London’s streets are filthy, and have been for years. Street ‘improvement’ as it was condescendingly known, was the earliest attempt to remove central-area slums. It was aimed at the relatively self-contained, crowded clusters of mean streets and delapidated tenements, called ‘rookeries,’ which conjured up images as dens of crime and immorality in the dominant-class mind. The slum problem was defined in terms of the isolation of slum dwellers from the watchful eye and moral behaviour of the ‘respectable’ sections of society, and, obversely, in terms of the moral contamination of honest members of the working class by the criminals and beggars who infested the rookeries. This inevitably led to mass demoralization which was responsible for the formation of unsanitary slums. This view was based on the widely-held beliefs that crime and   demoralized behaviour were a function of inadequate social and spatial environments, which were isolated from the ‘public gaze,’ and, in turn, that demoralized people caused slums.


In the words of Octavia Hill before the [241. 1982 Select Committee: “A great deal of the degradation of these courts is because no public opinion reaches them; if you hear anybody talk about a cul de sac, and contrast it with any place that is a thoroughfare, you feel at once that it is the public opinion that affects the character of a court more than police or anything else.” The circuitous and self-fulfilling nature of this theory is obvious. Given this way of defining and understanding the problem, the demolition of slums to make way for new thoroughfares and to expose them to the ‘public gaze,’ was an equally obvious solution, which was implemented with a vengeance.


As Percy Edwards put the official line in his [251 book on 19th century London’s street improvements: – “The Select Committee[on London] of 1938…called attention in its report to the fact that there were districts in London through which no great thoroughfares passed, and which were wholly occupied by a dense population composed of the lowest class of persons who being entirely secluded from the observation and influence of better educated neighbours, exhibited a state of moral degradation deeply to be deplored. It was suggested that this lamentable state of affairs would be remedied whenever the great streams of public intercourse could be made to pass through the districts in question.


It was also justly contended that the moral condition of these poorer occupants would necessarily be improved by communication with more respectable inhabitants, and that the introduction at the same time of improved habits and a freer circulation of air would tend materially to extirpate those prevalent diseases which not only ravaged the poorer districts in question, but were also dangerous to the adjacent localities.” It soon became clear that street clearance substantially increased overcrowding and rents, and generated new slum districts elsewhere, rather than   (26] clearing away the slums.


For example, William Farr stated in 1941: “You take down the dwellings of the poor, build houses in their places for which only the middle classes can afford to pay the rent, and thus by diminishing the amount of cheap house accommodation, increase the rents and aggravate the evil you attempt to cure.” However, in spite of this knowledge, no provisions were made for rehousing the displaced until 1977. The Metropolitan Board of Works, which was responsible for most of London’s street clearances, persisted in the patently false belief that the displaced working class dispersed into the suburbs.


When, in 1977, the Board was forced to find alternative accommodation for those evicted, it resented the order, arguing that rehousing was uneconomical and impractical and that in any case the displaced preferred cash compensation. It generally did everything in itspower to evade or lessen its rehousing responsibilities. The Board was far more interested in traffic   efficiency and increased rateable value. The housing of the working class was left to the operation of the working-class housing market, which as we have seen was the structural cause of slum formation. The connection between street clearance and the drive to enhance London’s potential as a setting for capital accumulation by improving the efficiency of its street system, is obvious. It has been argued that the power relations of the land and housing markets were such that the new thoroughfares had to be located in working-class districts.




May 21, 2018


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