New homes alone are not enough – we need to build communities

IT’S funny how aspirations change over time, yet so much stays the same. There are plenty of laughs – and big doses of nostalgia – in The Steamie, which is next month being dusted down for a 30th-anniversary tour.

Tony Roper’s comedy classic is set in Glasgow in the 1950s, when a housing crisis was prompting local authorities to look beyond the city-centre slums for solutions. The action takes place on Hogmanay, as four working-class women squeeze in one last washing of the year. The youngest of them, Doreen, dreams of moving up in the world. She pictures herself living in a house “in the country”, with a television, a bath, and a phone. Her older, more cynical pal Magrit haes her doots.

Roper was writing in the 1980s, so the conclusion to this flight of fancy is loaded with dramatic irony. “I’ll get it eventually, Magrit.” says Doreen. “I’ve put ma name doon for a hoose in Drumchapel.”

Modern homes were built, and more than 30,000 people moved in, but when they arrived they found there was little else

The joke, for audiences in the 1980s and every decade since, is that Drumchapel didn’t turn out to be quite the paradise that was promised. The modern homes were built, and more than 30,000 people moved in, but when they arrived they found there was little else. With few local shops and community facilities, this brave new world lacked a heart. It was a similar story, if not worse, in Easterhouse, where there were neither the school buildings nor the teachers to provide full-time education for the newly arrived children. Labouring in the steamie may have been exhausting, but it was a place to come together for a blether and a laugh. Housing standards in the city centre were dreadful, but there was community spirit amid the gloom.

In Drumchapel and Easterhouse a vicious cycle began – with local employment opportunities limited and travel into Glasgow expensive, people struggled to get by and social problems emerged. By the time proper plans were drawn up for shops, cafes, cinemas, dance halls and bowling alleys, developers were expressing concerns that these wouldn’t be commercially viable. Of course, these very amenities would have provided some of the local employment opportunities that were so badly needed from the start.

Has so much really changed since then? In some ways, of course it has. Steamies are long gone, most of us have televisions and phones, and en-suite shower rooms come as standard.

MSPs squabbled over which party’s housing, planning and infrastructure policies were best

In other ways, not so much. During this week’s Scottish Parliament debate about the current crisis, MSPs squabbled over which party’s housing, planning and infrastructure policies were best … but not one of them mentioned shops. Could this be because lessons about amenities have been learned since the since the 1950s, 60s and 70s? Take a visit to Dalmarnock, home of the athletes’ village for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and see for yourself.

The new houses are great to look at – modern designs, plenty of space and light, front and back gardens – but there’s an eerie silence in the surrounding streets. In Doreen’s new-build dream there was surely a place you could pop out to when you needed a pint of milk.

It is not the case that any old homes, in any old locations, will do

As in the post-war period we urgently need lots of new housing, not just in Glasgow but all over Scotland. However it is not the case that any old homes, in any old locations, will do. If new towns are to be built, or new areas of existing towns developed, the focus must be on strong communities.

Tory Adam Tomkins, who tabled the motion that triggered Wednesday’s debate, began by insisting his motives were pure and that he had no desire to “give the Scottish Government a bloody nose”. But predictably he managed to slip in a fair few punches to the face, insisting “we have not seen anything like the leadership on the issue that we need”. He cited “planning system delays and conditions” and nimbyism among the problems, suggesting some kind of bonfire of the red tape is in order. The problem, as he seems to see it, is people raising all kinds of inconvenient objections that stand in the way of throwing up the thousands of homes we need. He overlooks the fact that developers hold a trump card when it comes to dealing with local objections: commercial viability. If local authorities require them to jump through too many hoops, add too much community value, they can simply take their housing development and go home (or go to another local authority that might be more desperate). If the project does go ahead, and years down the line the promised amenities, buses and increased capacity of local services have failed to materialise, they’ll be long gone.

It’s easy to look back and point out blunders of the past

It’s not enough for councils to simply cross their fingers and hope things fall into place, that thriving communities will emerge where new houses are built. A housebuilder cannot oblige a supermarket to provide a local store or a bus company to run a route indefinitely, but is the answer to throw our hands up in despair and declare that the free market must decide? Or can central and local government put community-building at the heart of every planning, licensing and transport decision made, every contract awarded and every employability scheme given the green light?

It’s easy to look back and point out blunders of the past. What’s more difficult is finding creative solutions to ensure they aren’t repeated in the future.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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