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Lessons from history: the Blitz, the building boom and the people left behind

Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos at Coventry Cathedral, first conceived in the aftermath of the war. Ben Sutherland, CC BY

Lessons from history: the Blitz, the building boom and the people left behind

It was 75 years ago that the German aerial bombing campaign now known as the Blitz wrought destruction on British cities. Right across the country, from London, to Glasgow, to Bristol, tens of thousands of tonnes of explosives were dropped by the German Luftwaffe. Coventry – a city in the country’s Midlands – suffered terrible devastation: some 1,236 people were killed during 41 raids. But even before the bombing stopped, city officials took steps to implement an ambitious plan initially conceived to transform medieval Coventry by Donald Gibson in the late 1930s.

There were three major priorities for rebuilding: the city centre (which suffered extensive damage), the creation of new housing estates on the edge of the city, and the renewal of the inner city, including Hillfields, which had been a heavy casualty of the war. Gibson’s plan for the reconstruction of Coventry was a modernist vision of pedestrian precincts and tower-block living. A 1945 government-sponsored promotional film, called A City Reborn, announced:

There can be no thinking of returning to the good old days. The days of cramped houses and crippling streets. Of slums still living on in a lingering death from the last century.

The rise and fall of Hillfields

Originally the first suburb outside the city walls, Hillfields was a place of hard work and innovation. It was home to Coventry’s ribbon weavers, and later the manufacturers of sewing machines, bicycles, cars and motorbikes, including Humber, Lea Francis and Hillman. Coventry City Football Club grew from the team at the Singer factory, and played at Highfield Road in Hillfields for 106 years. As the heart of manufacturing in Coventry, Hillfields was an obvious target for German bombs.

A model of the plan for Hillfields’ urban regeneration. Coventy City Council

When the plans for redevelopment were made, it was thought that tower blocks and landscaping would quickly erase the tightly packed rows of Victorian streets and back alleys, completing the process started by the Luftwaffe.

But initially, the efforts to rebuild Coventry were focused on the city centre’s pedestrian precinct, and new estates on the edge of the city. While other parts of the city rose from the rubble of war, Hillfields remained a clearance site, as captured by John Blakemore’s photographs from 1964.

Twenty years after the war ended, Hillfields remained in a terrible condition. John Blakemore, Author provided

Coventry City Council’s 1951 Comprehensive Redevelopment Plan earmarked over half of Hillfields for demolition, but a review in 1966 admitted that “in the immediate post-war period, little could be done in the way of urban renewal, because of more urgent priorities.”

By that time, Hillfields had stagnated. Clearance plans meant that the council, landlords and private owners were reluctant to maintain or improve properties. By the late 1960s, tower blocks rose slowly and uneasily amid Victorian streets, and some plots of land still remained undeveloped, as the post-war planners’ vision of Hillfields faded from view.

By 1970, it was reported that less than half of Hillfields’ properties had hot water and an indoor toilet and bath, compared to the average of over 84% across the rest of Coventry. Numerous residents relocated, many to the new housing estates on the edge of the city, as Hillfields’ population dropped by half from its pre-war height of 20,000.

Primrose Hill St, where tower blocks on the right sit opposite Hillfields’ Victorian past, 1970s. Coventry City Council, Author provided

Prosperity declined and Hillfields became home to low-paid immigrants working in public services and insecure factory jobs, and experienced an influx of homeless people, sex workers and drug users. In the middle of Coventry’s post-war boom, Hillfields residents were shut out of the city’s “New Jerusalem”.

Tackling the problems

At the end of the 1960s, the city council and national government belatedly sought to address the problems of areas like Hillfields. Poverty was being “rediscovered” and fears of US-style race riots in British cities led to resources being poured into deprived areas.

Coventry MP and secretary of state for social security, Richard Crossman, ensured Hillfields was designated one of 12 Community Development Project (CDP) areas. The CDP team spent five years researching with residents to identify problems and find solutions. The CDP concluded that while problems lay in the communities, solving them required external “structural” change to promote greater equality in incomes, employment and housing.

In 1979, structural economic change did come, but in the form of Thatcher-era market forces that intensified Hillfields’ problems. Old migrants moved out and newer, poorer ones came in, maintaining the earlier pattern of those with the means abandoning the area. Yet Hillfields has remained a largely tolerant and socially cohesive area. Area-based regeneration during the New Labour era from 1997 to 2008 created much-needed infrastructure, and enabled civil society organisations such as Working Actively to Change Hillfields (WATCH) to tackle some issues.

Poverty has remained despite interventions, and the continued celebration of market forces has contributed to further economic decline. With the advent of the economic blitz of austerity in 2009, the CDP’s call for “structural” change of the 1970s remains highly relevant today. However, faced with tightened budgets, the city council’s main planning response is again to reinvigorate the city centre and cut back on its support for communities. Our research has illuminated the lessons from history – now is the time to learn from them.

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