UPDATE: Watch it on YouTube -> New Jerusalem

“And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” – Revelation 21:2 – King James Bible

This fifty minute documentary covering the period from the end of the Second World War in 1945 until the arrival of Thatcherism in 1979 provides a comprehensive look at both the motives and the actions of the major players in the field of slum clearance and post war reconstruction with a particular emphasis on Birmingham and its problems.

Title shot – click above for larger image – original VHS

So begins this wonderful evocation of the feelings at the time that here was a new world to build.

Of the three documentaries so far reviewed this is easily the most mature and considered. It covers the subject in great depth and with considerable thought. The other two, High Rise Dreams and Homes for Heroes, are true to the subject but more superficial in their treatment of the issues involved, in my view. “The New Jerusalem” puts its heart and soul into the subject, so to speak.

There is inevitably perhaps a degree of overlap in the clips used, there are only so many pieces of film available of the estates in question.

Production Company –  Barraclough Carey Productions
Commissioning Company – BBC TV
Producer – ROOKE, Denman
Series Producer – DOGANIS, Sally
Narrator – LINDSAY, Robert

The film starts with the result of the 1945 general election and the Labour victory led by Clement Attlee.  The film goes on to show the living conditions of the time, which were not good and which were a result of 100 years of the Industrial revolution and its need for mass housing for workers, and neglect during the war following the poverty of the 1930s.

Town planning and planners are discussed and shown, the new towns discussed along with Harlow and its designer Frederick Gibberd.

Slums and comprehensive redevelopment in Birmingham is shown and talked about by Sir Frank Price, a city councilor and later alderman of the city, along with contributions from Sheppard Fidler, the city architect in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Housing visitors are interviewed, something unknown today, perhaps the nearest parallel would be the health visitor to new mothers.  Housing visitors visited houses under local authority control to ensure that standards of cleanliness were maintained to prevent a return to slum conditions in new housing.

At this point the film takes a marked change of tone as it moves to discuss high rise building, which began well enough with purpose built brick and steel framed blocks of only 12 storeys at Duddeston but moves on to show system building. However large numbers of people still remained in slums.

Narrator – “By the end of the fifties over three million families still lived without bathrooms, two million shared outside toilets, many had no internal running water, the contrast between image and reality was something no amount of public relations could disguise.”

Harry Watton “the little Caesar of Birmingham” is mentioned in connection with a story about how he and his councillors were sold system built blocks whilst under the influence of alcohol.

The thorny question of the tenants of private landlords living in blighted areas due for clearance is discussed at some length and the problems it caused for them when they were made homeless by demolition and not rehoused.

30 minutes into the film Anne Power describes the situation that faced famililes facing eviction but not included in the rehousing plans.

“The area that we lived in, in Holloway, was actually declared a redevelopment area in 1968 shortly after we moved there and so we were actually caught up in the process ourselves and of the 1000 families in the area, 500 were made ineligible for rehousing, almost all of them were black, and the landlords were actually advised by the council to evict them, and I was very very shocked by that.”

“Local authorities saw it as their job to house the traditional British working class and they didn’t see it as their job to house newcomers, they didn’t think they had the resources to do it, and they weren’t asked to do it, nobody insisted that they should.”

Cathy Come Home is mentioned since this drama was made as a direct result of the problems former private tenants were having in finding somewhere to live with no statutory authority responsible for housing them.

Ronan Point and its aftermath is highlighted as the beginning of the end of system built tower blocks, many of which were shoddily put up, and many of which have long since been demolished, worse still Birmingham City Council was paying interest charges on money borrowed to build blocks that were by then no longer standing. (1995).

The council estates deteriorated as some of the original tenants moved out owing to physical problems of the construction and antisocial behaviour by other tenants.  Problem families moved in and quickly dwellings on the estates became hard to let.

Owing to the problems of homelessness resulting from slum clearance the Labour government of 1977 passed a law compelling councils to house the homeless.

Right to buy is highlighted as a policy brought about by Thatcher capitalising on the feelings of discontent and the apparent inability of councils to successfully manage housing any longer.  [However in the longer term RTB just made things worse because councils were not allowed to build with the money taken from new owners and so the supply of cheap housing dwindled leading to today’s inflated housing market – Ed.]

Narrator – “The best houses were sold to their tenants.  Housing associations and quangos took over responsibility for new building.  Local councils were left to house the homeless and deal with the buildings no-one else wanted.”

At the end, Frank Price, who was a Birmingham councillor summed it all up in the following words:-

Frank Price – “We did clear the slums, we had the slum clearance, we were never educated to handle it, we were never trained to handle it, all that was our enthusiasm and our desire to do the right thing, and somewhere along the way we made mistakes – but by and large I’m bound to say, we’ve got something to be proud of, we housed a lot of people.”

Sir Frank Price – Alderman and Councillor Birmingham City Council

On a related theme, this review of a book about Tower Blocks, from the Independent. The book itself is available as a .pdf linked here Tower Block.

In summary, it is a wonderful film that deals head on with the problems faced by both councils and tenants during the period discussed.  It is a deeply depressing exposition of the failure of modernist ideas about housing large numbers of people but enlightening when the motives of the people involved are examined.

Music note. The film begins with a version of The Folks who live on the hill by Peggy Lee which you can play by downloading from the link below:-

Folks who live on the hill – Peggy Lee

The film ends with this:-

Cristóbal de Morales – Parce mihi Domine – Jan Garbarek

Written notes:-

The following document may be of interest to anybody viewing the film who has a particular interest in Birmingham and its redevelopment.


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