Couching its proposal in language reminiscent of urban policy and housing debates of the 1980s and 1990s, the UK government says it will spend £140m to kick start the demolition or refurbishment of nearly 100 estates and rehouse their displaced residents.
The idea that the design and physical environment of modernist housing estates has contributed to social problems and concentrations of criminality is a longstanding one. In his announcement of the initiative the prime minister, David Cameron, said that three out of four rioters in the disturbances that swept through some English cities in 2011 “came from these post-war estates” and not “from within terraced streets or low-rise apartment buildings”. He argued:
Within these so-called sink estates, behind front doors, families build warm and welcoming homes. But step outside in the worst estates and you’re confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers.
This seems to mark a powerful return to mainstream political discourse of the notion of “environmental determinism” – the idea that physical environments shape individual behaviour and social and economic conditions. By bulldozing some of what are deemed to be the “worst” estates or improving others, the hope is that social phenomena such as drug use and gang culture can be tackled.
The initiative is to be led by Michael Heseltine, who in the 1980s drove a previous Conservative government’s response to social, environmental and economic issues in what Margaret Thatcher famously termed “those inner cities”. Their modernist tower blocks and terraced streets have certainly enjoyed changing political fortunes over the years. Yet while the tower block is once again firmly in the dock, the terraced house seems to be enjoying a reversal in its fortunes.
The terraced house was the vernacular domestic architectural form of English industrial towns and cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Middlesborough. Built as a response to the rapid urban growth of the 19th century, each successive wave of comprehensive redevelopment in English cities has had to decide how to address the terraces. At different times they have been variously classified as slums, unfit for human habitation or no longer appropriate to current needs, and frequently demolished as a result.
Yet many of the modernist environments that replaced these generally well-planned, solidly built, streets of terraces and the dense functioning neighbourhoods they supported, failed almost as soon as they were completed (landing many local councils with repayment costs long after these new environments were demolished).
From the 1960s, a greater societal concern for heritage and the qualities of existing buildings and urban environments started to be reflected in new legislation and ways of planning. The shift to refurbishment, rather than the clearance of houses, in the 1970s reflected this.
However, by the 2000s, some policymakers were again starting to conceive of terraced housing as problematic. In particular its prevalence in some areas was seen as one cause of “low demand” or weakly functioning housing markets. The Labour government’s “Housing Market Renewal” programme, which ran from 2002-2011, assumed that some areas were unattractive to aspirational people because of a “monolithic” supply of pre-1919 terraced houses. This was despite the fact that in the same period in London and elsewhere such houses were highly sought after and rising in value. The programme may have funded more refurbishment than demolition overall, but more clearance of terraces was mooted and carried out than at any time since the 1970s.
The logic seemed to be “fix your housing market to help fix your economy” rather than the more conventional view – illustrated by the rise of property prices in economically buoyant cities at the time – that a growing urban economy will tend to lift property prices.
Many proposals for demolition faced tough opposition from those who didn’t wish to be rehoused or didn’t share the view that their homes were somehow terminally deficient. Responding to some of the criticisms of the initiative, but also no doubt with an eye to reducing public spending, the programme was scrapped by the last coalition government.
Perhaps the key lesson from previous episodes of urban housing renewal is that before making sweeping generalisations about an area, it’s essential to understand and respect the complexities and nuances of real places and lives.
As the government embarks on its plans to transform what it rather dismissively brands “sink estates”, a nuanced approach that goes beyond simply “blaming buildings” for certain societal problems is crucial. A Policy Studies Institute report from 1991 reminds us to be wary of “simplistic solutions”, stressing that: “most residential neighbourhoods are complex social entities, best understood by those who live there”.
Yet the residents of zones designated for urban renewal are often still presented as problematic – in need of management or control – or as victims of circumstances – in need of assistance – or being incapable of effecting change in their own lives or communities.
If renewal not removal of communities is the goal, then such positions run the risk of denying agency and influence to local residents and of repeating previous failures, rather than learning from what has contributed to success in the past. In particular before assuming that any housing type contributes to or helps resolve certain societal issues, engaging well with those who actually live in it will always be essential.