Catherine Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams and Stark Realities (Bloomsbury, 2018)
I looked at post-Second World War planning in my book, Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing, mainly in the context of housing in which much was achieved. But there was another side to that idealism which lay in the ambition to rebuild and redesign the centres of Britain’s blitzed cities. There, as Catherine Flinn painstakingly describes in her important new book, the picture is far less positive.
The worst phase of German bombing in 1940 and 1941 was reckoned to have destroyed 75,000 shops, 42,000 commercial premises and 25,000 factories. By the end of the war the total cost of destruction was estimated at £1,150m. And the practical, and what some saw as the moral, commitment to rebuild the worst-affected towns and cities in particular began early – as early as 1940 when a Cabinet committee on reconstruction was established.
In December 1940, Sir John Reith, then Minister of Works and Buildings, presented a paper on the ‘Reconstruction of Town and Country’ to Cabinet. His memo referred to the public attention already directed to the issue:
not just because of opportunities in restoration of damaged property but in the hope of a fresh start in a new spirit of cooperation and with the high objective of a better Britain.
Flinn expertly charts the complex iterations of committees and ministries and legislation that followed but, throughout, the expectation remained that the blitzed cities would receive priority in the post-war era and that their reconstruction would indeed foreshadow and exemplify the new and better Britain to emerge.
Reith’s language was measured when compared to the extravagant heights reached by Thomas Sharp, one of the foremost planners of the day, quoted by Flinn. In ‘Building Britain: 1941’ (which he billed as ‘Words for Pictures Perhaps A Film Script’ and not published – in the Town Planning Review – till 1952), Sharp proclaimed:
There is so much now to plan for, to prepare for,
A whole shining world is possible.
Is there for the asking if we choose to make it:
Is ours if we will.
We are the shapers of our environment.
We are the makes of our own destiny.
We are the creators of our own happiness.
If truly we desire it we can build
A new and noble world for generous living…
If that was a rhetorical outlier, it was only partly so. When We Build Again, a film commissioned by the Cadburys in Birmingham in 1943 and scripted by Dylan Thomas, declared ‘Nothing is too good for the people’. And it’s interesting to note that in Britain, a country so often mired in tradition, that such plans were uniformly, in Flinn’s words, ‘modern, optimistic and forward-looking’ – an interesting contrast to Germany and Poland, say, where reconstruction often meant restoration.
This range of promises of post-war betterment in a variety of forms and media is outlined in Flinn’s second chapter. It’s hard to disagree with William Holford, another planner and architect, quoted later in the book, that ‘it is true that not only the planners but the Government itself had promised, if not a new heaven, at least a new earth at the end of the war’.
So, if you’re looking at the contemporary British city, you are probably wondering what became of this brave new world. With the significant exceptions of Plymouth (which I’ve written about in previous blog posts) and Coventry, the transformative impact of post-war reconstruction was paltry and often lamented. The rest of the book explains why.
The simple and established answer is that post-war priorities rapidly shifted from physical to economic reconstruction. The great value of the book is not only to detail the processes by which this occurred but to delineate the myriad other obstacles to post-war rebuilding that facilitated this shift.
Taking that economic focus first, the little-known Investment Programmes Committee established by the Attlee government in 1947 takes centre-stage and, in particular and almost the villain of the piece, its chair, the civil servant FF Turnbull. Turnbull repeatedly vetoed the building licence allocations that city centre reconstruction required; his widely-accepted rationale (in Flinn’s words) was that:
Resources going to the blitzed cities would necessarily draw on precious needs for industry and other business relating to exports and economic recovery.
Flinn also notes how a governmental ‘insistence on the maintenance of Britain’s world role’ and a ‘tendency to focus on global status diminished some of the discussions on the domestic agenda’.
On the ground, the ‘overwhelming complexity in preparing and implementing reconstruction in the blitzed cities’ is amply illustrated by her three representative case studies of Hull, Exeter and Liverpool. Both Hull and Exeter had commissioned grand plans for post-war rebuilding, from Sir Patrick Abercrombie and Thomas Sharp respectively. Liverpool, by contrast, pursued a more in-house process in closer collaboration with interested parties.
For all the differences between the three cities (in terms of history, local economy and political control), common themes stand out. The first and most crucial is the lack of central government support already noted, reflected not only in the issue of allocations (or lack of them) but in the sometimes obstructive, often critical attitude of Ministry officials who believed they knew better than councillors and planners on the ground.
Beyond that, issues of existing property ownership and the competing financial interests they represented were uppermost. In Hull, for example, the Council’s vision was challenged by a rival plan put forward by the city’s Chamber of Trade in 1947. In the end, Flinn concludes ‘the Abercrombie plans were not only controversial but, in practical terms, impossible to implement’. Her forensic examination of the complex conditions operating in all three cities not only explains why so little was achieved but leaves you a little surprised that anything was built at all.
The final irony is that such reconstruction as did occur was often critically received. D Rigby Childs, the editor of the Architects’ Journal, writing in 1954, thought that:
With the new permanent buildings one gets the impression that only too frequently the architects have been overwhelmed with frustrations of all kinds, allied with problems of finance, leading to a building which is, at best, humdrum and lifeless.
Rebuilding in Exeter, an historic city and victim of the Baedeker raids in April-May 1942, was described as ‘insipid’ and criticised by local residents.
For all the subsequent disparagement of post-war rebuilding, it was decidedly not, in John Gold’s words, ‘the product of imposing utopia visions’. While council officials were able to some extent influence the overall look of new developments, practical issues around finance and rationing played a greater role in what went up. It’s true, however, that the sparse, clean lines of modernist design also sat somewhat uncomfortably with popular taste.
Flinn sets out, in a broader sense, to examine ‘why cities look the way they do’. A large part of the answer in this instance, as explained in a later chapter which raises interesting questions for further research, lies in the role of private property developers. Here Ravenseft stands out; a company which began by building a small terrace of shops on a Bristol council estate and then expanded to develop large city centre schemes in Exeter, Hull and other blitzed cities. The firm was initially backed by Harold Samuel of the Land Securities Trust and acquired by that company in 1955. Landsec in its new incarnation is now the largest commercial property development and investment company in the UK.
The lack of financial support from government and the pressing need to replace rates income lost to wartime destruction left local authorities dependent on such economic muscle. The developers themselves, of course, were more interested in lettable space than aesthetics.
Flinn’s close empirical study provides much more detail, not only with regard to central government policy but also in relation to the local personalities, politics and issues in her three case studies. It is complemented by a range of relevant images – of plans, proposals as well as pre-existing and completed realities. As such, it is essential reading to anyone interested in post-war reconstruction as well as that larger question as to why our ‘cities look the way they do’.
It’s an academic book and scholars in the field will be grateful for its apparatus of data and references. That means, of course, that it comes at an academic price and is probably out of reach to the general reader. But it repays study at your local library – or perhaps we can persuade the publishers to issue a cheaper edition for a wider readership.
Catherine Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams and Stark Realities was published by Bloomsbury on 27 December 2018. (Hardback, ISBN – 9781350067622). Follow the link for further information.