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Red blueprint

A new book about the capital’s government notes the left’s failure to fight corporate greed, says Conrad Landin

08 January, 2021 — By Conrad Landin

The Alexandra Road estate under construction

AS Covid-19 heat maps abound, Britain’s north-south divide has returned to the national conversation.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham recently said the north has been “treated with contempt”, while Tom Hazeldine’s new book The Northern Question traces how Britain’s regional disparities became deeper than those of Italy and re-unified Germany.

“Relative to the country it governs, London is the single most powerful city of any medium-sized country on earth,” Owen Hatherley notes. Though this was challenged by the industrial revolution, the collapse of Britain’s industrial base in the 20th century restored London to a position of unrivalled dominance.

Hatherley’s book Red Metropolis is, however, a book written in unashamed defence of London and its people – including most of all those who have flocked to the city from across Britain and the world. Hatherley charts the history of a city with much to show for a century of frequently interrupted socialist government. As he does so, he grapples with the increasing failures of the city’s left to resist the tide of corporate greed, and makes a passionate case for local government.

In spite of Herbert Morrison’s apocryphal promise to “build the Tories out of London”, the London County Council he led in the 1930s took a more cautious approach. Much of working-class inner London was left as it was. The LCC preferred to build its vast estates outside its own boundaries – which at this point included modern-day Camden’s outer fringes at Hampstead and Highgate.

The post-war LCC, and its successor in the expanded Greater London Council, oversaw a more revolutionary period – though by the 1960s and 70s, more powers lay with individual boroughs. Camden was a leader of the pack – with Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road and Peter Tabori’s Whittington estates the living legacy of the borough’s in-house architectural department.

Neave Brown

This modernism of the people was not without controversy – as a fascinating, if brief, section of Hatherley’s book explains. As inflation soared in the 1970s, so did the costs of Alexandra Road. And with political control of Camden – like much of London – swinging between Labour and the Tories, some were determined to lay the blame at Brown’s door.

A public inquiry exonerated the pioneering architect, but his career never recovered. Camden, meanwhile, switched to buying up existing housing stock – like Lissenden Gardens in Gospel Oak. When canvassing these grand mansion flats, the late Frank Dobson used to regale Labour activists with the story of the bathtub full of champagne bottles he had found there – and the wild party that took place that evening to celebrate acquisition.

In the five years prior to its abolition in 1986, the GLC under Ken Livingstone would come to symbolise the capital’s resistance to Margaret Thatcher’s government. Hatherley’s discussion of the era’s achievements and shortcomings is refreshingly both broad and nuanced, taking in the arts, anti-racism and “red boroughs” like Ted Knight’s Lambeth and Bernie Grant’s Haringey.

Hatherley’s cynical but astute eye brings out details we should spend more time examining: like the importance of appointed officials to progressive local government, and the proliferation of Communists in public architecture departments. In discussing Livingstone’s second reign over the capital, as the city’s first mayor, he focuses on successes in transport policy and failures over housing.

Apart from occasionally contextualising London – then and now – among other experiments in municipal socialism, there is also little on what London has taught and learned from other cities. Much as property prices in the capital make those in any other British city seem ludicrously cheap, the domino effect of housing speculation is now evident well beyond the M25.

Young creatives and professionals priced out of Leytonstone or West Hendon are likely to look to Hastings, Margate and increasingly Manchester and Glasgow. It’s all the more reason to ensure any strategy for reviving local democracy is co-ordinated across the nation.

In a dry volume published in 1945, LCC official W Eric Jackson argued that local government “affects us all from many directions”, and asked: “Why are there no more in this country any great plagues as there were in former times?” If they can ask this question once again in 30 years’ time, and the answer can once again be local government, Hatherley’s work will be done.

  • Red Metropolis. By Owen Hatherley. Repeater, £10.99.


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