The Rise and Fall of Glasgow’s Red Road Flats, Part 2: Failed Post-War Visions?
Glasgow Corporation entered the post-1945 era with a vision of a radically different Glasgow. This was to be reflected, not least, in the built environment of the city and in its housing. Informed by municipal socialistic values, Glasgow constructed greater numbers of public sector high rise housing developments than any other city in Western Europe in the post-1945 era.
Attempting to address historic problems of slum and overcrowded housing, by far the worst in the UK, the city embarked on a large-scale programme of high rise developments. Together with a massive programme of low rise housing estate development across the city, and the construction of four large ‘peripheral’ housing estates on the city’s outer-edges (in Castlemilk, Drumchapel, Easterhouse and Pollok), by the 1980s Glasgow Council was the largest public sector landlord in Western Europe with over 186,000 houses under its control. 63 per cent of the population of the city living in publicly rented housing, in what was widely termed ‘corporation housing’!
The development at Red Road, located in the Balornock and Barmulloch area, approximately 4 miles north east from Glasgow’s City Centre, was to become the most iconic of Glasgow’s post-War housing developments. Few council estates (or ‘schemes’ as they are generally referred to in Scotland) have been so often in the limelight and for so long, even if much of that was for negative reasons. They were the highest public sector tower blocks in Europe at the time of opening in 1971.
Built between 1964 and 1969, the eight towers, which ranged from 28-31 storeys, were to house almost 4700 people. At almost 300 feet high, the views from the upper floors of the blocks extended well beyond Glasgow to the mountains of Argyll to the West, Stirlingshire to the north and almost through to Edinburgh in the East. The blocks were readily visible to people arriving in Glasgow from the North and from the East by train or car and for the past 40 years or so have dominated the skyline of the city.
For their new tenants, the Red Road Flats, together with Glasgow’s other council housing developments, represented a vast improvement on the slum housing which they had lived in previously. It was the views that attracted people, but the hot and cold running water, inside toilet and bathroom, that they had more than one bedroom and a separate kitchen, all of which were generally absent from the older nineteenth century tenements. These flats were symbolic of an era in which state provision of affordable housing to rent was highly desirable and when there was considerable political investment by mainly Labour-controlled local authorities.
However, the architecture and construction of the blocks, steel-framed concrete slabs (the only Glasgow high-rises built in this way) in a style since then referred to as ‘Modernist Brutalism’, was the subject of early complaints, reflected in difficult to heat and draughty houses. It wasn’t too long before the Red Road became not a hallmark of Glasgow’s advance in public sector housing design but a symbol of poorly constructed and hard to let council housing.
From being one of the solutions to Glasgow’s post-1945 housing crisis, the Red Road development (and other high-rise estates in the city) came to be regarded as places of decline – and of failure. To be housed in the Red Road also came to be a sign of personal failure on the part of tenants who had little other option than to take a house in the flats. ‘The Red Road’ – no other term was required – became a byword and symbol of poverty, social problems, alienation and exclusion.
In its last few years, the Red Road has been used to house students and more recently asylum seekers who have come to Glasgow as part of the UK Government’s ‘dispersal’ programme. This has seen the city take in more refugees that any other city outside London.
Increasingly Glasgow’s high rise blocks have come to be regarded by the Glasgow Housing Agency, the body that took over the city’s public sector housing under stock transfer in 2003, as a burden with many of the high-rises lined up for demolition. In recent years this has come to be a frequent occurrence as demolition is advanced as the latest solution to Glasgow’s housing problems. The first two of the Red Road blocks were demolished in June 2012, the rest came down this month.
Back in early 2014, it had been announced that the remaining Red Road Flats would be blown-up as part of the Opening Ceremony of the Twentieth Commonwealth Games, being held in the city in July and August. This demolition was to be beamed live to huge screens a few miles away at Celtic Park. For the City Council and Commonwealth Games leaders, such demolition signified the ‘brave new world’ that Glasgow was allegedly to enter. In the words of the leader of the Labour-controlled Glasgow Council, it would be be ‘symbolic of a changing Glasgow’.
However, within days the decision had already attracted considerable opposition from community activists, artists, politicians, and a petition started within hours of the news attracted well over 17,000 signatures in less than a week. It caused a furore that went well beyond Glasgow. Scottish and UK newspapers carried the story as did local TV and radio stations and the BBC online news site. Various social media sites were heavily populated with Red Road commentary and stories. On April 13 – only a week after the initial proposals to demolish were made public – the Commonwealth Games organisers announced that they were abandoning their plans amid concerns relating to ‘safety and security’
There is so much more that could be written about the Red Road Flats. Few council estates have had so much attention, reflected in countless art works, photographic exhibitions, a film and a novel and they have appeared in many documentaries and on television dramas.
At a surface level, the demolition of the Red Road Flats exemplified the argument that Glasgow’s extensive post-war investment in poorly designed and built high-rise council housing was a strategic social and economic blunder. But there was a deeper level to the symbolism of the demolition of Red Road. It somehow manages to cue to a wide audience that it is waste of time and money to try and provide council housing for working-class people. It always ends up in failure.
Such views are not difficult to find today. As we approach the last episode in the half century life of the Red Road Flats, stigmatising and negative images and accounts of social housing – and of social housing tenants – flourish far and wide. But it is not social housing that has failed in Glasgow – or elsewhere. Not is it social housing tenants who have failed. Many of the people rehoused were given little opportunity other than to accept a home to rent in a badly designed block of flats. These flats were often built in the fastest time possible without due attention to facilities and amenities – and certainly without the level of provision that tenants in JG Ballard’s High-Rise enjoyed.
The demolition of the Red Road Flats in October 2015 is also a demolition of an important part of working class history in Glasgow. It sweeps away a sense of the past, of key aspects of working class Glasgow folklore, as was the case with the demolition of the tenements beforehand. While it is important to recognise the problems that plagued the Red Road, we should acknowledge that it was home for many Glaswegian families and for people newly arrived and seeking refuge from wars and persecution overseas. Much more could have been done for all these tenants and for the Red Road area more generally.
This latest round of demolitions has strong echoes of the past: the slum clearances of the 1930s and of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The historic legacy of the massive changes that took place in the geography and built environment of post 1945 Glasgow under ‘comprehensive redevelopment’, the wonderfully evocative term used by politicians and planners to describe what was little more than widespread demolition, continues to shape contemporary Glasgow. As the political elite and city planners see in the latest phase of demolition a new Glasgow of the future, we should not forget that we have been here before, as this 2006 statement from the City Council reminds us:
“The skyline of Glasgow is set to be radically transformed, as swatches of high-rise tower blocks make way for thousands of new homes across the city. Glasgow is enjoying a real renaissance. We’re delivering on better housing and we have regained our sense of ambition. This is an announcement that looks to the future and we are determined we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Arguably no British city has been subjected to so many visions of bright housing and urban future as Glasgow. While some of the historic problems of overcrowding have been addressed and new houses built, enormous problems remain in the lack of good quality, affordable social housing to rent for countless numbers of people.
- Gerry Mooney is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the The Open University in Scotland. See his academic profile here. For additional information and writings, see his OU OpenLearn page. He has also written for The Conversation and you’ll find his dedicated pages here. Follow Gerry on Twitter at @gerrymooney60.