as ‘slums’ (the programme even produced environmental health reports from the time admitting as much). We saw how most of them were dispersed to the new estates while the tower blocks that sprang up on the sites of their homes rapidly became hard to let.
And we heard from a Lewisham councillor who admitted he was powerless to stop the process and had to try and choose which street to save.
Just to rub it all in, on one of the few streets that survived the bulldozers we saw an estate agent with a cut-glass accent pointing out the period features of a home on the market at £750,000.
It was a brilliant opener to a series co-produced by BBC2 and the Open University (which has much more information on its website) that made great use of the Booth maps and archive photos but like all TV it left me wondering a few things.
Were things really quite as clear-cut as the programme made out? Stories rarely are in my experience and I wonder if the nuances of this one got left on the cutting room floor. For example, the former councillor was rather ambushed when he went back to Deptford High Street. He was critical of what had happened but not really given the chance to explain what he’d done at the time.
Nevertheless The Secret History was a powerful reminder of housing’s (or more accurately planning’s and environmental health’s) original sin: wholesale clearances of districts of London and the replacement of ‘slums’ with ‘modern’ estates on the assumption that the professionals knew better than the people who lived there.
And have we really learned our lesson? For all that community consultation and empowerment there are some who would beg to differ.
Just ask residents of the Welsh Streets in Liverpool or the other housing market renewal areas. Or talk to campaigners fighting to stop the redevelopment of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in west London. Or read Martin Hilditch’s feature for Inside Housing last month on the residents of the Q blocks that are facing demolition in Nottingham.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context