Monday, 6 July 2009

Tower Blocks

It may be legal but it isn't right: Lakanal House, the tower block in Camberwell where six people died in a fire this weekend was built in the 1950's before the current building regulations came in. Apparently having a single stairwell was legal at the time, and these things are not retro-active. Ironically if the block had been a five star hotel rather than social housing then a different set of more stringent fire regulations would have applied.

It's not just about the architecture either. Some of the developers who led the campaign in the 1950's, 60's and 70's to rehouse the inner city poor in tower blocks may have genuinely brought into the vision of 'streets in the sky'. Whether they were misguided or cynical doesn't really matter to the residents of Lakanal House or thousands of other tower blocks on our cities.

Whatever the intention of the architects, tower blocks are pretty crappy places to live. The cheap, low-rise inner city housing they replaced may have been labelled 'slums' but they had streets for kids to play in, pubs, shops and places of employment all mixed together . When their residents were re-housed in tower blocks all that went, along with the communities that went with it.

As industries and businesses closed down in the city and the middle classes started to move in along with their retail-driven urban 'renewal' the people they displaced didn't evaporate they just became less visible. In every part of London now , amidst the yuppified terraced streets and the post-industrial retail developments, there are run-down tower blocks. Often there is a kind of social apartheid - the residents of the blocks, frequently not car owners, don't use the same retail parks, megastores and shopping malls - and they certainly don't socialise in the bars and coffee shops that now dominate the high street.

Of course inequality is nothing new. But in the old low-rise housing the different layers of working class people were pretty much mixed up together. Even Mayhew's street by street-map index of poverty in Victorian London shows 'artisans' living in streets adjacent to the so-called 'criminal underclass'. So, amazingly our own society is not only more polarised in terms of overall wealth than ever before, but within the working class we are actually more segmented than previous generations.

Urban planning has a lot to do with that. And so of course did Thatcher's war on social housing in the 1980's. The flip-side of the 'property owning democracy' was that generally only the very poorest and most disadvantaged were left in social housing. And a new and ugly description came into being - 'the sink estate'.

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