Sense of deja vu all over again? Housing, house building, poverty, the City and private and government interests

From A Journey Through the Ruins: The Last Days of London, by Patrick Wright, a slightly curious mixture of architectural/heritage comment and development politics of the 1980s in the capital (first published in 1991). A few snippets of interest…

“Hackney’s experiment with high-rise flats was accompanied by the usual allegations of corruption and graft, but whatever may have been going on locally, there can be no doubt at all that large dividends were being reaped elsewhere. Patrick Dunleavy investigated the links between national politicians, civil servants and the large construction companies that thrived on the public housing programmes during the years of Conservative government, and his findings certainly add up to an interesting picture of corporate and personal involvement. A significant number of of MPs had connections with the construction industry but so too did two ministers in the Cabinet responsible for the high flat subsidy*: Keith Joseph was heir to the Bovis fortune and Geoffrey Rippon was a director of Cubbitts. Among the construction companies both McAlpine and Taylor Woodrow were major contributors to the Conservative Party and also such right-wing pressure groups such as the Freedom Association. Dame Evelyn Sharp as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government during the crucial years, 1954-64; she was also a friend of the construction boss, Neil Wates, and, after her retirement from the civil service, the holder of a directorship at Bovis. Kenneth Wood, Chariman of Concrete Ltd, as among the ‘advisers’ employed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government from the construction industry; even as late as 1974, a Bovis executive was appointed to ‘mastermind a more vigorous public housing drive’.
Architects are still inclined to blame the worst excesses of the Sixties on every aspect of this planning framework, except their own professional culture. But there can be no doubt that a self-referring professional world built up; one in which consultation with the ‘client’ meant nothing more than discussion with borough architects, planners and other such experts who shared a professional outlook based on what Martin Pawley described as a ‘curious amalgam of ‘modern’ thought and scientific mumbo jumbo’.” (p. 92)

* High-rise flats were always an expensive form of housing… High-rise flats grew out of central-government subsidies. There were ‘expensive site’ subsidies in the Thirties, and in 1946 Attlee’s Labour government had added a ne increment per flat for blocks of at least four storeys high with lifts. But … it was the Macmillan government that triggered the high-rise boom in 1956, when it introduced a progressive storey-height subsidy that gave large increments for four-, five- and six-storey flats and a fixed increment for every additional storey over that.” (p. 91)

Thomas Fowell Buxton after a calamitous early winter spoke on behalf of the people of Spitalfields to the City of London in a Mansion House speech. He “set out to convince his audience that ‘the persons for whom we plead are your own labourers, your own mechanics and your on poor’. Pointing to the fact that more than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who reside in the City, he suggested a certain responsibility:’…you have the man, and the labours of the man, hen he can work, and we have him and his family when he cannot; you have his strength, and e his infirmity; you his health, and we his sickness; you his youth, and we his age; in short, you have the labourer, and we the pauper; you have the profits of his labour; and we the charges of his maintenance.” The Poor Law, as Buxton explained, allowed parishes faced with exceptional levels of distress to appeal to other parishes in the same county; unfortunately, however, the City of London formed a county in itself and was therefore without obligation to respond…. The speech hit its mark; it raised the huge sum of £43,339.” (p. 114)

Wright is very positive about Alexandra Artley, who sounds like a rather unlikely Spectator columnist, who he says “put up with some vicious attempts at character assassination as she picked her ay across the filthy urban Waste Land that she found in the widening gap between architectural conservation and the Christian tradition of the helping hand.” (p. 128) He notes she “went on the assault against the fashionable ideologues of the New Right, attacking think-tankers like David Willetts of the Centre for Policy Studies, ho supported, and indeed helped to motivate, the government’s attempt to reduce or get rid of child benefit”.

“Launched as the ‘flagship’ of Thatcher’s privatization programme in November 1984, British Telecom PLC had seemed to work fine for a while. … By 1987 (it) was declaring huge profits but it was also coming under fire from all sides…. Newspapers were quick to interpret the story. For the Conservative Daily Telegraph, the chaos in British Telecom didn’t raise doubts about privatization. Indeed, it provided yet more support for the dogmas of liberal theory: privatise a nationalized industry without breaking it up into competing units and all you get is a private monopoly. The Guardian drew broadly comparable conclusions… Nobody bothered to recall how, in the old days of the Post Office, there had been a strong case for the essential uniformity of a public service like the telephone system. There wasn’t a journalist who found anything to say about 1912, the year when the British telephone system was nationalized in an attempt to get beyond the failure that had marked the earlier years of multiple and partly private ownership, or who pointed to the irony of the fact that, in those days, when Britain had what was widely known as ‘the worst telephone service in the civilized world’ it had seemed obvious that the telephone network should be run by a single statutory body.” (p.149)

One comment

  • December 15, 2011 - 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Natalie, I am missing something here. How is Fowell Buxton’s speech at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816 related to 1980s architecture?

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