If you missed The Secret History of Our Streets: Deptford (BBC2), then catch up here to see how well-meaning planners with more ideology than sense ripped the heart out of a community.
The programme is one in a series that looks at how London streets have evolved through the people who have lived there.
John Price comes from a long line of Deptford market stall holders, going back some 250 years and he still runs a shop on the street. He talked about the community that lived and worked around the market, making a handsome living from stalls situated just yards from their homes and drinking in the many pubs (most now closed or turned into betting shops).
Then came the 1960s and a generation of planners soaked in modernism and the ideas of the Bauhaus (coincidentally the subject of an exhibition running at the Barbican right now). Footage from the time shows planners talking about a new London that would rise from the post-war ruins and run like a machine. It would have areas dedicated to different kinds of activity and people. For these zealots the only way forward was to destroy large swathes of the city and replace the hugger-mugger Victorian terraces with “machines for living”.
The problem was to find places to start and working class areas of London, where the terraces were unmodernised, and had no indoor toilets or bathrooms, seemed to be the obvious place. Deptford fit the bill and soon planners were patrolling streets of owner-occupied houses, issuing notices that the houses were: ‘Unfit for human habitation’.
No doubt many of them were in bad shape. Former chair of Lewisham Planning authority, Nicholas Taylor, insists that most were in a dilapidated state but, he was not happy about the wholesale clearance and, once he was appointed, did his best to slow things down.
It was too late for John Price. His auntie refused the compulsory purchase order and stayed on as houses were demolished to the left and the right. As Price grimly remembers, those who were left found that their houses soon became unfit, as vermin moved into the ruins, water pipes were cut off and the their value plunged. In the end they were forced to accept re-housing in newly-built tower blocks.
Footage from the time reminds us that bricks and mortar do not make a home, as women cut off from familiar streets and neighbours, talk about how lonely they are and how much they miss their families and friends.
Perhaps more shocking is the modern footage of a young professional couple, being shown around a house in one of the few Victorian streets that survived the cull, by an estate agent. The house (now worth £750,000) is described in glowing terms as they are shown its many original features. As Price points out, houses just like those in Deptford, can be found all over London. Nobody tried to tear down the terraces in Chelsea.
Nicholas Taylor is a little unfairly cast as the ‘baddy’ in this parable about unthinking, unfeeling bureaucracy. But there are many other villains who probably have a lot more to answer for. Visit the Barbican if you can, and see how a group of gifted, creative, dynamic people can come up with wonderful ideas – and then assume that they have the right to turn them into rules that other people should follow.
Check out producer, Joseph Bullman’s blog for more on this wonderful series,