Have high-rises ever been the answer to our housing woes?

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, we asked two experts to offer their perspectives on the impact of multi-storey public housing on Britain’s social landscape since the Second World War

A councillor and architects discuss plans for the Moss Heights development in Glasgow, 1953. Proponents of high-rise flats believed that they would provide

Interviews by Chris Bowlby, a BBC journalist specialising in history

Advertisement

Peter Shapely:

Tower blocks were originally aimed at a wide range of social groups, primarily from slum clearance programmes. They were meant to be not only a modern, clean and affordable alternative to the slums but also a vehicle for developing social democracy.

In theory, elderly people would take the ground-floor flats, while children would benefit from open spaces and playgrounds, taking them off streets that were becoming increasingly busy with traffic. Inside, modern facilities offered the type of provision that residents could only dream of in the old, overcrowded and unhealthy slums.

As an experiment in social democracy, high-rises were a failure. There’s very little evidence that tenants wanted to live in them

This was a top-down process. Local authorities had to apply quick and affordable solutions to the chronic problems presented by the slums. Labour and Conservative governments increasingly pushed local authorities into adopting high-rise solutions. Many councils were reticent, but subsidy from the state meant they were, in practice, given little choice. Tenants had even less influence on the decision-making process. There is very little evidence that they wanted to live in high-rise blocks of flats.

As an experiment in social democracy, high-rises were a failure. They simply did not evolve as coherent communities. From the 1950s, many affluent and skilled workers left the old slum areas, either for new towns, overspill estates or to buy their own homes in working-class suburbs. This increased the concentration of poor and displaced people, as well as immigrant families, in poorer parts of urban areas, especially inner-city developments. It was these social groups that tended to be concentrated in the new flats.

Fire devastates the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London, June 2017. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Fire devastates the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London, June 2017. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Soon, local councils were starting to realise that high-rises were unpopular with families and the elderly – and that, in some cases, they were expensive to manage and maintain. The Ronan Point tragedy of 1968 – when four people were killed after a London block of flats partially collapsed – gave the authorities a further wake-up call. But the expense of building from scratch and the parlous state of the nation’s finance meant that, when the government did take action – in the Housing Acts of 1969 and 1974 – it proposed wide-ranging improvement programmes rather than new developments.

By the 1980s, local councils – and the high-rises that they managed – found themselves under huge financial pressure, as rising crime and cuts in public spending started to bite. Councils increasingly began to outsource developments to housing action trusts (similar to housing associations). This was partly due to pressure from the Thatcher government. But it was also because they couldn’t afford to maintain a large stock of housing with rising problems.

Despite these body blows, over the last couple of decades high-rise living has made something of a comeback. And that’s down to two very different processes: culture and cost. Contemporary urban lifestyles, with a more positive cultural attitude to living in the city, has transformed many people’s attitudes to the high-rise.

Meanwhile, refurbished apartment blocks have given residents the opportunity to live in affordable inner-city homes, offering views and facilities often out of reach of those who rent or buy from the private sector. As the cost of housing has rocketed – and supply dwindled – such ‘luxuries’ have become an ever more precious commodity.

Meanwhile, refurbished apartment blocks have given residents the opportunity to live in affordable inner-city homes, offering views and facilities often out of reach of those who rent or buy from the private sector. As the cost of housing has rocketed – and supply dwindled – such ‘luxuries’ have become an ever more precious commodity.

Dr Peter Shapely is a reader and head of school at Bangor University


Miles Glendinning:

The original postwar crusade to build large-scale, multi-storey public housing in the UK was driven by a mixture of idealism and pragmatism. It was idealistic because it sought to ‘solve the housing problem’ and ‘give the people homes’. There was architectural idealism too – a modernist yearning to break from the 19th-century urban pattern of the mixed-together, dilapidated, old industrial town. And it sought to make that break in the most arresting way possible: through tall towers set in open space shaping a bold, new, modern urban skyline.

The high-rise drive was pragmatic because the early postwar ideals of sweeping reconstruction were not always easily achievable. Slender towers were, it was believed, ideal for exploiting small gap sites and for maximising ‘housing gain’ within the protracted, multi-stage redevelopment programmes that usually prevailed in the 1950s.

The sheer prominence of tower blocks in our cities has, for decades, made them ideal targets for journalists’ abuse

Some parts of Britain embraced the high-rise revolution with greater enthusiasm than others. London, with its dense population pressures, saw large-scale multi-storey building from the outset. In England’s provincial cities, where terraced housing had for so long dominated the landscape, multi-storey blocks tended to be smaller. Glasgow, meanwhile, saw a uniquely high proportion of housing built in blocks of 25 or more storeys – probably because of the city’s strong association with tenements.

There were also enormous variations across mainland Europe – both in the ways that public housing was funded and built, and in its architectural form. In West Germany, social housing was often constructed by so-called ‘public interest’ housing companies. In East Germany, the many massive Plattenbau (concrete panel) developments of the Erich Honecker era (1971–89) were built by a combination of state enterprises and socialist co-operatives. While tall, slender ‘point blocks’ were the high-rise of choice across Britain, on the continent long ‘slab’ blocks tended to dominate, laid out in vast developments on the city periphery.

Women talk in front of the Gorbals tower blocks, Glasgow, 1964. (Photo by Albert McCabe/Getty Images)
Women talk in front of the Gorbals tower blocks, Glasgow, 1964. (Photo by Albert McCabe/Getty Images)

Beyond Europe, in booming Hong Kong and Singapore, severe land constraints prompted the development of the tallest public-housing tower blocks in the world, many over 40 storeys high. These exceptionally well-run programmes still thrive today, free from the crises and stigmas that have dogged British public housing.

Multi-storey public housing has sparked controversies in many countries. But public discourse in Britain has been especially vitriolic. The tradition of vehemently rejecting each successive phase of house-building stems from the architect and critic AWN Pugin in the early 19th century and has been adopted by generations of impassioned architectural journalists. The prominence – and, in many cities, controversial nature – of public-housing tower blocks have made them ideal targets for this kind of invective. ‘Destruction catastrophes’ such as the partial collapse of Ronan Point, and the far worse disaster at Grenfell Tower earlier this year, have only increased their vulnerability.

Miles Glendinning is professor of architectural conservation at the University of Edinburgh


Ahead of the BBC Two documentary Before Grenfell: A Hidden History on 13 June at 9pm, architect Peter Deakins joins the History Extra podcast to discusses his involvement in the creation of the tower block and considers its place in the history of social housing in Britain.

More: Streets Apart, a new series on the history of social housing, aired on BBC Radio 4 from 28 August. To listen to Jonathan Freedland discussing the Grenfell Tower disaster on BBC Radio 4’s Long View, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08y24f5

Advertisement

This article was first published in the September 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine