The news that Glasgow is to celebrate the Commonwealth Games coming to the city by blowing up the Red Road flats tells us a great deal. It tells us about the way we think about cities, it tells us about government priorities, it tells us about how big sporting events are used and it tells us most profoundly about our ideas of progress.
The Red Road flats are one of the most striking examples of Scottish post-war slum clearance. They were built to house those whose lives in Victorian tenements were crowded, unhygienic and scarred by infectious diseases. The desire to build a new world started with destroying the worst of the old world. Slum landlords were to be replaced by democratic control of housing. Cluttered houses with outdoor toilets were to be replaced with comfortable modern accommodation. And this accommodation was to retain the community that had been one of the few positive features of Glasgow’s slums.
When they were built the Red Road flats spoke of a world of community, modernity, equality, democracy and opportunity. That they do no longer is testament of the failure of the post-war dream. The need to provide huge numbers of houses for an expanding population and the lack of money led to poor construction in many of these new housing developments.
Too often this poor construction is misused and abused to undermine the principles the houses were built on. Our new housing is individualistic, nostalgic, elitist, undemocratic and backward looking both in style and in the cities it creates. The sprawling estates built by private sector home builders are the easiest way to see what our society values: a defensive mindset convinced that nothing can ever get better and that other people are a threat.
This reflects the failure of the post-war dream.
The failure to sustain jobs in heavy industry was the beginning of this decline. Government’s inability to replace these industrial jobs exacerbated the problem. But the real failure came with the Thatcher government of the 1980s, who saw working class community as a threat to their individualising, atomising economic project.
No longer was housing to be controlled democratically. Instead much council housing was flogged off to those who could afford to buy their homes. What remained was the worst of the housing stock. And the badly maintained high-rise flats at Red Road ended up being the worst of that housing stock.
This brings us to the demolition of the flats. The destruction of the old and its replacement with the modern is of course essential. So it’s not wrong to demolish the flats. But what is wrong is that these are homes that could be used to house those in desperate need (as the block to be left standing will). More importantly, what will replace these homes will be individualistic, designed to break community down, not build it up. It will be partly privately owned and partly run by housing association. There will be no democratic housing.
The design will be backward-looking and based on elitist histories. It will be about ‘making the East End of Glasgow the new West End’. The aim is to mimic the bourgeois areas of the city. Without of course giving the people who live there the ownership of their companies or control over their lives to actually be bourgeois. The principle appears to be that if the poor live in houses that look like those of the rich, they will behave like the rich.
Perhaps most interesting is what the timing of the demolition tells us about the link between major sporting events and urban regeneration. One of the reasons Ken Livingstone gave for seeking to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to London was that it was the only way he could see to get the money to regenerate London’s east end. The Labour government elected in 1997 spent a lot of money on knocking down homes and rebuilding them. But they realised that this was really very unpopular with the middle class voters whose approval they craved. So the money taps were being turned off.
As with every decaying regime the Labour government resorted to bread and circuses to justify its rule. Except without the bread. To justify investing in some of the poorest areas of Britain the government needed something for middle class people to enjoy. And where London led, so Glasgow followed.
In this context it seems entirely appropriate that symbols of the post-war dream of equality, democracy and opportunity are blown up as part of the opening ceremony. It is increasingly obvious that our cities, rather than being places to live have been captured by elites to be used for their entertainment. Urban renewal is based on attractions for the middle classes. Our parents and grandparents dream of a better future, their dream of progress, has become the subject of a superior fireworks show. And all we’re left with is a couple of weeks of entertainment and cities dominated by a neoliberal elite.