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The demons of demolition rise yet again

Friday 18 February 2005

Countryside commentator John Sheard fears for the future of our market towns as politicians re-invent the wheel and bring the bulldozers rumbling back into business

IN 1960, when I was an ambitious young freelance reporter in the Home Counties, I was invited to a landmark exhibition at the Government's very own building research centre near Watford.

The country was in the full swing of demolition madness, clearing away hundreds of thousands of perfectly adequate terraced houses in the name of "slum clearance." And the clever architects in Watford had come up with a brilliant idea to improve our towns and cities without wrecking the close-knit communities that thrived there.

They had designed a series of small but clever houses, complete with all mod-cons (which included bathrooms in those days!) which fitted exactly onto the footprint of the terraces that we being destroyed.

The demons of demolition rise yet again
The demons of demolition rise yet again

The idea was simple: by building on the foundations of the old, the new homes could use the same streets, the same gas, water and electricity mains and, perhaps most important of all, they would remain in the same area with the same shops, pubs and churches. In other words, an old community in new housing.

So what did the Government of the day do? It destroyed possibly millions of good houses and in their place put tower blocks - many now themselves demolished - and huge council estates which have now become a byword in crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour.

Now readers in the Yorkshire Dales may think this was a long away from home - it could never happen here - but please look at these pictures of modern Skipton and some of its most desirable properties down by the Springs Branch of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

These cottages now sell for anything between £150,000 and £180,000 apiece. But back in the 1960s they, too, were marked for demolition as slum clearance mania swept the land.

The demons of demolition rise yet again
The demons of demolition rise yet again

They would have been replaced by monstrosities like No 9 High Street, which was built at the same time on land left by the demolition of superb Georgian houses - and this directly opposite the historic Skipton Castle and parish church.

Fortunately for today's Skiptonians - and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who flood the town ever year - it took the planners and councilors so long to make up their minds that thinking people had begun to realise that such large-scale demolition was one of the biggest social tragedies ever to hit this island.

So that, we would hope, was the end of that. But we would be wrong because the demolition demons of riding again with none other than our old friend John "Two Jags" Prescott at the reins. And God help every town in the North if his plans are put into action.

For reasons known only to him, Prescott wants to demolish some 350,000 perfectly sound Victorian houses in the North whilst at the same time building millions more in the South East, many of them on greenfield sites.

How this affects the drift of population to the south is totally beyond me - and dozens of other conservation bodies who have been protesting bitterly for the past two weeks since the plan was revealed at the so-called "Sustainable Communities Summit" in Manchester. You can sustain communities by sending the bulldozers in?

The demons of demolition rise yet again
The demons of demolition rise yet again

Even without Prezza, there are people at work at present in both Skipton and Settle under the so-called "renaissance" projects who are arguing in favour of large scale rebuilding plans to "save" the towns. From what?

Why is that, every two generations or so, politicians both local and national feel he need to re-invent the wheel. Are they just two young, or merely too ignorant, not to have learned from the lessons of the past?

Or is it some strange mental longing for self-aggrandizement that makes politicians want to build monuments to their time of this earth, however awful those monuments might be, like the late French President Pompidou, who had a glass pyramid named after him erected in the courtyard of Le Louvre, thus desecrating one of Paris's finest buildings.

It can't happen here in the Dales, you might say. Well it damn well nearly did 40 years ago and the same deep, dark forces are stirring again. As the saying goes, "All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." You have been warned.

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