Birmingham’s torrid love affair with high-rise was ending by the late sixties. The city built 464 high-rise blocks in the post-war period, the last of these on the Chelmsley Wood estate built between 1965 and 1972. But though the 35 blocks on the Estate can appear dominating, in fact 85 per cent of its 14,000 homes were low-rise houses and maisonettes. A critical turning-point had been reached.
That was more obvious in May 1986 when Grantham and Fleetwood Houses in Northfield became the first of the Council’s tower blocks to be demolished. By 2001 just 305 blocks remained in Council ownership; many had been rased, the Chelmsley Wood blocks transferred to Solihull. The demolition programme continues – another eight blocks were scheduled by the Council for clearance in 2011.
You could write a book on ‘the failure of high-rise’ and many have. This post will attempt a fresh and critical look at the arguments taking the experience of Birmingham as its guide.
Initially and surprisingly to some no doubt, it might be argued that high-rise blocks were a victim of their own success. Writing in 1974, Anthony Sutcliffe could claim that the city’s ‘overall housing shortage [was] virtually solved by the later 1960s’ – the ‘municipal flat had done its job of replacing the back-to-back house’. (1)
For the Birmingham Housing Department, this was a silver lining with a cloud. The difficulty it faced was that it gave those on the waiting list an element of choice – and they rarely chose high-rise. As far back as 1958, the City’s Housing Manager had admitted that 80 per cent of tenants preferred a house to a flat.
From the later 1960s, the completion of new estates at Chelmsley Wood, Frankley and Hawkesley provided a large amount of low-rise accommodation. As one housing officer recalls:
I remember the panic [in the Housing Department] when that happened. All of a sudden as those three estates came in there were whole swathes of empty dwellings that we struggled to get let and we did get them let, but it was a constant grind. The voids were always there.
In the earlier days of the rehousing programme, Birmingham’s housing managers had placed those prospective tenants judged least ‘respectable’ in council-owned slum housing awaiting redevelopment. Now more vulnerable tenants – precisely those whose needs pre-empted the choice that others were able to exercise – were placed in the unpopular tower blocks.
‘Residualisation’ had begun: a process by which council housing came increasingly to cater for troubled families. It was a process, moreover, which left the less favoured high-rise developments disproportionately affected by the social problems of both their residents and wider society.
Problems – and a powerful perception – of anti-social behaviour (most commonly on high-rise schemes) grew at around the same time. The Housing Committee grappled with the issues of ‘hooliganism’ and vandalism from early 1970s with little success. Arguably, its actions exacerbated the problem.
In the mid-seventies, the Council halted door-to-door rent collection and recruitment difficulties led a system of resident caretakers to be replaced by area teams. There are many council house tenants who blame this loss of contact and supervision for the rise of anti-social behaviour which coincided.
Of course, correlation does not mean causation but it’s telling how many later estate regeneration efforts have attempted precisely to replicate these lost systems of authority and surveillance through their use of concierges and CCTV. In Birmingham, the first CCTV systems on estates were introduced in 1984 and concierges from 1987.
Let’s turn to what many have seen as the more systemic problems of high-rise schemes.
We can begin, uncontroversially, by acknowledging a conceptual flaw in the ‘mixed development’ planning theory that did so much to license the growth of high-rise from the fifties and particularly so in Birmingham. Mixed development urged that councils build a range of housing forms – flats, maisonettes and houses – at a range of heights.
The intention was to fulfil a design aesthetic which overcame the monotony of traditional forms of working-class housing – both private terraced housing and council ‘cottage estates’ – but aimed, more significantly, to provide housing appropriate to a range of people and family units in different life stages. A good idea but one which could only work if council tenants were continually on the move as their life circumstances changed. This, of course, was neither feasible administratively nor desired by tenants who wished to remain in established homes.
This argument can be reduced to a more simple formulation (as it is by high-rise’s most vehement critics) that multi-storey schemes were unsuited to young families. That, of course, was where Birmingham started – its very first high-rise schemes were intended for single adults – but that founding principle was soon lost in the rush to rebuild and rehouse as high-rise construction took off.
The City has attempted to reverse this trend from 1970 (when families in flats with young children were given priority for transfer) but Right to Buy and the reduction of housing stock has made the full implementation of the policy increasingly difficult.
A ‘common sense’ view that high-rise housing is inappropriate for young children is hard to argue with and the counter-argument that families in Scotland and Continental Europe seem to cope well enough with flats is rather perhaps evidence of the cultural rootedness and intractability of this form of thinking in England – and of the futility of resistance to it.
Other conventional criticisms of high-rise – addressed, plaintively, by Glendinning and Muthesius in their important book on the topic – might be challenged, however. (3) For one, there is the largely unquestioned assumption that high-rise destroyed communities and, indeed, community itself. Carl Chinn’s observation is representative: (4)
Neighbourliness had to evolve; it was a gradual process based on daily contact, local knowledge and informal meetings. Living in flats made these day-to-day occurrences more difficult. They prevented the emergence of a true neighbourhood based on neighbours who were aware of each other. Residents felt isolated in their flats, cut off from their fellow tenants by a lack of unofficial meeting places. The street and its extensions had been the pivot of working-class life in Birmingham’s poorer neighbourhoods.
It’s a compelling case made by Birmingham’s foremost contemporary historian – and, of course, he takes care to record the squalor of the slums and improved living standards of post-war housing.
Still, we might be ready now to take a slightly more nuanced view. The Block Capital project in the neighbouring Black Country offers a more complicated tale of the successes and failures of high-rise and tells of the range of experiences – positive and negative – of those who lived in them. (5)
Other oral histories or just the informal stuff of Facebook reveal affection for some of the blocks and the existence of genuine community feeling. And estates up and down the country facing the threat of regeneration (as, sadly, it has become a threat in too many cases) also testify to the reality and resilience of community.
But then ‘community’ has generally deserved the scare quotes, not a neutral concept but an element in ideological struggle – variously used to condemn or defend the slum working-class and to ‘improve’ or lament the new working class of the council estates.
In this context, attitudes to high-rise itself should also be understood as ideological – initially as a deliberate Modernist and modernising manifestation of Welfare State reformism and progress and, latterly, as a target of generally conservative opposition to the same.
It’s hard not to see what became the most powerful attack on council housing in general and multi-storey council housing in particular – the defensible space thesis – in this context. It blamed both the nature of public housing – as neither literally or psychologically ‘owned’ – and the form of modern high-rise – its spaces encouraged and facilitated crime – for the rise of anti-social behaviour. It ignored any wider social or economic context and neglected to record similar problems occurring on a range of very different estates.
Alice Coleman, the British guru of ‘defensible space’ and Thatcher adviser, got to experiment in Birmingham in 1989 when her Design Improvement Controlled Experiment team renovated – it knocked down a tower block and some maisonette blocks and added a village green – the Nazareth Estate in Longbridge to some local bemusement. It wasn’t considered a ‘bad’ estate and the fact that the City Council was busy handing out ASBOs in 2005 suggests that something more than design might be responsible for youth offending. (6)
Finally, and on more objective ground, the final nail in the coffin of high-rise came dramatically with the collapse of Ronan Point in May 1968 and, more substantively over time, with the emergence of a range of structural problems and defects associated with system-building from the early 1970s.
Missing wall ties caused a large brick panel to fall from Geach Tower in Newtown in 1973; in 1974, 16 towers were found to contain High Alumina Cement vulnerable to decay. Continuing concerns led to ‘spidermen’ (or an abseiling survey team if you want to be prosaic) examining every remaining high-rise in 1985. It was concluded that ‘over 216 of the City’s stock of 426 multi-storey blocks’ [required] urgent action’.
The cost of renovation has been a further significant factor in the Council’s decision to demolish some blocks. Other blocks have been adapted, however, a process begun in 1979 when Brandwood and Cocksmoor Houses in King’s Heath were adapted as sheltered housing. On the Bromford Estate, seven blocks have been rased and two have been adapted to provide warden-serviced accommodation for the elderly. In the other five, according to a local youth worker: (7)
They’re a lovely mix of folk with mental health problems, drug addicts, alcoholism or all three; with single parents, young families, single people who might be divorced, generally unemployed; some asylum seekers.
We’ll let the tone stand – it’s clearly a difficult environment and it’s the difficulty we should acknowledge: the job that we ask social housing to do whilst at the same time denigrating it and many of our most vulnerable fellow-citizens.
At the national level, the turn from high-rise was marked by the ending of the high-rise subsidy in 1967, the White Paper ‘Old Houses into New Homes’ of the following year, and the 1969 Housing Act which prioritised reconditioning of older properties through its creation of General Improvement Areas and Housing Action Areas.
Never a place to do something by halves, Birmingham would now embrace this new rehabilitation drive: in 1972, the Council designated 62 General Improvement Areas, containing 68,000 homes, and 28 Housing Action Areas containing a further 15,000 homes.
For all the problems, the abiding impression given by Birmingham’s continually evolving housing programme is of its ambition and its idealism – sometimes misplaced, occasionally diverted but rooted in a belief in local government’s duty to decently house its people.
Birmingham City Council remains the UK’s largest social landlord with 65,000 homes – around 17 per cent of the city’s total. In 1977, the council house waiting list had fallen to 11,500. Today it stands at around 26,000. For that reason, two of the eight tower blocks scheduled for demolition in 2011 have been reprieved – against tenant opposition, it should be said. (8)
That is the rock and the hard place between which local government is caught and its plight will be made immeasurably more difficult by the policies of the new Conservative government. You can forgive some nostalgia for the buccaneering days of 1960s.
(1) Anthony Sutcliffe, ‘7. A Century of Flats in Birmingham, 1875-1973’ from Sutcliffe (ed) Multi-Storey Living: the British Working-Class Experience (1974)
(2) The statistic, the verse and the quotation which follows are included 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
(3) See chapters 30, 32 and 33 in Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (1994)
(4) Carl Chinn, Homes for the People. 100 Years of Council Housing in Birmingham (1991)
(5) See High-Rise in the Block Capital Project on-line and their publication, Living in the Sky: a History of High-Rise Council Flats in the Black Country (2015)
(6) Phil Ian Jones, ‘The Rise and Fall of The Multi-Storey Ideal’ on the redesign and ‘ASBO Threat to City Toddlers’, Birmingham Mail, 17 October 2005 on continuing anti-social behaviour.
(7) On the Bromford Estate, see Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? A New Future for the Cottage Estates (2014)
(8) Jane Tyler, ‘Fury as two Birmingham tower blocks set to be saved from bulldozer’, Birmingham Mail, 6 December 2013