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The UK is dismantling its legacy of municipal splendour

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The writer is the FT’s architecture critic

When he left school, Norman Foster worked in the Treasurer’s Office at Manchester Town Hall. He credits the vast Victorian building, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, architect of London’s Natural History Museum, with turning him on to architecture.

The huge gothic structure is remarkable, a monument for a metropolis that wanted to express the industrial supremacy of its mills with a building that evoked the splendour of the medieval Flemish cities that held sway in a former golden age of cloth. 

Such buildings are testament to a very different age. The UK government is now considering loosening the rules for allowing councils to sell off assets. This is bad news for everything from libraries to swimming pools, town halls to toilets.

Since 2010, council assets have been sold off in attempt to fill a £15bn hole in central government funding. More than 800 public libraries, 1,000 swimming pools, over 200 playing fields, half of all magistrates courts and 1,000 public toilets have been closed. 

London is dotted with luxury hotels and apartments inside buildings that were once grand symbols of civic identity. The Old War Office in Whitehall recently reopened as a hotel; Admiralty Arch will open to guests next year. County Hall, London’s version of Manchester’s Town Hall, now houses Shrek’s Adventure!. Foster’s City Hall on the south bank of the Thames has been abandoned by the mayor and Greater London Authority.

Manchester Town Hall, which once inspired a young Norman Foster. Its architecture set out to express the region’s industrial supremacy © Alan Novelli/Alamy

At the end of the 19th century, London County Council was building social housing, fire stations, clinics, ambulance stations, bandstands, parks, street furniture, public toilets, schools and major engineering projects; the infrastructure of everyday life. Birmingham once pioneered a form of “municipal socialism” under Joseph Chamberlain in the 1870s and the city owned its own gas and water suppliers. Now, the council is deeply indebted. 

Boroughs across the country are facing bankruptcy. Selling off structures that are expensive to staff and look after seems like a quick fix for financial struggles; the task of balancing the cost of roof maintenance on a leisure complex with that of running social services is unenviable. But the legacy of these sell-offs is a diminished public sphere that fails to show care for its citizens or its cityscapes. 

We have learnt nothing from the disastrous disposal of council housing from 1980 onwards. Of council homes sold off under Right to Buy, 40 per cent have been rented out by private landlords, many to social tenants with landlords’ profits subsidised by the state. It has been a huge transfer of wealth from public to private — a levelling down.

Asset stripping the public realm has been disastrous; libraries are missed as refuges for the elderly, the young and those without internet, the lack of sports facilities contributes to poor public health, a lack of toilets makes cities inhospitable.

But there is also attrition on civic identity. When amenities in which citizens have pride are stripped away, a sense of alienation fills the void. Who are cities for? To sell off what would never be built today suggests they are run for the benefit of developers.

Helsinki is building huge public libraries for its citizens, Tokyo has commissioned its most revered architects to design public toilets. Flanders in Belgium, that inspiration for Manchester Town Hall, has superb new public buildings from museums to market halls. Architecture is at the heart of all of these — an art capable of creating civic cohesion and identity.

The UK has neglected the gift the municipally minded Victorians left us. Even the smallest structures — a toilet, a water fountain — matter as much as the major monuments. Collectively, council buildings create the fabric of public life. And it is torn and ragged.

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