The botched demolition of the Red Road flats in Glasgow last week was more than just a TV news spectacle. The residential tower blocks had dominated part of the city’s skyline for decades.
The “iconic” flats have appeared in numerous films, television dramas and documentaries.
Scottish Television’s Taggart police detective series and the 2006 film Red Road dealt with the darker side of Red Road life.
In 2007 French high wire artist Didier Pasquette undertook a high wire stunt between two of the tower blocks. He was defeated in the end by “Glasgow weather”.
Few council estates have had such attention as the Red Road flats have had. But more than that, they symbolised a history of struggle by working class people for decent, affordable housing.
It is 100 years since 30,000 tenants in Glasgow engaged in a rent strike against racketeering private landlords (see right). Their struggle played a key role in eventually forcing the state into the direct provision of what became known as council housing.
The city embarked on the largest programme of council housing development in Europe in the post-1945 era. But by the 1960s too many people still lived in overcrowded and inadequate housing.
The Red Road flats, and other council housing estates across the city, emerged from this housing crisis.
Thousands of working class Glaswegians eagerly sought the 4,800 houses at the Red Road. These people were often living in poor quality tenement housing, often unfit for human habitation.
The flats were viewed as the pinnacle of the council’s post-war housing efforts when first built. They represented a vision of a new future, a modern and vibrant Glasgow.
But for much of the last three decades the Red Road became “notorious” as a place of poverty, deprivation, anti-social behaviour and poor quality housing. It became a catch-all term for the worst of mass high rise housing construction.
We are constantly told that blocks such as the Red Road had to be demolished given their poor quality.
It might seem common sense to support the scrapping of such housing.
But socialists recognise that there was no inevitability about the decline in the homes’ quality. Slum housing does not emerge by accident.
Purposeful and long term lack of investment and lack of maintenance help to run down council estates. Failure to provide adequate social facilities, and long term disinvestment in working class areas, play a significant role too.
At the Red Road little thought was given to the provision of social amenities—areas for children to play, shopping facilities and so on. And this was true of countless other housing developments across Britain at the time.
So there were mixed emotions as the flats were levelled last week. Thousands of people turned up to witness the final chapter in the Red Road story. There was a strong sense of attachment and belonging to the Red Road from those watching and those who were among the first to be housed there.
Some saw the demolition as long overdue. Others criticised the neglect of the Red Road and the people who lived there by successive local and national governments.
Many rightly blamed the lack of maintenance and the failures of the council to invest in the area for its demise.
Today the city council is in a sense “celebrating” the centenary of the 1915 Rent Strike by demolishing housing. This housing could have been refurbished to meet urgent need.
The Red Road demolition is represented as an exercise in “redevelopment” or “regeneration”.
The idea is that this is about eradicating hard to let, dilapidated housing and replacing it with newer, more modern housing. And that goes for the demolition of council and other housing estates across Britain.
But there is another much more significant dimension to all this.
Opponents of council housing have fought to make it a marker of personal failure. Tenants were seen almost as second class citizens.
Meanwhile “social housing” became an umbrella term. It encompasses housing for rent by a range of “social providers”—councils, housing associations, housing agencies, and so on.
This is part of a much more ideological shift.
It is part of a wider challenge to the idea that the state should play a role in the direct provision of affordable housing to rent.
Council housing was mass housing for the working class. Social housing came to be regarded as a much more residual form of housing, effectively only for poorer sections of society.
The idea that the state should provide housing “for all” has, like other areas of state provision, come under sustained attack.
Razing council and social housing to the ground today is not simply an exercise in physical demolition.
It is bulldozing the idea that the state should have a role to play in housing.
The dominant ideology is that private purchase or private renting should cater for all but the most disadvantaged.
There are other dimensions at play. Private developers and companies clear out working class populations seen to be in the way of new luxury developments or land grabs.
Attacks on council housing are also attacks on the tenants as in some way failed. Tenants are seen as needing to be controlled.
The Red Road was portrayed as a place without ‘community’. Yet plenty of evidence points to a strongly shared collective experience in the face of huge odds, of struggles to make ends meet.
Council housing tenants continue to be stigmatised. Socialists should point to the successive periods of disinvestment and the deliberate running down of working class estates.
The decline in the social and economic fabric of many working class communities did not result from tenants’ alleged disruptive or dysfunctional behaviour or lifestyles.
It is part and parcel of longer term processes of economic and industrial decline mirrored across Britain. Long term cuts in services and social provision also contribute.
Attacking state provision accompanies attacks on social welfare more generally. The Red Road flats are seen as symbolic of another era—a place that time has in some ways forgot, or should forget.
In contrast to such hostile views there have been struggles for decent affordable housing, as we have seen in east London over the past few years.
That should encourage us in the fight to prevent the dismissal of state housing as a mere episode in history.
Investment in state provided housing is the only way to meet the needs of the many millions for whom good quality, affordable housing remains just a dream.
We should learn from the militancy of the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike
The First World War saw a number of rent strikes break out across Britain. But the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike stands out, in no small part due to the context of Clydeside at that time.
Glasgow was an industrial powerhouse of the British Empire and an important producer of armaments. The city had grown enormously during the Victorian era and the needs of war industries led to further migration to the city.
In early 1915 landlords took advantage of this rising population and acute overcrowding to increase rents by up to 25 percent.
Their virtual monopoly of working class housing put them in a powerful position—but they did not expect the opposition that such moves would create.
The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, set up before 1914 to fight for better housing conditions, soon galvanised opposition to the planned rent rises.
Tens of thousands of people were crammed into overcrowded and poorly maintained tenement housing in the areas closest to the shipyards. But calls for a city-wide rent strike soon spread beyond them. By September 1915 around 20,000 households were on rent strike in Glasgow. The strike was spreading to other parts of the West of Scotland and beyond.
Street level organisation forcibly prevented court officials from entering tenement buildings to carry out evictions.
A decision to prosecute 18 tenants for the non-payment of rents in November led to huge protests.
The Govan Press described “remarkable scenes” as thousands of women marched with shipyard and engineering workers. It said, “Headed by a band of improvised instruments, including tin whistles, hooters, and a huge drum, the procession aroused a good deal of interest.
“The majority carried large placards with the words: ‘Rent Strikers. We’re not Removing’.”
The tenants’ movement, led overwhelmingly by working class women, was the instrumental force in the fight against the landlords. Growing numbers of shipyard workers, who were fighting for better working conditions and wages, soon supported it.
The growing threat of strikes forced the government to intervene by passing a Rent Restrictions Act that froze rents at pre-war levels
But tenants had other issues in their sights, such as the demand for municipal housing provision. This came four years later in the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act. “Council housing” was born.
A key legacy of 1915 was that the municipal housing provision came to be seen as a right. That was a direct result of the struggles in Glasgow and elsewhere in Britain.
The 1915 tenants’ campaigns informed and shaped opposition to the Poll Tax in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to the bedroom tax.
The politics of social justice, rights and entitlements informed the fight against landlords and for state housing provision before, during and after the First World War.
The tactics and organisation of the Glasgow tenants’ movement continues to provide important lessons for such struggles.