The Secret History of Our Streets

The first in a new series examining the history of a number of Britain’s streets, this compelling episode explores Deptford High Street and its shifting fortunes over the past 125 years, being the “Oxford Street of South London” and “well-to-do” in the 1890s and becoming one of the most deprived high streets in London today. Through archive footage, newly discovered papers, home-movies, interviews with residents and councillors, as well as new footage of it and the surrounding side-streets, the documentary charts the decline of the High Street. This is done through the lens of its residents, their deeply personal stories and the damage sustained to their livelihood. This makes for, at times, uncomfortable viewing and raises a number of questions about the ethics of town-planning and modernisation.

©Century Films; Image credit: BBC/Phil Fisk/Century Films

In the years following the Second World War, in which London had sustained a great deal of bomb damage, town planners saw an opportunity to do away with Victorian London and replace it with a much more efficient layout, instead of the jumble of narrow streets that rapid growth in the 19th century had created. Informed by the modernist school of thought, the city as a machine, a great social experiment was embarked upon. The chosen proving ground for the new tower blocks that would eventually come to embody this experiment was the south and east of London, areas like Deptford.

What the documentary uncovers is the scandalous way in which this “experiment” was organised and carried out. Inspectors who were not architectural specialists were sent out to various areas and compiled reports of living conditions, but in doing so also made sweeping generalisations about the structure of the buildings, resulting in many needless demolitions when neighbourhoods were falsely labelled as slums. Partial demolitions of rows of houses resulted in damage to property that was not immediately demolished (because residents didn’t want to leave a perfectly fine house that their family had lived in for 100 years or more) which resulted in a reduction of the value of this property and consequently a reduction in the compensation received when the residents were forced to move out. John Price, a current resident of Deptford High Street who remembers the demolitions, makes the point that the overly-zealous town planners created the slums themselves, and the documentary certainly provides enough evidence to support this.

Nevertheless, the coverage provided is balanced in that the views of the town planners and councillors are represented through an interview with Nicholas Taylor, the former chair of the Lewisham Planning Committee. His testimony, however, is mixed and contradictory, and he is seemingly still trying to reconcile within himself the unjustness of what was done without the consultation of the people with what almost seems like a sense of misguided paternalism. Whilst Taylor does not bear full responsibility for the destruction of the Deptford community, it is hard to take him seriously with the revelation that the planning report actually suggested that the houses on Reginald Road, one of the streets off the High Street, and John Price’s home, “could be dealt with by means other than slum clearance.” This report was ignored, not by Taylor, because the compulsory purchase orders were made before his tenure, but that it was ignored by people like him is enough to make his arguments seem hollow.

This documentary then, through the representation of the lives of residents and families torn apart and resettled all across London as a result of needless modernisation by people who seemed, as Price suggests, to have an agenda against areas like Deptford, is poignant. It deals with a period of history that I, and probably many other people, know very little about, and serves as a cautionary tale. The irony is one of the turns off the High Street correctly labelled as a slum (rather than Reginald Road), but not pulled down due to a quirk in the planning process, now has property worth £750,000. It certainly makes you think, not just about a high-minded bureaucracy ignoring the needs of the people it is trying to help, but also about the transitory nature of everything, and how it relies upon chance

The next episode of The Secret History of Our Streets is on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC Two.

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