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High rise, low quality: how we ended up with deathtraps like Grenfell

Grenfell tower
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A vast number of UK housing tower blocks arose from often ignoble motives and shaky logic, writes LSE professor Patrick Dunleavy

Between 1945 and 1975, the UK built 440,000 high-rise flats for public housing tenants, at an extra cost per flat of around 40 per cent, as the core high-density estates. Grenfell Tower was completed in 1974 at the very end of a sustained mass housing boom which cleared tens of thousands of terraced houses in streets across every major city, and replaced them with a new landscape, often alien to the people who were compulsorily rehoused there.

Five main factors produced a heavy overuse of high rise. First, a Conservative government in 1956 was anxious to protect its suburban councils from demands for overspill council housing by encouraging Labour inner cities to speed up slum clearance and rehousing in situ. They introduced a progressive storey height subsidy, which increased for every extra storey in the height of a flat block. At 24 floors, Grenfell Tower represented a sustained attempt to ‘milk’ the subsidy.

Second, the largest UK construction firms heavily backed high rise as a protected market where small builders could not compete. The Whitehall department (MHLG) was anxious to foster industrial concentration into fewer firms as a way of speeding up lagging housing production. In the early and mid 1960s a huge promotional effort was also put into promoting ‘industrialised’ building, for which high-rise blocks were the most suitable form.

By the mid-1960s industrialised high-rise boom, many different untried construction methods were used

Third, architects and planners were heavily influenced by Corbusian dreams of ‘towers in a park’. Council architects were desperate to demonstrate their proficiency at something more glamorous than terraced housing. And planners were intoxicated by replacing ‘overcrowded’, mixed-use streets with segregated uses and a coarse-grained, ordered bureaucratic landscape.

A fourth key influence was that slum clearance processes themselves created enormous housing stress. They typically took thousands of ‘bedspace years’ out of circulation through blight and demolitions enacted years before replacement housing was completed. For inner urban councils this created intense pressures to cram the maximum numbers of people into the very next redevelopment. For many years, ministers, councillors and planners also reiterated the myth that high rise was essential for densification – but in fact the net gains made were small.

Glasgow's Red Road Flats

Glasgow’s Red Road Flats

Source: John Lord

Glasgow’s Red Road Flats

The fifth and final condition creating high-rise mass housing was the powerlessness of council tenants and ‘slum area’ residents to resist. People might wait for 10 to 15 years in a blighted neighbourhood, or working their way up a long council waiting list, before being made an offer of rehousing in the next block or estate to be finished. They typically got one offer, and if they refused would be threatened with going to the bottom of the waiting list.

This power asymmetry also explains why the safety standards of high rises were progressively degraded. In the 1950s most ‘slab’ blocks had two staircases at each end, used brick external walls, and were weatherproof. And families with children were housed in low rise. By the mid-1960s industrialised high-rise boom, many different untried construction methods were used to slam up blocks around a single tower crane, with one staircase, poor weatherproofing, ill-fitting internal doors, high heating costs and tiny lifts that could not take furniture or even coffins. Children were increasingly marooned in higher storey flats.

The high-rise boom collapsed over 10 years from 1967 when the progressive storey height subsidy became too expensive to maintain. It was cut back by Whitehall (producing a short-lived boom in medium-rise flats instead). Industrialised high rise was discredited in 1968 when a progressive collapse killed six people at Ronan Point in Newham, following a small gas explosion. Schemes still in process continued for another few years. Governments of both parties in the late 1970s and 80s pledged to remove children from high rise, but this proved evanescent, as social housing cutbacks deepened.

‘Mass-housing’ has continued to evolve with minimal maintenance on the cheap

In the last two decades many of the worst high-rise public housing developments – such as Glasgow’s 31-storey Red Road flats – have been blown up or otherwise demolished. But ‘mass housing’ has continued to evolve in the remainder, with chronic weather penetration issues, minimal maintenance on the cheap, and a recramming of families and highly dependent or newly arrived people into the worst blocks.

Just as in the 1960s and 70s the Grenfell Tower disaster has also already exposed appalling lapses of fire safety regulations, with new cladding materials and systems used as quick fixes for the high energy costs and poor external appearance of the tower blocks. New technologies have been widely applied by architects and engineers apparently blind to their limits and vulnerabilities, with perhaps 600 out of 4,000 tower blocks having the same cladding as Grenfell Tower. Cost-minimising social government departments and social-housing providers again ignored safety experts’ warnings and tenants’ views to screw down refurbishment costs so as to fit within austerity budgets. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Patrick Dunleavy is professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics and author of The Politics of Mass Housing in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1981). You can download an open access version here

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