Leading Article: We mustn't shrink from demolishing our high-rise slums

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The Independent Culture
OF ALL the great social evils of the 20th century, it is poor housing that has proved to be the most stubbornly resistant to exorcism. Whatever the problems of our schools and the vicissitudes of the National Health Service, it is only in their homes that, for a substantial minority of our citizens, conditions do not bear easy comparison with those of our parents' or grandparents' generations.

The latest report by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit into deprived communities, published yesterday, recognises the scale of the problem and places poor housing at the heart of the debate about poverty and inequality. But valuable and important as it is to reiterate this truth and state, as the Prime Minister put it, that bad housing represents "a situation no civilised society should tolerate" this is not, sadly, a new discovery.

Indeed, it was the conviction that "uncivilised" housing could no be tolerated that propelled the post-war generation of politicians to build the problem estates that we are now saddled with. There was an impulse to act decisively on the slums of their day that some of them had grown up in. Never again, they vowed, would the families of the working class have to live in hovels that fostered rats and tuberculosis and high infant mortality together with the "tightly knit communities" of popular cliche.

Their sentiment was right, and their determination impressive. Indeed it was a Conservative Minister for Housing, Sir Keith Joseph, who accelerated the programme of system building that brought us these high rise blocks and sprawling council estates. In a relatively short period, from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies, millions of families were decanted into these Modernist "cities in the sky". They were provided with unheard of luxuries: clean air, running hot and cold water, and central heating. The blocks were based on designs by architects like le Corbusier for the rich on the Riviera.

Then the money ran out to build or even maintain them properly and the shortcomings of their design and construction became clear. What was good for the south of France did not work so happily in Hulme, Manchester. The attractions of life 18 floors up soon palled. The bold social experiment became an expensive flop that some councils are still paying for.

Of course billions of pounds more have now been spent sprucing up some of the worst estates. Improving the physical appearance of the blocks, removing some of the most crime-friendly raised walkways and installing entry systems have all helped a bit. But it remains the case that many people still cannot wait to get out of the estates and no one much wants to move in.

In its briefings, Downing Street said: "Where estates are beyond recovery, the Government won't shrink from recommending demolition and grassing over." That is the kind of boldness that the persistence of such conditions calls for. But will they deliver?

The Deputy Prime Minister's remark that the idea of demolition was a "highly expensive proposition" and "would have to be treated with considerable caution" suggests the man with most of the responsibility for housing policy is, perhaps, not wholly at one with the ambitions of what he no doubt regards as the teenyboppers of the Social Exclusion Unit. Mr Prescott went on to declare: "I think the proposition of demolishing housing estates is not something any one of us would relish."

Really, John? There are many still living with the failed visions of the past who would beg to differ. We should still seek to eradicate bad, unhealthy housing. It will cost us. But then civilisation never came cheap.