Kynaston devotes far more pages to the genesis, realization, and immediate consequences of urban and housing policies than to any other subject. The very title of the second book in this volume, A Shake of the Dice, refers to the colossal, reckless, revolutionary social gamble that those policies entailed—policies that had already between 1948 and 1958, before the massive slum clearances that Kynaston chronicles here, uprooted more than one in six of all the families in Britain (overwhelmingly working class families) and put them in newly built housing estates and tower blocks on the periphery of cities or even far outside them.
Not that such a drastic gamble wasn’t a response to an awesome problem. Even though Willmott and Young had described Bethnal Green’s Victorian terraced slum houses as “dilapidated but cozy, damp but friendly,” the conditions in which much of the working class lived were abysmal. In the early 1950s, two million British households had no electricity or gas, which meant cooking in ranges or on open fires and lighting by candles or oil lamps. As late as 1961, 15 percent of the households in the industrial city of Birmingham didn’t have exclusive use of a toilet, and 32 percent didn’t have their own fixed baths; nearly 20 percent of Manchester’s households lacked a hot-water tap—the percentage of working-class households living in these conditions was naturally higher.
And not only was the overwhelmingly Victorian-era housing stock of the working class at best in need of rehabilitation and at worst beyond saving, there wasn’t enough of it. Britain suffered a severe housing shortage even before the Second World War. By war’s end, German bombs had destroyed or severely damaged some 750,000 mostly working-class houses and virtually no new ones had been built for six years, and all the while the population had grown.
Nevertheless, the solutions that architects, city planners, real estate developers, civil servants, and local officials—what Kynaston calls the “activators”—imposed upon the population, while sometimes humane if suboptimal, were regularly devastating and often monstrous in their consequences. Occasionally this was thanks to the collaboration (by no means limited to mid-20th-century Britain) between naïvely build-happy public servants and opportunistic developers and contractors delighted to build superfluously and not above cutting corners, to shoddy and at times dangerous effect. Far more frequently, however, it was thanks to a combination of high-flown architectural ideology; short-sighted civic boosterism; the Keynesian faith that linked national prosperity to spending on large-scale construction and to the transformation of the working class from producers to consumers through large-scale social engineering; and to the attitudes of the activators toward those acted upon, which ranged from the paternalistic to the condescending to the scornful.