Ministry of Housing and Local Government

I was thinking of doing a page on Duncan Sandys as one of the ‘Main Players’. As you will see, he was a very important player in the creation of the Barbican Estate in his role as Minister of Housing and Local Government, but since other holders of the office became involved, and ministry officials also played important parts at various points in the story, I have made the Ministry itself the main player here.

Under pressure from the London County Council, in 1944 the City of London produced a reconstruction plan for the devastated northern area of the City (including the Barbican area) which was published by the City’s Improvements and Town Planning Committee written by the City Engineer F. J. Forty. The plan was extremely conservative. It advocated more or less rebuilding what there had been before the war.

On 9 December 1944, ministry staff went to review the draft plan and were extremely critical of it.

“We are not only disappointed, we are frankly alarmed. Never since 1666, has there been such an opportunity to re-plan parts of the City, and, if the plans we saw are adopted, this opportunity will once again be missed. Indeed, it will be more than missed; it will be deliberately passed by.”

They were very forthright in their condemnation. They accused the plan of “waiting for developers to shape the city instead of planning for them”.

The Ministry refused to approve the plan and pressed the City to appoint expert consultants recommended by them, and not rely on the City Engineer. The ministry’s preferred consultants were the architect, Charles Holden, and the ministry planner, William Holford. It took about a year before the City gave way but Holden and Holford were eventually appointed.

The Court of Common Council minutes record that Harold Macmillan, the new Conservative Minister of Housing and Local Government, wrote to the Lord Mayor on 8 October 1953 saying:

“This is the greatest and most pressing of our social needs today … House production must be increased as rapidly as the resources of material and labour will allow … In addition, you will make the necessary plans for an expanding programme over the next three years.”

Duncan Sandys replaced Harold Macmillan as Minister of Housing and Local Government. In September 1955, he wrote to the annual conference of the Association of Municipal Corporations pressing for more residential development in cities.

Later that year, the Ministry had to consider an application for planning permission by the New Barbican Committee (a pressure group of potential office developers, not a committed of the City Corporation) for a commercial development of the Barbican area – the so-called ‘Kadleigh Plan’. The application had already been refused by the City Corporation and the New Barbican Committee had appealed to the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

On 28 August 1956 Duncan Sands, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, wrote to the Lord Mayor of the City in connection with the New Barbican Committee’s appeal.

First, in the style of the period, he damned the New Barbican Committee with faint praise.

“I have been greatly impressed by the imaginative character of the scheme put forward by the New Barbican Committee, and I think you will agree that they are to be congratulated on the boldness and originality of their conception, which will give a much needed stimulus to fresh thinking about the nature of future development in the City. …”

A ‘stimulus to fresh thinking‘? At this point, you know perfectly well the appeal is about to be refused, which it is later in the letter. But now the Minister switches to the question of alternative developments.

“The widespread interest evoked by their proposals has most effectively focused attention on the need for re-planning this important area in a comprehensive manner. “

He then refers to the fact that their scheme:

“… contemplates the construction of vast factory, office and other commercial premises which would greatly add to the already excessive volume of employment in that area.”

Again, he brought up congestion. But then he went on like this.

“I am interested to learn that the city Corporation have themselves been considering how the same area might be rebuilt, and are thinking of including in it a certain amount of residential accommodation. I welcome this approach; for I cannot believe that it is good for the City to be choked by day and deserted by night. A better balance between commercial and residential use would, I’m sure, benefit everybody in the long run.”

The most crucial passage was this:

“I am convinced that there would be advantages in creating in the City a genuine residential neighbourhood, incorporating schools, shops, open spaces and other amenities, even if this means forgoing a more remunerative return on the land.”

The suggestion that the City should create a residential neighbourhood ‘even if this means forgoing a more remunerative return on the land‘ became hugely influential. It was often quoted in subsequent Common Council and committee meetings, and was quoted by Chamberlin Powell and Bon in their 1959 report on the proposed development.

There was a battle during these years – a very finely balanced one – between the advocates of a residential neighbourhood- and the reactionary forces wanting a purely commercial quarter. The pro-commercial camp was concentrated in the Improvements and Town Planning Committee and supported by City officers such as Francis Forty, the influential City Engineer.

Duncan Sandys definitely tipped the balance in favour of the residential development. Many wavering councilmen were persuaded by the minister’s request. Even so, the crucial vote was only won because the tellers counted other tellers as voters for the proposal. The vote had actually been lost. So it was always a close-run thing; and Duncan Sandys most definitely played a crucial role in ensuring that the Barbican estate was built.

This was not just an opinion in favour of the principle of a residential development. Duncan Sandys used his influence personally in support of Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s scheme. Peter Chamberlin (Joe to his friends) knew Sandys personally, perhaps even arranging to be introduced by mutual friends, and he persuaded Sandys of the benefits of the scheme. He would have outlined the forces of opposition he faced; and Sandys probably used his personal influence with members of the City Council whom he knew.

It was actually his successor as Minister who took the next step in support of Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s scheme. The City would need a substantial grant from the Government if it was to build the estate. On 5 June 1957 a deputation from the City Corporation met Henry Brooke, the new Minister of Housing and Local Government. As a result, the ministry official wrote to the Lord Mayor on 11 June 1957, saying:

The Minister expressed his interest in the schemes and it is his belief that the creation of a genuine residential neighbourhood in this part of London would be of the greatest value to the proper planning of the area. … He was inclined in principle to prefer the Chamberlin Powell and Bon scheme for the Barbican area, which provided more residential accommodation and seemed to him to give a greater sense of the real residential neighbourhood.”

On 19 July 1957, the City Corporation received confirmation from the Ministry that planning grants would be made available to the City for the scheme.