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Anyone who worked on a newspaper in a metropolitan area anywhere in Britain in the early 1990s, or who was involved in urban politics at the time, will be familiar with the discussion that took place then on what to do with tower blocks that had become a danger to their inhabitants and a symbol of alienation and poverty.
In Glasgow,where I worked at the time as a young reporter, the regeneration that had been attempted in the 1980s spread into the housing schemes, that is estates. The towering blocks festooned across the city were made of concrete and several decades of Glasgow weather had turned them dark grey and menacing. Why had they been built in the first place in the 1960s and 1970s? The old Victorian Glasgow tenement had at its best been communal, on the human scale, warm and friendly. At its worst they were veritical slums. New tower blocks, often remote from the centre, were built and turned out to be unpopular. The experiment had gone wrong.
The council, supported by the government, embarked on a programme of demolition, beginning to blow up what only 25 years previously had been deemed by most planners as the future of social housing. Government agencies wrapped all this into ambitious “enterprise strategies” and regeneration money was supplied, sometimes in return for the formation of housing associations, which would remove the centralised and failing council as the landlord and introduce some dynamism.
This was also happening in cities and towns across Britain, where similar problems existed.
Not every tower block went. Far from it. There are, it is estimated by the government, 4,000 such buildings remaining. In the New Labour years the regeneration work on those remaining scaled up and it brightened our cities and, quite often, improved lives. Security was improved with the help of CCTV and entrance areas brightened. Energy efficiency became a factor too, particularly when an aim of public policy and regulation became to meet eco-friendly requirements.
The end result looked to anyone paying only passing attention – to which I plead guilty – as though it was all that bit brighter and nicer. Like most middle class twits I would not have thought about living there – I only ever saw council blocks from a car taking me to dinner or a TV studio. There had been a massive regeneration programme undertaken by governments of both parties, hadn’t there? This was a a success story, surely? A story of improvement, of social housing being improved with a bit of outsourcing…