There are times when that most basic human necessity – to have a roof over one’s head – becomes a crisis that demands action. The years following the devastation of housing stock during WWII air raids was one such time, even if many of the dwellings destroyed by the Luftwaffe were poor, insanitary slum residences that had already been condemned. Those homes of similar quality to survive the Blitz staggered on through the 1950s and into the 60s, however unfit for human habitation they might have been; unsurprisingly, most were situated in high-density urban areas and were home to people on low (or no) incomes – the kind of dilapidated hovels often captured on campaigning documentaries of the era, the kind infested by bugs, vermin and rising damp, boasting inadequate facilities, outdoor privies and tin baths in front of the fire.
Whilst the big money went on designing New Towns, the rest of the urgent housing needs were solved by ‘Large Panel System Building’, the revolutionary production line process whereby the components for (primarily) tower blocks were cast off-site and then assembled on-site like Meccano. It was a fast and – more importantly – cheap method of re-housing that those re-housed from Victorian slums understandably regarded as luxurious, suddenly finding themselves in shiny new flats with all mod cons. This was the last gasp of the great – and, on paper, laudable – social housing project spanning the first quarter-century after the War, and it took a disaster to curtail it.
In May 1968, Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block in Newham, East London hit the headlines when a gas explosion provoked the collapse of one side of the building. Because the block had been open for just a couple of months, only a tiny handful of its apartments were occupied and the death toll was restricted to four people. But the shocking image of the damage done I would imagine sent a collective shiver down the spine of those living in identical flats comparable to the impact the Grenfell inferno had on those whose streets in the sky had also been redecorated in flammable cladding. Ironically, the planning regulations that eventually came into force as a result of Ronan Point have been stated by some as saving Grenfell Tower (opened in 1974) from collapse when it was ablaze. While Ronan Point may have effectively ended the era of the tower block as a solution to a housing crisis, many of those erected prior to 1968 – and those built immediately afterwards, which had been given the go-ahead beforehand – were also riddled with defects reflecting the speediness of their construction and the poor quality materials used.
As a child, I had an auntie who lived on a huge housing estate comprising interconnected low-level blocks of around half-a-dozen storeys; virtually isolated on an island surrounded by busy roads, the estate was nicknamed ‘Alcatraz’ and was a sprawling, aesthetically ugly concrete jungle of a home. It had only been built around the same time as Ronan Point, yet even in the early 70s I remember it seemed to be falling apart, plagued with all the problems that came with the LPS process. My auntie’s flat had the permanent unmistakable odour of damp flowing through it that was as pungent as the stench of piss in the lifts that carried visitors up to her floor. The whole rotten estate was demolished in the early 80s, after standing for no more than a decade. But the failure of such schemes, driven by ambition and destroyed by corner (and cost) cutting, seems to have led us to where we are now. Similar estates that survived were refashioned as a dumping ground for ‘problem families’ and antisocial tenants that nobody wanted living next-door. Social housing became a dirty word.
The news that the Government is to shake-up planning rules and regulations in order to fast-track the desperately-needed delivery of new houses has received a mixed response. Boris Johnson has attempted to alleviate the worries of those who cannot afford to own their own homes at a time when a post-lockdown ‘mini-boom’ has pushed house prices back up to their usual astronomical levels; he stated social housing would constitute a large part of his reforms. The lockdown has exposed not only the fears of homelessness amongst many renters whose landlords have not exactly been sympathetic to their furloughed tenants, but has also highlighted the cramped conditions families have had to endure in order to ‘stay alert’. The fact that the old ‘No Irish, no dogs, no blacks’ requirement is now rightly consigned to history doesn’t alter the fact that many contemporary renters on Housing Benefit already have enough to worry about, still confronted as they are by the ‘No DSS’ bar, which is just as antiquated a form of discrimination, especially considering the DSS hasn’t existed since 2001.
Of course, not all planning regulations were created to thwart and frustrate noble property developers; we’ve all seen the way some homeowners and landlords attempt to skirt around current rules, squeezing extensions into every available space, erecting endless dormers and converting garages into dwellings. Many are concerned any relaxation will be exploited by less benign builders and will push even more into miserable surroundings. A friend of mine rented a recently-built house on a shiny new estate around 20 years back and I remember being struck by the low ceilings and claustrophobic rooms; the small scale of the interior was as though it had been designed to house a family of Munchkins. That experience confirmed to me that the dimensions of new homes were undoubtedly smaller in the same way photographic evidence makes it clear how Mars Bars have shrunk over the years.
The Royal Institute of British Architects has expressed concerns that the reforms could lead to shoddy slum properties, whilst housing charity Shelter is worried social housing will be a casualty of what Labour has called a ‘property developer’s charter’; the proposed changes imply decisions over where to build will be taken out of local council hands and give more power to central government; and it goes without saying that central government will be less sensitive to local issues, risking provoking ‘Nimby’ protests, particularly when it comes to greenbelt land. However, the Local Government Association claims the housing crisis in this country is not due to the planning system but to the fact that nine out of ten approved planning applications given the green light end up not being built. What all this makes clear is that something needs to be done, but can we trust this Government to do it right?
The concerted effort to clear the streets of (and house) homeless rough-sleepers during the lockdown shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to instigate, but it equally shouldn’t take the eventual submission of Covid-19 before it becomes enshrined as official policy that no one should have to sleep in a shop doorway. At the same time, the place we know as home should also be a step up from a kennel. If the new planning regulations lead to a long-overdue building programme reminiscent of the ones that spanned the 50s to the 70s, great; but it is to be hoped the same mistakes made then can be avoided. Having somewhere to live needs to be recognised as a universal human right, but the quality of that living space matters too; the ministerial trumpeting that often accompanies ‘the creation of thousands of new jobs’ can come across as meaningless box-ticking if the nature of the work is deemed secondary to the simple fact the job has been created. We don’t need a housing version of Government coronavirus policy, whereby people are being kept alive whilst simultaneously being denied living.
© The Editor