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Municipal Dreams: an interview with John Boughton

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: What led you to set up the blog? Did you feel its subject matter was not being addressed elsewhere?

JB: I began the blog five years ago now, initially to record and celebrate a broad municipal heritage that I felt was unjustly neglected. That included the early schools and libraries, the baths and washhouses and health centres.  But given its scale and significance, housing – council housing – always took centre stage and it became a dominant focus as housing became a huge and controversial issue in British politics.   

In that context, the blog was intended to be a political intervention too – not a polemic, I hope, but a simple reminder of the overwhelmingly positive role the state, local and national, has played in improving the lives of millions over the years.  It seemed important to say this when, for many decades, state intervention has been so systematically maligned and the market so uncritically lauded.

I can’t say that council housing, the subject of the book, wasn’t being addressed elsewhere but it was being addressed so badly.  Media coverage tended to be caricatured and stigmatising; political discourse was generally pretty ill-informed and simplistic.  There was some decent academic writing on the topic but nothing serious in the mainstream for a general reader. It seemed time to put that right.   

3:AM: Was it always your intention to use the blog as a platform to write such a book?

JB: No, I can honestly say it wasn’t and, to be honest, I didn’t start out as a particular housing expert – I’m a social historian by background.  But two things happened.  One, the blog gained interest and readership beyond my wildest expectations (it’s now attracted almost 950,000 views) and I also developed a pretty impressive social media presence. Two, I realised that, in looking at individual council estates across the country as well as the specialist literature, I’d built up a tremendous resource.  At that point, it really made sense to bring that together and attempt some kind of synthesis.  I’m pleased to say that Verso responded immediately to my initial tentative enquiry. 

3:AM: What was your background as a social historian? 

JB: My PhD back in the day was on working-class politics in Birmingham and Sheffield in the interwar period, both industrial towns but the former staunchly Conservative and the latter a Labour stronghold.  That contrast made me interested in the complexity of lived experience – an appreciation of nuance and variety which I hope I’ve brought to the blog and the book. For most of my working life, I’ve been a chalkface teacher of nineteenth and twentieth-century British and European history so the blog and now the book represents my first major foray into publication.

3:AM: You mention the blog as a political intervention and you’ve said elsewhere you’re coming at this from a distinctly Marxist perspective?

JB: Yes, I think it is a political intervention. The question of what is the proper role of the state has probably been the dominant one in British politics since 1979.  Mrs Thatcher pledged to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ and, in her own terms, was very successful in doing so.  New Labour, while seeing a greater role for public investment, was also quite sceptical about what central and local government could or should do and placed far more emphasis on the market and the ‘third sector’ – voluntary organisations and the like – than previous Labour governments. Nowhere was this shift better exemplified than in the field of housing provision.  So, in this sense, a blog which defends state intervention and praises – though not uncritically – its generally positive role is political; it’s a conscious defence of another and, in my view, better way of doing things.

That reference to a Marxist perspective was perhaps slightly provocative and it probably dates me but it reflects my training as a social historian and the influence of a number of superb Marxist historians, notably EP Thompson.  In a way, it means little more than I still think that economics and class are determinant influences in people’s lived experience.  Again, nowhere is this truer than in the field of housing and, in particular, in the council estates that I write about.  Those estates and their communities are shaped by class and ideas of class and moulded by the economic vicissitudes they suffer.  Put simply, estates were once a symbol and manifestation of working-class affluence and upward mobility. In more recent years, many have seen them as a site of poverty and social decline.

I was briefly a Labour councillor – I served my four-year term in the unlikely setting of Winchester, a cathedral city known for its relative wealth but it had two large council estates, one of which I represented.  I also worked in local government for three years for Norwich City Council. Those experiences consolidated my belief in the powerful constructive role of the local state and its elected politicians. 

3:AM: The book and blog are framed as largely concerned with council housing, but I think to some extent you actively cover the withdrawal of the local state, to use Cynthia Cockburn’s term, from all aspects of civic life under various waves of austerity, e.g. parks, schools, libraries etc. many of these being housed in magnificent municipal buildings now sold off?

JB: I agree that you should certainly place the themes of the book and blog in that context.  The writer Sue Townsend expressed this wonderfully in an article written in 2005: “I’m a child of the municipal. Everything good had this word carved above its grand entrance. In Leicester … there were municipal libraries, majestic solid buildings with beautiful entrances, windows and doors, oak furniture and bookshelves. Then there were municipal baths, which had a swimming pool and what were called slipper baths … There were municipal parks, which were delightful places in which to take the air.”  And as a single mother of three, she was immensely grateful for the decent, secure home provided by the local council.  

All that speaks to an immense civic pride but also to a culture of betterment and aspiration, understood as a collective endeavour and an obligation of one to all. Much of that has been lost in our reckless embrace of individualism and the free market since the 1970s.   

3:AM: Just like Sidney Webb and his ‘individualist town councillor’ on a warped dérive.  But if you look at Townsend’s work with Adrian Mole, the ‘sink estate’ narrative had already begun to creep in with its treatment of council housing.

JB: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read much Adrian Mole but I think your observation is even truer of Townsend’s 1992 novel, The Queen and I, which sees the Royal Family rehoused on a council estate in a newly republican Britain.  It’s pretty heavy-handed satire, to be honest, and I was disappointed to see its depiction of the rather run-down estate to which the royals are exiled.  It’s quite a stereotypical portrayal of a rather ‘chavvy’ (I use that term with the heaviest of scare quotes) and dysfunctional community.  That said, there is clearly an underlying affection for the residents and a recognition of their underlying resilience and humanity.  In the end, it’s those qualities which shine through and see the royals happily settled among the least of their former subjects.  So even in what could be legitimately be seen as a rather coarse portrayal of a ‘sink estate’, Townsend’s politics and loyalties are obvious.

3:AM: Rather than Charles in a shellsuit, I want to talk about Patrick Abercrombie and Liverpool’s Department of Civic Design in the global vanguard and the demise of retained council architects.  Do you see these inter-twined with the demise of the civic and the rise of the free-market individualism you mention?

JB: The loss of local authority architects’ departments has been an enormous loss. One thinks back to the time in the 1950s when the London County Council Architect’s Department was regarded as the foremost architectural practice in the world, as well as the largest with some 350 professional architects and trainees.  Sandy Wilson (who would go on to design the British Library) likened job adverts for the department to “a summons to join the Forces again but in this case to win the peace by rebuilding London.” Equally, there were high-quality departments and major architects working in the London boroughs – most obviously in Camden in the 1970s – and across the country; too many to name individually but all thinking their work superior to and more important than that in the private sector and far above that of the speculative house builder.  

The departments atrophied when their work dried up and then, because such work as there was could be so readily contracted out, were simply axed in the drive to cut costs.  The figures are staggering: in 1976, 49 percent of all UK architects worked for the public sector; today the number stands at less than one percent.  Planning departments have suffered a similar decline.

This loss of public sector expertise and capacity absolutely reflects the assault on local government since 1979 – a reflection of Thatcherism’s free-market fundamentalism and visceral disdain for the state and the public service ethos which, at best, underlay it. This has been little challenged until perhaps quite recently.  It’s notable that many in a new generation of young architects and planners do want to work in the public sector. The recently founded social enterprise Public Practice – which is placing newly qualified professionals in local authority planning departments – received over 200 applications for 17 posts. 

3:AM: The book barely mentions Scotland at all, which compared to England probably resisted that Thatcherism more?

JB: It’s true that Scotland is neglected in the book.  In my defence, I’d advance two good reasons for that.  Firstly, I tried to travel the country and visit as many of the estates I write about as possible.  For practical reasons, it simply wasn’t possible to visit Scotland.  Secondly, I’m acutely aware of Scottish particularity – it’s a separate nation after all.  There is, for example, a Scottish cultural tradition of high-rise living which isn’t replicated in England and Wales.

There are, as you suggest, political differences too.  Even in Westminster terms, Scottish housing legislation has sometimes diverged from that of the rest of the country. The combination of devolution and the decline of Scottish Conservatism has emphasised this divergence.  Right to Buy was abolished in Scotland in 2016 and there is now a significant public housing programme north of the border.  For all that and for all the political resistance to Thatcherism you mention, I think it is still the commonalities of Scottish and English housing politics that are more striking.   

3:AM: You mention statism, for want of a better word, as a “better way of doing things”? Colin Ward was mainly thought of as an anarchist proponent of squatting and tenant takeovers rather than state provision, but at the TCPA and on the BBC he championed the New Towns.

JB: Colin Ward criticised British socialists for being “intoxicated with power and bureaucracy and the mystique of the state”.  As you imply, in that context, his championing of the New Towns in particular is ironic given how the Development Corporations which built them were government quangos bypassing even the limited democracy of the local state.  Ward’s critique of what he called the authoritarianism and paternalism of the state is beguiling and not without merit; at the very least, it’s a reasonable rebuke to prevalently top-down forms of planning, design and management.

That said, I’m very sceptical of housing solutions predicated on individual or tenant activism.  Most social housing tenants (like their private counterparts) simply want good landlords; they don’t want to be landlords themselves.  For most people, life lies in what happens beyond politics – work, family, leisure – rather than in politics itself.  Maybe that’s a rather lazy and glib repudiation of anarchist principles of self-help and direct democracy but it feels to me a realistic one.

For similar reasons, I’m really not very interested in the self-build ideals of Walter Segal which Ward also supported.  They offer a constructive alternative housing model for a small number of people but are incapable of meeting housing need on the scale and in the form required by the majority.  It is, in my view, precisely the ‘power and bureaucracy’ of the state which have enabled it to act so positively for the public good – in housing and other fields – over the last hundred years or so (though I’m equally aware that state power is not always exercised benignly).

3:AM: In what way not benignly? I’m thinking here the ‘sons and daughters’ policy of the GLC which left behind a legacy of all-white estates, particularly in South London. 

JB: There’s no doubt at all that the state sometimes gets it wrong; the most obvious example being many of the poorly supervised, shoddily constructed system-built schemes of the late-60s and early-70s.  A lot of these, such as the notorious Hulme Crescents in Manchester, have been demolished since.  Other innovations which seemed a good idea at the time – such as Radburn layouts (separating cars and people) and walkway and deck-access schemes – worked less well in practice.  Conversely, the large, low-rise peripheral estates were sometimes sharply criticised for their isolation and lack of facilities.   In most cases, I feel the social and economic problems which afflicted a wide range of estates from the 1970s were at least as important as any alleged design flaws.

Allocations policies are always controversial.  Local connection policies were a well-meaning attempt to foster and sustain community but they were clearly racist in effect, sometimes in intention, as our BAME population grew.  The shift to needs-based allocations, which became systematic by the late 1970s, was a necessary corrective to this and it rightly prioritised minority families living, disproportionately, in the worst of the private rental sector.  That created racial tensions which might have been avoided had wiser policies been pursued previously.

3:AM: Indeed, you end the book noting the unfortunate circumstances of Grenfell, but also the rise in council attempts at reintroducing council-built housing to local areas.  Some cause for optimism there or too little, too late?

JB: There is cause for optimism. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have abolished Right to Buy and are supporting significant programmes of building for social rent.  In England, councils now have greater borrowing powers and have found various means to build.  Too often, in my view, these rely on public-private partnerships and far too high a proportion of homes are built for sale or at so-called ‘affordable’ rents. Nevertheless, greater numbers of genuinely social rented housing are being built than for some time.  Whether or how far we go beyond this is an essentially political question.  Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have committed to a significant programme of social housing.  For the moment, the Conservatives remain committed to a failing model of home ownership so the next election may be decisive.  It is, I believe, ‘too little’ at present but it is never ‘too late’.

3:AM: Finally, for the curious readership of 3:AM, can you recommend five or so estates of note to take us further into the world of municipal housing?

JB: In some ways, I try to celebrate the ordinary and unheralded – the experience of the vast majority of council tenants over time.  Obviously though, there are estates which stand out. The best of the early cottage estates are very good indeed: the pre-First World War Old Oak Estate in Hammersmith and the Dover House Estate in Roehampton built just after the war as part of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ movement, are verdant, Arts and Crafts, red-brick idylls.  Moving forward there are the more obviously ‘showpiece’ estates which might be familiar to a wider readership – the Camden schemes of the 1960s and 1970s, especially Neave Brown’s wondrous Alexandra Road Estate; the Alton Estate in Wandsworth, New Humanist to the east and Brutalist to the west; streets-in-the-sky Park Hill in Sheffield; the community-led, contemporary vernacular Byker Estate in Newcastle, for example.   The Churchill Estate showcases the daring and ambition of the early post-war years. If you travel further afield, a number of beautiful schemes in Norwich under City Architect David Percival merit attention.  And I’ll give a special shout-out for the unsung Orlando Estate in Walsall which I stumbled across by chance – a beautiful example of high-quality mixed development and, as a resident described it to me, a ‘time capsule of the 1960s’.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is senior editor of 3:AM and lives in West Essex.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 16th, 2018.