|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 185 February 2015
Concretopia: a journey around the rebuilding of postwar Britain
By John Grindrod
Published by Old Street Publishing, 2013, £25
Reviewed by Matt Kilsby
In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, which had left great industrial cities such as Coventry and Plymouth almost completely devastated, life for millions was desperately hard. Rationing was at its height: even the most basic food items like bread and potatoes were controlled. Meanwhile, by 1951 eight million homes had been declared unfit for habitation. Seven million of those houses had no hot water while six million had no inside toilet. For the millions of working-class people who had suffered through the war, writes John Grindrod in Concretopia, "the relief of peace was soon overshadowed by pressing problems. New homes were needed – not so much fast, as instantly".
In response, the newly elected Labour government, planners and architects embarked on an ambitious and massive house-building programme together with the reconstruction of our towns and cities. According to Grindrod, who grew up in Croydon, "There is an accepted narrative to the way we think about our postwar architectural legacy. That narrative is somewhat akin to the plot of a superhero blockbuster: a team of supervillains – planners, architects, academics … had their corrupt, megalomaniac way with the country for 30 years". In Concretopia, Grindrod sets out to challenge and test this narrative in an attempt to do justice to the people who changed Britain so radically after 1945.
His story starts out with the "ingenuity and humanity" of mass-produced temporary and prefabricated homes, when Spitfire factories were put to use to provide homes. Despite the chronic shortage of building materials, 157,000 prefabs had been built by 1948. Dubbed ‘palaces for the people’, they offered not only cheap rent but unprecedented luxury for working-class men returning from the war and their families who had been bombed out during the blitz.
But the prefabs were only ever meant to be temporary solutions to the housing crisis, so the New Towns Act (1946) laid out plans for the building of vast new towns all across the country. Although plans for each new town were largely greeted with protest, they were all waved through and approved. Harlow, Stevenage and Crawley, among others, were built to ease the overcrowding in London. In the Midlands, Corby was built to house steelworkers. In County Durham: Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe. Wales was granted just one, Cwmbran, with two in Scotland: East Kilbride and Glenrothes.
Like a lot of the postwar building projects that Grindrod describes, the new towns were not without their problems as early residents were moved into half-built estates and communities with no roads or infrastructure. Plans for these new towns were also tinged with authoritarianism. In his introduction to the New Towns Act, Lewis Silkin, the minister for town and country planning, wrote: "The building of a new town is not only a great task of physical construction, it is also a great adventure in social construction".
However, there was a genuine desire among the new residents, town planners, builders and architects to make a difference. Frederick Gibberd, one of the planners Grindrod interviewed, epitomised the mood when he wrote, in 1980: "The spirit of those years was elevating. There was a determination to make Britain a better place to live in".
It is easy to overlook the achievements of these new towns, which were an incredible feat of organisation and planning, not just by the planners and architects but by the millions of working-class people who helped build them. Grindrod correctly writes that the new towns "sit alongside the creation of the welfare state, the NHS and the postwar revolution in education as monuments to a nation’s desire to move on, not just from the destruction of the war years, but from the inequalities and squalor inherited from the industrial revolution".
Contrast the pioneering spirit of the 1945 Labour government with Ed Miliband’s bland, New Labour policy announcements on house building. According to Miliband, it is not by transferring money and powers to local councils that we can build the houses that we desperately need, but by handing over huge amounts of cash to the ‘big four’ housing developers in the hope that they will be encouraged to build more.
The postwar period showed what can be achieved through state planning, and highlights why capitalism and the free-market are ill-equipped to address our current housing crisis. However, those achievements were limited by the reformist nature of the 1945 Labour government and its failure to nationalise the banks and the building companies. Building projects were held up by a lack of resources (both money and materials), while the private developers cut corners to save money and boost profits. With socialism and democratic planning and control, we would be able to deliver the numbers of houses required more efficiently and without the profit motive leading to substandard design and corner-cutting.
By the 1950s, as the Labour government gave way to the Tories in 1951, that pioneering spirit of planning and building for the public good began to be replaced by private profit and greed. This led to the rise of shopping centre developers such as Ravenseft and Arndale. Local authorities were now being encouraged "to work in partnership with private developers on their large redevelopment schemes", an ethos that is all too prevalent today.
As these armies of private developers marched "into the new world of pedestrian precincts and multi-level streets envisaged by the public planners", writes Grindrod, so the post-austerity building boom became mired in financial scandal, corruption and fraud. Maximising profits for big-business developers was now the bottom line, sometimes with disastrous consequences. In 1968 a gas explosion ripped through Ronan Point, a newly built tower block in east London, killing four people and injuring 17.
Worse was to come in the 1970s with the uncovering of a web of fraud and corruption directed by John Poulson, head of the largest architectural practice in Europe at the time, together with Labour politician T Dan Smith, otherwise known as ‘Mr Newcastle’. Cities and towns were being redeveloped for personal gain and huge private profit, with backhanders incorporating the police, local government, civil servants, politicians and even the cabinet office itself.
In an illuminating passage, Grindrod explains how Poulson managed to win contracts for his firms by greasing the wheels with local councillors: "… on meeting the mayor of Bradford, the property tycoon had remarked: ‘I think you look a bit peaky. You need a good holiday, lad’. A few days later tickets arrived for a foreign break for the mayor and his wife".
However, despite the corruption and mistakes, what shines through in this very accessible and thought-provoking journey around the rebuilding of postwar Britain, is that there is an alternative to the profit-hungry private developers, house builders and free-market capitalism. It’s a vision of working-class solidarity and collectivism: the socialist rebuilding of society and the places in which we live and work, based on what the vast majority of us need rather than profit for the few.