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WRECKING BALL

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

I guess Robert Mugabe has taken things to extremes but it would be easy to forget that knocking down buildings owned by people with whom you disagree has long been a staple of unpleasant, but authoritative, governments across the world. From the demolition of illegal settlements in South Africa in the 1970s, to Thatcher smashing gypsy and traveller encampments in the '80s, it has all been part of the rich tapestry of authoritarian rule.

But things have changed dramatically in recent years and, interestingly, those First World regimes that have subsequently found themselves part of the post-Cold War consensus now seem to be confused by the old rules. Israel, admittedly, is still trying to tear down its settlements - but this time its own - as a means of looking fair-minded. No place for extremism there. Indeed, its demolition strategy has taken on the mantle of a righteous act according to commentators across the world. Whereas, in the past, Ariel Sharon might have vigorously defended the rights of fervent nationalists to remain anywhere they damn well pleased, today that all seems a little bit too illiberal, even for Zionists. The wrecking ball is a great leveller.

Similarly, the UN habitat policy on this subject is purely pragmatic. Whereas, in the past, shanty towns - in even the most loyal Commonwealth countries - would be regularly destroyed and the poor turfed out, things changed in the '90s, when offending governments were advised to leave the houses in place and provide the squatters with basic electricity so they would become so grateful that relations between these poor and the state would stabilise.

Whatever the reasons for the other countries' shifting attitudes to the dispossessed, it is undoubtedly true that unreconstructed colonial outposts like Zimbabwe look increasingly old hat. Play up, and play the game, old boy.

However, a consequence of the alleged liberalisation of attitudes to Romany encampments, 'illegal' traveller settlements, squatters, and the like, has resulted in the UK government not really knowing what its position is. Inevitably, it advocates judicial enquiries and public consultations but, even in Britain, the government is slightly uncertain about what the right course of action is in any given circumstance.

So when John Prescott advocates razing large areas of terraced housing to the ground - a perfectly sensible precursor to major development - all hell breaks loose. Compare this with Chinese proposals to build 20 cities a year for 20 years. Here, the hasty masterplans for full-scale societal transformation are not being met with the equivalent British demands for restraint The economic and social dynamic of the Asian tigers means people see change as a positive transformation. In China, there is a sense that conservation of old buildings and old ways is not a high priority. Demolition is no more problematic than chucking out the chintz. In the UK, in the post-war period, there was a similar mood that accepted the demolition of old terraces because it was seen as a worthwhile condition of modernisation.

Today, the last bastion of uncontentious demolition in this country is the destruction of houses occupied by evil forces. From Ian Huntley to Fred West and others, their houses have been demolished, and, in the case of Huntley's, the dust taken away to secret locations to be buried. More 'annex of evil' than 'axis of evil'. Such is the turnaround in world affairs that British demolition projects are now akin to dabbling in the occult.

As Jane Jacobs says, there is a Dark Age Ahead.

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