Paul Sng’s film Dispossession: the Great Social Housing Swindle lays bare the current state of the housing of the working classes” in Britain. I purposely use the phrase ‘working classes’ as this as the term used in all Acts of Parliament published before over 60 years until 1949. The housing of the poorest in society has, since the late 19th century, been treated as variously a campaign against moral degeneracy, poverty, ill health and crime. But as Sng’s film demonstrates – the need for housing is not limited to these characteristics, as a bulwark against elite fears of social breakdown. Rather, it should be an inalienable right of all people as defined by the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The stories documented by Sng set out the dramatic transformation of the concept of social housing from an egalitarian and philanthropic post-war housing boom (800,000 council houses built under the Attlee Government of 1945-1951) to the speculatively built, profit driven, regeneration of British social housing in the early 21st Century. This transformation has resulted in huge numbers of people being dispossessed, rehomed in remote parts of London, from the Aylesbury and Heygate Estates residents whom are heard from in the film. This dispossession is not, as it was in the middle of the 20th Century, driven by a desire to rehouse the poor in better homes provided by the State. But by the desire of cash-strapped local government, often inner city Labour run councils, to create albeit short term revenue from property sell offs and to reduce expenditure. One of the missing elements from Sng’s portrayal is that these local authorities come under significant attack with only a few occasions in the whole 80 minutes in which the focus is shifted back the austerity agenda of central government that is driving the biggest sell of of social housing since Right to Buy. The rationale presented by local authorities and central government is one of a desire to regenerate areas of central London through the sale of land to private development corporations whose sole purpose is to make millions of pounds in property sales.
The significant shift in Britain since the 1980 “Right to Buy” Housing Act was however the beginning of the end of social housing in Britain, and all Governments, Labour and Tory, since have been responsible for its continued demise. As the film sets out, in 1980 42% of people lived council housing, in 2017 it is 8% with 1.4 million people on the housing waiting list. By 1996 2.2 million council dwellings had been bought under Right to Buy over 30% of the housing stock, none of which were replaced.
The London Labour Borough Councils of Southwark and Lambeth and the (until May 2017) Labour City Council of Glasgow come in for particular criticism from many of the residents and contributors to the film. Both London Boroughs control huge numbers of social homes (39,000 in Southwark in 2013) with parts of both Boroughs being prime locations. This has led to the flagship redevelopment of Elephant and Castle with the Heygate Estate and the Aylesbury Estate nearby in Walworth being significant case studies in the film. The seemingly far too cosy, or even (in the accusations levelled by some tenants in the film) corrupt, relationships between Southwark’s Labour councillors and developers being in evidence. Lambeth’s attention is, however, focussed on the more salubrious suburban parts of the Borough with the estate of Cressingham Gardens again being key case study for the film. Councillors who appear in the film claim that the only way decent affordable homes can be provided for all people in the Borough is through the sale and demolition of existing social housing and rebuilding. The term “affordable home” refers to owner-occupation and whilst this is not particularly analysed in this film, this is something of a relative concept in London especially where the average house price in June 2017 was over £480,000. Compared to levels of compensation being offered to some home owners on these estates in the film being given as less than £200,000.
The web of interrelationships between developers, central and local government is given particularly attention by Sng and ultimately this is the message conveyed by Dispossession. The process of decanting of residents, particularly tenants, and the demolitions and redevelopment of their homes amounts to social cleansing. This is an accurate term, as the spokesperson for Architects for Social Housing says in the film, although “gentrification” has been used to describe the process. This, however, is incorrect, as gentrification is gradual; what is now happening in London is social cleansing.
But this is not the first time the demolition of “slums” and the building of new dwellings at higher rents meant many previous tenants could not move back into an area. This has been a process in the redevelopment of housing since the first council estate was built at the Boundary in Shoreditch, replacing the notorious Old Nichol Rookery in 1890. As presenter Michael Collins said in the 2011 BBC film The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House only 11 of the over 5,000 people evicted from Old Nichol could afford to move back. Dispossession suggests we have reverted to a situation that last existed over 120 years ago. Dispossession covers much of the same ground as The Great Estate, but with a far less optimistic tone. Whilst The Great Estate ends on a low note, the tone of the film, in contrast to Dispossession, is an optimistic look at the council housing projects. Dispossession can be seen as the swan song of social housing, and the demise of the post-war project of housing the people.
One of the more striking moments of the film, is the honesty displayed by the Lord Christopher Monckton, who in the 1980s was a key advisor to Margaret Thatcher. Monckton says that “once people became home owners they were far more likely to vote Conservative” than were the social housing tenants. This perhaps gives us a clearer insight, than any of the other (there are admittedly very limited other contributions in the film from politicians and policy makers) as to the real motivations of the powers that be. The attempt by Thatcher in the 1980s to realise Harold Macmillian’s dream of property-owning democracy has ended in rather spectacular failure. The rate of home ownership is now failing and younger generations (Millennials onwards) will struggle to ever own their own home, despite the changing fashion in social mores towards home ownership being the one desirable and viable form of tenure. The market as imposed on housing by Thatcher and continued by all Governments since 1980 has not and cannot work. As Danny Dorling says early in the film “Housing does not work through the market… as you require an income above the average” to buy, build or own your own home; therefore, social housing is not a luxury we can ill afford but an absolute necessity for any civilised society.
The redevelopment of a London council estate has led to the loss of a mature ‘urban forest’ - as well as hundreds of rented homes. Photos and text by Matthew Benjamin Coleman.
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