Les Milne Talk

Glasgow’s Housing Story

Les gave members a phenomenally comprehensive picture of housing in Glasgow straddling three centuries of history.  He gave a lucid outline of the various economic drivers since the Union of Parliaments in 1707.

The ball started rolling after the Union with the Scots Mercantile Marine being able to engage in trans-Atlantic trade.  Glasgow was well placed to exploit the Trade Winds favourable to trade.  We could picture the strutting Tobacco Lords who enriched Glasgow and first started driving housing need.  This was followed by the Forth & Clyde and Monkland Canals, the development of the industries – textiles, railways, shipyards and allied coal mining.  Each of these economic developments contributed to new layers of housing demand.

Other factors impinged on how the City and its environs grew and changed.  The Lowland Clearances, as well as the Highland Clearances and the Irish Famine, created a demand for work from those displaced and those fleeing from hunger.  The drift of population from the land helped serve the industrial revolution starting with textiles, followed by shipbuilding and locomotive engineering.  This resulted in an insatiable demand for new housing.  Allied to this Glasgow Town Council, from the late 19th Century, sought to absorb the adjoining burghs. Interestingly, Les believes, this was driven by public health issues and the great costs of delivering and managing the Glasgow water and sewerage systems not to mention public transport and electricity generation.

It is noteworthy that Glasgow and the nine neighbouring ‘Police Burghs’ such as Govan, Maryhill and Partick based on existing villages, emerged to deal with health and crime and the need for improved building standards.  During this time Glasgow became the most densely populated city in the UK.  Given these challenges, demolition and rebuilding were a feature of the period between 1840 and 1900.  Les suggested members take a walk around the backlands near the Argyll Arcade and Sloans Restaurant to get an impression of how cramped, dark and poorly ventilated the housing in the city centre became.  The 1866 City Improvement Act and later Glasgow Corporation Housing interventions were intended to address this overcrowding, disease and ‘moral disorder’.

Between 1840 and 1917 Glasgow became a city of sandstone tenement villages.  The visible variations in style, quality and amenities are a reflection of boom and bust periods.  The dressed stone finish provided a handsome face and durability.  This apparent durability turned out to be misleading as demonstrated by the great storm of January 1968.  Massive destruction was wrought especially to tenement roofs and chimney heads.  This revealed the extent of the disrepair in the traditional tenements neglected since the interwar period and led to a transformation of the City’s post war housing strategies.

After WW2, within the city, Glasgow had a two prong strategy.  Inner city slum clearance and redevelopment and the development of four new peripheral housing estates in Easterhouse, Castlemilk, Pollok and Drumchapel.  The third prong, overspill to ease population pressure in Glasgow, included the new towns of East Kilbride and Cumbernauld.  At this time no attempt was made to save the sandstone properties outside the slum clearance areas.  Although physically sound, the properties lacked toilets and modern amenities and they were left to the longer term.  The storm changed this as it was clear that the tenements couldn’t all be demolished and replaced in a short space of time.

In short, the storm resulted in the ending of the Comprehensive Development Area redevelopment programme and the introduction of new legislation with resources to facilitate the refurbishment of the traditional tenements.  Key to the delivery of this change were powers to form Community Based Housing Associations.  The close knit nature of the links between the tenants, housing management and the support of the Housing Corporation in Scotland proved to be a recipe for success.  Overall around 75% of the existing sandstone stock received new roofs, stone cleaning and repairs.

In time there were concerns about the decline in the new peripheral housing estates arising from a kaleidoscope of problems including a lack of amenities, inadequate maintenance, high child density, gang violence and a lack of diversity in tenure.  Many of the population were desperate to get out.  As a result many parts of these estates were subsequently demolished.  Efforts were made to promote Community Based Housing Associations and incentivise private housing to stabilise these neighbourhoods as well as the city’s overall population.  These efforts in the 1980s, including Glasgow’s image changing ‘Miles Better’ campaign, allied to events such as the Garden Festival, the European City of Culture and City of Architecture and Design, resulted in the city’s population starting to grow again.

In the last four decades, the city’s tenure mix has shifted significantly.  Today the predominant tenure is owner occupation at 44%, a decline from a peak of 50% about 10 years ago.  Social rented housing has declined to 36% nearly half of what it was in 1970.  And the greatest shift proportionately, is private rented housing which has grown from 5% to 20%.  This degree of growth has been assisted by large scale provision of new student flats.  In addition, the Housing Associations have been building mid-rent affordable flats, another significant contribution to this sector.

Les concluded with a quick resume of the current housing issues facing the city.  These include long term maintenance including addressing fuel poverty and climate change issues, meeting the needs of an aging population, increasing population in the city centre and the regeneration of areas in the city still marked by the loss of traditional industries such as the East End, Springburn and the Clyde Waterfront.

This talk was a tour de force providing a very complete picture of the city’s housing story.  It enabled members to see the broad canvas of the city’s housing including parts of which they knew intimately.  It’s a pity all the details can’t be shared here.

Les Milne Talk