Book Review: Red Metropolis by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley’s book springs from an honourable impulse – to rescue London from lazy stereotyping as an elitist hothouse of privilege, distant from the more authentic social and economic struggles of the northern cities. He aims to rekindle pride in London’s rich heritage as a radical trailblazer of social progress, and for the most part he succeeds.

Hatherley’s previous books have covered everything from the ersatz urbanism of Blair-era ‘regeneration’ projects, to the communist architecture of eastern Europe, to the commodified nostalgia of Cameron’s austerity years. Most recently he has focused his gaze on London (he is also editor of the fascinating Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs, published by Open House last year). A self-described communist, Hatherley began writing Red Metropolis in December 2019, and describes the book as an “attempt to write myself out of the feeling of numb horror” caused by Labour’s defeat in that month’s general election.

Red Metropolis is a work in three acts, focusing in particular on London’s perennial housing crisis and on public housing, one area of social welfare that has consistently had a local dimension. The first part traces the history of London County Council (LCC) from the messy politics and patchy administration of the late 19th Century to 1965, the second records the ascendancy of the New Left in the Greater London Council of the 1980s, the third looks (sorrowfully) at the record of the three mayors of London since 2000. 

The LCC took over from the unelected Metropolitan Board of Works in 1889, and for nearly twenty years, under a shifting “progressive” leadership comprising liberals and various left groups that would later merge into the Labour Party, was a pioneer of municipal socialism. Directly employed labourers built council housing in the Boundary and Millbank estates, which Hatherley praises for their “high-quality materials, urbanity and spaciousness”, and the LCC’s borough allies (including Battersea, where John Archer, the first Black mayor of a borough, was elected in 1913) built smaller-scale schemes such as the Latchmere Estate. 

The Progressive alliance faltered and the Conservatives dominated the LCC for the next 25 years, but by the 1920s, the Labour Party had begun to build a power base (particularly in the “Five Red Boroughs” – Battersea, Bermondsey, Deptford, Poplar and Woolwich). In 1922, Poplar councillors, led by George Lansbury withheld rates from the LCC in order to fund social programmes, arguing that it was “Better to Break the Law than to Break the Poor”. Thirty were briefly jailed in an episode which is a precursor to the 1980s rate-setting protests and the legal challenges to the GLC’s “Fares Fair” policy.

Poplarism stirred up persistent debates within the Labour Party between advocates of constitutional change and those seeking more direct action. Herbert Morrison, who dominated the London Labour Party from the 1920s, and led the LCC from 1934 to 1940, was a vociferous opponent of the latter approach. Morrison has been a controversial figure in left politics, at times criticised (like his grandson Peter Mandelson) for his focus on “electability”, but also for his model of ‘bureaucratic nationalisation’, with professional managers in control rather than workers themselves. 

Hatherley is more generous in his assessment. Even though 1950s schemes such as the Alton Estate are more to his taste architecturally than the “staid and stiff brick tenements” of the 1930s, he argues that Morrison prefigured the post-war settlement by offering free healthcare, building housing, schools and parks, and by establishing London’s own nationalised transport board, and also praises the sometimes-maligned Abercrombie plans that were developed in the heat of the War. Like Robert Moses in New York, Morrison remade his city, and made plenty of enemies along the way.

LCC puritanism – they built estates without pubs and Morrison wanted lidos closed at night to stop “people fucking in them” –was roundly rejected by the “New Left” leadership of the Greater London Council in the 1980s. Hatherley brings to life the carnivalesque egalitarianism of County Hall under Ken Livingstone, its corporate wood-panelled corridors thronging with punks, Rastafarians, gay rights activists, artists, radical feminists and communards. One of the ironies of the past 30 years is how the anti-racist and gay rights campaigns led by the GLC, which led to vitriolic tabloid attacks at the time, have become entirely mainstream, while its economic programmes, such as the “People’s Plans” for reindustrialisation of London’s docks, look positively quaint.

The importance attached by the New Left to community-based politics and participation above all things led, Hatherley argues, to its rejection of Morrisonian housebuilding programmes. Partly as a result of this and partly because the city was still depopulating through the early to mid-1980s, the Livingstone-era GLC built little housing and what it did build was often “twee and flimsy” – pockets of suburban semis that can still be seen dotted around inner London. The antipathy towards grand schemes led to renowned architects such as Neave Brown in Camden and Ted Hollamby in Lambeth being pushed out of their local authority jobs. (In another nice irony, the communist Hollamby went on to work at London Docklands Development Corporation, the epitome of Thatcherite laissez-faire urban policy).

Despite this, Hatherley sees the GLC’s record as a “social democratic Paris Commune” as a guiding light for the Corbynista left in 2015-19: “so successful was it that London’s governing body had to be abolished out of existence.” But he identifies a wider legacy too: the GLC’s focus on cultural policy was foundational to London’s 21st Century character, and its abolition in 1986 alongside the ‘Big Bang’ of financial services deregulation, helped define the politics and economics of London today. 

Hatherley is less impressed with – and I think less fair to – the three Mayors in City Hall since 2000. He gives Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan some credit, for transport projects and policies in particular, but excoriates all three for their failure to tackle London’s housing crisis. In particular he sees them as in thrall to a faustian pact with private sector developers to build affordable housing through Section 106 agreements, designed to mitigate the impacts of new development and to reflect the value created by the grant of planning permission. This approach, he argues, has fanned London’s red-hot property market, encouraged speculation by landlords, and widened inequality in the capital.

The narrative is powerful, but some details are smudged. Hatherley writes that Livingstone failed to define what “affordable housing” meant; but the 2004 London Plan gives broad definitions, and supplementary guidance published in 2005 goes into some detail in defining “social”, “intermediate” and “low cost market” housing, and specifying in what proportions these should be built. He says that the 2012 Olympics resulted in more social housing being lost than was built; but even the social housing provision in the Olympic Village (around 700 homes), exceeds the number that were lost at Clays Lane, the housing co-op that was demolished on the north of the site. And he damns Sadiq Khan’s efforts with faint praise, saying there has been “some encouragement” of councils to build housing; but Mayors need to agree affordable housing funding with national government and Khan has allocated £1 billion of the capital grants he has secured to councils to build 11,000 social rented homes.

But these and a few others are errors of detail. The central accusation stands, against the local government leaders who did deals with private developers as well as against the three Mayors themselves. In recent years the “cross subsidy model” of affordable housing provision, which has also been adopted by councils themselves as well as housing associations, has come in for increasing criticism: it requires rising prices to work, so fuels the pressures that it seeks to address, and creates an industry of opaque and gameable viability assessments. 

What else could the Mayors have done? Housing was explicitly excluded from their functions until 2007 (the GLA was designed to have minimal overlap with borough powers), and control over capital grants for affordable housing was only handed over in 2011. Restrictions on councils’ ability to borrow against their rent rolls in order to build have also only been relaxed in recent years. Hatherley reports Alex Salmond suggesting that Ken Livingstone should have demanded the right to charge more Council Tax on the wealthy to build more social housing, but the right to reform Council Tax was in the Scottish Parliament’s gift from the outset. It was never on the table for London. Two reports from the London Finance Commission, under Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan respectively, have sought more powers over property taxes for London but been studiously ignored.

The approach of the mayoral administrations could also do with some interregnal context. The abolition of the GLC (and other metropolitan counties) came near the high point of conflict between central and local government. As Thatcher was replaced by Major, more centrist borough leaders such as Haringey’s Toby Harris built consensus with businesses and across party lines – until 1995, there were separate membership organisations for Conservative and Labour boroughs. The 2000 version of Ken Livingstone was as much part of this détente as John Major and Tony Blair were. Even bust-ups such as the London Underground public private partnership were about the nature of private sector involvement in the running of the Tube, not the principle of it.

Red Metropolis is an informative, lively and punchy read, at once optimistic about London’s possibilities and angry at its realities. Hatherley brings to it his perceptive and humane architectural sense (equally damning of both the “chilly Piranesian grandeur” of County Hall and the “grub-like” City Hall), an ear for a quote, and an eye for the curiosities and ironies of London’s evolution. The captions under artless urban photographs (by the author and Daniel Trilling) provide a wry running commentary on the text, and on the persistent gaps between rhetoric and reality.

Hatherley closes by observing that, unlike the 1980s when the left captured Labour municipalities across the country but remained shut out from the commanding heights of the party, the Corbyn years saw the party’s leadership shift sharply to the left, without this being reflected in councils, which generally continued to be run by pragmatic/compromised (delete to taste) centrists. Even those, such as Haringey and Newham, that saw leadership changes during the “Momentum years” have failed to implement the Poplarist programmes that Hatherley would like to see. 

The final pages argue, uncontroversially, for more devolution, for decentralisation of government and for more openness to international examples, as well as for an end to growth and a more confrontational attitude towards central government. He believes that London government can acquire powers by staking claims – “Better Break the Law than Break the Poor” still. This is a high-risk strategy, though it did recently work when Mayor Boris Johnson decided to sack the Metropolitan Police Commissioner without the power to do so or reference to the Labour Home Secretary.

Red Metropolis is a salutary reminder of the sense of possibility that can and should infuse London politics, despite the conflicts and compromises that governing a city of nine million people involve. If London is in Henry James’ words “only magnificent”, this magnificence is partly the result of the striving and the strife so well described in this book.

[First published in OnLondon, 8 February 2021]

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