Thursday, 8 May 2014

Nae Mair Skyscraper Weans? Glasgow’s Red Road Flats and the 2014 Commonwealth Games. - Gerry Mooney

Nae Mair Skyscraper Weans?

Glasgow’s Red Road Flats and the 2014 Commonwealth Games

Gerry Mooney
Faculty of Social Sciences
The Open University in Scotland
(May 2014)

I’m a skyscraper wean, I live on the nineteenth flair,
But I’m no gaun oot to play ony mair,
Since we moved to Castemilk, I’m wasting away,
‘Cause I’m getting one less meal every day.

O ye canne fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat,
Seven-hundred hungry weans will testify to that,
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the bried is plain or pan,
The odds against it reaching earth are ninety-nine to one.

The Jeelie Piece Song (Skyscraper Wean)
Adam MacNaughton)

2014 Commonwealth Games Controversy

Arguably most large sporting events around the world today attract some degree of opposition and criticism. Witness events in Rio throughout 2013 and 2014 ahead of the football World Cup 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. On a smaller scale, but nonetheless important reflecting as it does conflicting views of its value to the city, the Glasgow Commonwealth Games of 2014 has also attracted opposition, opposition that has been galvanised by a well-publicised proposal for the opening ceremony announced in early April 2014.

That Glasgow’s iconic Red Road Flats would be demolished as part of the opening ceremony of the Twentieth Commonwealth Games in July and August 2014 generated criticism that few might have been able to predict, given the very particular history and unpopularity of the Red Road Flats.  The ceremony will take place a few miles away at Celtic Park, where live footage of the demolition was to be beamed on huge screens. For the City Council and Commonwealth Games leaders, this demolition was intended to signal the new world, the new age that Glasgow has apparently entered. For the leader of the Labour-controlled Glasgow Council, the proposed demolition was to be ‘symbolic of a changing Glasgow’; showing that the city has a bright future, the legacy of the games.  But critics of the demolition observed that the demolition could in fact be read in a dramatically different way. 

Within days of the proposal being announced it had already attracted considerable opposition from community activists, artists, politicians and a petition started within hours of the news attracted well over 16,000 signatures. The proposal caused a furore that extended beyond Glasgow. Scottish and UK newspapers have carried the story as have local TV and radio stations and the BBC online news site and various social media sites have been heavily populated with Red Road commentary and stories.

The Red Road Flats generate sharply opposing views: loathed by some, defended by others. The fact that many people were prepared to campaign against proposals to demolish the Red Road Flats as part of the Games’ opening ceremony came as a surprise to many. What is it about these high flats in particular that has aroused such passions?

The Red Road Flats in Historic Context

Glasgow built more public sector high rise housing developments than any other city in Western Europe in the post-1945 era. In an effort to address historic problems of slum and overcrowded housing, by far the worst in the UK, the city embarked on a large-scale programme of high rise developments. One of the earliest manifestations of this was the Moss Heights development located in the Cardonald area, 6 miles to the south west of the city centre. Constructed in 1953, they presented a vision of housing for the city which would dramatically alter not only the skyline, but also reshaped the social geography of housing in Glasgow. Together with a massive programme of low rise housing estate development across the city, contained primarily in the four large ‘peripheral’ housing estates on the city’s outer-edges (in Castlemilk, Drumchapel, Easterhouse and Pollok), by the 1970s Glasgow Corporation was the largest public sector landlord in Western Europe with over 185,000 houses on its books and well over 60% of the population of the city living in publicly rented housing. 

The Red Road development rapidly became the iconic high-rise housing scheme in Glasgow, if not Scotland as a whole. Located in the north east of the city, they were the highest public sector tower blocks in Europe at the time when the first tenants took up habitation in 1971. Built between 1964 and 1969, the eight towers, which ranged from 28-31 storeys high, were to house almost 5,000 people. At almost 300 feet high, the views from the upper floors of the blocks extended well beyond Glasgow to the mountains of Argyll to the West, Stirlingshire to the north and almost to Edinburgh in the East. The blocks are readily visible to people arriving in Glasgow from the North and from the East by train or car from the M80 and M8 motorways.

For their new tenants the Red Road Flats, together with Glasgow’s other newly built housing schemes, represented a vast improvement on the slum housing they had lived in previously. It was not just the views that attracted people, but the running hot and cold water, inside bathrooms and separate kitchens which were absent in older tenements. The flats are then symbolic of an era in which state provision of affordable housing to rent was highly desirable to the working-class.

However, the architecture and construction of the blocks, steel-framed concrete slabs in a style since then referred to as ‘Modernist Brutalism’, was the subject of early complaints, reflected in difficult to heat and draughty houses. It wasn’t too long before the Red Road became not a hallmark of Glasgow’s advance in public sector housing design but a symbol of poorly constructed and hard to let council housing.

At a surface level, the proposed demolition of the Red Road flats exemplifies the argument that Glasgow's extensive post-war investment in poorly designed and built high-rise council housing was a strategic social and economic blunder. But there is a deeper level to the symbolism of the demolition of Red Road. It somehow manages to cue to a wide audience that it is waste of time and money to try and provide council housing for working-class people. It always ends up in failure.

But who is responsible for this failure?  Not the architects and town-planners that grabbed their opportunity to make vainglorious statements in design terms. Not the engineers who designed the building systems which promised to house the workers in their millions. Not the politicians who had their palms greased to buy these building systems. It was the tenants' fault that these developments didn't work! 

Of course, while few are saying this explicitly, in the case of unsuccessful council housing, it is the victim who is blamed. The Red Road – like similar housing developments across the rest of Scotland and the UK – is a prime case in point. The message of the imagery of demolition is simple: it really is not worth the effort or money involved in housing construction of this type. 

The demolition of the Red Road flats actually symbolises the current UK governments’ (as well as for the previous New Labour administrations) efforts to ensure that social housing is a residual category fit only for people with multiple and intractable problems: the chronically poor, drug-addicts and alcoholics, the mentally-ill, the homeless, refugees and asylum-seekers. 

At the start of this piece I have included Adam MacNaughton’s Jeelie Piece song. It is a song much loved in Glasgow because it captures the isolation that many tenants experienced in life in the high rises of Glasgow. However, it also reflects the positive aspects of life in such schemes. Skyscraper Weans no longer enjoyed the opportunity to run in and out of their homes seeking sustenance, especially when the lifts were often out of action. The Jeelie Piece Song reflected also the sense of isolation that many of the residents of the high rise blocks felt. In what became the official mantra of many of the studies of such developments, there was an absence of ‘community’, and the tenants often remembered the close-knit communities of the older tenemental districts with nostalgia. While no doubt there was a considerable romanticisation of the past in such views, nonetheless most high rise housing developments were constructed with little thought given to the provision of community or leisure facilities. For the then Glasgow Corporation, the housing mission throughout the post-War period was ‘build the maximum number of houses in the shortest possible time’.

Featuring Red Road

As Lynsey Hanley highlighted in her evocative book Estates, council estates do not often appear in a positive way in word, film or song. In the last few decades, council housing has come to be seen as second-best housing, relegated to a residual status for the most impoverished sections of society. Such estates have become emblematic of all that is claimed to be problematic about contemporary Britain – symbolic of what David Cameron has called the ‘broken society’ (see Mooney, 2009; Hancock and Mooney, 2013).

Many would probably represent the Red Road development in such a way. It has appeared in numerous films, television dramas and documentaries such as Scottish Television’s Taggart police detective series, and the Bafta-winning Red Road (2006) directed by Andrea Arnold. While both deal with the darker side of Red Road life, they have contributed to the Red Roads’ notoriety. Further, many other artists, writers and filmmakers who made it the subject of their work. Art exhibitions, planning, architectural and photography projects have taken the Red Road as their inspiration or focal point. Other projects have included oral history interviews with some of the earliest residents and other attempts to capture some of the more positive aspects of life in the flats. Alison Irvine’s book, This Road Is Red is a collection of semi-fictional stories based on anecdotes from real-life residents over the 50-year plus history of the estate.

Planners, architects, housing researchers and other academics have long investigated different aspects of the Red Road development. Few council estates can claim such attention and importantly, much of this is not of the negative ‘council estate porn’ type that is prevalent in the media in recent years, such as BBC Scotland’s The Scheme and Channel 4s Benefit Streets.

The Beginning of the End for the Red Road

Arguing that the Red Road Flats are iconic does not mean that criticism of the blocks should be muted in any way. Of course they did address a desperate housing need for successive generations of Glaswegians and, more recently, for students and newly arrived refugees, by the end of the twentieth century they had gained a reputation as unattractive places to live, and many of the flats were vacant for a considerable time. With two blocks already demolished, the plans for the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was to see a further five blocks demolished – live! The one block to be preserved, at least until 2017, was intended to accommodate refugees, giving the strong impression that this kind of housing is suitable only for people ‘of that kind’!

The Commonwealth Games and Red Road Flats Controversy: Why is it Important?

As has proved to be the case with other ‘flagship’ sporting events, the Twentieth Commonwealth Games, Glasgow 2014, has not been without controversy. Finding the money to stage such a huge event is one point of contention – not least in the context of ‘austerity’ and wide-scale budget cuts and reductions in public services and funding. As has been the case in the past, some people have been forcibly removed to make way for new ‘legacy’ sporting and related developments. New private sector investment opportunities are promised on the back of the Games, while new roads and infrastructure developments have already been put in place around the East End of Glasgow in particular (the East End ‘Regeneration Route for example) to enhance the attractiveness of previously derelict areas for capital accumulation.

‘Legacy’ has become the by-word for such event; how will large sporting festivals contribute to the longer prosperity of a host city?  Who is it that decides what should be the legacy? The people of Glasgow or corporate and political elites (See Glasgow Games Monitor; Gray and Mooney, 2009; Paton, Mooney and McKee, 2012). While some social housing will emerge from the Games, in the shape of the athlete’s village in the Dalmarnock area, the number of units to be made available will fall well short of early promises.

The idea of a city ‘reborn’, a city ‘renewed’ is being signified, it is argued, by the demolition of the Red Road flats as ‘Glasgow’ looks ahead with renewed vitality to a bright new future. But this also symbolises the destruction of what, for many, is not only an important part of Glasgow’s working class history – but also of the idea that public sector housing provision has a crucial role to play in meeting housing needs today – needs that are acute across Glasgow and much of the UK. For critics then, claims about regeneration and renewal are vacuous; legacy is a meaningless term. The Commonwealth Games and the planned demolition of the Red Road flats resonate as a classic bread-and-circuses stunt.

It will come as no surprise that such criticisms have been rejected by those responsible for the Glasgow Games:
This is about more than creating an iconic moment for the Opening Ceremony; it is about the next step in the regeneration of one of Glasgow's most famous communities. It symbolises the changing face of the city over the years and recognises our proud social history. Glasgow's Opening Ceremony is right to celebrate that history, but we will do so in a sensitive manner.
We have worked with former residents for the last six years to get the story of Red Road. This is their story and the voice of real Glaswegians should rightly be heard during the ceremony and the story of Red Road should be shared with the world. Of course, this is one small part of a much larger show that will entertain, inspire and show Glasgow in a spectacular light.

The demolition of the flats is not about social failure - in fact, the opposite is true. The flats were once the future of social housing in the city and over the years have been home to thousands of families. We are celebrating their role in our history and want to make sure their role is properly marked.

(Bridget McConnell, Chief Executive of Glasgow Life, quoted in the Glasgow Evening Times, April 7, 2014)

While supporters of the Commonwealth Games claim the demolition of the Red Roads flats as an icon of the ’new’ Glasgow, critics observe that it is also a symbol of the present government’s blatant attempt to destroy the whole concept of council housing. The destruction of council housing estates, not matter how widely they are welcomed and by whom, is not just an act of physical destruction but also implicitly an attack on council tenants, or of the idea of council tenants. They belong to a welfare and state dependent population that for many politicians in the three main UK parties – are best confined to a by-gone era: this is the picture of council housing as ‘the land that time forgot’! It is also the marginalisation of a particular history – of particular working class histories; housing is not just bricks and mortar – there is a historical voice in each and every estate – one that is sharply out of step with the top-down voice of a Glasgow renewed.

Towards A More Progressive Housing Legacy

Glasgow has had a longer history of severe housing problems than any other in the UK. That the local authority and 2014 Games leaders should seek to celebrate the opening of the 2014 Commonwealth Games with the demolition of its most (in)famous post-war housing scheme, has attracted considerable criticism, is to be welcomed.

However, there is another housing history in Glasgow which political elites would rather forget. Arguably Glasgow did more than any other city in Britain to ensure the provision of council-housing for the working-class. The famous 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike was crucially important to the provisions of the 1919 Housing & Town Planning Act, which established the principle of the state’s provision of housing. The protracted struggles of Clydesiders over the rents and housing issues ultimately paved the way for state housing provision as a norm – a norm that was to last until the late twentieth century. These are the struggles worth celebrating; this is the legacy of history locally. While Glasgow’s leaders seek to destroy or at least marginalise this legacy, it is instructive that a campaign is also underway today to commemorate Mary Barbour, whose army of working class women took to the streets of Glasgow’s tenement districts during the First World War to fight against rapacious private landlords.

A more fitting legacy for Glasgow would be the launch of a new era of good quality and affordable public sector housing for rent, under the control of democratically elected politicians. Well-built, low rise or high rise but including the very social amenities that were overlooked in previous developments, such as at the Red Road. This does not represent a return to some mythical or golden past but of the recognition that the provision of housing for all is the mark of a socially just society. The Scottish Government have already abolished right to buy for new tenants of social housing and embarked on a small but symbolically significant programme of social housing new build. As Scotland looks ahead to a future that may involve full Independence, or of further devolution, the mark of the good Scottish society will be to end housing problems for once and for all. Now that would be a legacy worth celebrating, would it not?


Neil Gray and Gerry Mooney (2011) ‘Glasgow’s New Urban Frontier: ‘Civilising’ the Population of ‘Glasgow East’’, City, 15, 1, pp. 4-24.

Lynn Hancock and Gerry Mooney (2013) ‘‘Welfare ghettos’ and the ‘‘Broken Society’’: Territorial Stigmatization in the Contemporary UK’, Housing, Theory and Society, 30, 1, pp. 46-64.
Lynsey Hanley (2007) Estates, Granta.
Alison Irvine (2012) This Road Is Red, Luath Press.
Gerry Mooney (2009) ‘The ‘Broken Society’ Election: Class Hatred and the Politics of Poverty and Place in Glasgow East’, Social Policy and Society, 8, 4, pp. 1-14.
Kirsteen Paton, Gerry Mooney and Kim McKee (2012) ‘Class, Citizenship and Regeneration: Glasgow and the Commonwealth Games 2014’, Antipode, 44, 4, September, pp. 1470-1489.

Other sources:
Glasgow 2014 Games Monitor