Why can't we all live together?
Last week's Panorama on bbc1 revealed hardening attitudes towards anti-social tenants by local-authority landlords. Surprisingly, most of the case studies involved inter-war and post-war traditional housing estates - you know: brick construction, gardens, proper front doors and pitched roofs. A far cry from the blocks of flats so heavily criticised by Alice Coleman.
Entitled 'Nicking the Neighbours', the documentary showed a series of families who were first warned, and then evicted, because of neighbours' complaints - albeit that the tenants were not always themselves directly responsible for the circumstances leading to their evictions.
In one case, threatening behaviour towards neighbours by a single mother's boyfriend led to council action. In another, the serious misbehaviour of young children 'justified' the eviction of an entire family. A third tenant was filmed leaving prison following a custodial sentence for abusive behaviour imposed through a council's civil law action (where the onus of proof is less, and conviction easier). Met by his innocent wife, the 'ex-convict' learned that they had also been evicted from their home.
We have of course long operated in the belief that people have a right to homes (surely the mark of a civilised society), just as they have a right to jobs. Such socially responsible attitudes were born of the work of Victorian philanthropists responding to the appalling overcrowded and unhealthy conditions suffered by the poor and, in particular, their children. In consequence the twentieth century saw major developments in social housing: 'homes for heroes' in the period immediately after the First World War, followed after the Second World War by more ambitious projects, which, of course, included a large proportion of medium- and high-rise developments.
When serious problems began to emerge with such stock (albeit mainly evident in municipal flats and their common areas), it was increasingly the architecture that took the rap. In some ways this was right, as a combination of poor design and poor construction had produced multiple conditions of failure. But I have always thought that outright condemnation of these schemes and the consequent shift to owner-occupation and 'traditional' housing forms was far too simplistic a response. Complex inter-relationships of allocation, economics, management, maintenance, design and tenure need careful consideration as each, in varying proportions, can contribute to any particular project's failure. The consequent problems that materialise in terms of public perception of a given 'housing' type, or anti-social behaviour, raise serious questions which architects, along with the other professionals and agencies involved in housing, should consider.
Sadly, in an age where collectivism and community are out and privatisation and individualism are in, there is still too little attention being given to researching and understanding the root causes of housing problems - particularly on the large municipal estates and within the inner cities.
At one level the new approach shown on the Panorama programme, whereby responsible and appropriate standards of behaviour are in effect demanded by the council as landlord, seems to be justified and long overdue. Why should decent tenants' lives be ruined by irresponsible neighbours? But sadly, evictions merely shift the problems elsewhere: for some that may be good news but as a society we have to face a bigger problem: people must be taught and even conditioned to live together - or is that going too far?