Sunday, 1 March 2015

Housing Problems 1935

There's a Festival of British Film on locally at the moment, as part of the Borderlines Film Festival, and I went to see Night Mail yesterday, because I'd only ever seen clips of it before.
It's only a short film, 24 minutes, so they had paired it with another short film, Housing Problems, from 1935. That was only 13 minutes long, but really fascinating, because they'd actually asked real people who lived in the houses for their opinions - "Let's see what Mrs So-and-so has to say...." and she would tell them about chasing a rat as big as a small dog around their crumbling, shored up slum.
Then they showed models of the sort of social housing projects that were planned to replace the Victorian slums, including Quarry Hill in Leeds, once a state of the art example of social housing, but pulled down in 1978, when it had become run down and full of the sort of social problems it had been built to alleviate.
It got me thinking - they talked about the bad conditions of the slums, but it seemed as if it had just sort of happened. No-one went and talked to the landlords who were happily collecting rent from the houses where there were rats as big as small dogs, and the ceilings shored up so they wouldn't fall down. "Visitors get sea sick going up our stairs," said one woman, "because there's not a straight line anywhere."
it reminded me, too, of some local history from Wrexham in North Wales. I used to go past one lonely house (surrounded by warehouses) on the way into town on the bus, and I discovered that, in the 1930s, there had been 35 houses there - and 34 of them had been pulled down as unfit for human habitation, though the landlord had been happily collecting rent from those 34 families.

So, in the 1930s, those in power had grand visions of building a better future for the nation by housing poor people in decent homes.
After the bombing raids of the Second World War, of course, they had no choice - they had to build hundreds of thousands of new houses and flats, quickly, to house all the people who had been bombed out, and at a time when the country was nearly bankrupted by the expense of the war.
And they started the NHS at the same time.

There used to be some tower blocks near where I lived as a child, which had been built on flat ground near the River Irwell in Salford to house people from the slum clearance areas of the Victorian back streets of Salford.
I was always against the slum clearance that had happened in the 1950s and 60s, and my ex-husband, who had grown up in a smaller Midlands town, couldn't understand why. Wasn't it a good thing that these people were getting better places to live in?
In one way, of course, it was - there's a webpage for people who used to live in the flats in Kersal, and some of them remember how wonderful it was to move from a back street to a place where you could look out in the morning on woodland, and see rabbits running around the grass.

But it was also a bad thing - whole communities were broken up. One of my schoolfriends lived in a block of flats, and had not seen any of her neighbours for the four years since she moved in. There was a time in Hulme, in Manchester, when one third of the entire population of the new estate were on tranquilisers because it was so awful to live there. That's all been flattened and rebuilt since, too. In the first round of demolition the pub where my gran lived, which was run by her aunt, was pulled down - there's only one photo of it left now to show it was ever there, taken shortly before it was demolished.
Then my ex-husband saw a programme made by Ian Nairn, about the slum clearances, and he saw what I had seen growing up - the acres of cleared ground, with a grid of cobbled streets across it - thousands of homes gone, and not all of them were slums. My gran remembered some people making those grim two up two down houses into "little palaces". She was one of them - the first thing she'd do when she moved to a new house was paint everything white! That's when he understood why I didn't like the idea.

There's also the matter of rootlessness.
I know people who grew up on farms, and though their families no longer own the farms, the buildings they knew as children are still there. They can still go back to see the villages, and the schools they went to, and the churches they attended.
A little while ago I tried tracking down some of the addresses around Manchester where my mum had lived. They're all gone (apart from one street which was used to film a documentary about Fred West, because they couldn't do it in Gloucester!). Even the secondary school I went to is now a housing estate, and the church where I was baptised was torn down in the 1970s.
Poor people can't go back to an ancestral home, or even to an ancestral area, when it's all been flattened and rebuilt - it's all transient, as if they don't belong anywhere properly.

So, in the 1930s, there was a vision of a better future with better housing for the poorest in society, and concrete plans to do something about it, however flawed those plans turned out to be.
There's a huge problem with homelessness and overcrowding now, but that grand vision isn't there. Instead of plans to provide better homes for poor people to live in, we have the Bedroom Tax, and enough buildings standing empty to house everyone that needed it if the political will was there.

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