This new book by Tristram Hunt - Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of Victorian Cities [Amazon | book site] - is getting a nice amount of attention in the press. It's a subject close to my heart in my work, and as a former resident of Manchester and Sheffield. The Guardian has a précis of his lecture at the Hay-On-Wye literary festival.
"The life chances of a slum dweller in early Victorian Glasgow or Liverpool were the lowest since the Black Death (but) the cities also forced through religious tolerance, a wider franchise, and repeal of the corn laws. Gradually their nonconformist business elites improved public health and evolved traditions of voluntary activity, local pride and artistic patronage. The amazing Victorian Gothic of Manchester town hall and magnificent buildings elsewhere celebrated a modern renaissance city state. Later, cities also bred the spirit of municipal socialism, which ran gas, water and electricity more cheaply than private companies, Dr Hunt said. But in the 20th century, state uniformity, instead of civic strength, became the vogue. State authoritarianism undermined civic initiative. Two Tory prime ministers, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, vandalised city councils with rationalisations and privatisations. Quangos hijacked democratic provision of services. "Architects and planners decided to finish off those parts of the Victorian civic fabric which the Luftwaffe had missed. "By the mid-1990s, local government expenditure counted for under a quarter of total government expenditure while over threequarters of council funds were controlled by Whitehall," Dr Hunt said. The challenge is to find new methods of generating pride. What successful modern cities have also appreciated is the extraordinary civic architecture of the Victorian city. They have turned warehouses into penthouse flats, royal exchanges into restaurants, and chapels into community centres. It is this re-appropriation, this re-engagement with the Victorian urban past which allows us finally to shed the shadow of [Victorian slums]."