In 1971, Birmingham City Council owned 464 tower blocks, built in the preceding twenty years. By 2001, through transfer or demolition, only 305 remained and that number has continued to fall. The figures alone will conjure in most readers’ minds an established grand narrative – of planners running amok, of megalomaniac councils, of high-rise slums unfit for purpose.
Perhaps nothing I write will challenge that story – it’s a compelling one after all – but it is worth examining its forceful internal dynamics and finer grain. If you’re not more forgiving, you might end up a little more understanding at least.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, Birmingham was not ‘by tradition…flat-minded’ and the 51,000 council homes it built in the interwar period were overwhelmingly located in traditional cottage suburbs. (1) So what changed?
A national post-war commitment to end ‘the scourge of the slums’ once and for all played its part. The Council’s own 1946 Housing Survey revealed more than half the city’s 283,611 homes lacked a separate bathroom and some one in ten were back-to-back. (Remember this when our anger at future mistakes leads us to romanticise the past.)
Birmingham’s ambition to clear its slum-ridden Inner Ring was made clear in June 1947 when it was given the go-ahead to compulsorily purchase five central areas for comprehensive redevelopment – 33,000 homes on 1391 acres of land: the Council immediately became the city’s largest slum landlord. There was no intention to rebuild at such density but there was a need to re-house as many as possible at acceptable density and, in this, the Council adopted the then prevailing idea of ‘mixed development’.
In the first area to be redeveloped, Duddeston and Nechells, a mix of high-rise and lower-rise flats were proposed alongside maisonettes and traditional housing. The planners were clear, however, that all but ground floor flats were to be reserved for the elderly and those without children; in fact, the 15-storey blocks in the 1947 plan were intended as hostels for single people.
There was a contradiction, however: only single people already engaged and planning to apply for Corporation housing on marriage could apply to the waiting list. Still, the blocks went ahead (though reduced to twelve storeys) and their two-bed flats were allocated to smaller families. A significant slippage, perhaps.
Significant also was a statement by Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer and a dominant (not to say domineering) figure in Birmingham planning, to the Council in 1950 (2)
On a number of existing estates and on new estates it is proposed to build blocks of six-storey flats to help utilise the existing land to the fullest advantage and increase the overall density of population without destroying the open character of the area. Most of these flats will be two-bedroom type and will cater for grown up families.
From such modest and confined ambitions, high-rise – blocks above five-storeys – spread rapidly to the suburbs, so much so that by 1957 one critic of Birmingham’s housing programme, David Eversley, described the emerging metropolis as ‘Saucer City’. In that almost two-thirds of high-rise blocks would come to either line or lie beyond the city ring road, this was a prescient comment.
Tracking back, in 1953, it had looked as if Birmingham’s plans for suburban high-rise might be thwarted by the existing subsidy regime. The first multi-storey blocks actually completed (in 1953 and limited to six storeys due to their proximity to Elmdon Aerodrome) were on the city’s eastern fringe at Tile Cross.
To its consternation, Birmingham found its application for a flats subsidy – then limited to inner-city sites – refused. It applied its muscle: (3)
They said, “Look, Minister, you’ve got to change this! We’re the City of Birmingham, not some tiddly little country town – we want these rules changed!
And they were. The City was granted a discretionary subsidy which was effectively formalised and universalised in the 1956 reform which instituted a new subsidy scheme incentivising local authorities to build high – the higher you built, the higher the subsidy. Thus Birmingham’s multi-storey flats were both cause and effect of one the most crucial drivers of high-rise in the period.
In other respects, Birmingham reflected immediate post-war planning ideals more faithfully. The West Midland Group’s 1948 study Conurbation envisaged the population of Birmingham stabilising and population growth occurring in ‘an archipelago of urban settlements, with each settlement isolated from its neighbours and set in green open land’. Jackson and Abercrombie’s West Midlands Plan of the same year, commissioned by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, promoted overspill settlement in surrounding towns.
It was the failure of such plans which provided another factor in Birmingham’s growing predilection for building high. The Conservative government elected in 1951 had no interest in building another generation of New Towns; neighbouring local authorities were resistant to providing homes to overspill Brummies – by 1957 neighbouring authorities had allocated just 38 houses to Birmingham’s overspill families .
Exacerbated by the fact that multiple-occupancy of inner-city slums and the need to rehouse households separately necessitated more than a one-for-one replacement of demolished properties, there were growing fears of a land shortage in the city. In 1955 Birmingham’s Labour MPs petitioned Duncan Sandys, Minister of Housing and Local Government, claiming the City had only enough land for 8000 of the 50,000 new homes needed.
The case seemed even more compelling in 1960 after the rejection of Birmingham’s plan to build 54,000 homes on green belt land at Wythall on the city’s southern borders. The need to build within the city borders and the logic of building at higher density came to seem unarguable. It became enmeshed in local patriotism too – as the Council’s Labour leader, Harry Watton, declared: (4)
Birmingham people are entitled to remain in Birmingham if they wish, and Birmingham industry has the right to remain in the city it has done so much to make great.
At this point, however, we might pause for thought. For Patrick Dunleavy, one of the puzzles of Birmingham’s increasing reliance on high-rise was that equivalent if not higher densities could be achieved by low-rise construction. (5) That ‘open character’ landscaping – a layout forced by the height of point blocks – praised by Manzoni could also be seen (and was increasingly seen) as barren wasted space.
Furthermore, Birmingham’s fears of a land shortage were unfounded. In 1960, the Corporation acquired the land of the redundant Castle Bromwich airfield. This became the site of the vast Castle Vale Estate – home by the end of the decade to 20,000 people. Shortly afterwards, it purchased the former Bromford Bridge racecourse, eventually housing some 10,000. Land for Chelmsley Wood, an overspill estate with a population of 12,000 built on 1500 acres of green belt land south of the city, was acquired in 1964.
Despite this sudden surplus, Birmingham’s dependence on multi-storey housing grew. By 1963, 85 per cent of the Council’s building was high-rise. At the same time, the height of its multi-storey blocks increased – twelve-storey blocks were the norm by 1958, rising to 14 storeys in the suburbs and 16 in central redevelopment areas the following year. In 1960, 27 per cent of new approvals were for blocks of over 15 storeys in height.
High-rise schemes did not achieve higher density, nor were they significantly cheaper than low-rise. It’s true that they could, as system building took off in the mid-sixties, be built more quickly. By this time, however, there were other, non-rational – critics would say irrational – drivers in play. High-rise schemes had come to represent modernity and ambition and here Birmingham’s civic traditions and powerful civic leaders – and other less savoury forces – would come to the fore.
Next week’s post will examine how these dynamics played out. It’s a hubristic tale of human pride and folly. Don’t miss it.
(1) AG Sheppard Fidler, ‘Post-War Housing in Birmingham’, The Town Planning Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 April 1955
(2) Quoted in Phil Ian Jones, ‘The Rise and Fall of The Multi-Storey Ideal: Public Sector High-Rise Housing in Britain 1945-2002, with Special Reference to Birmingham’, PhD thesis, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Birmingham, 2003. Other detail and analysis in this week’s post come from this excellent source.
(3) AG Shepherd Fidler quoted in Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (1994)
(4) Quoted in Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (1994)
(5) Patrick Dunleavy, The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain, 1945-1975. A Study of Corporate Power and Professional Influence in the Welfare State (1981)
The collection of 446 photographs of the late Phyllis Nicklin, a tutor in Geography at the University of Birmingham, has been made available under the Creative Commons licence.