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Society, Politics & Law

The Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014 and the Red Road Flats controversy

Updated Thursday 10th April 2014

A reflection on the decisions made about involving the Red Road Flats in Glasgow as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games (2014).

Black and white photo of the Red Road flats, Glasgow from 2006 Creative commons image Icon 44b under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license The Red Road Flats in 2006

On the 6th April 2014, the Observer newspaper carried a feature article regarding a development that will radically transform the skyline of Glasgow. 

In early April 2014, it was announced that the city’s iconic Red Road Flats would be blown-up as part of the opening ceremony of the Twentieth Commonwealth Games being held in the City in July and August 2014. This ceremony will take place a few miles away at Celtic Park, where the live footage will be beamed on huge screens. For the City Council and Commonwealth Games leaders, such demolition will signify the brave new world that Glasgow has allegedly entered.  In the words of the leader of the Labour-controlled Glasgow Council, it will be ‘symbolic of a changing Glasgow’. This gesture demonstrates that the city has a bright future, the legacy of the games. But critics of the demolition observe that this can in fact be read in a dramatically different way.  

Within days the decision had already attracted considerable opposition from community activists, artists, politicians and a petition started within hours of the news has attracted well over 17,000 signatures in less than a week. It has caused a furore that went well beyond Glasgow. Scottish and UK newspapers have carried the story as have local TV and radio stations and the BBC online news site and various social media sites were heavily populated with Red Road commentary and stories.

On the 13th April – only a week after the initial proposals to demolish were made public – the Commonwealth Games organisers announced that they were abandoning their plans amid concerns relating to 'safety and security'. Without a doubt this decision was made because of the widespread public opposition to the plans. While Glasgow City Council and Games leaders can claim that they had listened to public opinion, there should be no doubt that they were forced into this about-turn – and the Red Road Flats fiasco has opened-up the opportunity for critical commentary to reach a wider audience, with the value of the Games to Glasgow being questioned by a number of people.

The Red Road Flats generate sharply opposing views: loathed by some, defended by others. The fact that many people are prepared to campaign against proposals to demolish the Red Road Flats as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony may come as a surprise. But in many respects this story is not about the Red Road as such but about the wider politics of large-scale sporting events such as Commonwealth Games, and in particular that these leave a lasting ‘legacy’ for the population of the host city. That the Red Road Flats element of the Games opening ceremony has been now abandoned does not conclude the story – but opens-up the wider issues as to what this episode reflects in terms of the top-down approach to the Games and the disconnect of large numbers of ordinary Glaswegians from the Games and what they represent.

However, what was it about the demolition of the Red Road Flats that has aroused such passions and which generated such opposition?

A wee bit of Glasgow’s housing history

The Red Road Flats in Glasgow Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Hilary Mooney

Glasgow constructed greater numbers of public sector high rise housing developments than any other city in Western Europe in the post-1945 era. Attempting to address historic problems of slum and overcrowded housing, by far the worst in the UK, the city embarked on a large-scale programme of high rise developments. One of the earliest manifestations of this was the Moss Heights development located in Cardonald, eight miles from the City Centre to the South West. Built in 1953, they presented a vision of housing for the city which would dramatically alter not only the skyline, but the entire social geography of housing in the city. Together with a massive programme of low rise housing estate development across the city, contained primarily in the four large ‘peripheral’ housing estates on the city’s outer-edges (in Castlemilk, Drumchapel, Easterhouse and Pollok), by the 1980s Glasgow Council was the largest public sector landlord in Western Europe with over 185,000 houses on its books with over 63% of the population of the city living in publicly rented housing, in what was widely termed ‘corporation housing’! 

The Red Road development rapidly became the iconic high-rise estate (‘scheme’ in Scottish parlance) in Glasgow. Located in the north east of the city, they were the highest public sector tower blocks in Europe at the time of opening in 1971. Built between 1964 and 1969, the eight towers, which ranged from 28-31 storeys high, were to house almost 5,000 people. At almost 300 feet high, the views from the upper floors of the blocks, extended well beyond Glasgow to the mountains of Argyll to the west, Stirlingshire to the north and almost to Edinburgh in the east. The blocks are readily visible to people arriving in Glasgow from the North and from the East by train or car.

For their new tenants, the Red Road Flats, together with Glasgow’s other council housing developments represented a vast improvement on the slum housing they had lived in previously. It was not just the views that attracted people, but the running hot and cold water, inside bathrooms and separate kitchens which were absent in older tenement. The Flats were symbolic of an era in which state provision of affordable housing to rent was highly desirable to the working-class and in which there was considerable political investment by mainly Labour-controlled local authorities.

However, the architecture and construction of the blocks, steel-framed concrete slabs in a style since then referred to as ‘Modernist Brutalism’, was the subject of early complaints, reflected in difficult to heat and draughty houses. It wasn’t too long before the Red Road became not a hallmark of Glasgow’s advance in public sector housing design but a symbol of poorly constructed and hard-to-let council housing.

At a surface level, the proposed demolition of the Red Road Flats exemplifies the argument that Glasgow's extensive post-war investment in poorly designed and built high-rise council housing was a strategic social and economic blunder. But there is a deeper level to the symbolism of the proposed demolition of Red Road. It somehow manages to cue to a wide audience that it is waste of time and money to try and provide council housing for working-class people. It always ends up in failure.

But who is responsible for this failure?  Not the architects and town-planners who seized their opportunity to make vainglorious statements in design terms. Not the engineers who designed the building systems which promised to house the workers in their millions. Not the politicians who had their palms greased to buy these building systems. It was the tenants' fault that these developments didn't work!  

Of course, while nobody is saying this explicitly, in the case of unsuccessful council housing, it is the victim who is blamed. Red Road - just as the Gorbals and the Sighthill high flats in Glasgow, and Moss Side and Hulme in Manchester, for example - is a case in point. The message of the imagery of demolition is simple: it really is not worth the effort or money involved in housing construction of this type.  

The demolition of the Red Road Flats actually symbolises the current UK government's (as for previous New Labour governments) attempts to ensure that social housing is a residual category fit only for people with multiple and intractable problems: the chronically poor, drug-addicts and alcoholics, people with mental illness, the homeless, refugees and, in the case of the Red Road in particular, asylum-seekers.  

Adam MacNaughton’s Jeelie Piece (Jam Sandwich) song is much loved in Glasgow because it captures the isolation that many tenants experienced in life in the high rises of Glasgow. But it also reflects the positive aspects of life in such schemes. Skyscraper Weans (children from high rise blocks) no longer enjoyed the opportunity to run in and out of their homes seeking sustenance, especially when the lifts were often out of action. The Jeelie Piece Song reflected the sense of isolation and even alienation that many of the residents of the high rise blocks felt. In what became the official mantra of many of the studies of such developments, there was an absence of ‘community’, and the tenants often remembered the close-knit communities of the older tenemental districts with nostalgia. While no doubt there was a degree of romanticisation of the past here, nonetheless most high rise housing developments, and not only in Glasgow or Scotland, were built with little thought given to the provision of community, leisure or recreational centres. For Glasgow Corporation, the housing mission throughout the post-War period was ‘build the maximum number of houses in the shortest possible time’.

Red Road in print and film

As Lynsey Hanley highlighted in her evocative book Estates, council estates do not often appear in a positive way in word, film or song. In the last few decades, council housing has come to be seen as second-best housing, relegated to a residual status for the most impoverished sections of society. Such estates have become emblematic of all that is wrong with British society – symbolic of what David Cameron and others term the ‘broken society’ (see Mooney, 2009; Hancock and Mooney, 2013 in the References below).

Many would probably represent the Red Road development in such a way. It has appeared in numerous films, television dramas and documentaries such as Scottish Television’s Taggart police detective series, and the Bafta-winning Red Road (2006) directed by Andrea Arnold. While both deal with the darker side of Red Road life, they have contributed to the Red Roads’ notoriety. Further, many other artists, writers and filmmakers who made it the subject of their work (see the article Red Road demolition ends Glasgow tower blocks' high art) while in 2007 French high wire artist Didier Pasquette undertook what was ultimately an unsuccessful high wire stunt between two of the Red Road blocks, defeated in the end by ‘Glasgow weather’. Art exhibitions, planning, architectural and photography projects have taken the Red Road as their inspiration or focal point. Other projects have included oral history interviews with some of the earliest residents and other attempts to capture some of the more positive aspects of life in the flats. Alison Irvine’s book, This Road Is Red is a collection of semi-fictional stories based on anecdotes from real-life residents over the 50-year plus history of the estate.

Planners, architects, housing researchers and other academics have long investigated different aspects of the Red Road development. Few council estates can claim such attention and importantly, much of this is not of the negative ‘council estate porn’ type that is prevalent in the media in recent years, such as BBC Scotland’s The Scheme and Channel 4s Benefits Street.

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 start of the demolition in 2012

Decline

To claim that the Red Road Flats are iconic does not mean that criticism of the blocks should be suspended. While they most certainly did meet a housing need for successive generations of Glaswegians, and more recently for students and newly arrived refugees, by the end of the twentieth century they had gained a reputation as unattractive places to live, and many of the flats were vacant for a considerable time. Demolition started in 2012 with two blocks already demolished. The proposals for the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony were to have seen a further five blocks blown-up. The one block to be preserved, at least until 2017, is intended to accommodate refugees, giving the strong impression that this kind of housing is suitable only for people ‘of that kind’!

The 2014 Commonwealth Games and the Red Road Flats: What does it all signify?

As has proved to be the case with most large-scale, ‘flagship’ sporting events such as Olympic and Commonwealth Games, Glasgow 2014 has not been without controversy. Finding the money to stage such a huge event is one point of contention – not least in the context of ‘austerity’ and wide-scale budget cuts and reductions in public services and funding. As has been the case in the past, some people have been forcibly removed to make way for new ‘legacy’ sporting and related developments. New private sector investment opportunities are promised on the back of the Games, while new roads and infrastructure developments have been put in place to enhance the attractiveness of previously derelict areas for capital accumulation.

‘Legacy’ has become the by-word for such event; how will large sporting festivals contribute to the longer prosperity of a host city?  But who decides what should be the legacy? The people of Glasgow or corporate and political bosses? (See Glasgow Games Monitor; Gray and Mooney, 2009; Paton, Mooney and McKee, 2012 in the References below). While some social housing will emerge from the Games, in the shape of the athlete’s village in the Dalmarnock area, the number of units to be made available will fall well short of early promises.

For the Games organisers and City elites the idea of a Glasgow ‘reborn’, a city ‘renewed’ was symbolised by the planned demolition of the Red Road Flats as ‘Glasgow’ – whose or what Glasgow?– looks ahead with confidence to a bright new future. But this also symbolised the destruction of what, for many, is not only an important part of Glasgow’s working class history – but also of the idea that state housing provision has a crucial role to play in meeting housing needs today – needs that are acute across Glasgow and much of the UK. From over 180,000 council houses in the early 1980s, today Glasgow Council controls no housing. In 2003 the then remaining stock of around 81,000 homes were transferred under housing stock transfer to the Glasgow Housing Agency. Since then with further transfers to local housing associations and around 20,000 demolitions, GHA has only 43,000 homes in 2014.

For critics then, claims about regeneration and renewal are vacuous; legacy is a meaningless term. The Commonwealth Games and the planned demolition of the Red Road Flats resonate as a classic bread-and-circuses stunt.

It will come as no surprise that such criticisms were rejected by those responsible for the Glasgow Games:

This is about more than creating an iconic moment for the Opening Ceremony; it is about the next step in the regeneration of one of Glasgow's most famous communities. It symbolises the changing face of the city over the years and recognises our proud social history. Glasgow's Opening Ceremony is right to celebrate that history, but we will do so in a sensitive manner.

We have worked with former residents for the last six years to get the story of Red Road. This is their story and the voice of real Glaswegians should rightly be heard during the ceremony and the story of Red Road should be shared with the world. Of course, this is one small part of a much larger show that will entertain, inspire and show Glasgow in a spectacular light.

The demolition of the flats is not about social failure - in fact, the opposite is true. The flats were once the future of social housing in the city and over the years have been home to thousands of families. We are celebrating their role in our history and want to make sure their role is properly marked.

(Bridget McConnell, Chief Executive of Glasgow Life, quoted in the Glasgow Evening Times, 7th April 2014)

While apologists for the Commonwealth Games claimed that the demolition of the Red Roads Flats would be an icon of the ’new’ Glasgow, critics observe that it is also a symbol of the present UK government’s blatant attempt to destroy the whole concept of council housing. The destruction of council housing estates, not matter how widely they are welcomed and by whom, is not just an act of physical destruction but also implicitly an attack on council tenants, or of the idea of council tenants. They belong to a ‘welfare’ and ‘state dependent’ population that for many politicians in the three main UK parties – are best confined to a by-gone era: this is the picture of council housing as ‘the land that time forgot’! It is also the marginalisation of a particular history – of particular working class histories; housing is not just bricks and mortar – there is a historical voice in each and every estate – one that is sharply out of step with the top-down voice of a Glasgow renewed.

A more positive Glasgow housing legacy

Glasgow has had a longer history of severe housing problems than any other in the UK. That Glasgow local authority and 2014 Games leaders sought to celebrate the opening of the 2014 Commonwealth Games with the demolition of its most (in)famous post-war housing scheme and, which thanks to considerable public opposition, was ultimately abandoned, is to be welcomed.

There is another housing history in Glasgow which the elites would rather forget. Glasgow did more than any other city in Britain to ensure the provision of council-housing for the working-class. The 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike was pivotal in the passage of the 1919 Housing & Town Planning Act, which established the principle of the state’s provision of such housing. The Clydebank Rent Strike of the 1920s ensured the principle of the continuation of rent control. The protracted struggles of Clydesiders over the rents and housing issues ultimately paved the way for state housing provision as a norm.  These are the struggles worth celebrating; this is the legacy of history locally. While Glasgow’s political and corporate elites seek to destroy this legacy, and divert our attention away from other large-scale housing changes in the City, it is instructive that a campaign is also underway to commemorate Mary Barbour, whose army of working class women took to the streets of Glasgow’s tenement districts during the First World War to fight against rapacious private landlords in the famous Glasgow Rent Strike.

A more fitting legacy for Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland would be the launch of a new era of good quality and affordable public sector housing for rent, under the control of democratically elected politicians. Well-built, low rise or high rise – to keep the tradition of Skyscraper Weans of course – but providing all the social amenities and public services that were overlooked or forgotten in the past.

This does not mean a return to some mythical, rosy past of council housing; but does involve the recognition that the provision of housing for all is the mark of a civilised society. The Scottish Government have already abolished right to buy for new tenants of social housing and embarked on a small but important programme of social housing construction is of course to be welcomed. As Scotland looks ahead to a future that may involve full Independence, the mark of the good Scottish society will be to end housing problems for once and for all. Now that would be a legacy worth celebrating, would it not?

References

  • Neil Gray and Gerry Mooney) (2011) ‘Glasgow’s New Urban Frontier: ‘Civilising’ the Population of ‘Glasgow East’’, City, 15, 1, pp. 4-24.
  • Lynn Hancock and Gerry Mooney (2013) ‘‘Welfare ghettos’ and the ‘‘Broken Society’’: Territorial Stigmatization in the Contemporary UK, Housing, Theory and Society, 30, 1, pp. 46-64.
  • Lynsey Hanley (2007) Estates, Granta.
  • Alison Irvine (2012) This Road Is Red, Luath Press.
  • Gerry Mooney (2009) ‘The ‘Broken Society’ Election: Class Hatred and the Politics of Poverty and Place in Glasgow East’, Social Policy and Society, 8, 4, pp. 1-14.
  • Kirsteen Paton, Gerry Mooney and Kim McKee) 2012) ‘Class, Citizenship and Regeneration: Glasgow and the Commonwealth Games 2014’, Antipode, 44, 4, September, pp. 1470-1489.

Other sources:

Acknowledgements

Together with Vikki McCall and Kirsteen Paton I am exploring issues of territorial stigmatisation in the East End of Glasgow in the context of the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Many thanks to Vikki, Kirsteen and Sean Damer for their help with this piece.

Please note: This article was amended on the 16th April 2014 in light of the decision not to demolish the Red Road Flats.

 

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