“To enter modern slums”

Ronan Point. Image used under Creative Commons licence, from Geograph.org.uk. Click pic for link.
Ronan Point. Image used under Creative Commons licence, from Geograph.org.uk. Click pic for link.

I came across a quote this morning, cited in Lindsey Hanley’s Estates

A tenant of Ronan Point who was offered temporary accommodation in the home of a neighbour after the explosion told the BBC:”I wouldn’t live there rent-free”.
In his book, The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain, Patrick Dunleavy reports how Newham residents collected 700 signatures on a petition that read: “Under present conditions we will flatly refuse to leave our present slums to enter modern slums.” The reply from the Town Clerk read as follows: “whether the blocks become slums or not will depend on the people who live in them.”

Ah, but that’s the heart of the matter. Ronan Point, to fill in the context, is the most famous example of the failure of the system-built high rise building that was the most common type in the late 1960s. The post-war municipal building boom began under Bevan, but his slow progress with large, well-built homes was his downfall – his portfolio was taken by Harold MacMillan in the Conservative government of 1951-1964. MacMillan (in sole charge of housing rather than combining it with Health like Nye) ramped up housing production massively, but at the cost of quality of build and size of home – his People’s House was 200 sq ft smaller than Bevan’s plan. Long before the Labour government of the late 60s, central and local government had conceded that the only way to meet the need in a short space of time was to build up – hence-with the high-rise estate, the shoddy standards, the ensuing social problems…

On 16 May 1968, on the 18th floor (of 22) of the newly built Ronan Point in Canning Town, East London, Ivy Hodge lit the gas stove in her apartment. A below-standard nut was holding the gas piping in place – it had cracked, causing a build up of gas. The explosion that followed ripped an entire corner of the building right off, revealing terrifyingly poor standards of materials and craftsmanship. It turned out that the Larsen-Neilsen system from which the block was constructed was designed for no more than 6 storeys; the building was held together by pegs, pins and gravity. The push to meet targets for housing had meant that the standards of building were no better than the speculative,  jerry-built back-to-backs that these brave new towers were intended to replace. No wonder the residents felt so strongly.

The response of the Town Clerk is thoroughly telling, and can be traced right back to the beginnings of the housing question. The 1885 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes cited a popular pamphlet entitled: “Is it the pig that makes the stye, or the stye that makes the pig?” The inference was that poor housing conditions were not the cause of the social ills found amongst the poorer classes – the perceived drunkenness, violence, licentiousness – but vice versa, that the character of the working classes caused the degraded environment, the slum. It’s something that’s come up time and again looking at Wolverhampton.

Having thought about the massive problems associated with Broadwater Farm and Heath Town lately, it’s no leap of the imagination to see these as municipal slums. The intention of the Atlee administration was fantastic, but they couldn’t deliver the housing to meet the need. The Tory administration was pragmatic, delivering up to 450,000 houses in one year in the mid 60s, but they built quickly and cheaply, with one eye on fostering a feeling of temporariness, to keep private building as the preferable option, as if private building ever met the needs of the poor. The legacy of this approach is that council estates became ghettos, economically, geographically, demographically and psychologically; my guess is that most residents would love to get out, but can’t. It’s a far cry from the aims of Bevan, to institute a new kind of society. I can’t see much changing either – sadly, I think the tone of the pamphlet and of Newham’s Town Clerk are still very much with us: it’s the pig that makes the stye, right?

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