Published by EH.Net (September 2019)

Catherine Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. xiv + 243 pp. $114 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-3500-6762-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Fred H. Smith, Department of Economics, Davidson College.

When we think of World War II, most of us surely think of the incredible suffering and the extraordinary sacrifices of the citizens of the belligerents. Images of the Holocaust, Stalingrad, D-Day, and the Battle of Britain immediately come to mind. While it is natural to think of these events as they transpired during the war, what can be all too easy to overlook is the rebuilding process that had to take place once the war had reached its end. Catherine Flinn’s Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the rebuilding process in the cities that suffered extensive damage from the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids.

The main contribution of Flinn’s work is helping to explain the gap that developed between plans for post-war reconstruction and the reality that came to pass in the blitzed cities. She shows very clearly that while most of the blitzed cities had clear plans for what they might look like after the war, very few of the cities were able to implement these plans within the first decade after the end of the war. Flinn’s introductory chapter makes it clear that her book fills some important gaps in the existing history literature about reconstruction in post-war Britain. Moreover, she makes the point that her work is relevant to policy makers and planners working on reconstruction efforts today — regardless of whether the damage sustained by twenty-first century cities has been caused by human conflict or natural disasters.

And yet, while Flinn expertly tackles difficult questions, it is important to note that the book is not written from the perspective of an economic historian. She certainly considers the role that economic factors played in preventing rebuilding plans from becoming reality, but where Flinn’s book truly shines is in describing the personalities and the institutional structures, and the relationships between them, that led to excruciatingly slow post-war reconstruction in the blitzed cities.

The book’s second chapter provides an excellent example of Flinn’s perspective. It begins by introducing the reader to the myriad ways in which the topic of reconstruction was discussed by the government and the pubic — even before the war had ended. Flinn provides clear and convincing evidence that the public had an appetite for discussing the plans for rebuilding Britain after the war, and she makes it clear how this public conversation was used for building morale. The final part of the chapter changes gears and provides some evidence of the scope of the destruction caused by the blitz. Table 2.1 lists 33 cities that sustained thirteen or more acres of bomb damage during the war. While Flinn mentions that losses “covered a wide range of building types,” an economic historian can’t help wanting more detailed information on what types of buildings and businesses were damaged. Liverpool suffered damage on 208 acres of land, while Manchester suffered damage to only 61 acres. Is it safe to conclude that Manchester’s losses were much less severe than Liverpool’s?

This question may not seem important in a book that looks to explain why reconstruction plans didn’t result in much reconstruction after the war, but chapter 3 hints at why this question is, in fact, very important. Chapter 3 is about the “apparatus of postwar economic planning,” and it very clearly lays out several economic realities that confronted post-war Britain — severe shortages of key inputs (e.g. steel), substantial inflationary pressures, and a “balance of payments crisis” (p. 40). However, the chapter also repeatedly makes the following point: “Ministers … refused to give the cities priority, despite the overwhelming political and moral grounds for doing so” (p. 59).

The difficulty, from an economist’s perspective, is that while there may be overwhelming moral and political grounds for reconstructing a city that has been blitzed, it might also be the case that it made little sense to do so economically. Indeed, Flinn writes very clearly about the IPC’s (Investment Programmes Committee) view on this matter. She quotes an IPC report that suggests that the value of the reconstruction of the blitzed cities would have been “small” (p. 54). While Flinn provides some evidence on what the IPC felt was more important to rebuild, as an economic historian I found myself wanting more information about where (and why) the IPC allocated resources to other uses. For example, on page 53 the author provides a pie chart that suggests that 17% of the IPC’s resources were allocated to “housing.” However, there is little additional detailed provided about where this housing was built (and why). Was the housing built in London? Was the decision made by the IPC to prioritize London’s needs above all else? It seems likely that the IPC’s priorities were shaped by the concerns listed above — inflationary pressures and balance of payments problems in particular — and that the IPC’s decision to de-emphasize reconstruction of the blitzed cities was done out of necessity.

While I came away from reading Flinn’s book with a host of questions, to judge the book on the questions it didn’t answer is unfair. In a very well written and exceptionally well organized book, Flinn achieves her goal: She clearly highlights the political and institutional reasons why the reconstruction plans for the blitzed cities didn’t come to fruition. (Indeed, chapter five does a particularly good job of highlighting her main points. Using case studies for Hull, Exeter, and Liverpool, she shows how the three cities engaged in very different levels of city planning and “enjoyed” varying degrees of success in rebuilding.) Not all of Flinn’s book may be of interest to economic historians, but for anyone interested in a better understanding of the incredible challenges involved with rebuilding Britain after the war, I’d recommend it enthusiastically.

Fred Smith is a professor of economics at Davidson College. His most recent work (co-authored with Jason Barr and Sayali J. Kulkarni) is “What’s Manhattan Worth? A Land Values Index from 1950 to 2014” Regional Science and Urban Economics (2018).

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