Friday, June 08, 2012

The Planners Dream Went Wrong

In a week when good old Auntie BBC was criticised for not making the most of an 86 year old womans trip down the Thames in rain and mist followed by 1,000 boats of various sizes* it was good to see a documentary that seems to have won almost universal praise, even become the leading trending topic on Twitter.

The Secret History of Our Streets is based on a simple idea, take the maps of Charles Booth from the 19th century and see how the street(s) in question have changed over the intervening years. It's the bricks and mortar equivalent of Who Do You Think You Are? I've written about Booth's maps before, they are an invaluable aid to anybody studying the social history of London. 

Charles Booth colour-coded every city street: pink for "fairly comfortable", dark blue for "chronic want", black for "vicious, semi-criminal", and so on. Deptford High Street was red – "middle class, well-to-do" – with a few pink islands round it, in the middle of a blue-black sea.

If the intention had been to make the Street the star of the show with the changes that have happened in the hundred and fifty years since Booth began his project then it hit the target. The real star of the show however was shop keeper John Price, a man whose family put down their roots on the High Street some 250 years ago when the Dutch Huguenot branch of his family tree married the English branch. as Price walked round the deserted 70s estates, recalling his early life, his mental sketches of archways, yards and livelihoods long gone were brought to life by home movies, television and newsreels of the day and conversations with other long time residents of the street and customers of his shop.

What happened to Deptford in the late 1960's and early 1970's happened all across East and South London, it was social engineering on a scale of for a century or more. Council planners decided which houses should be condemned, which could be saved and where high rise towers would replace communities. As was pointed out in the narration, and by more than one of those taking part, houses in 'posher' West and North London boroughs escaped any of these schemes, this point would be brought into sharp focus in the last few minutes revealing, as hitherto closed documents now available could prove, that the whole scheme was pure folly.

The council who had the power to make what were life changing decisions drew up their own maps. Rather than the colour coding of Booth these planning department maps were restricted to black crosses marking the condemned streets. Home movies showed wrecking balls demolishing a community, one woman stayed in her house as her neighbours homes were knocked down until it reached the point where a party wall was knocked down and she had no choice to move.

As John Price said "You couldn't fight the council, you couldn't even get to them."

One of the planners, and later a councillor, was interviewed at times during the programme offering the council's justification for the scheme, his views were juxtaposed with recent and contemporary footage of residents expressing their outrage and sadness at the scheme. The residents who were moved to other areas of the borough talked of depression and of struggling to come to terms with what had happened, John Price's family who had lived in two roads for generations now lived in five different locations across South London.

The sucker punch for all those watching however came in the last five minutes. Council documents showed that the property inspectors had struggled to find any problems with the properties, this despite the on-camera comments of the councillor, they showed that there weren't problems with damp or structure and that in some cases, as John Price himself had been a pains to point out, all that was needed was an indoor bathroom. And then just when you thought it couldn't get any better or worse it was revealed that one of the streets that had been condemned had avoided the wrecking ball and we were shown stomach churning footage of an American woman in her thirties following a smarmy Estate Agent (is there any other sort?) around one of the properties that had avoided demolition. She was impressed by the high ceilings and size of the reception rooms (and who wouldn't, I still have memories of my great grandparents house in Bethnal Green that was also the victim of one of these half arsed schemes) and said that it was a bargain at £750,000.

On Twitter, as in the comments sections of several newspapers, people said that they were reduced to tears by the programme. We watched it in silence and at the end Janis simply said, "That was so sad." I simply offered a rather meek, "It was," in response, it was certainly the saddest programme I've seen about the destruction of a community for a long time.

* I did actually think that some of the criticism was justified, a little bit of planning and some information about various boats would have added to the sense of occasion. However where the BBC is concerned there is no middle ground for some people and it seems to lurch from the acceptable to the 'let's close the whole damn thing down'. Anybody switching over to Sky expecting something with a bit more gravitas would have been sorely disappointed as the fat Irishman moaned about the weather and referred to the Queen's boat as a floating Chinese restaurant.


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