Sometime in the dim and distant 1970s I attended a housing conference chaired by the then Labour Environment chief Peter Shore.
Having listened to various speakers making promises they would soon break, a tenant rose up to complain that on his high-rise estate the lifts were out of order more often than not, which was a serious problem for mums with prams and the disabled.
From the back of the room then rose the unmistakable figure of Michael “Tarzan” Heseltine. “WHY”, he thundered, “did not the lift attendants do something about it?”
There was a stunned silence, as half the room were unable to digest what this tall golden-maned toff was saying, while the rest were too embarrassed to correct him.
At around time this it was becoming apparent that the massive post-war “homes fit for heroes” social housing boom had created vast soulless estates for victims of so-called slum clearances. Clever architects and manufacturers of concrete components persuaded civil servants and ministers that their modernist towers blocks and endless deck-access designs were the stuff of the future.
It took less than 30 years for that future to become a planning embarrassment.
The collapse of Ronan Point in East London in 1968 put an end to tower construction. By the time a police officer was hacked to death by a mob at the Broadwater Farm Estate in north London in 1985, it’s “award winning” design was already known to be a breeding ground for violence and crime.
Following the Thatcher victory of 1979 Michael Heseltine became Britain’s housing supremo. I interviewed him several times but was unable to ascertain whether he ever got over his astonishment that council tower blocks did not have lift attendants. What was clear was that even though he, as Alan Clarke snidely hissed, “was a man who bought his own furniture”, his understanding of the people who occupied council estates was little better than the inhabitants of Downton Abbey.
So now, at the tender age of 82, Lord Heseltine is to be in charge of Cameron’s latest conjuring trick: the transformation of leaden council estates into golden private housing. On Sunday morning the PM tweeted: “I'll be talking to Andrew Marr about ensuring everyone has a chance to get on in life in the next few minutes on BBC1.”
He may look, as a shining example, to the Heygate Estate in Southwark which Labour leader Peter John sold (at a loss of around £20 million) to Australian developer Lend Lease. Around 3,000 people lived in its large and light flats, although the council’s failure to maintain in properly resulted in it looking the worse for wear. The sale to Lend Lease will result in over 2,000 private homes – which are already selling well in Singapore - but fewer than 100 will be for social renting. Mr John has just received an OBE for his services to, er, ahem.
As with Heseltine’s lift attendants, Cameron has no idea that most tenants who rent substandard homes on poorly maintained estates do so because they can afford nothing else. Most of them are on benefits, squeezed by the Bedroom Tax, benefit caps and “sanctions” – thanks to the efforts of Iain Duncan Smith - and often one payment away from the street.
How Mr Cameron intends to give them “a chance to get on in life” by destroying their homes remains to be seen.
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