Deptford – ‘The History of Our Streets’, and Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder Programme

The episode on Deptford High Street of the BBC series ‘The Secret History of our Streets’ was a brilliantly interesting piece of television. One theme it dealt with was the large scale demolition and development of the area in the1950s to 1970s and how the local residents saw the issues quite differently from the politicians who led the redevelopment agenda.

The residents interviewed say that the claims of the officials, that the houses were damp and were not capable of refurbishment to acceptable standards, were untrue: there was no damp, and there was plenty of room to build extensions for the provision of indoor toilets and bathrooms. Recently found evidence showed that many of the local authority surveyors agreed – there was no damp; the homes were structurally sound and could be updated to meet modern standards and needs.

I have no doubt that there were some, if not many, homes in the Deptford area which did have damp; didn’t have room for the fitting of modern toilets and bathrooms and were structurally unsound, and it is interesting that the programme didn’t look at these homes, but concentrated on the homes occupied and generally owned by the more well-to-do residents, many of who were the local shop keepers and owners. Many of these more well-to-do residents felt no need or desire to move out, and many of them resisted the compulsory purchase orders, but eventually gave in once the area was demolished around them, blighted, and the building next door was demolished in a way which let water into their up-to-then structurally sound home.

Then the programme talked about the effect on the relocation on residents and the splitting of community and family ties, and the support system these provided. We heard about loneliness and depression of the women, and the dislocation of work contacts amongst the men.

The vast majority of this isn’t news. The effect of large scale and area wide demolition and redevelopment schemes on established, and mixed, communities has been well known for many years; as has the effect of blight of such schemes during the long-drawn out process, especially when budgets are cut and the schemes stopped or delayed.

So, moving from the 1950s, 60s and 70s to today, it is quite shocking that the Housing Pathfinder (‘Housing Market Renewal’) programme repeated many of the same mistakes when the lessons were there to be learnt.

Why did most of these schemes practice wide scale demolition, when a more selective approach would have led to keeping communities in place; allowed an incremental approach to have been taken which would have avoided the risk of blight if (as has happened) the funding for the long term plan is reduced or withdrawn; and allowed for a greater mix of tenure and neighbourhood in all seances?

A more low key, less top-down, and less large scale approach would have led to the areas in question being improved by the market much quicker, and more cheaply to the public purse, than this large scale approach which relied on wholescale clearance of an area and then handing over the cleared site to large scale developers. The whole approach (with a few exceptions) lacked imagination and showed a lack understanding of the lessons from the past which anyone with an interest in regeneration (and town planning) history knows about.

The problems of The Pathfinders Housing Market Renewal Programme were easily predicted, as indeed I did, so why was the Government’s good intentions ‘delivered’ in this old fashioned, and failed, way? To me it seems that there are too many people involved in regeneration and sustainable growth who aren’t really interested in proper, holistic and balanced, regeneration and are just commercial surveyors who’s main interest is in, and excitement comes from, doing a deal than providing places which work for people.

And finally, I think the programme showed too bleak a picture of Deptford High Street as it currently is: no mention was made to the bustle which is there, in the market, on a Saturday, nor of the large numbers of butchers and fishmongers (I haven’t seen so many in one place) which line the street in permanent shops. It may be poorer than many other parts of London, but it has a buzz to it and seemed to have a sense of community even now.

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