Research: The impact of post-war slum clearance in the UK

Posted on 1 November 2012

Professor Becky Tunstall and Dr Stuart Lowe discuss their findings at a conference held in York: 'Breaking up Communities: The social impact of housing demolition in the late twentieth century.'

Park Hill development, Sheffield. Photo by Stuart Lowe

Park Hill, Sheffield´╗┐

Professor Becky Tunstall (Director, Centre for Housing Policy) and Dr Stuart Lowe (Senior Lecturer, SPSW) will be reporting back on their findings from a project investigating the social impact of post-war slum clearance, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The full-day event, to be held at Grays Court, York, will look at lessons learnt from the high-rise developments of the 1950s-1970s and challenge the idea that communities were broken up against their will.

Hosted by the Centre for Housing Policy, the event aims to bring together experts, from academic and other backgrounds, sharing information and discussing the impacts of housing demolition during 1945-75 and in more recent programmes.

Dr Stuart Lowe explains the context of this research:

Slum clearance in the 1950–1970s was one of the biggest and most ambitious state-led programmes, even measured by the scale of public policy initiatives in the post-war reconstruction era (establishing the NHS, the formation of British Railways etc). Clearing the slum housing legacy of the Industrial Revolution changed society in a very direct way, transforming the way of life of a huge number of people. It is difficult to be precise but the magnitude is staggering. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government data suggests the clearances that took place between 1955 and 1985 affected about 3.70 million people, some 1.5 million properties demolished.  This means that these clearances affected nearly 15 per cent of the extant population. Neither does this figure account for the unrecorded, unknown millions who moved away from these areas of their own accord. 

This research focussed on the evidence for how these slum cleared communities were broken up and resettled. Astonishingly very few properly conducted studies were conducted at the time despite the huge impact these clearances were having. Young and Wilmott’s Family and Kinship in East London documented the move of families from Bethnal Green to Debden in Essex. It sold over half a million copies and achieved iconic status. However its research was seriously flawed. The idea that these EastEnders hated Debden and wanted to return to Bethnal Green is completely at odds with much better studies. Young and Wilmott romanticised working class community. In reality most slum cleared families were relieved to move from squalid insanitary housing, were incredulous at the idea of going back and enjoyed hot running water, electric lights, warm housing and the comforts they never had. A sub-plot to this was however the unpopularity of high rise flats where many clearance families were sent.

Pictured above: The Park Hill development was Sheffield’s first post-war programme of flats built to re-house slum cleared families. They are the first example of deck access flats in the UK. They are now a Grade II listed building. The Hyde Park flats (to the rear) built a few years later were demolished after they were used for competitors in the  World Students’ Games in 1991. Parkhill is currently being renovated by Urban Splash creating flats for sale at £90,000.

For further details of the dissemination and discussion event held on 2 November see:

About CHP and the Department

The Centre for Housing Policy is a research unit in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, and has a twenty-year record of academically excellent and policy-relevant research, with measurable impacts on policy and services.

Housing Policy is studied by our Social Policy undergraduate students in an elective module taught by Dr Stuart Lowe and the Department has a number of PhD students researching housing policy both in the UK and internationally.