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High Noon for High Rise?

August 1, 2017


I know a lot about high rise tower blocks. I grew up on a sprawling council estate in the 1970s and have lived and ministered in places where the older-style tower blocks dominate the skyline. When Grenfell Tower was engulfed in flames and as the tragic death toll mounted, those of us who know about life in such blocks felt shocked but not surprised. Whatever the eventual outcome of the various investigations as to the causes of this particular catastrophe one inconvenient truth must be addressed; most of the high rise blocks built in the 1960s have reached or exceeded their planned lifespan. They were built as a rapid response to the growing need for social housing (council housing as it used to be called) in the post-Second World War era of urban expansion and renewal. They provided a modern alternative to the less appealing 'back to back' terraced housing and communal living which previous generations of city dwellers had inhabited. New building and engineering techniques, prefabrication and advances in the mixture of concrete and new building materials made them cheaper to supply in large quantities. Little thought was given to the cost of heating and lighting as gas and electricity were relatively cheap. Most experts agreed that this first type of mass-produced tower block would have a viable lifespan of between 40 and 50 years. Despite various attempts at renewal or renovation the majority of these blocks are in poor condition by comparison with new social housing 5 standards and models; hence a tragedy like Grenfell Tower was virtually inevitable. I visit older tower blocks with a mixture of pity and outrage at the conditions tenants have to endure. In our more economically challenged areas certain blocks are virtually minighettos of squalor, anti-social behaviour and crime, yet families with children are now regularly housed in the upper floors of such tower blocks. Families who are usually on low incomes, newly arrived and with little or no choice of where they will be housed. Other blocks have flats managed by private companies with Home Office contracts to house asylum seekers. Such companies make huge profits from tax payers while offering only basic living conditions. These companies are unaccountable to local authorities. Most families would rather be anywhere else than in a high rise flat but, due to central government policies over many years, the ability of local authorities to build new, decent social housing has been drastically curtailed. The quality, cost and security of housing is one of the key indicators of health and well-being. Families who are in insecure, unhygienic or exorbitantly priced housing are likely to get ill more often, children will struggle at school and parents and carers will live under constant stress. By contrast the small number of modern council, or social, homes which are being built are family friendly, built under strict environmental regulations, have heat saving measures built in and are powered and heated by the most advanced, cheap to run boilers. They are meant to be fit for the life of a resident even being adaptable to those who in later years may need help with mobility. For those who do enjoy high rise living, modern apartment blocks are now much sought after, especially in the city centre and beside canals; but these bear no resemblance to a 1960s tower block. Is it time to think the unthinkable? Demolish all older tower blocks and replace with new, low rise, social housing as a partnership between local & central government and private builders? This will require determined political will and substantial public/private funding. Without such a bold programme of renewal the social cost to residents and the inexorably rising costs of maintaining these older blocks will cast a shadow over us for another generation.

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