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Society, Politics & Law

Demolishing Pasts, Uncertain Futures:The Symbolism of Glasgow’s Red Road Flats

Updated Tuesday 13th October 2015

What does the demolition of the symbolic high-rise Red Road Flats and similar developments across Britain mean for society? 

Demolition of a tower block (social housing) illustration Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Artwork by Catherine Pain © The Open University On Sunday October 11 2015, the demolition of the Red Road high-rise housing blocks in Glasgow featured on Scottish and UK television news programmes that evening. Mostly this was due to the fact that the demolition was not entirely successful – with two of the blocks left partially standing, and are now set to be demolished using different methods in the near future.

Located in North East Glasgow, the Red Road Flats have during their half century life been regarded as iconic or symbolic in a number of different ways. In the 1960s they were for politicians iconic of a new Glasgow – a modern urbanism reflected in their status as the tallest public sector housing blocks in Europe at the time. Within only a few years they came to be symbolic of the failures of that vision – and of the social engineering efforts of Glasgow’s city planners. 

The Red Road Flats soon became a by-word for urban decline, deprivation and hard-to-let unpopular council housing. In recent years it has been accorded a new symbolic role as emblematic of the failure of social housing provision more generally – and of the post-1945 era of the all-encompassing welfare state from which it emerged. Indeed, that Glasgow had moved on beyond its failed past in housing and planning was to be to be celebrated with the demolition of the Red Road flats as part of the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games taking place in the city, a decision that was soon overturned in no small part due to significant local opposition.

2 of the blocks were demolished in 2012 and with the remaining 6 blocks in the Red Road development bulldozed on October 11 2015, it brings to an end the story of the rise and fall of what must surely be, if not the most iconic, then certainly among the most iconic of post-1945 public sector housing developments in the UK. The Red Road was emblematic of large-scale high-rise housing developments across the UK but no other city built as many high-rise blocks as Glasgow, in no small part reflecting the city’s acute housing crisis throughout much of the post-1945 era. Over the past decade almost one quarter of these blocks have been demolished.

Across successive generations, working class Glaswegians have been subjected to large-scale displacement, often termed ‘decanting’, through slum clearance; huge numbers of people were moved across the city throughout the inter-war and post-war periods and – in increasing numbers after 1945 - beyond the city boundaries. Long established working class communities were broken-up, a shared sense of the past disrupted in the process, reminiscent of the de-concentration of disadvantaged and impoverished communities in previous eras.

The wave of demolitions that have characterised Glasgow’s social housing landscape over the past decade or so, repeated elsewhere across the UK, has been presented by housing agencies, planners and politicians as heralding yet another glorious future for social housing tenants in the city. Demolitions have become spectacle; creative destruction presented as entertainment, played out on the media, on websites and in countless numbers of YouTube film clips. We can all join together in celebrating the removal of a blighted and failed urban past and, of course, in the bright new urban future to come.

Bulldozing high-rise blocks, demolishing low-rise housing and clearing hard-to-let estates is not simply about pulling-down slum housing, making land available for re-use or providing tenants with other housing opportunities. It is about much, much more than this. The large-scale and widespread pattern of demolitions taking place across the UK today reflects a much wider held antipathy to social housing and to social housing tenants. Social housing is a marker of personal failure; it is very much second class housing.

The first of the Red Road Flats being demolished in Glasgow in 2012 Creative commons image Icon Paradasos under CC BY-NC 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license The Red Road Flats and similar developments in towns and cities across Britain, represent a failed social experiment – that the state cannot provide – and should not provide – housing for rent. High-rise housing developments of the 1960s-1970s were born from the Keynesian-Berveridgean welfare state: they are symbolic of a period when millions of people looked to the state to provide many of our social needs; an era that many politicians and housing experts from different political persuasions feel is now best confined to the past. Glasgow’s Red Road is a reminder that social housing doesn’t work! However, there is another, much more hidden story that needs to be told.

With the demolitions taking place in Glasgow in October 2015, we need to appreciate that other aspects of urban life are being demolished alongside the physical destruction of high-rise blocks: the Red Road Flats were not only an important feature on Glasgow’s urban skyline or topography, they represented important elements of Glasgow’s working class folklore – as did life in ‘the schemes’ more generally. The housing at Red Road was of generally of poor quality and had been badly maintained yet in its early years it was much sought after – a tenancy therein being a route out of the appalling slums that still characterised huge tracts of Glasgow in the 1960s and early 1970s. New communities were forged, new relationships and ways of life established, people struggled to build a new sense of place in the context of massive industrial and economic decline, rising unemployment and growing levels of poverty. The stories of struggle and of life in the Red Road Flats are captured in social histories and in a novel and in film – and few estates can claim that!

That the rise of the Red Road Flats took place against the large-scale industrial decline of Glasgow and much of Clydeside more generally, is often overlooked in those dominant narratives that simply wish to portray the flats as ‘notorious’, ‘dangerous’ ‘ghettos’, as run-down ‘concrete-jungles’ that were, ultimately, ‘doomed’ to failure.  The stigmatisation of much of social housing – and of some of the residents of social housing - has been part and parcel of a new era that sees the reduction, if not almost complete removal of social housing, as the fundamental goal. However, it is the failure to locate the rise and fall of the scheme in the wider social, economic and political context of the time that enables a focus on the allegedly problematic lifestyles and cultures of the people who had resided in these developments.  It is this which helps to fuel the demonisation and stigmatisation of social housing. 

The demolition of the Red Road Flats is also the demolition of a particular understanding and sense of post-War Glasgow – for good and for bad. It is also the demolition of the idea that refurbishment and investment could have saved such blocks for future use. If there was a failure in social housing it was never inevitable. Glasgow’s post-1945 housing crisis, from which the Red Road Flats emerged, was likewise not inevitable and the housing crisis today that engulfs many parts of the UK is also and absolutely, not inevitable. The history of the Red Road Flats is a very rich and evocative story of the politics of housing – and of the politics of class. The two are completely entangled in a myriad of ways.

The historic disinvestment in social housing, and in working class communities more generally, sits against a backdrop of deepening economic decline, rising poverty, disadvantage and inequality. The systematic running down of council/social housing over successive decades reflects the classed politics of housing. The idea of housing as a social need has been replaced by the increasing financialisation of housing and of the land upon which it is built. Money is to be made from the clearance of working class housing in urban Britain – lots of money!

This creative destruction is part and parcel of the wider story that underpins the Red Road story - and which fuels demolitions across the UK today. While housing associations have in recent years played a larger role in the provision of social housing, this is on a much smaller scale than with council housing in the past. Many millions of people across the UK continue to live in council housing. But the vision of good quality and affordable housing for all, a vision which seems now to be abandoned as utopian, points to a future which sees more and more tenants forced into private renting and which produces increasing housing insecurity for many across the UK. 

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Conversation on October 9, 2015: https://theconversation.com/this-city-is-demolishing-iconic-tower-blocks-and-an-entire-social-housing-concept-48918

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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