The Guardian article linked below and published last year, by Harry Phibbs, is in my opinion, ill informed and inflammatory rubbish. However I have chosen to select quotes from it and comment on them along with selected comments that followed the publication of the article, owing to the light they shed on the present public housing situation and the extent to which the Conservative policies have been responsible for it, and not in a good way.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jul/11/tower-block-vertical-slums

What follows are selected sentences from the article linked below followed by my own observations in italics.

. . . . . Trellick Tower, the 31-storey blot on the landscape of North Kensington, is a Grade II listed building. Its architect was Ernö Goldfinger. Keeling House in Tower Hamlets is hideous. Also listed. Of course some people choose to live in tower blocks. When I once tried to visit someone in the concrete jungle at the Barbican I went into a sort of panic that I would never escape. It is privately owned, not a council estate. Also listed for its outstanding brutalism. How much brutalism do we need to preserve?

Trellick Tower is full, and flats in demand.  It went through a long period of decline when no concierge was installed and no 24hr security.  Since then it’s been fine.  Keeling House was a modernist attempt at “streets in the sky” within a single tower block.  It is now private flats and out of public hands.  Clearly people are prepared to pay good money to live there.

. . . . .  Few politicians of any hew defend tower blocks these days, but Goldfinger’s ideology was far from being a mere coincidence. The tower blocks are monuments of socialist architecture. Vertical slums replaced horizontal slums. This instinct for centrally planned, standardised, uniform housing was key to egalitarian dogma. Variety and choice were to be banished. Sentimental bourgeois notions of homes would give way to the brave new world of housing units. Some even nicknamed tower blocks commieblocks.

What complete and utter rubbish. The difference between successful private tower blocks such as those on the Barbican estate and those on council estates is that the latter have suffered from middle class flight and residualisation owing to the policies of successive governments intent on removing public sector provision of housing altogether by encouraging those who could afford to, to get out, with little regard for the dispossessed,  those left behind.

If tower blocks are “monuments of socialist architecture” then what are all these multi-shaped phallic objects springing up all over London then?  They are, I would suggest, monuments to capitalist greed, at the least the “monuments of socialist architecture” house people, a need severely unfulfilled in the city at present, and getting worse.

Vertical slums did not replace horizontal slums, quite the reverse, they included internal sanitation, central heating and hot and cold running water, a vast improvement on the circumstances of those from the slums.  “This instinct for centrally planned, standardised, uniform housing” housed a lot of people something neither the Conservatives nor the present Coalition seem remotely interested in, indeed they are going out of their way to eject council tenants from their homes all over London with regeneration (social cleansing) schemes.

While this may be an ideological issue, it is not a party political one. Tory councils were among those who put up the tower blocks. Labour councils from London to Glasgow are among those knocking them down. In Birmingham a Labour MP is joining tenants to lobby the Conservative-led council to do more demolition. The cost of blowing up a tower block is high – even though they can recoup costs by selling tickets or raffling the chance to push the detonator. But the costs of trying to cope with structural faults are often higher. Redeveloping the estates with mixed tenure can be financially viable.

Redeveloping estates with mixed tenure means displacing the majority of the residents to make way for wealthier private owners.  This is social cleansing and is not being reciprocated by building homes for council tenants in wealthier boroughs. It may be “financially viable” or indeed financially beneficial for the council but it is social cleansing nevertheless.

I suppose socialist disillusionment with the tower blocks has grown as the evidence has become too stark to ignore. Professor Alice Coleman’s 1985 study, Utopia on Trial, offered definitive academic confirmation of what the millions who have lived in tower blocks already knew: their design is ideal for criminals.

No. Some elements of the design of the estates on which tower blocks stand is “ideal for criminals” but as Alice Coleman, funded incidentally by Margaret Thatcher, proved, those elements can be and were removed to the benefit of the tenants.

I envisage a Labour MP turning up at a tower block to canvass for votes. They would see the filth and smell the stench in the lift up to the top floor. Then they would knock on doors and find the most pressing concern of tenants was to move out and bring up their children somewhere else. The Labour MP would go home to his pleasant terraced house with some nagging doubts as to whether the tower blocks were working out as the New Jerusalem that had been envisaged.

It has been widely recognised since the 1980s if not the 1970s that tower blocks need a concierge and constant maintenance and where this has been done (Trellick and Pepys Estate to name but two examples) there are fewer problems of this kind.  I think it is making one hell of an assumption that all Labour MPs live in  a “pleasant terraced house”.

For a Tory politician to use the phrase the “New Jerusalem” in an article of this kind is sheer hypocrisy because until 1979 both Labour and Conservative policies were intent on both building and maintaining council housing as an asset for the nation and indeed as a continuation of the policies of the post war Governments.

I believe in free will. Individuals are responsible for their actions. But I am not surprised that the crime rate – and the suicide rate – should be higher for those sent to live in tower blocks.

This is again a fatuous and ignorant comment from a member of a political party that pursued Right to buy with a vengeance leading to the residualisation of the public sector housing.  Is it any wonder that the unemployed and single mothers now isolated and alone in tower blocks would consider the routes you outline above where 30 years ago they would have been few in number scattered among a much wider range of both working and non-working neighbours?  RTB and the lack of new build destroyed that balance.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jul/11/tower-block-vertical-slums


Selected comments that follow the article in question:-

gettingnervous11 July 2009 11:18AM

Harry, whilst i don’t doubt most tower blocks are piss stinking hell holes, its not the inherent design that leads to this. Its the lack of care by the council, the lack of maintenance, the lack of love. I don’t really see any difference in the utilitarian boxes that subdivide a high rise compared with the utilitarian new terrace houses built with a 12ft square back garden, no space , no care, no love.
I doubt i will ever be able to afford my own home, but if i can i will purchase a Victorian or Edwardian house, high ceilings, solid construction built to last.
This is not as you describe it an issue of communist house building, merely the idea that a home is a commodity and for those who build them the bottom line is the ultimate concern. It would appear poor housing is actually a capitalist issue.


sparerib11 July 2009 11:24AM

Kentiwari

I wonder why you have to drag Socialism in to every misfortune ever
happen to us in any way?

Do you really understand the meaning of Socialism ?

I agree. The Conservative approach to housing was to sell off all the best properties at a discount and then penalise local authorities who tried to provide decent accommodation for those who couldn’t afford to buy.


matts2511 July 2009 11:27AM

I am red faced and offended after reading this article. It’s very easy to rant about and sneer at council housing if you can afford to buy your own home or live somewhere nice. Unfortunately, many people, most of whom are also hard working and honest, don’t fall into this category. Private rented accommodation in the UK is expensive and often poor quality and landlords frequently abuse their tenants’ rights. Where are the poor and the exploited supposed to go and live? In trailer parks like they do in the USA, or crammed into a single bedsit like they did in the 1930s, and many do today? Council housing needn’t be poor quality, and tower blocks needn’t be bad places to live, but like any public service they require continual investment, maintenance, expansion and upgrades. This has been completely lacking for a good 30 years in the UK.


sinisterfootwear11 July 2009 11:31AM

Whereas the dreadful disease ridden slums they replaced were a tribute to the inhumanity of 19th free market capitalism. Vote Conservative, Forward To The Past.


13thDukeofWybourne

11 Jul 2009, 11:37AM

Harry,

I absolutely urge you to watch the seminal documentary ‘Housing Problems’ from 1935.

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/513807/

It would even make a Tory weep with the evocation of the squalor of East London in the 1930’s. This was repeated all over Britain, especially in my home city of Glasgow.

The tower blocks you so haughtily dismiss were a genuine attempt by a post war Government to deal quickly with a horrendous problem ignored by successive Governments, more often Conservative than Labour.

You disingenuously state this was not a ‘party political’ issue and then criticise ‘socialist planning’. Yes the Tower Blocks had and have their problems but what was the other options for the post war Government? To build mock tudor hamlets with a cricket green, village church and local conservative club?

It’s extremely easy to criticise in hindsight, but the sheer scale of the problem and the heroic attempt by Attlee’s government to try and lift many people out of squalor and housing problems seems now to be fair game for more right wing historical revisionism.


LaRitournelle11 July 2009 11:51AM

HarryPhibbs:

Wow, how twisted is this? Trying to turn tower blocks into some kind of scourge of Socialist ideals? Honestly, you apparently know nothing. This article is so full uninformed contradictions and rubbish, I really don’t know where to start!!!

Let me take one example. Keeling House is technically called a ‘Cluster Block’ and was designed by Denis Lasdun and built in 1947 in Bethnal Green. It was a response to the post-war destruction of the East End and prior to it’s original council residents being turfed out (of whom two of my neighbours were) and being sold for a song by Tower Hamlets council as it had concrete cancer and was too expensive for the council to fix. It was then turned into fancy, desirable apartments by a developer. Many of the previous residents talked with great affection about living there as it was built with people in mind and for many of them, it was a wonderful place to live. I also knew some of the people who subsequently were affluent enough to buy an apartment there and because the developer had ripped out the centralised heating system to enable them to add a couple of pernicious penthouses on the top, the flats were extremely cold and draughty.

What your article also fails to grasp is that, with a few exceptions like Lasdun, most tower blocks of the 50’s and 60’s were cheaply and shoddily built mass housing solutions to pen in poor people and because we have hugely inequitable distribution of land in this country, with 50% of England and Wales STILL unregistered and untaxed, these death-traps are , I hasn’t to add the direct result of Capitalism. It doesn’t give a shit. So people like those who tragically lost their lives in Camberwell will continue to die.

By the way Harry, do you think the Queen really needs all those Palaces? Or that Princess Beatrice should be the recipient of £300,000 of taxpayers money to ‘refurbish’ her ‘student digs’ at Clarence House?

Harry, you really need to stop insulting our intelligence.

La Rit


bernardcrofton11 July 2009 12:04PM

It is worrying that someone holding those offices should be either so ignorant of history or mendacious, and that the Guardian should publish it.

Lets start with the Harold MacMillan government: deciding it had to do something about the prolonged post-war housing deficit, it cut housing standards and went for cheap and nasty for council tenants. Goldfinger’s block was built by (Kensington &) Chelsea Council – never anything but conservative controlled. It had another agenda – confine nasty labour-voting council tenets to small areas – building high to acheive it. There were long local (Labour ) campaigns against that development.

By the late 60’s Conservatives had taken control of Hammersmith & Fulham Council (as in 28 other London Boroughs). The outgoing Labour council had bought many small terraced houses to rent to their waiting lists (priced out of the local rented market by gentrification and Rachmanism. The Conservatives sold them off along with development land for additional housing, and made existing council flats the only choice for ordinary working locals.

The one conservative exception was Lambeth, where the new council actually doubled the housebuilding programme, convinced of the pressure and the misery of housing conditions for the working population. John Major became Chairman of Housing. However it went heavily for “systems building” to achieve the programme and even planned 50-storey flats in central Brixton. These were subsequently cancelled by the next Labour administration (Ken Livingstone and Tony Banks to the forefront of that decision).

My own history involved trying to construct a report to abandon tower block development in the green fields round Stevenage new town as a result of experience in trying to get people to move into the first of these. I successfully argued in the GLC for the first demolition of a British tower block, and later for the redevelopment of that Trowbridge estate (Hackney) by low rise housing designed to the demands of the local residents and owned by them as a co-operative. When I studied Political Science at university co-ops were monuments to socialism as well as falling within the Labour Party’s Clause 4 (“popular” ownership and control meaning “by the people”). But perhaps socialism has changed its meaning, just as no-one thinks council housing is “popular” any more and blame those who tried to give people decent housing rather than those who created or encouraged the shortage.


Ebert11 July 2009 12:40PM

bernardcrofton

It is worrying that someone holding those offices should be either so ignorant of history or mendacious, and that the Guardian should publish it.
Give bernardcrofton more space on CiF – this post says more in such a small space than most commissioned pieces.


11 July 2009 12:42PM

T hese blocks are a monument to capitalism. Built by private contractors who successfully maximised the profit by working to the lowest standards they could, and cutting corners. Municipal corruption played a strong supporting role, how do you think a huge block with only one staircase could get past the fire regulators?

13thDukeofWybourne you make a stout, but irrelevent defence of the post war Atlee government. Tower blocks formed no part of their plans. The decision to lower standards, and thus speed up construction, was taken by the Conservatives a few years later. Mr Phibbs may, for all I know, regard Mr Harold Macmillan, the first post-war Conservative housing minister, as a deep dyed Bolshevik. I tend to regard him as a man doing his best in a truly desperate situation, let down by greedy builders and corrupt councillors.

Peeping Tom, I must go out and tell all the British born white tenants of private landlords in my home town that they must make way for (locally non-existant) immigrants.


RapidEddie11 July 2009 12:52PM

We’d re-house them all in council houses Harry, only your lot sold them off.

But I’m sure the boys have huge plans for new social housing as soon as Dave gets his feet under the desk at number 10.

Despite a 10% cut across the board, billions to be spent on new social housing. Right, Harry?


NottingHillNonsense11 July 2009 1:32PM

Dear Harry,

No doubt some tower blocks are hell to live in but Trellick Tower, the very top of which I can see from my kitchen window as I write this, is a poor, even a lazy, example.

True, when I first moved to this area in 1982, it had a terrible reputation. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea found it so hard to let empty flats that any three single people could get together, show up at the housing department, and be given a tenancy to a three-bedroom flat more or less on the spot. With hindsight, I wish I’d done that.

Then a campaign by residents forced the council to introduce a 24-hour concierge. Things changed radically for the better overnight. I know plenty of people who love living there, including a family who raised three children on the top (31st) floor.

So management is the key, and bad management is freely offered by local authorities of every political stripe.

On the Goldfinger-Bond link, Ian Fleming chose the name Goldfinger, not because he was a communist, but because Goldfinger demolished three 17th century cottages to build his modernist home, now a National Trust property, in Hampstead. Fleming, also a Hampstead resident, had led the unsuccessful campaign to stop him and took revenge by using his name.

And surely it’s ‘few politicians of any hue’ rather than hew.

best wishes – NHN


therealsalparadise12 July 2009 3:55AM

Why does Harry Phibbs (a particularly apt surname) think that 60’s tower blocks are socialist?
They were built because the country NEEDED housing after the war and it needed it fast.
Neither the architecture nor the quality of material have stood the test of time very well. But what must be remembered is, at the time, they were at the cutting edge of a high-density social housing solution.
Nowadays we have the very same style of future slums springing up everywhere as ‘desirable waterfront properties’. Likewise, the low-rise estates are entirely without design inspiration. A bizarre marriage of farmhouse and factory.
Because they are privately owned, does not make them any easier on the eye. Furthermore, the quality of construction does not reach the level of their aspirations of permanence.

I have no doubt in my mind, that 40yrs down the line, they too will be ripe for demolition.


HarryPhibbs12 July 2009 7:27AM

Many thanks for all the further comments. I thought Bernard Crofton’s comment about the history of tower blocks in London was very interesting as were the comments from many of you about tower blocks abroad.

. . . . .

But it is a matter of record that socilalist [sic] egalitarianism was a motivation for many of the planners, achitects and politicians who put up tower blocks.

Yes, they were attempting to build The New Jerusalem.  Where’s yours?  Demolishing the perfectly good flats of council tenants in H&F, building flats for sale in their place and displacing the existing residents who will not be able to afford the newly built flats?

Of course my example could have been a Tory MP canvassing in a tower block. I chose a Labour MP simply because they were more likely to have believed tower blocks were a good idea at the time they went up.

No, because you couldn’t get a Tory MP inside one, they know it’s not their territory and would be unlikely to contain any Tory voters.

I take the point that it is about tenure as well as architecture and that some people live in tower blocks (including private tower blocks) out of choice. My concern is to liberate the many tenants I have spoken to who live in tower blocks but wish to live elsewhere.

What an interesting use of the word liberate.  Here we go again, f*ck off, you’re poor.

So far as doubts about the affordability is concerned it is already becoming a reality. The redevelopment of the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich, Woodberry Down in Hackney and West Hendon in Barnet is already underway.

Ferrier’s going well.  The council are taking people to court to gain possession of their homes in order to force the residents into poorer quality substitute homes.  Is that what you’re planning for the residents of H&F?

So far as Hammersmith and Fulham Council is concerned the council leader Stephen Greenhalgh has said: “We have issued a cast-iron guarantee that where long-term estate renewal opportunities arise all council tenants will be offered a home in the area and there will be no reduction in the amount of social housing.”
The point is to change the nature of social housing – more shared ownership, fewer tower blocks.

Let me guess, poor quality single aspect living/dining/kitchen flats with internal bathrooms and kitchens, few windows and no choice about moving there, whilst on the land from which those people were displaced will rise multi-aspect expensive private flats?  Prove me wrong.


LaRitournelle12 July 2009 9:18AM

HarryP:

As others have pointed out and as I frequently argued during the Mayoral elections – the plan to deal with the housing crisis in London is not to provide decent homes for all but to implement a full-scale Dame Shirley Porter exercise on the poor and ethnically cleanse them from the path of the rich and their Labour crosses from the ballot papers of the not-too-distant future.

Funny how big business, banks and the City favours huge, over-bearing, multi-story monoliths to their stolen fortunes – I wonder if you have a problem with those ‘monuments to Socialism’??

La Rit


therealsalparadise12 July 2009 1:07PM

@SteveJones123

Harry’s council is trying to expel the poor from the borough by demolishing the White City Estate and replacing it with private middle class housing.

This, and only this, is what the passage is about.

@Harry Phibbs

My concern is to liberate the many tenants I have spoken to who live in tower blocks but wish to live elsewhere.

Seems you are correct Steve. The giveaway in Phibbs quote is the word ‘liberate’.

Liberate the tenants to where exactly??


The last comment

bismark00413 July 2009 9:03PM

The Barbican’s a brilliant building.
Tower blocks work perfectly well in mainland Europe, especially Holland, which is even more densely populated than the UK.
The Dutch simply know how to embrace and inhabit their lack of space.
The British don’t.
In the UK, it’s all about ownership. In Europe most properties are rented.
In the UK it’s all about individual responsibility, in Europe it is collective.


Harry Phibbs is a Conservative councillor for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and writes this Tory blog http://conservativehome.blogs.com/centreright/harry-phibbs.html

2 Responses to “Destroy these vertical slums – Phibbs”

  1. inks Says:

    A friend of mine squatted Goldfinger’s empty penthouse suite at the top of Trellick Tower when it was virtually abandoned. He was there during the 1987 Michael Fish hurricane, apparently it blew around a lot. Other than that he liked it.

    I’ve lived in a piss-stinking tower block in Hackney. No concierge, no security, every tenant had fitted a steel door to stop break-ins. Top place to live, fantastic views, I never had any hassle.

    The Barbican is a nightmare. I worked as a courier so knew my way around everywhere but I could never figure that place out. Grim layout and feel.

    The same ‘socialists’ who built some really horrible tower blocks also built some of the best large scale housing developments in the UK’s history. The tower block architects were in thrall to seriously wrong modernist principles is all.

  2. Single Aspect Says:

    I like both Trellick and Balfron though would rather live in Trellick because the view from Balfron is now dominated by the Canary Wharf towers which I don’t care for. Trellick has better views and frankly a better location.
    I don’t envy you your Hackney flat, I’ve not had to endure that standard of living.
    The Barbican towers are fine. I used to visit them in my domestic appliance servicing days to fix dishwashers, and still like them, I would happily live in a Barbican flat but can’t afford to.
    Last paragraph I entirely agree. Councils seduced by the promises of system building companies as a fast solution to their housing targets. I’m not quite sure which are these exemplary estates to which you refer, most are being redeveloped these days but if you happen to be referring to Sydney Cook’s Camden then I’d tend to agree with you.

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