Further reflections on BBC’s The Secret History of our Streets

The BBC’s The Secret History of our Streets series finished recently and was the subject of a previous post on this website (see below). When it first started I was commissioned to write the following article for a professional magazine. It missed the deadlines and remained unpublished but I recently asked one of the editors for permission to publish it here to which he agreed. All episodes were relevant to the work of EH professionals, but the first episode was particularly relevant and provided a powerful insight into the politics of environmental health practice that we ignore at our peril. Unfortunately the episodes are not being archived on the BBC iPlayer website, but the link at the end of the article remains live and provides an excellent resource for students, academics and practitioners. Further, we would welcome your comments on the series and my review of it.

Many thanks and best wishes, Rob

I hope I’m not the only EHP who felt uncomfortable reading the Jubilee Special of Environmental Health News, but I thought it was symptomatic of where environmental health finds itself in 2012. I celebrate the standards of environmental health most of us in the UK enjoy, but in the Jubilee Special the brief anecdotes of members and the list of significant events left me underwhelmed and unclear about the lessons of the last 60 years? These are important because Rachmanite landlords continue to flourish, people are living in sheds in the shadow of the Olympic stadium and many Commonwealth citizens still rely on middens or worse for their sanitation. Instead some lessons came from an unlikely source, a new series called The Secret History of our Streets.

The first episode focused on Deptford High Street and its environs. It began by exploring Charles Booth’s colour coded Victorian poverty maps, with the red High Street (well to do) adjacent to small pink islands (working class – comfortable) but surrounded by a sea of dark blue (very poor) and black (the poorest and semi-criminal). However the area was brought to life by John Price and his family who have lived there for more than 200 years. Here was a story of constant change but characterised by the declining prosperity of the High Street and sadness about family displacement following the modernisation experiments of the 1960s.

In the Jubilee Special a Manchester EHO recalls around 100 000 houses being declared unfit and cleared with “not a case lost”, but the programme depicted more complex realities. Nicholas Taylor, former councillor and head of the town planning committee, conveyed some of the complexity of the modernisation juggernaut. He likened the power of EHOs to determine slums to the ‘word of God’, but whilst in his opinion some former Deptford residents quickly and happily settled in their new suburban homes, others like John Price and his family were reluctant to move and a war of attrition developed. Alternatively, Price recalled that you couldn’t fight the council and he remained convinced that they wanted to condemn Deptford. Then the programme revealed secret inspection reports about the terrace where the Price family lived; EHOs had concluded that the defects there could be repaired economically but, despite this, three years later they declared the terrace a slum and Taylor reflected that it was ‘very difficult to stop the bulldozer’. The programme ended with an estate agent visiting one of the few survivors of slum clearance, now worth about £750 000!

Juggling the tensions of environmental health will always be a messy business, but here are some of the lessons about power that I’m sure future episodes will continue to explore. The series includes a website produced with the Open University for those wishing to learn more, but in the face of juggernauts like austerity and economic growth I fear our environmental health is increasingly vulnerable if we ignore such lessons. 

Rob Couch

The Secret History of our Streets, BBC 2, 06th June 2012



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