David Rogers on whether you would wish your wife or your servants to live in a block of flats …

Are we building too many blocks of flats in our towns and cities? This somewhat technical question of planning policy recently caused a panic over the death of the urban family home and the resultant deportation of the nation’s urban families into internal exile, possibly in the Lake District.

This is the latest twist in a story that stretches back to the slums of ancient Rome. In fact, blocks of flats have always had a surprising capacity to create anxiety in city dwellers, who instinctively regard them as the cause and the symptom of an insidious social deterioration.

This was the case back in January 1937, when one Thomas Adams wrote to the magazine to disagree with an article about “the erection of flats by public bodies”.

First, he raised the familiar question of urban alienation. “You mention ‘contact with one’s fellow beings’ as an advantage of flats. I lived in a block of flats for two years and had no social contact with any other tenants. As a resident in a house I have all the social contacts I want, and suffer from fewer beggars.” Well, as Mr Adams lived in Bush House, Aldwych WC2, beggars presumably had to telephone to make an appointment.

Then there was “the servant problem”. Building had pointed out that modern conveniences enabled the city dwellers to dispense with servants, but Mr Adams objected that this did not give “the same advantages as personal service”. Or, no matter how good your vacuum cleaner may be, you still have to push the wretched thing yourself.

This letter began a lively correspondence. Then as now, the case for flats (particularly those raised by “public bodies”) was based on need. The relevant facts were supplier by Major HL Nathan (address: The Reform Club, Westminster), who pointed out that a “survey recently carried out revealed that there were 341,554 overcrowded families in England and Wales”. The definition of overcrowding was “two persons older than 10, of the opposite sex and not living together as husband and wife sleeping in the same room”.

The argument was that children used any time left over from falling down the stairs to contract polio

John G Martin, secretary of the National Housing and Town Planning Committee, then wrote to point out that if you counted overcrowding as somebody being forced to sleep in the living room, the true figure was 853,119.

In April, Building discussed the question in its “Builder debate” column. One contributor attacked flats as “monstrous temples to inconvenience”. The argument (in a nutshell) was that children and flats don’t mix, as any time not spent falling down stairs is used to contract polio. Much better that the little tykes frolic in a sunlit garden suburb while mum kept on eye on them “from the scullery window” before tucking them up for the night on the living room table.

The contrary opinion was that you’ve got to do something with the working class, and if you located them in the terra incognita south of Croydon, dad had to spend three hours a day travelling to work and back.

After a further exchange on the pros and cons of slaving over a hot stove/working in a nice cool sewer, the argument moved to the Architecture Club in May (address: the Savoy Hotel, London WC2). The title of the discussion: “Modern flats: menace or necessity?” The issue: was it worth being penned in a nest of tiny boxes, paying an extortionate rent, merely to save maids the trouble of lighting fires?

Yes, yes, but what about the role of flats in the war between the sexes? Mr TP Bennett deftly sidestepped the question of children to strike a blow for feminism. “Women no longer wanted to spend their lives doing housework,” he thundered. “They have other occupations – music, bridge, golf, visiting the sick or even earning a living.” (Pause while the police are called.)

Little did the participants know it, but their discussions left out one advantage soon to be horribly relevant: living in a house with a garden gave you somewhere to dig your air raid shelter …