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Housing outcomes intended by no one

Tony Travers
  • 1 Comment

Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

In the run-up to the Olympics, the BBC has been showing a six-part series entitled The Secret History of Our Streets. Each programme has started with Charles Booth’s 1899 map of poverty and affluence in London to see how people, property use, house prices and public policy have changed. The results have been poignant and salutary. A similar message would emerge from an analysis of analogous streets in other British cities.

Former ‘slum’ housing in places such as Deptford and Notting Hill is now highly desirable

A recurring theme has been the way in which planners and local government took decisions about slum clearance and road building, which have subsequently destroyed decent buildings and communities. Former ‘slum’ housing that has survived in places such as Deptford and Notting Hill is now highly desirable.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident a large number of decayed houses could have been rescued and fitted with modern facilities. But between the late-1940s and the mid-1960s, councillors and their planners thought that Corbusian blocks, random open spaces and cul-de-sacs were the solution to slum housing and overcrowding. In a Ministry of Information film entitled The Proud City, London County Council leader Charles Latham made the case for “a war against decay, dirt and inefficiency” (

Councils that sent in the bulldozers in the 1950s and 1960s believed they were delivering social and economic progress. But we can now see neighbourhoods were often destroyed and housing built which (in some cases) quickly became uninhabitable. Social segregation was worsened by the construction of modernist ‘estates’.

The longer-term impact of the failure of so many of these housing schemes is that local government is now painfully cautious when attempting major improvements.

The Secret History of Our Streets offers an opportunity to reflect on how public policy and changing aesthetics can have unintended consequences. Post-war idealism, slum clearance, town planning, fashion, corner-cutting procurement, 1980s right-to-buy legislation and poor maintenance have, taken together, led to outcomes intended by no one. A TV retrospective in 50 years’ time about housing built on the Olympic Park will make fascinating viewing.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

  • 1 Comment

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Absolutely an opportunity to reflect, but not a time to be paralysed into inaction.
    I think the series under-plays the economic issues and context. If i remember correctly, the Crossman Diaries document well the conflict between the social and political imperative to significantly increase house-building, with the Treasury being insistent that it could not be done without casuing hyper-inflation. This was the real spurr to developing solutions which didn't depend on traditional materials. Corbusier, concrete and system-building then seemed a way of squaring the circle.
    I still live in just one of four terraced houses which remained whilst the bulldozers demolished the surrounding streets in the early 1970s. Despite all the battles and debates about 'slum clearance' and renewal, there were some good planners who wanted to start from 'what's working for you', rather than 'what's failing', and tried to build from there.
    But, I''m not nostalgic about the memories of wading though cellars of sewage in the very small terraced houses and court-houses - with residents desperate to leave - just 50 yards from where I sit now.

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