By Anne Power
I first came across the Church Commissioners' biography of Octavia Hill in Brixton library. Its accounts of inner London's chaotic slum communities, irresponsible landlords, filth, squalor and distress caught my eye: how close conditions in Brixton in 1980, where I was working as a housing consultant on the Tulse Hill estate, seemed to the Victorian conditions that Hill had battled with a century earlier in nearby Walworth, also in south London.
This practical social reformer, with her roots in poverty, saw family, community and educational problems, but unlike most housing reformers did not believe in demolishing appalling properties and building afresh if it could be avoided. Rather, she argued for incremental, on-the-spot improvements in tandem with the existing tenants, within the limits of low rents and borrowed money that had to be repaid.
Hill's work showed how much could be done by following basic principles of care, applied skill, patience, clarity, firmness and order. On the ground, her principles worked in practical ways to reverse grotesque landlord abuses, regain control and rehumanise almost bestial conditions. Lord Salisbury, the housing reformer and contemporary of Hill, had asked with genuine concern: "Was it the pig that created the sty or the sty that created the pig?" Hill was in no doubt that the one fuelled the other, and both property and people had to be tackled and "reformed" together.
It was music to my ears to uncover this early evidence of a practical, low-cost way of tackling the worst conditions and to secure a carte blanche to apply it from the then landlord, the Greater London council (GLC). My colleagues and I were up against a huge, remote bureaucracy, developed with benign intentions, but so distant from the people it was set up to serve that it had reached the point of collapse. Public bureaucracies are poor fixers of drainpipes and refuse services. The GLC's elaborately constructed but remote housing systems simply did not deliver, just as was the case in other big cities.
Our unconventional approach to inner-city estates, on the other hand, worked quickly to restore order. The estate office soon opened and all eight caretaking posts were filled. Uniforms were reinstated at the request of caretakers, so they became clearly recognisable to tenants. Within six months the estate was fully let; unbreakable glass was intact in the stairwells; lights were on at night; refuse was cleared twice a week to keep the chutes clear; open spaces were gradually reclaimed. The local police agreed to increase their presence to daily patrols.
The really exciting story is what happened to the tenants, whom government officials in early visits to the estate had blamed for the conditions. We started the consultation, knocking door by door, and personally invited every occupier to small block meetings. We held 25 meetings on the estate over three months. We needed to understand tenants' priorities and secure their support for the local effort under way.
Tenants wanted three simple things: repairs, cleaning, security. They thought the local office and caretakers were critical to achieve this. Without direct, immediate access to decision-makers and support staff, tenants would be powerless to help and staff would not have their "finger on the pulse".
The tenants' priorities were uncannily close to Hill's. They wanted open spaces to be cared for and shared so that the crowded, inner-city, multi-racial community could get together and use them. Tenants' steering groups were formed and included key GLC housing officers and two caretakers. A group of tenants was determined to collect for a large Christmas tree to stand on the grass area in front of the largest block. The council and police were sceptical but the tenants persisted: they put up the tree with help from the estate officers and held a children's party. The tenants then planted hundreds of daffodils in the grass in front of the same block.
By Easter, the estate was blooming. The community had reclaimed control, but they had not done it alone. Without a willing on-site landlord, the estate could not work. It had to be property and people.
The area was spared the massive disorder and violence that engulfed Brixton in the riots of 1981. Lord Scarman drew many lessons from his visit to the estate following the riots.
We had demonstrated that small-scale, relatively low-cost, incremental community-based action was the lifeblood of social peace, even on big and difficult estates. Heavy-handed systems and remotely controlled interventions invariably create unintended and disruptive consequences from which communities cannot shield themselves. Such large-scale systems do not respond readily to direct community needs and prove blunt instruments in the face of unseen pressures at the bottom of society.
Today, these lessons are invaluable as local and national government seek to address the problems that erupted in the riots of last summer, when the wide gap between communities and authorities became apparent.
The serious dislocation between high-level decisions and low-level experience was a major factor in the 2011 riots. People close to the ground saw trouble brewing as youth services, job access, training funds and other frontline services started to shrink.
The absurd reality is that government cuts are undoing the very services that help communities survive, thereby escalating the costs of remedial intervention. The lessons from Tulse Hill and from Octavia Hill are consistent. Neglect of the frontline leads to chaos, while care at ground level prevents problems escalating. Inner cities, always turbulent places, only survive with strong custodial care.
Urban harmony using the Octavia Hill model
• Small beginnings lead to undiscovered ends. Small steps encourage people whose confidence has been crushed by the race for growth; small local systems are essential for the proper management of community conditions.
• Shortage of space, materials and money dictate that we should never waste anything. If we apply this lesson rigorously we will have to make things last and reuse all our urban space, buildings and infrastructure while we figure out how to change the way we do things.
• Buildings adapt to what we need them to be and do, as long as we work with the grain of what is there. The scandals of more than a million empty, useable buildings and of knocking down affordable homes in our inner cities in order to move to unaffordable "market" rents for the poor and thus push them out, show how urgent this lesson is.
• People can do things for themselves. They want to do so, but need the confidence, knowhow and, crucially, the ongoing support to make it possible. People become powerless in chaotic communities and, therefore, we need more carefully planned, more community-oriented local management. Striking the balance between essential, overarching public support and local action requires frontline people tuned to the ground and responsive decision-makers higher up. Bridge-building in this way is essential, and Hill's work as bridge-builder became the driving force behind her belief in the power of self-help. This way, inequalities shrink and the tensions that provide the backdrop to riots shrink.
• Linking low-skilled local jobs with people who need work and skills saves money, builds community, maintains commitment and involves people in ways that protect local investment. Young people must be involved and share in these opportunities if they are to channel their positive energy into hope for the future. This is why the Tulse Hill Christmas tree lights survived, why the daffodils bloomed, and why human beings thrive in cities in spite of all the problems that crowd us in.
Posted on 7 June 2012.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anne Power. This article was first published by The Guardian.
Anne Power is professor of social policy and head of housing and communities at LSE.