History, Journalism, Notebook

‘Underneath the Pavement a Beach’: Squatting and Autonomous Social Activism in Post-War Birmingham

This essay originally appeared in Back to the Future produced by Holodeck

Contemporary appreciation of modernist architecture and town planning, and styles like brutalism, is inseparable from the emergence of austerity politics in Britain during the 2010s. The violent neoliberal restructuring of Britain’s state, economy and psyche – which began in the late 1970s – gained intensity following the 2007-08 “credit crunch”. The demolition or total remodelling, in Birmingham as elsewhere, of buildings and urban realms created at the high point of welfare capitalism, is apiece with brutal assaults upon workers’ rights, collective social programmes and public space.

Critiques of the wanton destruction of post-war architecture resonate deeply with me. But as a historian, I am aware of the many contradictions beneath this nostalgia. On a strictly aesthetic level, I love the period’s design ethos, mourning the loss of Birmingham’s stellar post-war Central Library, Post & Mail Building and Wholesale Markets, as well as majestic but harder to love places and spaces like NatWest Tower, Perry Barr Flyover, underpasses…

But: lauding the era’s built legacy, like celebrating the welfare state, council housing, educational and art institutions and the new cultural forms enabled, is to view the past from carefully chosen angles and through a warm fuzz like old colour photos.

Photography provides a perfect metaphor because the art and architecture of the past, and the systems of social relations they connote, are like old photographs on display. Having been plucked from its original context and circulation, significance and meaning is constructed in the mind of the beholder. Like a medieval altarpiece, 17th Century painting or Georgian stately home, modernist mid-20th Century Birmingham embodies a set of social relations now obscured to us, but which were immensely oppressive and extractive.

Former Birmingham Central Library viewed from Paradise Place, author’s photo c. 2015

Birmingham after World War II was conservative and reactionary. New arrivals from South Asia, the Caribbean and elsewhere could be legally discriminated against in housing, employment and service provision until the late 1960s. Many neighbourhoods and amenities like pubs stopped people of colour from living in and frequenting them. Even after the Race Relations Acts outlawed discrimination, a colour bar was tacitly maintained by the City Council’s Housing Department throughout the 1970s, through a policy of allocating council housing through subjective and culturally-biased assessments of tenants’ “housekeeping standards”.

Similarly, over 10 years after the procedure was decriminalised in England, in 1978 only 4 abortions were carried out in NHS hospitals in Birmingham. This was because a coterie of conservative, religiously motivated medics, surrounding the University of Birmingham’s Professor of Gynaecology Hugh McLaren, refused to approve abortions in the city. This led campaigners to establish the Birmingham Pregnancy Advisory Service (now the British Pregnancy Advisory Service [BPAS]) to circumvent these doctors’ refusal. Elsewhere at the University of Birmingham – as revealed by the BBC’s Ben Hunte in 2020 – academic psychologists ran aversion therapy clinics for people with “homosexual proclivities”.

To understand where the locus of power resided in post-war society, grasping the reality of economic relations is key. While the fruits of labour were shared more equally than is commonplace today, Britain remained a capitalist society where working people controlled neither their workplaces nor the conditions under which they toiled.

As well as shoring up existing class relations, the post-war settlement facilitated corruption. Much of central Birmingham’s redevelopment was by speculators sanctioned to tear up the city’s fabric, wrenching communities asunder. When carried out by the state in the guise of the local authority, there was also extensive corruption. Alan Maudsley, Birmingham’s City Architect 1966-1973, was gaoled (along with several of his associates including two executives from construction company Bryant) for skimming money from council building contracts, leading their trial judge to brand Birmingham “a municipal Gomorrah”. Even today, in crumbling highways, damp uninsulated houses and potentially lethal tower blocks, their greedy legacy blights the city.

Today, governments and businesses are turning away from the tropes of austerity and blunt neoliberalism, towards reanimated varieties of kleptocratic, reactionary, protectionist capitalism, mirroring the worst of the post-war era. It’s time for the nostalgic glow that’s settled on the post-war settlement to fade out alongside 2010s austerity. But this decade, as we rebuild from COVID, who should our new lodestars from the recent past be?

Late 1970s womens’ movement cartoon making fun of Prof. Hugh McLaren. He is dressed as a colonial explorer because of the University of Birmingham Medical School’s close ties to the rascist white settler government in Rhodesia

I would suggest Birmingham’s ad-hoc grassroots groups and campaigns which emerged from the late 1960s and utilised spaces, often condemned or disused buildings, rendered squattable by the city’s redevelopment. They married libertarian new left politics with traditional collectivist working class campaigning tactics like rent strikes and squatting. Fomenting a potent political mix, they challenged authority, secured material gains for ordinary people, and provided communities with services they otherwise lacked.

Unlike Birmingham’s architectural heritage (much of which still exists in the contemporary fabric of the city and is extensively documented through film, photography and textual archival holdings), traces of social movements agitating for a more equal, just and accessible city are scantily, and seldom sympathetically, recorded in official archives. They are preserved instead in alternative grassroots publications and the memories of participants. To begin comprehending the rich history of groups and campaigns that challenged the conservative, corrupt and exploitative city of the mid-20th Century, let’s look at two overarching areas: activism around housing, and creating squatted social centres.

Alternative Birmingham, as mapped out by Birmingham Broadside magazine, autumn 1976

Housing

Despite the council’s slum clearance and municipal housebuilding drives, access to new housing was highly unequal. In Balsall Heath in 1969 a group of tenants from a mixture of British, Irish, South Asian and African-Caribbean backgrounds initiated a rent strike. The protest was against the Council, for failing to properly maintain the Victorian buildings the tenants were housed in, or re-house the tenants in newly-built flats and houses. Their strike, coordinated through the Socialist Tenants Group, lasted into 1970 and was joined by tenants in other inner city areas – like Hay Mills – experiencing the same problem. This collective action forced the Council to apologise, expediting the demolition of slum properties and rehousing of tenants in newly-built homes.

Similar strikes occurred throughout the 1970s. In 1975, 39 families on Harborne Lane in Selly Oak – branded “a street not fit to live on” and whose homes were vandalised by gangs of youths who “thought nobody could possibly be living in them” – also began a rent strike. The group escalated their campaign in 1976, through a blockade of the Bristol Road. Archived news footage shows scores of placard-wielding tenants – including toddlers in pushchairs and elderly people – blocking the road, causing a major tailback. After this direct action the Council caved in, speeding up the clearance of the area’s slum housing, and replacing it with high quality homes that remain today.

Screenshot of TV news footage of a protest by Selly Oak tenants in the mid-1970s, who were calling for their homaes to be demolished and replaced with council properties. View the clip on the MACE site here.

Squatted Social Centres

Being rehoused was often only the beginning of tenants’ struggles. Many new estates were poorly provisioned with amenities, and residents often found themselves suddenly isolated from friends, family and established support networks. Birmingham Women’s Paper, produced by feminist activists during the 1970s, reported on actions taken by female tenants on the new estates. They campaigned for, or creating themselves, the social services and community spaces they required. In 1974-1975, women living on new estates in Northfield and Kings Norton, opened empty flats and houses as social centres, advice clinics and creches, squatting them as part of a broader resident-led campaign for proper permanent Council services.

Other neighbourhoods in the city – according to activists I’ve interviewed – hosted “substantial squatting movements”. Selly Oak, where swathes of shops and houses along the Bristol Road were scheduled for demolition for road widening, was one of them. From 1973 the Selly Oak Community Workshop created several short-lived squatted social centres in the area, providing residents with amenities like youth clubs, benefits advice and wholesale food co-ops. This was supplemented in 1975 by the Selly Oak People’s Centre at 768 Bristol Road, which lasted for nearly three years. The space offered campaigners printing, meeting space, P/O boxes and a telephone. Groups based there included the Selly Oak Anti-Nazi League, Selly Oak Women’s Group (offering services like pregnancy testing), South Asian migrant trade unionists (fighting for safety improvements in local factories), and energetic campaigning by the area’s teenagers for their own youth centre.

The action exemplifying the pinnacle of these groups’ achievements is the occupation of the site of today’s Edgbaston Priory Hospital, by the group which evolved into Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid. In 1979, activists occupied the large derelict house (standing where the hospital now is), squatting it as a women’s refuge. Their occupation was evicted after several months, but the action provided the impetus for the creation of a permanent organisation helping women seeking refuge.

768 Bristol Road, Selly Oak (now Ether Services) the home of the Selly Oak Peoples’ Centre 1975-77. Author’s photo spring 2020

Recent revisionist celebration of post-war architecture, design and town planning, is an understandable aesthetic rejection and protest against the horrors of the 2010s. Such horrors as poorly paid casualised employment, spiralling rents and house prices, the stripping of resources from the civic realm, and the privatisation of public space – all things the post-1945 “consensus” mitigated. Today, Boris Johnson’s government is happy to embrace the big state: spending money, filling potholes, putting up hanging baskets etc. whilst clamping down on difference and dissent, shovelling money to private companies and letting economic inequality intensify. New critiques and awareness of what is happening must be embraced.

The history of Birmingham in the post-war era with its naked prejudices, baked-in inequalities and corruption, shows it is never a simple matter of “big state and big projects good”. There are always questions about power and agency in play. Rather, as the public health crisis abates and we shoulder the challenge of building a freer, more equal, and genuinely sustainable society, we should look to our forebears who amidst Birmingham’s post-war development frenzy, organised in their communities, campaigned and occupied spaces left behind by redevelopment, and built something new to meet their needs.

This essay originally appeared appeared in Back to the Future a journal on modernist planning in Birmingham, published by the Holodeck and funded by Civic Square‘s Department of Dreams. An exhibition of prints from the book will be on at Artefact Projects in Stirchley until 6th November 2021. Copies of the book can be bought from Artefact, and will be avaliable online from Holodeck as well.