In July, 2012 the first of the Red Road flats was demolished. I first heard of this when someone linked to a youtube video of the demolition. The video, complete with snazzy graphics, was designed as a “look at this cool thing that happened near me”, but the sheer destruction of the act took my breath away. Homes – hundreds of homes, in a city blighted by homelessness – destroyed in an instant. That was 18 months ago. Today, Glasgow City Council in its infinite wisdom decided that it would be appropriate to demolish all but one of the remaining flats as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games.
The opening ceremonies of major sporting events are indeed spectacular events, any cursory glance at any major world event will demonstrate that. Perhaps the most celebrated opening ceremony in recent years was Danny Boyle’s artistic impression of the NHS at the London Olympics. As the world looked on marveling at the pantomime, behind the scenes the real NHS was sold off; as the introduction to the global celebration of sport got underway, nearly two hundred were arrested outside the venue for cycling. For sport is to be consumed, not participated in; and health is something we celebrate having but do not actively invest in.
The sheer inappropriateness of the destruction of the Red Road Flats as part of the Commonwealth Games is hard to convey. These flats are iconic. When built they were the tallest in Europe and heralded an intended era of healthy living away from the disease and squalor of the high density slums from where their first tenants originated. With a bingo hall and social club in the basement, and surrounded by green space, they were a long way from the overcrowded choleric tenements left behind.
Yet within 30 years they had fallen into disrepair. In 1977, a fire which had led to the death of a child and the evacuation of over 100 families saw people demand transfers back to low rise living. The flats started to attract a reputation for lack of safety and security and in the 1980s and 90s the flats fell out of favour. Under Thatcher, the most desirable council house was one which could be bought for a profit and sold for a larger one; council revenues from housing declined and consequently repairs became less timeous. The discovery of the dangers of asbestos, which formed much of the base of the flats meant an added premium on repair work, and consequently less of it done.
Proposals to knock down the flats first surfaced in the mid-90s. At the time, the flats were under-occupied, however they regained a new lease of life as the UK government introduced a dispersal programme, offering cash incentives to local authorities who would house refugees and asylum seekers outwith London where they were primarily concentrated. Nearly 18,000 people arrived in Glasgow practically overnight. Those flats made Glasgow City Council £100 million over five years, yet services for the population were thin on the ground and investment shabby. The original occupiers saw the New Scots as impediments to their aim of obtaining a low rise tenancy, while the minor refurbishment and furnishing of flats to make them suitable for new occupants bred resentment among a population who were struggling. Only two years later, Firsat Dag was murdered in a climate of rising tensions.
Within ten years, although tensions had subsided, the flats were almost exclusively populated with asylum seekers and refugees. Repairs were patchy – the security systems first introduced in the 1980s to allay the fears of the residents now seemed to operate in a quasi-penal manner and the green space around seemed to establish the flats as something set apart from the main community. The flats were ultimately a failure, yet as the book “This Road is Red” testifies there was much sense of community within the flats both from their inception to their eventual demise into a state sponsored refugee ghetto.
Housing is, once again, a major pre-occupation of many people. The bedroom tax is causing misery for people already affected by the disruption to benefits, job centre and ATOS harassment which will be compounded in the very near future by the welfare cap, which eight Labour MPs for Glasgow supported and despite the 2012 legislation giving statutory protection to people who find themselves homeless, Glasgow City Council not only blatently breaches it on an ongoing basis, but they dont even maintain records of how often they are breaching it, such is the contempt they feel for their citizens. Even when the housing regulator announced an investigation into their non-compliance, their response was to insist that the intervention was merely voluntary, reel off tired excuses and grudgingly agree to have some kind of plan within 6 months.
From speaking to people who work in the housing department at Glasgow City Council, it would seem that what is coming out through official channels is merely the tip of an iceberg. Staff have stated quite baldly that the figures given in the above FOI requests are untrue, and based on simply denying that homeless people are homeless and therefore excluding them from the statistics. It would appear also that there are no toilets in the North West Casework Team, meaning that people who turn up in crisis are forced to leave the building (and their place in the queue) to visit the toilet. Its also alleged that in the North East, phones are simply not being answered – the initial reason given for this to staff was that there was a fault, however the situation appears to have become more entrenched, and indeed on trying to contact the team, I was unable to get through after over an hour.
Any attempt to discuss this situation is met by stonewalling. When an amalgum of local groups tried to hold a meeting to discuss the housing crisis in Glasgow, they were abruptly stopped in their tracks, with their meeting suddenly cancelled as the Board of Directors for the venue unilaterally decided that there was no crisis, if there was a crisis, they they would deal with it “without causing unnecessary unrest” and that as the meeting did not “raise the hopes and aspirations of the community” it was unwelcome.
In the face of rising homelessness and housing insecurity as the East End of Glasgow is gentrified and turned into a rather fancy carpark, incorporating the destruction of homes into the opening ceremony is about as contemptuous as you can get. These are homes for poor people, poor people are icky, we dont want poor people, so we will just blow their homes so that no poor people can live here. The original community, the memories and the relationships that people have with the flats unimportant than the international coverage that can be milked from their destruction.
Of course, as an international ceremony held in Britain, we should remember that blowing up homes is something that the British are quite well known for. From the devastation of Iraq and Afghanistan, to our ongoing participation in the semi-permanent drone war which continues ceaselessly over mid-Asia, we blow up homes quite a lot. The UK has created tens of millions of refugees through our international policies, only a tiny fraction of them ever make it to Britain’s shores, but if they come to Glasgow, it is very likely that they will at least make a passing connection to Red Road. What does it say to our new Scots who escaped the bombings of their homes that we will blow up the area most associated with asylum, not as war, but as entertainment? The poor and the displaced are no longer a threat but a source of amusement.
Now, of course, these flats are no longer owned by Glasgow City Council, which sold off all of its housing stock over a decade ago, however the incorporation of the destruction of homes into a spectacle orchestrated by, in the main, a local council who cannot house its own citizens, overseen by MPs who support ongoing draconian legislation in a country which creates the refugees that it grudgingly houses in substandard accommodation is not a thing for celebration.
For all that Danny Boyle’s sugarcoated ceremony hid the bitter pill of privatisation, at least there was a sense of pride and perhaps even a renewed sense of worth. The Red Road Flat debacle holds within nothing to be proud of. It celebrates what we should be ashamed of, just as the Commonwealth Games themselves – that colonial legacy of pretending that we are all on an equal playing field, competing against one another with no handicaps or headstarts and that performance is purely an individual achievement.