Breaking up communities? The social impact of housing demolition in the late twentieth century

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Centre for Housing Policy


In several periods across the twentieth century, central government and local authorities across the UK have carried out large scale housing demolition. Homes were demolished principally to meet aims of housing policy by removing unsatisfactory homes and creating sites for new building. Waves of clearance in the 1930s, 1950s-1970s, and, arguably, in the late 1990s and 2000s, resulted in the movement of millions of households. Between 1955 and 1985, the period which this study focuses on, 1.5m homes were demolished in England and Wales, and 15% of all homes present in metropolitan areas in 1955 had been cleared by 1985. This means that population movement though slum clearance has been part of the history of a substantial minority of families, neighbourhoods and communities across the UK.

There are two main interpretations of slum clearance. Firstly, from the late nineteenth century up to the 1970s: slum clearance was seen as costly process and having many drawbacks, but essential and worthwhile for the eventual society-wide, gains. Then in the late twentieth century, there was a reassessment. Clearance was increasingly seen as ineffective, expensive in money, and also costly in other terms. In particular, academic observers, practitioners and members of the affected areas argued that clearance had a huge, unrecognised social cost because it 'broke up communities'. For example, an affected resident said: "the community feeling went when we were moved out" (quoted in Jones 2010 p360).

There are numerous case studies of individual and community experience of clearance and movement, produced by professional and community historians. These case studies suggest that both above interpretations are right, in some places and for some people. Some individuals and families and some whole neighbourhoods moved willingly, to much better homes and more attractive neighbourhoods. They either moved over short distances or all togther with their social networks intact, or were not concerned or even pleased to leave old networks behind. In other cases people moved unwillingly, to ambiguous or even worse new conditions, and either moved over long distances or otherwise found valued social networks disrupted.

Until 2000, there was "remarkably, no general account of the incidence of slum clearance in England and Wales" (Yelling 2000 p126). There remains no authoritative account of its impact on communities or its 'social meaning': "the wider cultural and political significance of the massive transformation in working class life wrought by slum clearance and suburbanisation has barely begin to be explored" (Jones 2010a p513).

This project aims to carry out a systematic review of existing evidence on slum clearance, mainly based on scattered case studies, to assess to what extent housing demolition in the late twentieth century broke up communities. It uses systematic search and review processes, to make sure well-known cases do not influence overall results too much, and to ensure that other examples are not overlooked. It aims to learn as much as possible from existing evidence about in what places, for what kinds of demolition and movement processes, and for which kinds of people and families demolition and movement did result in the disruption and loss of valued social ties, and where this was not the case. It aims to come to an overall assessment, on the balance of evidence, about whether late twenieth century housing demolition did 'break up communities'.

The review will produce a report summarising evidence and a database of evidence, available through a website.

The aim is to help both academic and community historians, and also to inform people working on and affected by demolition projects today. Results will be spread through conferences and a seminar involving academics, community historians, community activists and housing workers.

Planned Impact

As referred to above, the principal outcome will be the development and dissemination of a more nuanced and representative academic and community historian view of the impact of housing demolition in the late twentieth century clearance on individuals and communities, providing an important development of existing literature.

In addition to its academic impact, this project aims to have impact on and to provide benefit for three diverse groups, which all have an interest in the extent to which housing demolition 'breaks up communities', albeit from differing perspectives. These three groups are:
i) housing and regeneration practitioners involved in contemporary or recent demolition programmes;
ii) community groups in areas affected by contemporary or recent demolition programmes;
iii) community researchers investigating families, communities and neighbourhoods which were affected by demolition in the past.
As noted, 15% of all homes present in metropolitan areas in 1955 were cleared by 1985 (Yelling 2000). Thus, population movement though slum clearance has been part of the history of a substantial minority of families, neighbourhoods and communities across the UK. It forms part of the living memory of a substantial minority of individuals and families. It is in itself an important topic for family history, community history and local history. It also forms an important methodological and practical challenge for these historians, as it disrupts tracing processes. In addition, over the past ten years, a new group of neighbourhoods with over 100,000 residents in total has been affected by plans for and the commencement of large scale demolition, resulting in the development of new community and campaigning groups.
The project will impact on and benefit these groups by:
Making information on the extent to which late twentieth century housing demolition 'broke up communities' publically available, providing context for individual and local experiences
Disseminating awareness of this information through existing networks
Providing information directly to a small number of individuals and groups (perhaps low hundred of conference participants and c40 seminar participants)
Engaging in interactive discussion with a small number of individuals and their groups (as described above) through the seminar, enabling them to compare contemporary experience to past experiences (groups i and ii) and to set local cases into their national context (group iii).
It is expected that the seminar will in turn lead to some recursive impact on the research team and final output, as all the three groups will comment on review findings and provide additional sources to complement searches carried out in the review, which will be incorporated into the final draft of the publically available review and in the one or more resulting journal articles.


10 25 50