Drastic U-turn needed on housing

Leeds is a classic example of the disaster of well meaning housing provision over six decades. It is all a result of an idealistic obsession with bricks and mortar rather than with an awareness of what constitutes a genuine, live community. It is important today because it is the acres and acres of poor urban housing provision which breed disillusion and provoke support for simplistic extremist solutions.

It is not a new problem, nor one of hindsight. In 1906, almost a hundred years ago, Alderman Frances Lupton wrote in a report on "unhealthy areas": "it is quite needless to introduce flats .... into Leeds; whilst there are objections to them on the score of want of privacy, as well as considerable difficulty in giving proper exercise to young children, who cannot come down from the upper storeys in high buildings, and are therefore shut up in the dwellings whenever their mothers cannot look after them. The same objection applies when one considers the case of the old and infirm." It took a great number of years, and of distress, to discover the truth of this in practice.

Thirty years later Leeds had another great housing pioneer. The Rev Charles Jenkinson was an unlikely reformer. A broad cockney and an Anglican clergyman in Holbeck, he became a Labour city councillor in 1930. In the course of six brief years - only three years of them with Labour control of the council - Jenkinson had pushed through plans for massive slum clearance and for thirty thousand new houses. He was appalled by the slums of Holbeck, Hunslet, New Wortley and other inner city areas. Thousands of back to back houses with communal privies at the end of a block of eight houses were demolished and the residents moved to huge new council houses set into great areas of space at Gipton, Seacroft, Halton Moor, Belle Isle, Middleton, Meanwood, Sandford, and Ebor Gardens. These are now amongst the biggest problem areas of the city.

How did such an idealistic scheme turn out so badly? First, the pace of change took no account of the needs of human society. Communities and neighbourhoods build the linkages between families gradually. In a normal street people come and go over a long period of time and they have a chance to establish relationships one by one. By contrast, Jenkinson's reforms required traumatic change - whole areas demolished and everyone transferred to a different neighbourhood. Moreover, even if everyone from a previous street wanted to stay together, it was not possible. Only one house was built on the space where five had previously been. Four out of five neighbours were dispersed elsewhere.

Certainly some areas of back-to-backs could not be improved, but many could, with the addition of a dormer window and the inclusion of an inside toilet. In the latter cases, a policy of gradual renewal would have been far better. Under such a scheme an individual terrace house beyond repair is taken out and a new one inserted, complete with modern facilities. In this way communities could be kept together.

Second, it created "one class, one tenure" council estates where the struggle to survive and, as time went on, to protect one's property, took all one's energy and left little time for further education or for community leadership. Unlike the older areas long since demolished, the new estates lacked a professional class. Indeed, the perception for any young person with initiative was to get out as soon as possible. This, coupled with the disappearance of apprenticeships and the consequent lack of an artisan class, left the estates largely leaderless. In such circumstances, despite the presence of many decent people, it was no wonder that law and order broke down and that lawless behaviour, epitomised by burglary and robbery, was and is rife. The vast majority of crime is detected by the public, but if, as on many of the inter-war estates, the layout exaggerates privacy, no-one sees the burglars and where they do, few are brave enough to identify and report them. When, at 11.30pm one recent Monday night, I and a friend caught two of the most recent of our many actual and attempted burglars, the police were surprised and delighted!

In these areas, which include much of Bramley where I live, how many of the people looked up to in the community actually live there? All lawyers, most teachers, social workers, housing officers, architects, probation officers, doctors and dentists commute to work amongst us. Even worse, almost all police officers also live in the leafy suburbs - and if those who are community beat officers live miles away how can they possibly build up a detailed knowledge of what goes on where they police? Worse still, many councillors live miles from the areas they represent. Four Labour councillors for Burmantofts, Bramley and University wards live in Horsforth and, heaven help us, two of the Labour councillors for Hunslet live in Otley and Guiseley. How do we have a chance of building secure and convivial neighbourhoods in so-called rough areas if even the elected representatives don't share the life of their areas?

In the midst of all this, are there examples of success? Indeed there are. In my time on the council and in parliament one of the worst council estates in Leeds was Wyther Park. It was a 1919 estate and the bottom part of it - the Houghleys - was a punishment block where the kids played tig with hatchets. My council colleague David Selby battled for years to persuade the council to tackle the problem and eventually he succeeded. The worst bits of the estate were demolished and private developers built houses for sale, and a housing association constructed houses for private rent. Now it is a transformed corner of west Leeds. A strong community is a mixed community and the lesson of Wyther Park can be translated to other urban areas.

We have to tackle the alienation and the disillusion that leads to crime and violence, we need to support the many decent people, and we need to start by ensuring people have decent houses in safe and lively neighbourhoods.

26 May 2004