William Cook

Our infatuation with high-rise housing has been catastrophic. Good riddance to the Red Road flats

Our infatuation with high-rise housing has been catastrophic. Good riddance to the Red Road flats
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‘If you meet anyone in a pub or at a party who says he is an architect,’ advised Auberon Waugh, ‘punch him in the face.’ Typically, the late, great Spectator columnist articulated an important truth: modern architects have scarred our cityscapes with some truly horrendous buildings, none more so than Glasgow’s notorious Red Road flats. What better way to mark the opening of this summer’s Commonwealth Games than to blow them up?

Five of the six blocks will be blown up on 23 July. These five are already empty. The sixth, which currently houses asylum seekers, is due for demolition at a later date. ‘We are going to wow the world, with the demolition of the Red Road flats set to play a starring role,’ said Glasgow’s Labour council leader, Gordon Matheson. ‘Their demolition will all but mark the end of high-rise living in the area.’ For every Briton, red or blue, this is a true cause for celebration. Our infatuation with high-rise housing has had catastrophic consequences. Eradicating these eyesores will feel like waking from a bad dream.

I was a toddler in south-east London when the Red Road flats were built, in the late 1960s. Woolwich, where I spent my early years, was subjected to a similar programme of ‘urban renewal’. Tidy Victorian terraces were demolished and their occupants rehoused in bland new tower blocks. Sure, these new flats had central heating and proper bathrooms, but the social infrastructure was shattered. We’re still living with the consequences today.

My mum had bought our two-up two-down with a loan from the headmistress of her New Cross grammar school, and so, unlike my classmates, we never relocated to this new suburb in the sky. My high-rise classmates had all mod cons, we still had an outside loo - but even at that early age, I could sense we’d had a lucky escape. My school friends were imprisoned. We were free. As a teenager, I returned to Woolwich and was shocked by what I saw: those smart new tower blocks had become intimidating. The spaces between them were no-go areas. The inhabitants had become invisible. There was never anyone around. My friends in low-rise council houses were much better off than their high-rise peers. The estates where they lived were built on a human scale, around communal spaces. A child of five could see the difference: stacking people vertically doesn’t work.

A few months ago, in Birmingham, I visited the city’s last remaining back-to-backs. Almost all of them were demolished in the 1960s, and their tenants rehoused in new tower blocks. The National Trust have preserved a few of them and restored them to their original condition, right down to the old bric-a-brac. You can see it was no picnic: dozens of people squeezed into a few small rooms, with no kitchen, toilet or bathroom. Mind you, the nice old lady who showed me round had happy memories of living here. She said the tower block where she was rehoused was worse.

High-rise works well for prosperous owner-occupiers, but when it comes to social housing it makes a bad situation far worse. Yet more than 4,000 people have signed a petition protesting against the spectacular demolition of the Red Road flats. They’re worried this big bang will send out the wrong signal to former and current residents. ‘The homes should be demolished with dignity,’ they say. Fiddlesticks. They’ve been a blot on the landscape for half a century. Let them go out with an almighty crash.